Tuesday, 25 October 2016

Fifty Years of Belfast Life (1866-1916) part 16



Before I pass from Belfast journalism or reveal too many secrets of the prison house, I should like to refer to the attempt to start a rival paper to the “News-Letter,” which, in the early ’seventies, had, to some extent, lost touch with the Johnstonite party, or a section of it. At any rate, what was called the Protestant Working Men’s Association of the time — it was chiefly members of that association, who received and utilised the money Mr. M'Clure subscribed to assist Mr. Johnston’s expenses fund — did not look kindly upon it. The strongest financial force of that party, strong both in finance and feeling, was the late Mr. John Clarke, then of the firm of Messrs. Clarke & M'Mullan, and who after his separation from the late Mr. Thos, M'Mullan founded the firm of John Clarke & Co., Corporation Street. Mr. Clarke was a man of strong individuality and determination, and of an enterprising nature. It was mainly through him, but with the assistance of others, that the “Belfast Times” was founded and published by the late Mr. David Allen in Arthur Square. At that time in nothing but the ability of its head did the Arthur Square establishment afford a foretaste of the subsequent extensions to Corporation Street, to Harrow, and to London, and I may say over the world.

Mr. Allen, as it was understood, was a shareholder and also the printer, and in due course the paper appeared. It did not live many months; but it was said at the time that this was not so much the fault of the “Times” as the circumstances. The paper, however, made one memorable “hit,” which gave it a fillip. The late Judge Keogh, himself a Roman Catholic, in the course of a trial, made a most virulent and vehement attack on a priest, which created a tremendous sensation. By one of those happy accidents — and I do not think it was more – the “Belfast Times” on that morning gave a report nearly a column long, which, as telegraphing went in those days, was a matter of enterprise, while the other papers had only a brief and general account. The importance of the speech was not so much in a summary as in an exact reproduction of the language, which was tremendous in its vituperative forcefulness. It formed the subject of attention in Parliament and the country for many days. The report was a journalistic hit, but it failed to secure the permanency of the paper. And the special publication did not make a hit. Mr. Clarke was unfortunate in his editor in a sense. Nicholas Flood Davin was a brilliant writer, no doubt; but he was erratic in his manner and his method, his comings and his goings. Some of his articles were brilliant, and some of them supremely silly; and it was stated that on one occasion, to make amends for his own neglect, he boldly cut an article out of an English provincial paper and gave it all the glory of leaded type and all the appearance of originality.

But if Mr. Clarke was unfortunate in his editor, he was no less so in his staff, some of whom, though clever, were often querulous or unavailable, “tempery” as well as temporary. I remember that on one occasion — it was during a debate on the instrumental music question in the General Assembly — there was a feud among the staff, and I was asked to go over for a few nights to assist in quelling the trouble and getting through the work, which I did. I saw that confusion was confounded indeed; but I did my best, working up to late hours in the morning to help to get the reporting part of the paper turned out. But from that time I feared for the fate of the paper, which, I will say, had the promise, though not the potency of success. I forget for how long the “Times” ran, but I know attempts were made to keep it alive, and I think it was as much from the difficulty of organisation as from the difficulty of money that led to its stoppage. There were reports of internal difficulties or differences among the proprietors that hastened the collapse of the paper.

I said Mr. Clarke was unfortunate in his editor. It was at the time of the break-up of the paper, or at any rate after Mr. Davin’s departure, he wrote and issued, but I think only for private circulation, a poetic satire on both Mr. Clarke and Mr. Allen, which, if it had the merit of cleverness, had the demerit of scurrility. Mr. Davin afterwards emigrated to Canada, and earned distinction on the Canadian Press.

I may here, though. I am anticipating the period in point of time, refer to the “Daily Post,” which was founded by the M'Mordie family, Mr. Hans M'Mordie being the literary adviser, while his brother, the doctor, kept a close eye on all the rest. The late Lord Mayor, Mr. R. J. M'Mordie, was a younger brother; but he also took an interest, a junior interest, in it. With Hans M'Mordie, who was geniality personified, anyone could have got on, but the doctor was not cast in the same mould. I always could get on well with him, but his staff did not get on well with him, and on more than one occasion his sub-editor deserted him or he disposed of his sub-editor summarily; and as a friend I was asked to go over to Callender Street and help them to get the paper out, which I did several times — and for several nights at a time.

Mr. M'Mordie was a strong Liberal and land refomer, whose bete noir was Lord Dufferin, just as he was the god of the idolatry of Mr. MacKnight, of the “Whig.” I cannot say whether Mr. M'Mordie started the paper for the purpose of flagellating that nobleman, but he went for him without scruple or mercy. Lord Dufferin’s ideas and practices in the matter of tenant-right did not harmonise with the ideas of Mr. M'Mordie, and, I will admit, of many other Liberals. The “Post” ran a course for many months, and contained many slashing articles from the pen of Mr. M'Mordie and others. I could not honestly say that it did not deserve to succeed; but it did not succeed. There may have been financial reasons for this; but I think much of it was owing to friction among the staff. Mr. Sam Abernethy, previously of the “Morning News,” and afterwards of the Belvue Hotel, Newcastle, was the business manager, and if personal popularity and business capacity could alone have made a paper succeed they should have done so in his case.

There is one incident in connection with one of my visitations that will interest some old Queen’s College men at all events. Jas. Clarence Newsome, for some time, if, indeed, not for all, forged much of the thunder for the “Post.” He was a man of phenomenal memory, of great classical knowledge, and at one time gained one of the highest Government positions in India or China in open competition against the graduates of all the universities of the kingdom. He did not, however, satisfy the doctors as to his health or habits as fitting him for Oriental life. But he could have lived, and for a time did live, by passing examinations and gaining scholarships at Trinity College and other institutions, for he could have passed examinations on any subject in which memory was an asset. His memory was, as I have said, phenomenal, but his judgment was as faulty as his memory was prodigious. It was said of him that he committed to memory a whole page either of the “Times” or “Whig,” and afterwards repeated it with scarcely an error. I remember chatting with him on one occasion when a General Election was coming. He had an opinion on the prospect of the election, and so had I. To support his judgment he started off, and from John o’ Groats to Land’s End he repeated off hand the names of all the counties and boroughs, the political complexion of the members, and the size of the majority in each. But when it came to draw conclusions and to form an opinion on the trend of politics at the time he was at sea, and if his return had been dependent on the accuracy of his prognostications he never would have returned to land.

On another occasion, during the bombardment of Alexandria, when many places and names familiar in Scripture and in secular history were cropping up daily, I said in effect to him, “Newsome, you have a fine chance now. The history of all the places mentioned must be familiar to you. Why not from day to day trace out the principal features of interest, and point out the changes that time has brought about?” He jumped at the idea at once, and said he would do it. On the following or the succeeding night he presented me with pride with proofs of at least six columns of matter. I read it with amazement at any man being able to produce so much historical matter in the time. But from start to finish there was not a reference to the modem history or association of any place or to the bombardment. Herodotus might have written it so far as its relation to modern life was concerned. That was James Clarence Newsome. Peace to his ashes!

While dealing with the rise and fall of local newspapers during the period under review, I may refer to others that have risen and fallen, and to one that has risen and is stiff flourishing. The “Morning News,” an old tri-weekly under Roman Catholic ownership, but neutral politics, had enjoyed a considerable success until the cheapening of news and the strength of views drove tri-weeklies rather out of the field. The “Morning News” had some good writers in its time, the most noted in my recollection being R. A. Wilson, who, as “Barney Maglone” brightened its columns with his quaint Irish humour in poetry and prose. Wilson was quaint in his style, in person as well as in his prose and poetry. His soft hat, his sharp dark features, and his martial cloak rendered him a unique figure, as genial as he was interesting, and as Bohemian as her was brilliant.

In the early 'eighties, when Parnellism raised its horrid head in Ulster, the late Mr. H D. Gray, of the “Freeman,” conceived the idea of purchasing the “Morning News,” and turning it into a daily in the interest of the new leader and the new cause. Happening to be in Dublin about the time rumour was busy in this matter, I had many conversations with Mr. Gray and his then manager, and warned them against the folly of the proceeding from the financial point of view. I had heard before this that the Gray family were laying pat treasures for the purpose of rebuilding the “Freeman” premises, which were then badly in need of repair; and on account of old associations I did not like to hear of the money that would have provided decent accommodation for the friends I had left behind wasted in a foolish, though fond endeavour to preach Parnellism in Ulster.

