On Presbyterian Communities in Ulster

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On Presbyterian Communities in Ulster

1810, 1812

John Gamble

John Gamble, an Irish Protestant long resident in England, returned to Ireland three times between 1810 and 1818. Hispublished accounts of his travels are especially valuable for their descriptions of northern Presbyterian society, in which he himself was probably raised. The first of the three selections below describes his walk through an area in Counties Down and Armagh, which had witnessed serious sectarian tensions in the 1780s and 1790s. The second relates to the mainly Presbyterian town of Belfast when it had just begun to experience Catholic migration from the countryside. In the third he writes from Strabane, a town in the west of Ulster where lowland Presbyterian settlements were overlooked by isolated mountainous areas inhabited by Irish-speaking Catholics.

SEE ALSO Belfast; Religion: Since 1690

I walked to Loughbrickland, a distance of eight miles, yesterday, before breakfast. The morning was beautiful—the hedges were blooming with the flower of the hawthorn—the air was loaded with fragrance—I could have fancied myself in Elysium, had I not met numbers of yeomen in every direction. They were in general good looking men; and were well and uniformly dressed. They all wore orange lilies. I now recollected that is was the 12th of July; (the 30th of June, old style) and of consequence the anniversary of the battle of the Boyne.

I entered into conversation with a little group who were travelling my road. They were very desirous to have my opinion of the Catholic Bill, as they called it, that is expected to be brought forward next Session of Parliament.

"Never mind acts of parliament, my lads," said I, "but live peaceably with your neighbours. I warrant you your fields will look as green, and your hedges smell as sweet this time next year, whether the bill passes or not."

"May be so," said one of them; "and may be we wouldn't be long here to smell or look at them."

I made little reply to this, for I could not expect that any thing I should urge would weaken even the rooted prejudices of their lives. What I did reply they heard with respect, though not with conviction.

"Ah, reverend Sir," said a middle-aged man, "you speak like a good man and a great scholar; but, Lord love ye, books won't make us know life."

"Tell me," said I, "why you take me for a clergyman; is it because I wear a black coat?"

"No," returned he, "but because you have a moderate face."

The lower class of people in Ireland are great physiognomists—good ones, I am bound to suppose, for my face has often received the above moderate compliment. It speaks favourably, however, of the manner of the Irish Protestant clergy that a man of mild demeanour is almost always taken for one of them.

Loughbrickland consists of one broad street. It takes its name from a lake standing near it, called Loughbrickland, or the lake of speckled trouts, with which it formerly abounded, till the spawn of pikes finding a passage into the lake, multiplied so exceedingly, that they have almost destroyed the whole breed.

That body of English forces which were quartered in this part of the north, in the year 1690, had their first rendezvous here under King William, who encamped within a mile of the town.

Nearly at the same distance from it I turned off the great road to go to Tanderagee. I passed a number of gentlemen's seats. I was struck with their uncommon neatness. I asked a countryman if he could tell me the reason. He knew no reason, he said, except that the owners were not born gentleman.

Much of the landed property of this part of the country has passed from the extravagant children of idleness, to the sons of the thrifty merchants of Newry and Belfast. I find, in general, they are good landlords. . . .

I came in sight of Tanderagee about two o'clock. As it is situated on a hill, I saw it at a considerable distance. The planting of the late General Sparrow's extensive demesne, which seemed to overshadow it, gave it a gay and picturesque appearance. Nor was the spectacle of the interior less radiant. Only that the bright green of nature was displaced by the deep orange of party. Tanderagee was a perfect orange grove. The doors and windows were decorated with garlands of the orange lily. The bosoms and heads of the women, and hats and breasts of the men, were equally adorned with this venerated flower. There were likewise a number of orange banners and colours, more remarkable for loyalty than taste or variety, for King William on horseback, as grim as a Saracen on a sign post, was painted or wrought on all of them.

There was much of fancy, however, in the decoration of a lofty arch, which was thrown across the entire street. The orange was gracefully blended with oak leaves, laurels, and roses. Bits of gilded paper, suited to the solemnity, were interwoven with the flowers. I passed, as well as I could, through the crowd assembled under this glittering rainbow, and proceeded to the house of an acquaintance at the upper end of the street. I had purposed spending a day with him, but he was from home. I, therefore, sat half an hour with his lady, and after having taken some refreshment, descended the hill. The people were now dancing. The music was not indifferent. The tune, however, would better have suited a minuet than a country dance. It was the (once in England) popular tune of Lillybullero, better known in this country, by the affectionate and cheering name, of the Protestant Boys.

I stopped an instant, a man came up and presented me a nosegay of orange lilies and roses, bound together—I held it in my hand, but did not put it in my hat, as he expected.

"I am no party man," I said, "nor do I ever wear party colours."

"Well, God bless you, Sir," he replied, "whether you do or not."

Nor did the crowd, who heard both the speech and reply, appear to take the slightest offence. This was the more wonderful as I stood before them rather under inauspicious circumstances. It seems, though I was then ignorant of it, the gentleman out of whose house they had seen me come, was highly obnoxious to them. He is minister of the Presbyterian congregation—a few months ago with more liberality than prudence, considering what an untractable flock he is the shepherd of, he signed his name to the Protestant petition, in favour of the Catholics. The following Sunday he found his meeting-house closed against him, nor is it yet opened, and probably never will be.

