This is a work-in-progress blog serial about aspects of the 1888 book Ireland Under Coercion: The Diary of an American, by journalist William Henry Hurlbert. Previous posts and other background material are available at the project landing page. #IUCRevisited
“To dream of establishing the independence of Ireland against the will of Ulster appears to me to be little short of madness.”
–William Henry Hurlbert
Hurlbert concluded his travels in Ireland with a trip to Belfast. The late June visit on “the very eve of the battle month of the Boyne” confirmed his establishment sympathies as he reported on the thorniest problem of the “Irish Question” — the pro-union Protestants of Ulster.
“In this part of Ireland,” he wrote, “the fate of the island has been more than once settled by the arbitrament of arms; and if Parliamentary England throws up the sponge in the wrestle with the [Land] League, it is probably enough that the old story will come to be told over again here. … There are good reasons in the physical geography of the British Islands for this controlling interest of Ulster over the affairs of Ireland, which it seems to me a serious mistake to overlook. … [I]t is hard to see how, even with the consent of Ulster, the independence of Ireland could be maintained against the interest and the will of Scotland, as it is easy to see why Leinster, Munster, and Connaught have been so difficult of control and assimilation by England.”
Hurlbert stated his purpose for the trip was to interview “some of the representative men of this great Protestant stronghold.” He met a “kindly, intelligent Ulsterman” who worried that if England approved Home Rule for Ireland it would rob him and other others of their property rights and leave them “trampled underfoot by the most worthless vagabonds in our own island … [and] a war against the Protestants and all the decent people there are among the Catholics.”
As mentioned in an earlier post about the Papal decree against the agrarian agitation, Hurlbert also visited Rev. Dr. “Roaring” Hugh Hanna, a Presbyterian clergyman and staunch unionist. “Like most Ulstermen I have met, he has a firm faith, not only in the power of the Protestant North to protect itself, but in its determination to protect itself against the consequences which the northern Protestants believe must inevitably follow any attempt to establish an Irish nationality. … He … firmly believes that an Irish Parliament in Dublin would now mean civil war in Ireland.”
Rev. Dr. Richard Rutledge Kane, the “Grand Master of the Orangemen in Belfast,” predicted the upcoming 12th of July demonstrations would be “on a greater scale and more imposing than ever.” He told Hurlbert that Northern Protestants “were never so determined as they are now not to tolerate anything remotely looking to the constitution of a separate and separatist Government in Dublin.”
These views foreshadowed the opposition to Home Rule efforts in 1893, 1914, and 1920, the last of which resulted in the partition of Northern Ireland. (Six counties remain tied to Great Britain, while three counties of the province of Ulster are part of the Republic of Ireland.) The threatened “civil war” never erupted along the North versus South front anticipated or implied by these comments, but instead manifested itself in the sectarian “troubles” of the last third of the 20th century.
The final passage of Hurlbert’s travel journal (followed by an Epilogue and Appendix) ended on this note of Ulster boosterism and bias toward the Protestant unionists over Catholic nationalists:
With such resources as its wealth and industry, better educated, better equipped, and holding a practically impregnable position in the North of Ireland, with Scotland and the sea at its back, Ulster is very much stronger relative to the rest of Ireland than La Vendée was relative to the rest of the French Republic in the last century. In a struggle for independence against the rest of Ireland it would have nothing to fear from the United States … [W]hile the chief contributions, so far, of America to Southern Ireland have been alms and agitation, the chief contribution of Scotland to Northern Ireland have been skilled agriculture and successful activity. It is surely not without meaning that the only steamers of Irish build which now traverse the Atlantic come from the dockyards, not of Galway nor of Cork, the natural gateways of Ireland to the west, but of Belfast, the natural gateway to the north.
This early 20th century anti-Home Rule postcard reflects the geography and the views expressed by Hurlbert and the unionists he interviewed in Belfast in 1888. The northwest and north central (upper left and middle protrusion) sections of Ulster shown in orange did not become part of Northern Ireland. From National Museums Northern Ireland collection.
NOTES: From pages 404-416 of Ireland Under Coercion: The Diary of an American.
NEXT: Beautiful Belfast
Copyright 2018 by Mark Holan