I remember pointing out to them that if the Hendersons, of the “News-Letter,” proposed to start a paper in Cork and gave the value of the London “Times” for a penny, that there would be a dead set against it, and that success, financial or otherwise, would be impossible. Their proposition was to publish the “Morning News” daily. I told them that if they did that and maintained the old position of the “Morning News” they might get readers, but if they developed Parnellite Home Rule — Parnellism and crime was a later development — they would meet with ruin.

But the powers and men, whether financial or political, willed it otherwise. The “Morning News” was started as a daily, with much booming of the special wire which at that time wad supposed to be a miraculous news gatherer as well as a rapid mechanical provider. And with it came “Doctor” Byrne as its Editor. He was always called Doctor, though I am not sure that he ever took a degree, either medical or otherwise. But he was a fine and vigorous writer, and after a meteoric career in Belfast returned to the “Freeman,” for which he wrote till his death many years afterwards. I remember meeting him many years afterwards in Dublin, where he told me that our people in the North were the greatest fools in existence. “Don’t you know,” he said, “that our people would be always fighting among themselves, and you Northerners could come in and take control of the Parliamentary machine and run the whole show.” I told him that was very likely but that even for that prospect I did not think our people would go in for Home Rule; and at any rate I thought it was a strange argument for Home Rule that those who clamoured for it and in whose interest it would be given, if given, would be eternally fighting among themselves. I do not think I am giving even the memory of my old friend away in stating this, for it was the common talk of many of the Nationalists I knew at that time, and I believe it is as true to-day as then, for the elements of national strife are greater and stronger.

To return. Mr. Cray came, and “Dr.” Byrne with him, but they did not conquer. The paper had only been started a short time when the Phoenix Park murders occurred, and in his leader on the subject Byrne introduced the old and suggestive reference to the Roman cutting off the head of the tallest poppy — it will be remembered that the old Under Secretary and the new Chief Secretary, Lord Frederick Cavendish, were struck down at the same time. Such a reference was not calculated to commend the new paper and the new development, but it went on languishing for some years, when it disappeared, becoming merged in the present “Irish News.”

I remember some years afterwards meeting Mr. Gray in Gatti’s coffee-house in the Strand, in London, when the process of winding up the unfortunate concern was in progress. I reminded him of my “neutral” suggestion, but he candidly confessed that he was more concerned at the time with politics than property, and he took his risk. “I have today,” he said, “signed a cheque making a total of £17,000 up till the present, and I do not yet know how many more it will cost me.” Rumour had it that it cost him seven or eight, if not ten, thousand more. Such was the cost of the first effort to establish Parnellism in Ulster.

It was before this period, in fact during the Franco-Prussian war, that Messrs. W. & G. Baird started the “Belfast Evening Telegraph.” This firm, as I said formerly, printed the Belfast election circular for the Lanyon-Mulholland party in 1868, and had therefore a stock of newspaper type — the brothers were enterprising job printers at the time. Whether the idea of an evening paper had been in their mind before or not I cannot say, but I remember one morning the hoardings of the town were covered with a bold line “New Evening Paper.” Beyond a doubt these bills were issued by the late Mr. S. E. M'Cormick, proprietor of the old “Banner.” On the next or second day on the same hoardings, and in a large line below “New Evening Paper” appeared the line “Belfast Evening Telegraph,” and in a day or two afterwards the first issue of that paper, a perfect infant in evening journalistic form, appeared, thus forestalling the “Evening Press,” which was Mr. M'Cormick’s title, and which paper appeared for some weeks or months, and then bade Belfast farewell. The “Evening Telegraph” has grown and prospered since under the able and enterprising guidance of Mr. R. H. H. Baird, J.P., the son of Mr. William Baird, the senior partner and founder of the original firm and of the newspaper. The business had been transferred to Royal Avenue before Mr. Baird’s death; but its proportions and those of the paper were small compared to what they are now under the energetic and enterprising control of Mr. R. H. H. Baird and his brother, Major Wm. Baird, who, however, has for years devoted his principal attention to the service of his country, and who in connection with the artillery at Kilroot has earned the respect of the military authorities and of all the soldiers and civilians with whom he has been brought into contact.

The rise of “The Ulster Echo,” and its, I hope, temporary demise, is too delicate a subject for me to refer to. I may share with the Kaiser the responsibility for its pause; but I will claim this for it at least, that during its existence its one aim and object was to uphold and defend the interests and honour of Belfast and Ulster, and to support the cause of the Ulster Volunteers, who did so much at home to save the Union, and who afterwards, as this Ulster Division, have done, and are doing, so much, and at such sacrifice of life, to defend the honour and the interests of Great Britain and the Empire in Flanders and in France. The fact that this article is now appearing in its columns is an evidence that its elder brother, “The Witness,” is still alive and flourishing and labouring for the same causes, with special attention to the Presbyterian Church, with whose interests it is so indissolubly bound up.

To be continued...

From The Witness, 20th October 1916.

The "Man in the Street" was the pen name of Alexander McMonagle editor and manager of The Witness and Ulster Echo.

Wednesday, 12 October 2016

Fifty Years of Belfast Life (1866-1916) part 15



I am not, as I have indicated, pursuing a straight or regular course in the production of my wanderings into the past. I am following rather a zig-zag course such as a belligerent or neutral steamer takes to evade the attention of a submarine. From the pulpit to the Press, from ministers of religion to ministers of Police Court justice is a long step, and that is what I am now taking. Journalists in their time play many parts, and during the first decade of the last half century I had my share of variety. From the “Banner of Ulster,” with its Presbyterian ministers and old Liberalism, to the “News-Letter,” with its ministers of all Protestant sections and Conservatism; from that to the Police Court, with its magistrates and prisoners, male and female after their kind, and with the banning of all politics; then to the "Freeman’s Journal," with its priests and people and its dream of Home Rule; and then back to Belfast, “The Witness” and Presbyterian ministers again, with “The Ulster Echo” thrown in. If that is not enough of variety in this world of change, I do not know what is.

And there was unity, harmony, and valuable experience in them all. I was no more responsible for the policy of the “News-Letter” or the “Freeman” than I was for the decision of the magistrates in the Police Court. I was merely a part of the machine, and did my part in it as well as I could. I attended and reported Orange meetings, Nationalist meetings, Liberal meetings ana Conservative meetings, Protestant meetings and Roman Catholic meetings. All I had to do was to make the reports long or short according to the importance of the proceedings, the demands of space, and the interest of each class of readers in the subject the newspaper represented.

As I feel I have perhaps wearied the reader with my wanderings over the first lustrum of the half-century, I intend to pass on to the second, and as in the greater part of that I was either out of journalistic life or out of Belfast, I will venture to introduce some purely personal experiences in the hope that they may interest and not bore the reader. As to the “News-Letter,” let, me say that I carry with me nothing but the most pleasant recollections of my “News-Letter” days) and especially of its then proprietor, Mr. James Alex. Henderson. If he was somewhat autocratic, he was also courteous; if he was exacting to secure accuracy in his reports, and especially in the publication of names, he was also just. If he was a newspaper proprietor, he was also a gentleman,. I hope I shall be pardoned for giving one illustration of his combined qualities, though in relation to them the last is the one that is most deeply implanted in my memory. On one occasion — it was in 1869, I think — I reported a meeting of the Belfast Presbytery to the extent of three or four columns — I think it was the last meeting of the Presbytery open to lay reporters. It was a time of strong feeling and of strong personalities, and I must confess that in regard to these the members of the Presbytery of that day were not exempt from their share of human failing. The meeting was the “liveliest” Presbytery meeting I ever attended from a purely journalistic point of view. The “reportable” business lasted from a little after eleven o’clock till after three, when the late Rev. Adam Montgomery, the esteemed and popular Clerk, took the desk, not the floor, and said, “Now brethren, I think we may begin business.”