The country of Armagh Presbyterians are the very Spadassins of Protestantism. Their unhappy disputes a few years ago with the Catholics are well known. It is therefore unnecessary (and I rejoice at it) for me to touch on them here.

On quitting Tanderagee, I walked a little way on the road which I came. I then seated myself on the top of a little hill, to meditate on my future route. The world was all before me where to choose—and a most delightful world I had to choose from. Armagh is as much beautified by the industry as it has been disfigured by the passions of men. . . .

The day at length became fine, the sun shone bright, and the road soon got clear. I walked, therefore, lightly forwards—At every furlong's length, however, I met with a cross-road; luckily the people were as plenty as the roads; nor did I meet with a single cross-answer from one of them. I was overtaken by a young Scotchman on horseback. He had travelled a hundred miles in Scotland, and upwards of an hundred in Ireland, to purchase cattle, and was now returning homewards. He civilly insisted on my mounting his horse, and without giving me time to reply alighted to help me on.

"It is fitter I should be walking," said he, "than you."

I do not know that a good face is always a letter of recommendation—I have ever found that a good coat is.

I asked him what he thought of Ireland.

"It's a heaven of a place," he replied, "but they're the devil of a people."

I examined him as to this latter opinion, and found he had every where met with kindness and attention. He had heard it from his father, who probably had heard it from his; and in this manner are the characters of nation and individuals judged. . . .

I have now been a week in Belfast, which has rolled not unpleasantly away. In the morning I walk the streets, and frequent the libraries; and in the evening I go to card parties and concerts. I am, therefore, in some degree competent to speak of the place and people. I do it without reluctance, for I can say little of either but what is good.

Belfast is a large and well-built town. The streets are broad and straight. The houses neat and comfortable, mostly built of brick. The population, in a random way, may be estimated at thirty thousand, of which probably four thousand are Catholics. These are almost entirely working people. A few years ago there was scarcely a Catholic in the place. How much Presbyterians out-number the members of the Established Church, appears from the circumstance of there being five meeting-houses and only one church. Three of these meeting-houses are in a cluster, and are neat little buildings. Neatness and trimness, indeed, rather than magnificence, are the characteristics of all the public buildings. A large mass-house, however, to the building of which, with their accustomed liberality, the inhabitants largely contributed, is an exception. . . .

The principal library is in one of the rooms of the linen hall. I spend some hours every day in it—solitary hours; for the bustling inhabitants of this great commercial town have little leisure (I do not know that they have little inclination) for reading. Round the hall there is a public walk, prettily laid out with flowers and shrubs. I meet with as few people here, as in the library. Young women appear to walk as little as the men read. I know not whether this is a restraint of Presbyterianism, or of education; but let the cause be what it may, it is a very cruel one—young women have few enjoyments; it is a pity, therefore, to deprive them of so innocent a one as that of walking. I have conversed with them at parties, and generally found them rational and unassuming. To an Englishman, as may be easily conceived, the rusticity of their accent would at first be unpleasant. But his ear would soon accommodate itself to it, and even find beauties in it—the greatest of all beauties in a female, an apparent freedom from affectation and assumption. They seldom played cards, nor did the elderly people seem to be particularly fond of them. Music was the favourite recreation, and many were no mean proficients in it. They are probably indebted for this to Mr. Bunting, a man well known in the music world. He has an extensive school here, and is organist to one of the meeting-houses; for so little fanaticism have now the Presbyterians of Belfast, that they have admitted organs into their places of worship. At no very distant period this would have been reckoned as high a profanation as to have erected a crucifix. . . .

I write this from a farmhouse, sixteen miles from Strabane. . . .

The people with whom I am are Presbyterians. They are industrious and wealthy. Their house is what a farmhouse ought to be, comfortable and neat, without finery or fashion; it is situated in a most dreary country, and may be said to be on the very verge of civilisation in this quarter. Before my windows rise the immense mountains, which separate the county of Tyrone from the counties of Donegal and Fermanagh. The appearance of these mountains, though gloomy and forlorn, is not uninteresting: they are covered with a sort of brown heath, interspersed with scanty green rushes, and scantier blades of green grass: they are such scenes as Ossian would love to describe, and probably many of his heroes did tread those heaths over which the wind now passes in mournful gusts and moves in melancholy unison with the memory of years that are gone. . . .

These mountains are inhabited entirely by Catholics: in ancient times, they were the asylum of those unfortunate people, and they were not dispossessed of them; probably, because no other people would live in them. In these mountains, therefore, we meet with a people purely Irish, professing what may be well called the Irish religion, and retaining most of the old Irish customs, usages, opinions, and prejudices. I hold long conversations with them, as I meet them on the roads or sit with them in their own houses: hardly a day has passed since my arrival, that I have not walked from eight to ten miles, and either address, or am addressedby, every person I meet. In almost every instance, I have been impressed with their singular acuteness of intellect, and extensive information of what is passing in the world: a London tradesman could not detail the wonderful events we are daily witnessing more correctly, and, probably, would not half so energetically. An Irish peasant, like a Frenchman, speaks with every part of his body, and his arm and countenance are as eloquent as his tongue.

John Gamble, A View of Society and Manners in the North of Ireland in the Summer and Autumn OF 1812 (1813), pp. 32–39, 64–66, and Sketches of History, Politics, and Manners in Dublin and the North of Ireland in 1810 (1826), pp. 317–319.

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