It was necessary to have copy ready for the hands at six o’clock, so I hurried off to write out my notes, making arrangements for the routine business with the clerical correspondent of the paper. I may say that my friend then, and my friend still, Mr. John M'Bride, of the “Whig” left with me, and made a similar arrangement with the clerical correspondent of his paper. As a matter of fact, my friend forgot to send in the sequel, and Mr. M'Bride’s friend remembered, with the result that a resolution of the Presbytery, which happened to be in favour of the “News-Letter” policy, appeared in the “Whig,” and did not appear in the “News-Letter.” Of this, however, I was ignorant when I called in the office about midday of the day of publication. I then learned that there were wigs on the green; that a complaint had been made to “the governor” that I had left this out of the paper because I was a Radical. I guessed who had made the complaint and why. I had acted during the ’68 elections as secretary for one of Mr. M'Clure’s committees, a Presbyterian committee, and this had identified me with politics, perhaps more than would have been otherwise the case as a mere reporter. Against all advice, I bearded Mr. Henderson in his room, told him what I had heard, and gave my explanation, which seemed to satisfy him.

The incident had passed from my mind for some months. Then there was an election for Derry, when Mr. Baxter, a London solicitor, in the Conservative interest, opposed Serjeant (afterwards Judge) Dowse in the Liberal interest. Mr. Henderson sent for me one day during the contest, and from a question he put to me I concluded that he had been asked to get my father, who was then alive and a Derry voter, to vote for Mr. Baxter. To be just, however, he did not ask me, but I suspected that was his object, and I forestalled him, telling him that I would not ask my father to vote for Baxter, and that even if I did I believed he would refuse. He then told me that he had sent for me for another reason. He wanted me to go to Derry — this was a fortnight before the election — and send a daily report of the progress of events there, merely emphasising that there was great interest felt in the election, and I should keep the readers well posted up. I did so to the best of my ability and habits of accuracy, and without complaint. As I was leaving the room Mr. Henderson called me back, and said he had personally selected me to go to Derry to let me clearly understand that no impression remained on his mind that my private politics would interfere with my duty to him. That is one of the incidents of my career which I look back upon with special satisfaction, and one of the reasons why I feel such respect for the memory of Mr. Jas. Alexander Henderson and all that bear his name.

A reporter’s life in those days was a hard and varied, but on the whole a pleasant one. In those days a reporter had to be able to do anything, or, at least, to appear able to report anything from a legal judgment or sermon to a concert or a race meeting. We had not the specialisation that there is now, when every department has got its specialist, and when we have got my good friend “An Old Fogey,” who is a specialist on every subject from botany to butchering, and on every great master of literature from Shakespeare to Andrew Nance. Nowadays the papers have their musical expert and their football expert, and the chiefs of the staff would no more think of expecting one expert to encroach on the department of another than Mr. John Redmond would ask Mr. Wm. Murphy, of the "Independent,” to assist him in organising the National, or Nationalist, Volunteers.

I will let the uninitiated into the secret of how we, or at least I, did duty as a specialist in those good old days. One of the earliest tasks allotted to me was to write a three-quarter column of a notice of an oratorio produced by the classical Harmonist Society. Now, I was as ignorant of music then as I am now, and that is infinite. What did I do? I had a friend from the country who was a judge of music, and something of a composer, too. I purchased the score, and got my friend to go with me to the concert. He was so transported with the music that he kept beating time and humming all the while, which attracted more attention than I cared for. On leaving the concert I seized one of the leading members of the society, and marched the two off to my lodgings. When they had agreed as to the character of the rendering of any part of the performance — solo or chorus, vocal or instrumental — I got them to express it in technical terms, and took a careful note. I was able out of the introductory words in the book to vamp up something about the oratorio, and added I that to my friends’ criticism, with some grace words or notes of my own. The next day I was told in the office that some member of the society had said that my notice was one of the best that had appeared. Tell it not in Gath! That was how I won a little temporary musical reputation. I failed, however, to live up to it. The strain would have been too great.

Then there was horse-racing. I knew, and know, nothing about horse-racing in the way either of sport or gamble, but I reported several race-meetings in my “News-Letter” days. The way in which I did it was this. I got hold of some friend who did know something — the late John Davidson and the living James Davidson being my chief “backers” in those days. They supplied me with the technical details of the various races, which I wrote out as carefully as if copying some classic. I was able to do the necessary padding in those days better, I suspect, than I could do it now. That was the way we specialised in those good old days now, alas, gone for ever. The all-round man’s day is over, and the day of the specialist has come. At the same time, I feel bound to pay my tribute to the present staffs of reporters in the city, who, in thoroughness and capacity and accuracy and judgment compare with those of any similar city in the kingdom.

Among the incidents of my “News-Letter” days there is one which connects itself and me with the late Mr. Johnston, M.P., of whom I have many pleasant memories. This, however, in some respects is not a pleasant one. On one of the very few days at that early period of my life I was obliged to remain at home for the day. In the evening my chief called at my lodgings, and asked me to go to the Orange Hall in College Street, as, I understood, to report a soiree, which was not exacting on time or brain. I strolled leisurely round to the hall about halfpast eight o’clock, when, instead of tea, ladies, and cake, I found the hall filled with sturdy and horny-handed Orangemen, with Mr. Wm. Johnston at their head. The meeting had started, but it was recommenced for my benefit, and for a couple of hours I had to listen to the Orangemen denouncing Mr. Johnston and Mr. Johnston defending himself. It appeared that Mr. Johnston had voted in favour of the Ballot Bill, and it was for this he was being called to account forcibly and vigorously. It was after eleven o'clock when I left the building, and I had a report of about two and a half columns in the paper in the morning.

I remember that though Mr. Johnston made his main speech at the beginning, I wrote out first the speeches of the others, as my scattered notes were more difficult to decipher, and a careful summary is more difficult than a mere verbal transcription of notes, which is largely mechanical. The result was that Mr. Johnston’s speech came last in the order of writing though first at the meeting. And I was writing, as fast as I could till morning almost dawned. Close upon four o’clock, the hour of going to Press, Mr. Joe Wilson, the night foreman, rushed up to the room in a fever of excitement as I was on my last pages, of notes, and telling me that he would “miss the post” if I did not finish at once. I remember rising from my seat, and writing as I rose the last words of my notes, and in my hurry I neglected to put the conventional “Loud applause” at the end. What impressed the incident on my mind was that the next day Mr. Johnston, sent a letter of complaint, which was duly published, alleging that the omission of the applause at the end might have suggested that his speech had not met with the approval of the meeting. I admit the omission was unintentional and arose purely from the hurry. At the same time if I had been cruel and strictly truthful, applause, rather than “loud applause,” which probably I would have used from force of habit, would have expressed the approval. Certainly Mr. Johnston for a season lost popularity among at least sections of the Orangemen on account of that and other Liberal votes. Indeed, on that and on land Mr. Johnston almost always supported the Liberals, and I was subsequently present when he received a cheque for £1,000, subscribed by farmers for his services in connection with the Land Act of 1880. Mr. Johnston received the cheque, offered a few words of thanks, and then asked the friends who had assembled to excuse his hurried departure as he had to catch a train. And he eft some of the donors rather disappointed and dry.

To be continued...

From The Witness, 13th October 1916.

The "Man in the Street" was the pen name of Alexander McMonagle editor and manager of The Witness and Ulster Echo.

Wednesday, 5 October 2016


When there's a lull in the fighting,
    When shadows of night shade the plain,
When the cannon has long ceased its booming,
    When peace o'er the earth seems to reign;
When the soldier is resting, preparing,
    The morrow to face with the brave,
When the dead of the battle are buried
    In a blood-sodden sort of a grave.

I dream in my sleep of the homeland,
    Of the land that is far, far away,
Of the ones that I love, oh, so dearly,
    Of the youngsters so happy at play.
Of the home on the hill-side, o'erlooking
    The plain where the rivers entwine,
Of the trees and the woods and the pastures,
    Of the forests of fir and of pine;

I partake of the pleasures of childhood,
    Of the games and the sports of a boy,
I finger with tenderest longing
    Each dearly familiar toy.
I live in the scenes of my childhood,
    So happy and careless and free;
But a blast of the bugle awakes me,
    And the fairest of memories flee.

(Written in a trench while serving with the 
British Expeditionary Forces.)

From The Witness, 6th October 1916
Image: The Artist's Own Dug-Out on the Albert-Braye Roadside by William Topham, 1916.

Wednesday, 28 September 2016

Fifty Years of Belfast Life (1866-1916) part 14



History repeats itself, and the study of history is as important for the lessons it teaches in the present as for the Information or stimulation it offers of the past. I am not writing history. I am only writing memories. But when my mind was directed, as it specially was, this week to the approaching adjourned meeting of the Assembly to deal with the Sustentation Fund and the general question of ministerial support, it occurred to me that it would be an opportune time to recall the first great Lay Conference after Disestablishment, and, as a friend said, the greatest Lay Conference held in connection with the Church. The same question led to special or adjourned meetings fifty years ago, as it is doing now. The loss of the Regium Donum gave special interest and importance to these meetings and conferences, and led to natural anxiety. It was then known that the Commutation Fund, even with the bonus thrown in, no matter how well invested, would make a drop of at least £20 or £30 in the annual payment to each minister, but it was not known how far the people, who had been accustomed to regard the Regium Donum as a staple supply for the minister, would rise to make up the deficiency or advance upon it.

It was in these circumstances the Lay Conference was held in Linenhall Street Church on the 29th Sept., 1869 — exactly forty-seven years ago. I am quite aware that that Lay Conference and its figures, both as to its aspirations and the failure to realise them, have formed the subjects of discussion and controversy ever since. I only intend to present an outline of the position and proposals at the time, which may prove interesting and informative on the light of the coming meeting and the present position. And the first thing I will notice is the character and spirit of the men who took the leading part in it. It was the first meeting of Presbyterian laymen I had ever attended, and it was a large and inspiring meeting. From platform to pew every man seemed full of faith and hope, spirit and determination. Every Presbytery in the Church, was represented, and over three hundred congregations had direct representation, and in many cases two members from each. “The appearance of the meeting was very striking,” says a chronicler of the time in one of the newspapers. “Such a concurrence of the wealth, influence, and earnest zeal of our Church has rarely been witnessed. No one could look upon the eager sea of faces, in which hope and determination were equally depicted, without the conviction that God was leading His Church, and that He would guide her to a triumphant issue out of all her difficulties. . . . All who loved the Presbyterian Church left the meeting full of bright hopes and cheerful aspirations.” The members of the Sustentation Fund Committee who were present ex-officio, and took part in the conference, were — J. P. Corry, J.P.; John Lytle, J.P.; Thomas M'Clure, M.P.; Wm. Young, W. J. Alexander, Alex. Clarke, Robert Heron, D.L., J.P.; T. Sinclair, J.P.; T. A. Dickson, D. D. Leitch, J. S. Crawford, J.P.; W. L. Finlay, J. Adams, J.P.; Geo. M'Carter, Joseph Cuthbert. All these men represented great interests in themselves, and were the life of the country as well as the Church. All of these did work in their day and generation, and all have now passed to their rest and reward. The last of the group of these grand old Presbyterians to leave this earthly scene was Mr. Joseph Cuthbert, J.P.; and we all know up to the last the generosity and sympathy he displayed towards the Church.

It is impossible to deal with the Lay Conference without referring to what may be said to have constituted its basis, so far as the financial question affecting the Church was involved — namely, the letters and contributions of a young and loyal Presbyterian of the time, afterwards widely and honourably known as the Right Hon. Thos. Sinclair. Mr. Sinclair had entered into the whole question with the enthusiasm of a loyal Presbyterian, and the experience of a business man and mathematician. He was among the first to advocate not only commutation in the interests of the Church, but to show on an actuarial basis how it could be satisfactorily carried out. It must be remembered that when the Conference was held the ministers had not come to any decision on the subject of commutation in the interests of the Church, and the actual sum to be paid had not been definitely fixed, as the Act had not come into force. The question that at the time agitated the Church was the question of the commutation of the ministers in the interests of the Church. With the Church the question was as to future provision for the ministry; the question for the existing ministers was security against loss in the event of their commuting. This, however, must be said for the ministers of the time, that the general feeling was in favour of commutation in the interests of the Church; and that was ultimately carried out, only a dozen or so refusing to adopt the principle, insisting upon the direct payment of their annuities while they lived.

The task Mr. Sinclair set before him was to assure ministers by actuarial calculations, that the commutation, even with a much smaller Sustentation Fund than that contemplated, would provide ample security for the payment of all the annuitants to the very last their full £69; but with a Sustentation Fund of £28,500 the ministerial income of £100 a year, which was the aim of the Conference, would be secured. The second part of his proposal has turned out a beautiful dream in part, because the fund has not yet reached that amount, and in part because the interest of the Commutation Fund was unable, by reason of reinvestments at lower rates, to be maintained on the basis of his calculation. Mr. Sinclair supplied two tables, which showed that so far as the existing ministers were concerned the interest on the Commutation Fund would provide the full £69 for them all, and leave a surplus at the end of fifty-five years one at 3½ per cent., showing a surplus of over £90,000, and 4¼ rate of over £600,000 at the same period. According to his calculation, however, the interest in the case of commutation would fall £12,000 annually short of the amount necessary to secure each minister his £69; and it was to see how far the Church could raise not only that sum, but increase it 2½ times that the Lay Conference was called. It was an exciting time for the ministers and members as well; and I doubt if there was a Conference held since that had a weightier problem to consider.

My reason for referring to Mr. Sinclair and his proposals is that they formed the staple of much of the discussion, and from having looked over the report of the meeting I find that the soundness of his calculations was only called in question by those who were opposed to commutation in the interests of the Church, who were few and negligible. The resolution commended commutation in the interests of the Church, with a guarantee of separate trusteeship to secure the payment to the commuting ministers; and the establishment of a Sustentation Fund aiming at an amount which, with the interest on commutation, would secure to each minister at least £100 a year, independent of stipend. The names of those who took part in that meeting will enable readers of the present day who do not remember the old times or the old men to understand what spirit these lay fathers of Presbyterianism were. The chairman was Mr. John Lytle, J.P., an ex-Mayor of the town, a leading man in its business and public life, and one of the leaders of the political party prevailing in the town at the time. He was a very high-minded and honourable man, and if he had not left his name and character in the men and business which still bears his name, he left it in the Albert Memorial, to which he devoted the salary he had received as Mayor. Belfast was represented by Mr. Charles Finlay, who occupied a high position in connection with our staple industry, and was one of the most modest, gentle, and kindly men that ever lived, and a devoted, loyal, and generous Presbyterian of his day; Mr. Thomas Sinclair, to whom I have referred, whose name is inseparably associated with that great movement, as it has been in conjunction with all the great questions of Church, as well as State, in his time; Mr. Thomas M'Clure, who at the time was member for Belfast, a fine old gentleman of a fine old school, courtly and kindly, who received a Baronetcy from Mr. Gladstone in compliment to his political standing and service; Mr. J. P. Corry, J.P., who was afterwards M.P. for Belfast, and who, separated from Mr. M'Clure in politics, was like him, a leal-hearted Presbyterian, and who, like him, afterwards received honourable party recognition. Districts outside Belfast were represented by Mr. W. M. Kirk, M.P. for Newry, the head of a large and successful industry, and a Presbyterian of traditional and personal loyalty and enthusiasm; Mr. Wm. Tillie, Londonderry, afterwards Lord Lieutenant for Londonderry, a Scotchman who was one of the pioneers of the shirt-making industry in the capital of the North-West, and a Presbyterian to the core, and to the last of zeal and liberality; Mr. D. Drummond, of Dublin, a member of the famous Drummond family of Stirling, and one who upheld the honour of Presbyterianism in the Irish capital with fidelity and honour; Mr. J. D. Carnegie, being an authority on finance, and, with Mr. Drummond, one of the strong pillars of Presbyterianism in the South, and Mr. J. W. Steele, of Cork, of whom I entertain no personal recollections, but he made a very strong speech; Mr. Jas. Sharman Crawford, J.P., Crossgar, son of the great Wm. Sharman Crawford, and one of the pillars of Presbyterianism and Liberalism in the North; Mr. John Adams, J.P., Ballydevitt, who took a great part in the industrial and Presbyterian life of the province; and Mr. D. Leitch, Armagh, afterwards the head of a successful flax firm in Belfast, which is carried on by his son and grandsons, and who was as staunch a Presbyterian as he was a strong Liberal.

I had intended recalling some of the speeches, but, as I have indicated, they consisted largely of explanation of the financial schemes, which are now out of date. There are some sentences, however, which I should like to quote as having a bearing on the present situation as much as on the then existing one. Among Mr. Sinclair's strong sentences were the following:— “It seems to me that the Presbyterian Church is now upon its trial. We now occupy a position which is in the eye of all the world. I well know the indignant scorn with which we would repel any insinuation that the sons of our forefathers will not now vindicate their honoured ancestry and quit themselves like men . . . So surely as we make it [the new Sustentation Fund] of living stones, so surely as it is broad enough to embrace the whole membership of the Church, so surely shall it be stable, enduring, and honourable. Doubtless we shall have difficulties to contend with and disappointments to bear, but faith in our cause must be supreme. It may be that in their generations, in which the echoes of strife and contest have hardly died away, the structure we erect may not exceed a tabernacle of curtains, but still they shall be curtains of richest colours, and there shall be pillars of brass and sockets of silver and rings of gold. But we shall bequeath to those who come after us the pattern, of the temple which shall yet fill the land with glory.” Mr. M'Clure said:— “I trust they [the laity] will in their different congregations try to unite the people in an earnest desire and effort to make provision for the continuous teaching of the Gospel by an educated ministry in that pure and simple form we believe to be most consistent with Scripture, and to provide for the clergy a maintenance in some degree fitting their position.” Mr. Drummond said he did not think the ministers had done their duty in telling the people what they ought to do in the way of giving. If the people were told their duty he was sure they would come up to it and contribute far more largely than they have ever done towards the support of the ministry. Mr. Slator, of Edgeworthstown, a spirited Presbyterian from the Midlands, said that 1d a week from each communicant would raise a sum of £40,000 beyond all the Government ever gave them, beyond all subscriptions to their missions, and beyond all their stipends. Mr. Crawford referred to the number of young men present at the Conference, and said that as long as they had these young men, and so long as they were assisted by the fair sex, so many of whom had graced the meeting with their presence, he had no fear for the Sustentation Fund.

There was an apple of discord thrown into the meeting for a time by Mr. Hans M'Mordie and Professor Dill, M.D., who objected to committing the meeting to the commutation principle, but after some explanations and manifestations of disapproval the amendment was withdrawn. The entire resolutions were carried not only unanimously, but enthusiastically.

The speeches were all eminently practical and, unless, perhaps, in the case of Mr. Sinclair, given above, devoid of perorations. But if there were no rhetorical perorations, there were others, several of the speakers concluding with promises of an annual subscription of £100 each to the new fund.

The issue on which this article will appear, the 29th September, will be the forty-seventh anniversary of this Conference, which was held on the 29th September, 1869. So that it will be three years more before the half-century will be completed, and I hope by that time those who are alive will see a revival of zeal for sustentation such as followed the inauguration of the fund. We now know that faith has been kept with all the commuting ministers, and that by commuting they gained rather than lost. It is true those of them who survive, or their successors, have still to be passing rich on less than the £100 a year so hopefully anticipated by the Lay Conference, but they are more than half-way towards it, and the spur which it is hoped the adjourned meeting of the Assembly will give to the movement a further advance will be made. The total sum received from the State was a few thousand pounds less than was forecasted at the time. The actual amount was a little over £580,000. In the report of last Assembly the amount of commutation invested capital is put down at £585,705. The failure of the combined funds to realise the £100 a year has been twofold; about half in the shortage of interest from the original calculation, and the other in the shortage of the Sustentation Fund beyond anticipation. But it must at the same time be mentioned that there are considerably more ministers to be provided for. At the formation of the new fund the number of ministers was 550, and now it is about 600. The number of communicants then was 126,858. The number reported the last Assembly was 104,306. Mr. Sinclair's calculation was that with an increase of one penny per week more than was contributed £27,500 would be realised. For the first seven or eight years — at any rate, from 1872 to 1879 — the high-water mark both of interest and contribution was reached. For these years the dividends exceeded £28,000, and the contributions to the Sustentation Fund in three of the years exceeded £25,000. And in six of them the equal distribution in the form of bonus over the £69 was £22. The interest kept gradually falling, as was inevitable in the reduction of interest owing to the state of the investment market. In 1912 and 1914 the interest was, respectively, £20,681 and £20,622. For 1915 it was £21,878, and for the present year £21,189.

The Sustentation Fund in some of the earlier years exceeded £25,000; but in 1878 it fell to £24,832, and in the following year to £23,792, and kept within that line for several years (with some spasms at £24,000), till 1906, when it passed the £24,000, and has kept in that street since. In 1915 it was £24,268, and in 1916 £24,444. I am afraid that for some years to come we cannot look for much advance in the dividends, so that it will be chiefly to the Sustentation Fund we must look for any substantial advance.

Now, as I am making this contribution as much from the point of view of the future as the past, I wish to point out that as the Church was face to face with a crisis in 1869-70, it is no less face to face with a crisis now. Not politics, but war is now the cause. If the withdrawal of the old Regium Donum made the outlook somewhat dark for ministers and people, the war nowadays does the same. And in some respects it does worse. The prices of the necessities of life were not affected by the Irish Church Act, but they are affected by the diabolical act of the Kaiser. A pound sterling now would not purchase as much as fourteen or fifteen shillings would have done in the 'seventies; and, therefore, a larger sum would be required even to place ministers in the position they were then; and the objects of the old movement, as the new, were to put them in a better position. I admit the same applies to the laity; but, at the same time, if the war has brought financial losses to many of them, and especially to the working classes and farmers, it has brought gains.

At the same time, I am not one of those who believe in blaming the laity over much for the present position of this fund. I only blame the section of them, which is, unhappily, too large a section, who do little or nothing, or less than nothing, for everyone who does nothing is using his influence and example against the fund.

As I have pointed out, the number of our communicants has fallen, largely as the result of migration and emigration. There were larger numbers to appeal to in the first decade than in the last decade of the period under review. And not only so. We had princes in the Presbyterian Israel in the first decade, princes in the grace of liberality, an in all other Presbyterian graces, who have passed away, and in too many cases have left no successors at all, or successors who do not rise to the same height of generous enthusiasm, as those who went before. So that when I find that year is only a little over £1,000 less than it was in the fattest of these fat years, and this with a lessening of numbers to appeal to. I do not think our people have done badly according to the standard of the past. What has now to be done is to raise a new standard. Ten pounds additional annually from all the congregations of the Assembly would enable the fund to top the £30,000 and realise the dream of Mr. Sinclair and his colleagues of the early 'seventies. There are, I admit, many congregations in the Assembly from which, such an addition could not be expected, but there are others that might increase it by fives and tens. With the loss of large contributors some of our best congregations have reduced by as much as £100, and in some cases more than their early contributions to the fund. If more of our outstanding men would follow the example of their fathers in loyalty and liberality and all others do a little more this might be done.

I know it is easy to write this on paper and easy for the reader to forget it. But as I read from day to day of the growing spirit of liberality among our people to objects connected with the war I cannot but feel it will be equally manifested in the Church. We are labouring to keep up our armies at the highest pitch, and we are doing right. But it is no less a duty to ourselves and to those who come after us to keep up our ministry at the highest point of educational training and of freedom from the cares and worries of the world, without which it is impossible for any man, and especially any minister, to carry on his work. The importance of maintaining an educated ministry was one of the chief concerns of the fathers of the Lay Conference, and that is becoming more important every day. With the growth of education among the people, the education of the ministers who are expected to be leaders and guides as well as ensamples to the flock is a paramount necessity, and will become more and more so every day. The inducements and prospects held out to clever young men in other walks of life are now so many that our clever young men — and I cannot blame them — are seeking for careers in which appeals for sustentation will not be as necessary or as numerous. There is a marked decrease of students in all our theological colleges, and though that in part may be explained by the demands of the war and the spirit of loyal and patriotic enthusiasm and sacrifice, it is almost inevitable that new fields and almost new worlds will be opened up in the future to tempt our promising young men away from the Church.

We are proud of our educated ministry, and have every reason to be, but if the race is to be continued, the endowments will have to be increased if we are to retain that combination of ability with goodness, without which no minister can be of service to his congregation or his cause. And I cannot help thinking at times that what must be a deterrent to such young men is just the fact that such statements and appeals as I am indulging in are necessary. No man of the character and capacity for the ministry, or for any good and great work, would like the prospect that such appeals would have to be made from time to time to secure a "living wage," as if he were a quay porter or a mechanic — and in many cases not as well provided for in the end. It is in the hope of helping to end that state in the Irish Presbyterian Church that I am turning for a moment from the past to the present, and with an eye on the future, in the hope that now that the Church has arranged to make a special appeal at a special Assembly for establishing the question of ministerial sustentation on a sound, satisfactory, and permanent basis something will be planned, discussed, and decided that will render such writing unnecessary in the future. From the point of view of the Church it is discreditable, from the point of view of the ministry of the Church it is undignified, and from the larger interests of life and faith and Church in the future it is a blot that ought to be removed once and for ever.

To be continued...

From The Witness, 29th September 1916.

The "Man in the Street" was the pen name of Alexander McMonagle editor and manager of The Witness and Ulster Echo.

Thursday, 22 September 2016

Kitchener's Men

Have you heard the story of “Kitchener's men,”
    How he made an army from nothing at all?
Nerved, each as if with the strength of ten.
    For the one great cause they came at his call,
And smote, with the veteran's might and ken –
That great new host, the Kitchener men!

Silent and grim he held to his way,
    Held the critics' gibes in scorn.
Faced the task of each clamant day,
    By the level track or the thicket of thorn;
“ 'Tis a slow siege war,” he said, “but then
You shall win, at the last, with Kitchener's men!”

When the battle broke, that first of July,
    On the German front, from the Somme's bright flood –
Through the shrapnel scream and the slogan cry –
    They sealed his vow in their red heart's blood.
On, north, o'er the Ancre brook and fen,
Those serried ranks of “Kitchener's men!”

Loud and high was the song of the shell,
    As it splintered and crashed through the Mametz Wood;
When a young life reeled in the rush and fell,
    Another stepped in where his pal had stood;
O'er trench and crater and “dug-out” den
The waves swept on – of “Kitchener's men.”

Gordons, and Suffolks, and Royal Scots,
    Kent and sturdy Northumberland,
Their blood-stained blue forget-me-nots
    Have kissed at our heart and thrilled on our hand;
For each, as I said, had the strength of ten,
That dauntless host, the Kitchener men!

Sons of the North, and sons of the South,
    Stafford, and Erin's Fusilier,
Londons and Yorks, but all one mouth,
    One throat, one heart, with the Britons' cheer;
If you ask of England's “where” and “when,”
Go, read the story of “Kitchener's men!”

Ulster lads, with the song of the Boyne
    And the “No Surrender!” of Derry's gate,
With the sinewy arm and the girded loin
    And the faith that mocks at Hell and Fate,
O streams of the Strule and the Erne and the Bann,
The stream was red where their young blood ran!

And the signal star shot into the air,
    “Come to our help!” – but they never came;
So they fought to the last, and died, at Serre,
    Those Lancashire lads! Oh, they played the game!
What else could they do, just there and then,
Than fight and die? – They were “Kitchener's men!”

Where was Kitchener? Who can tell
    Of the vigil-post whence he gazed, from far,
As his young troops marched, and dared, and fell
    In the hottest front of the world-wide war?
His spirit, I think, was proud just then
'Mid the splendour of God and the glad “Amen!”

Where does he rest 'neath the restless tide? –
    By the black-ribbed rocks or the white-ridged sand?
His Ocean-tomb is great and wide
    As his field of battle was wide on land.
His work was done! And he died just then
When the bugle called for “Kitchener's men!”

Rev. Dr. J. Laurence Rentoul, Melbourne.

Poem from The Witness, 22nd September 1916

Wednesday, 14 September 2016

Fifty Years of Belfast Life (1866-1916) part 13



The passing of the Irish Church Bill in 1869 ended the connection between the Church and the State in this country, and, so far as my memory serves me, questions and controversies arising out of that monopolised the chief attention until the 'sixties came to an end and the 'seventies commenced, and even for many years afterwards. There was not only the political effect of the measure to be discussed, but the practical results of it. The supporters of the Establishment clung to the hope that the Lords, with Lord Cairns, an Ulsterman, as Lord Chancellor, at their head, would throw out the Bill. But they did not, and the complaints of its members were deep and loud and long. The Lords were accused of treachery, and even the Crown did not escape. Most of the language used was strong and violent, and not a little of it by ministers of the Establishment, and ministers of Belfast, too. But it was reserved for one, happily not in Belfast, to bring discredit on the Church and his cloth by declaring that he would kick the Queen's Crown into the Boyne. This was a Rev. Mr. Flannigan, from the borders of Ulster. His foolish phrase about "kicking the Queen's Crown into the Boyne" was for years dished up in Nationalist journals and in Nationalist speeches as if it represented the feelings and spirit of the Church. But it only represented a few extremists, and the phrase was as much regretted and condemned by his brethren of the Church as it was by all loyal men in the country.

There is this, however, to be said for those that took the extreme "Church" view. It was maintained by the supporters of the Establishment, and I have no doubt it was technically true, that the Disestablishment of the Church was a breach of the Act of Union, and a betrayal not only of the Church, but of the Protestantism of the country. It was alleged that if the Union was broken on one point it could be broken in all, and we nave since had evidence that a complete breach became a question of practical politics, and that a complete breach, except in so far as an out-flow of British gold is concerned, is the popular demand and desire of the day.

The controversy and feeling created by the passing of the Church Act was for a period as strong and bitter as the agitation about the passing of Home Rule. At public meetings, in the pulpit, and in the Press the passing of the Act, the treachery and disloyalty to Irish Protestantism which it was regarded as representing, were subjects of discussion and denunciation not for weeks and months, but for years. And Belfast even more than Dublin was the centre of the controversy. The fact that the vast majority of Protestants then, as now, resided in Ulster, and that Belfast was the capital of Ulster in general, and of Irish Protestantism in particular, kept the fires of controversy burning here almost day and night, on the Sabbath as well as on the weekday.

The robbery of the Church was the burden of many a song and many a sermon, many a speech and many a leading article. Home Rulers have told the British that as the agitation over the Disestablishment of the Church passed over in time so would the agitation against Home Rule. It is quite true that agitation passed away by the healing influence of time and the loyalty and liberality of the Protestant denominations affected. But while the agitation against the Bill was in some respects as strong as the earlier stages against Home Rule, there was and is this difference. While with the friends of the Establishment there was bitterness as well as disappointment, and a strong feeling of principle as well, the measure did not affect or rouse Presbyterians to the same extent that the Home Rule agitation has done. With many of them there was the feeling and the hope that out of their temporary suffering and sacrifice there would come relief to the country from agitation and grievance-mongering; that the loss or sacrifice to them and the Sister Church would be a gain to the State, and with characteristic patriotism the ministers of the day threw the funds provided into the treasury of the Church, and the people added their share, too, not to the extent they should have done, but yet to a moderately satisfying extent for the time.

The vast majority of the Presbyterians of that generation who lived through the stages of the Home Rule controversy, and who survive to day, and accepted patriotically and philosophically the Irish Church Act, were and are the strongest opponents of Home Rule; and among the strongest of its opponents were, so long as they lived, supporters of the policy that led to Disestablishment. Presbyterians and all others to-day will understand what I mean when I say that the late Right Honourable Thomas Sinclair was as staunch a supporter of Mr. Gladstone in his Disestablishment policy as the Right Hon. John. Young was an opponent. Yet Mr. Sinclair was no less enthusiastic an opponent of Home Rule than Mr. Young – more enthusiastic no man could have been – and to the last hour of his active life devoted himself to the cause of the Union with an ability, zeal, and energy as unequalled as it was brilliant and effective.

As one who passed through that period of stress and strain, and saw and heard much of what went on in our midst during the time, I am prepared to say that however strong the feeling and however strong the sense of justice or of British ingratitude, the feeling that lay beneath even the strongest opponents of the Gladstonian policy was not within measurable distance of the feeling of deep-rooted and determined antagonism as that created by Home Rule.

Whatever may have been the breach in the Act of Union, the Irish Church Act did not mean even to the opponents of Disestablishment what Home Rule means. It is true, it was recognised by the old Liberals of the time as a concession to Romanist demands and a surrender of Protestant interests, but they were content to ignore these in the hope that, as a result, we would have an Ireland of activity rather than agitation, of prosperity instead of poverty; of union not only with England, but within the country. And then we had the British Government and the British Parliament to take charge of the country. There was no thought then and no dread of the state of things that has since arisen. The Protestants of that time took the declarations of Roman Catholics at their lip value, and believed that the removal of this great and undoubted grievance, this removal of a religious inequality or disability, would bring about reconcilement and contentment. The Roman Catholics clamoured for equality and got it, so far as the State was concerned. They did not then realise the force of what Mr. Disraeli had said a decade or two before, that the Church, while clamouring for equality, was demanding supremacy – and would not be content without it.

As one who was in the midst of this conflict, and from official position and circumstances had full opportunity of understanding the feeling and spirit that prevailed, I can testify that such a possibility as the demands now made and such a possibility as the demands now conceded never entered their minds. What did enter their minds was the hope, with many amounting to a conviction, that the measure then passed would soothe and satisfy Roman Catholic feeling. The Liberal spirit of the time was expressed by the Rev. John Macnaughtan, who defending himself against the charge of working with Roman Catholics, justified his action on the principle of fair policy, equality, and statesmanship, said if it ever came to be a question between Protestantism and Romanism be would be found with his back to the cathedral wall. And he was a Liberal of Liberals, a voluntary in religion as opposed to the principle of Establishment, which he carried so far that when he came to this country he refused to accept the Regium Donum.

To be continued...

From The Witness, 15th September 1916.

The "Man in the Street" was the pen name of Alexander McMonagle editor and manager of The Witness and Ulster Echo.

Saturday, 10 September 2016

Hate and Pity at Ginchy

Subaltern's Human Letter to His Aunt

by 2nd-Lieut. Arthur Conway Young

We are privileged from time to time to reprint the private letters of serving soldiers, written on the field to their relatives at home, which, despite strict censorship, often contain the most vivid and human descriptions of life at the Front and during battle. This is abundantly true of the following account of the Irish attack on Ginchy, on September 9, 1916, written by 2nd-Lieut. A. C. Young, of the Royal Irish Fusiliers. Mr. Young, who was educated at the City of London School, and had been a journalist on the "Japan Chronicle" at Kobe, survived this action but was killed on August 16, 1917, at the age of 27.

MY dear Auntie Maggie,

As I told you in my last brief note, I took part in the battle of Ginchy, and I promised you when I had time that I would give you an account of it . . .

Try and picture in your mind's eye a fairly broad valley running more or less north and south. You must imagine that the Germans are somewhere over the farther, or eastern, crest. You are looking across the valley from the ruins of Guillemont. About half-right the farther crest rises to a height crowned by a mass of wreckage and tangled trees. Well, that is Ginchy . . . It was like being near the foot of Parliament Hill, with the village on top. Our right flank was down near the bottom of the valley; our left extended up to the higher ground towards the ruins of Waterlot Farm.

The trench was very shallow in places, where it had been knocked in by shell-fire. I had chosen it as the only one suitable in the neighbourhood, but it was a horrible place. British dead were lying round everywhere. Our men had to give up digging in some places, because they came down to bodies which were lying in the bottom, having been buried there when the parapet blew in. The smell turned us sick. At last, in desperation I went out to look for another trench, for I felt sure the Germans must have the range of the trench we were in, and that they would give us hell when dawn broke. To my joy I found that a very deep trench some distance back had just been vacated by another regiment, so we went in there.

This man is coming back from Ginchy after it had been captured on September 9, 1916. The losses of the six battalions that took part in the attack were so heavy that every man who could possibly struggle back to the dressing-station on his feet had to do so. This wounded man has found the ever-ready help of a couple of his comrades to get him over the last trench he will see for a long time. (Imperial War Museum)

The night was bitterly cold. I have felt hunger and thirst and fatigue out here to a degree I have never experienced them before, but those are torments I can endure far better than I thought I could. But the cold – my word ! it is dreadful . . .

However, dawn broke at last. It was very misty. All night we had been trying to get into touch with the unit on our left, but without success. So the Captain sent me out with an orderly to see whether I could manage it. We two stumbled along, but the mist was so dense we could see nothing.

We came to one trench after another, but not a living thing could we see – nothing but dead, British and German, some of them mangled beyond recognition. Bombs and rifles and equipments were lying all over the place, with here and there a greatcoat, khaki or grey according to the nationality of their one-time owners, but of living beings we could see no sign whatsoever.

There was a horrible stench in places which nearly turned our stomachs. To make matters more wretched we could not make sure of our direction, and were afraid of running into a German patrol, or even into a German trench, for such accidents are by no means uncommon in this region. However, we managed to find our way back, and report that up to such and such a point there was no one on our left.


THE Captain was not content with this, so I went out again, this time with another officer. Having a compass on this second occasion I felt far more self-confidence, and to our mutual satisfaction we discovered that the unit on our left was the right flank of an English Division. Captain Edwards was very bucked when we brought back this information. As the mist continued for some time afterwards we were able to light fires and make breakfast . . .

It was about 4 o'clock in the afternoon when we first learned that we should have to take part in the attack on Ginchy. Now, Auntie, you expect me to say at this point in my narrative that my heart leapt with joy at the news and that the men gave three rousing cheers, for that's the sort of thing you read in the papers. Well, even at the risk of making you feel ashamed of me, I will confess that my heart sank within me when I heard the news.

I had been over the top once already that week, and knew what it was to see men dropping dead all round me, to see men blown to bits, to see men writhing in pain, to see men running round and round, gibbering, raving mad. Can you wonder therefore that I felt a sort of sickening dread of the horrors which I knew we should all have to go through? Frankly, I was dismayed.

But, Auntie, I know that you will think the more of me when I tell you, on my conscience, that I went into action that afternoon, not with any hope of glory, but with the absolute certainty of death. How the others felt I don't exactly know, but I don't think their emotions were far different from mine.

You read no end of twaddle in the papers at home about the spirit in which men go into action. You might almost think they revelled in the horror and the agony of it all. I saw one account of the battle of Ginchy, in which the correspondent spoke of the men of a certain regiment in reserve as almost crying with rage because they couldn't take part in the show. All I can say is that I should like to see such superhuman beings. It is rubbish like this which makes people in England think that war is great sport. As a famous American general said, "War is Hell," and you have only got to be in the Somme one single day to know it.


BUT to get on with the story. We were ordered to move up into the front line to reinforce the Royal Irish Rifles. The bombardment was now intense. Our shells bursting in the village of Ginchy made it belch forth smoke like a volcano. The Hun shells were bursting on the slope in front of us. The noise was deafening. I turned to my servant O'Brien, who has always been a cheery, optimistic soul, and said, "Well, O'Brien, how do you think we'll fare?" and his answer for once was not encouraging.

"We'll never come out alive, sir!" was his answer. Happily we both came out alive, but I never thought we should at the time.

It was at this moment, just as we were debouching on to the scragged front line of trench, that we beheld a scene which stirred and thrilled us to the bottommost depths of our souls. The great charge of the Irish Division had begun, and we had come up in the nick of time . . .

BETWEEN the outer fringe of Ginchy and the front line of our own trenches is No Man's Land – a wilderness of pits, so close together that you could ride astraddle the partitions between any two of them. As you look half-right, obliquely along No Man's Land, you behold a great host of yellow-coated men rise out of the earth and surge forward and upward in a torrent – not in extended order, as you might expect, but in one mass – I almost said a compact mass. The only way I can describe the scene is to ask you to picture five or six columns of men marching uphill in fours, with about a hundred yards between each column. Now conceive those columns being gradually disorganized, some men going off to the right, and others to the left to avoid shell-holes. There seems to be no end to them. Just when you think the flood is subsiding, another wave comes surging up the beach towards Ginchy.

WE joined in on the left. There was no time for us anymore than the others to get into extended order. We formed another stream, converging on the others at the summit. By this time we were all wildly excited. Our shouts and yells alone must have struck terror into the Huns, who were firing their machine-guns down the slope. But there was no wavering in the Irish host. We couldn't run. We advanced at a steady walking pace, stumbling here and there, but going ever onward and upward.

That numbing dread had now left me completely. Like the others, I was intoxicated with the glory of it all. I can remember shouting and bawling to the men of my platoon, who were only too eager to go on.


The Hun barrage had now been opened in earnest, and shells were falling here, there, and everywhere in No Man's Land. They were mostly dropping on our right, but they were coming nearer and nearer, as if a screen were being drawn across our front. I knew that it was a case of "now or never," and stumbled on feverishly. We managed to get through the barrage in the nick of time, for it closed behind us, and after that we had no shells to fear in front of us.

I mention, merely as an interesting fact in psychology, how in a crisis of this sort one's mental faculties are sharpened. Instinct told us, when the shells were coming gradually closer, to crouch down in the holes until they had passed. Acquired knowledge, on the other hand – the knowledge instilled into one by lectures and books (of which I have only read one, namely Haking's "Company Training") – told us that it was safer in the long run to push ahead before the enemy got our range, and it was acquired knowledge that won.

And here's another observation I should like to make by the way : The din must have been deafening (I learned afterwards that it could be heard miles away), yet I have only a confused remembrance of it. Shells which at any other time would have scared me out of my wits, I never so much as heard and not even when they were bursting quite close to me.

Both before and after the taking of Ginchy the fighting was of the fiercest and the losses enormous. The top photograph shows the battlefield as it was on the day the village tell to troops of the l6th (Irish) Division after a piper had rallied the men. Troops are advancing towards the German lines over open ground subject to heavy shell fire. The lower photograph is the approach to the village as it is today, with its wayside calvary. (Photos, Imperial War Museum and Wide World)

One landed in the midst of a bunch of men about seventy yards away on my right : I have a most vivid recollection of seeing a tremendous burst of clay and earth go shooting up into the air – yes, and even parts of human bodies – and that when the smoke cleared away there was nothing left.

I shall never forget that horrible spectacle as long as I live, but I shall remember it as a sight only, for I can associate no sound with it . . .

We were now well up to the Boche. We had to clamber over all manner of obstacles – fallen trees, beams, great mounds of brick and rubble – in fact, over the ruins of Ginchy. It seems like a nightmare to me now. I remember seeing comrades falling round me.

MY sense of hearing returned to me, for I became conscious of a new sound, namely, the continuous crackling of rifle-fire. I remember men lying in shell-holes holding out their arms and beseeching water. I remember men crawling about and coughing up blood, as they searched round for some place in which they could shelter until help could reach them. By this time all units were mixed up : but they were all Irishmen. They were cheering and cheering and cheering like mad.

It was Hell let loose. There was a machine-gun playing on us near by, and we all made for it. At this moment we caught our first sight of the Huns. They were in a trench of sorts, which ran in and out among the ruins. Some of them had their hands up. Others were kneeling and holding their arms out to us. Still others were running up and down the trench distractedly as if they didn't know which way to go, but as we got closer they went down on their knees, too.

In this formation and over such ground as this the British Army went forward to fight on the Somme. It has been remarked by the writers of this and many other chapters that the value of discipline and training was never better proved than in such attacks as this. These men are supporting troops going up to the attack near Ginchy on September 9, 1916. A shell from the enemy's artillery is bursting just behind them. In the foreground is a trench with a litter of discarded equipment on the parapet. (Imperial War Museum)

To the everlasting good name of the Irish soldiery, not one of these Huns, some of whom had been engaged in slaughtering our men up to the very last moment, was killed. I did not see a single instance of a prisoner being shot or bayoneted. When you remember that our men were now worked up to a frenzy of excitement, this crowning act of mercy to their foes is surely to their eternal credit. They could feel pity even in their rage.

By this time we had penetrated the German front line, and were on the flat ground where the village once stood surrounded by a wood of fairly high trees . . . As I was clambering out of the front trench, I felt a sudden stab in my right thigh. I thought I had got a "Blighty," but found it was only a graze from a bullet, and so went on . . .


McGARRY and I were the only two officers left in the company, so it was up to us to take charge. We could see the Huns hopping over the distant ridge like rabbits, and we had some difficulty in preventing our men from chasing them, for we had orders not to go too far. We got them – Irish Fusiliers, Inniskillings and Dublins – to dig in by linking up the shell-craters, and though the men were tired (some wanted to smoke and others to make tea) they worked with a will, and before long we had got a pretty decent trench outlined.

While we were at work, a number of Huns who had stopped behind and were hiding in shell-holes commenced a bombing attack on our right. But they did not keep it up for long, for they hoisted a white flag (a handkerchief tied to a rifle) as a sign of surrender. I should think we must have made about twenty prisoners. They were very frightened. Some of them bunked into a sunken road or cutting which ran straight out from the wood in an easterly direction, and huddled together with hands upraised. They began to empty their pockets and hand out souvenirs – watches, compasses, cigars, penknives – to their captors, and even wanted to shake hands with us!

THERE was no other officer about at the moment, so I had to find an escort to take the prisoners down. Among the prisoners was a tall, distinguished looking man, and I asked him in my broken German whether he was an officer. "Ja! Mein Herr!" was the answer I got. "Sprechen sie English?" "Ja!" "Good," I said, thankful that I didn't have to rack my brains for any more German words. "Please tell your men that no harm will come to them if they follow you quietly." He turned round and addressed his men, who seemed to be very gratified that we were not going to kill them.

I must say the officer behaved with real soldierly dignity, and not to be outdone in politeness by a Hun, I treated him with the same respect that he showed me. I gave him an escort for himself and told off three or four men for the remainder. I could not but rather admire his bearing, for he did not show anything like the terror that his men did.

I HEARD afterwards that when Captain O'Donnell's company rushed a trench more to our right, round the corner of the wood, a German officer surrendered in great style. He stood to attention, gave a clinking salute, and said in perfect English, "Sir, myself, this other officer, and ten men are your prisoners." Captain O'Donnell said "Right you are, old chap!" and they shook hands, the prisoners being led away.

There were a great many German dead and wounded in the sunken road. One of them was an officer. He was lying at the entrance to the dug-out. He was waving his arms about. I went over and spoke to him. He could talk a little English. All he could say was "Comrade, I die, I die." I asked him where he was hit, and he said in the stomach. It was impossible to move him, for our stretcher-bearers had not yet come up, so I got my servant to look for an overcoat to throw over him, as he was suffering terribly from the cold. Whether or not he survived the night I don't know.


AFTER the counter-attack had subsided I was ordered to take my men and join up with the rest of the battalion on our right. There we spent the night in a trench. We must have been facing south. It was a miserable night we passed, for we were all very cold and thirsty. We had to keep digging. When morning broke it was very misty. We expected to be relieved at two in the morning, but the relief did not come till noon.

Never shall I forgot these hours of suspense. We were all hungry. The only food we could get was Hun black bread, which we picked up all over the place; also Hun tinned sausages and bully beef. We had to lift up some of the dead to get at these things. Some of them had water-bottles full of cold coffee, which we drank. We all craved a smoke. Fortunately, the Hun haversacks were pretty well stocked with cigarettes and cigars.

I got a handful of cigars off a dead Boche, and smoked them all morning. Also a tin of cigarettes. His chocolates also came in handy. Poor devil, he must have been a cheery soul when living, for he had a photograph of himself in his pocket, in a group with his wife and two children, and the picture made him look a jolly old sport, and here he was, dead, with both legs missing! The trench (between ours and the wood) was stacked with dead. It was full of debris – bombs, shovels and whatnot – and torn books, magazines, and newspapers. I came across a copy of Schiller's "Wallenstein."

Hearing moans as I went along the trench, I looked into a shelter or hole dug in the side and found a young German. He could not move as his legs were broken. He begged me to get him some water, so I hunted round and found a flask of cold coffee, which I held to his lips. He kept saying, "Danke, Kamerad, danke, danke." However much you may hate the Huns when you are fighting them, you can only feel pity for them when you see them lying helpless and wounded on the ground . . .


ABOUT ten yards farther on was another German minus a leg. He, too, craved water, but I could get him none, though I looked everywhere. Our men were very good to the German wounded. An Irishman's heart melts very soon. In fact, kindness and compassion for the wounded, our own and the enemy's, is about the only decent thing I have seen in war. It is not at all uncommon to see a British and German soldier side by side in the same shell-hole nursing each other as best they can and placidly smoking cigarettes.

A poor wounded Hun who hobbled into our trench in the morning, his face badly mutilated by a bullet – he whimpered and moaned piteously as a child – was bound up by one of our officers, who took off his coat and set to work in earnest. Another Boche, whose legs were hit, was carried in by our men and put into a shell-hole for safety, where he lay awaiting the stretcher-bearers when we left. It is with a sense of pride that I can write this of our soldiers.

WELL now, that's the story of the great Irish charge at Ginchy so far as I can tell it. I suppose by this time the great event has been forgotten by the English public. But it will never be forgotten by those who took part in it, for it is an event we shall remember with pride to the end of our days. Need I tell you how proud we officers and men are of the Royal Irish Fusiliers, who played as big a part as any in the storming of that stronghold, and who went into action shouting their old battle-cry of "Faugh-a-Ballagh," which means "Clear the way!"

Will write again soon.
With fondest love,
Ever your affectionate nephew,

Original source unknown.