Printer Friendly

Reform and change in Belfast.

Jonathan Jeffrey Wright


LIVERPOOL UNIVERSITY PRESS, 2012. 75 [pounds sterling]

IN THIS ADMIRABLY WRITTEN and scrupulously-researched book, Jonathan Wright examines a crucial period in Belfast's history between the 1798 rebellion and the Act of Union and the Great Reform Act. Belfast is usually associated either with sectarian riots in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries or seen as the cradle of the United Irish Movement in the 1790s. The apparently huge shift from a rebellious and republican town to one in which unionists ostentatiously proclaimed their loyalty to the British crown and empire has raised many historical questions. How did Belfast's Presbyterian community, the late eighteenth-century demographic majority and founders of the United Irishmen, become unionists by the nineteenth century? Some historians have addressed this "transformation" of Presbyterian radicalism. A.T.Q. Stewart argued that Presbyterians could support the establishment without abandoning their liberal principles. More recently, Ian McBride argued that the different stances only make sense if they are seen against their precise contemporary contexts. Jacobitism in the 1790s arose from the "apparent disintegration of the Roman Church" at the time, but in the nineteenth century, underlying sectarian identities re-emerged in response to "unforeseen" social and political changes. Jonathan Wright builds on this to reveal the complexity of Belfast's politics, and how they were sensitive to outside events and influences as well as to local ones. Reform- inded, middle-class Presbyterians found an outward-looking congruity of interest with British reformers. Their liberalism, Wright argues, was British rather than Irish in its orientation, but it was predicated on a view of the potentialities of the British Constitution which was decidedly not conservative or loyalist. In arguing for the Britishness of northern liberalism and radicalism, Wright follows R. B. McDowell and, more recently, John Bew in The Glory of Being Britons, and the breadth of his interpretation fits admirably into J. G. A. Pocock's "New British History."

Wright investigates Belfast's political and cultural world in the post-Union decades by focusing on a key middle-class Belfast Presbyterian business family, the Tennents, and the individuals surrounding them, like-minded in politics and of a similar social status. These people are the "natural leaders" of the book's title. Wright's approach usefully combines a biographical study of one of the most influential natural leaders, William Tennent, with a thematic structure showing how the natural leaders responded to contemporary cultural trends like classicism, romanticism, philanthropy, evangelicalism. These trends and the events associated with them were British and European as well as Irish and, as the range of titles in Tennent's extensive personal library attest, engagement with them bears testimony to a cosmopolitanism not normally associated with Belfast.

In exploring Belfast's social and political milieu Wright is at pains to break free from interpretative paradigms which rely primarily on stark religious identifiers. The Tennent family's religious views range from the conservative Presbyterianism of William Tennent's father, to his own Enlightenment-influenced "new light" views. Evangelicalism, a phenomenon more commonly associated with conservative Protestantism and proselytizing, is shown to have influenced the social reforming views of Belfast's natural leaders whose interests and values are those identified by British historians as being solidly middle-class.

In the main section of the book, Wright scrupulously examines contemporary issues and cultural trends and explores their effect on Belfast's politics, culture and society. These issues were sometimes domestic and at other times had national or international relevance. They include the Hanoverian 1809 Jubilee, controversies over Belfast's Academical Institution, Napoleon Bonaparte, the 1813 Belfast Orange riot and the 1820 Queen Caroline affair, issues which were exploited by the "natural leaders" to platform their reformist political views. Bonaparte was used in a way which combined disapproval of the French leader's expansionist and imperial tendencies with praise for his non-military reforms, thus providing a counter to loyalists' reflexive demonizing of Napoleon. Such engagements allowed them to critique Belfast's oligarchic corporation and the government at Westminster. This cosmopolitanism outlook ensured that contemporary cultural concerns like classicalism and romanticism influenced debate in Belfast's clubs and societies.

Wright explores the background to these organizations very well, particularly the Historical Society to which leading reformers like William Tennent and John Templeton belonged. But Belfast's associational culture is shown to be more than just an institutional means to a political end. In considering if Belfast was, as was claimed, the "Athens of the North," Wright recognizes a genuine intellectual commitment over and above any political platforming. In an admirably broad contextual analysis he looks at philanthropy and evangelicalism and the connections between them, both phenomena a major feature of Belfast life. Older interpretations focusing on evangelicalism's impact for religion and politics are challenged. Focusing on evangelicalism's ideological underpinnings, Wright argues convincingly that the views of Robert Chalmers, which prioritized the material needs of the poor, drove the type of philanthropy which attracted the likes of Robert Tennent. Indeed such returns to reforming type allow Wright to argue that the United Irish rebellion of 1798 was "a revolutionary aberration" distracting attention from the continuities embodied in a "complex political tradition that spanned both the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries."

This work is timely, given the anniversary of the granting of Belfast's charter in 1613 and apposite, in providing a much more nuanced view of Belfast -historically. Yet, in identifying the complexity of Belfast politics and the limits of current explanations, inevitably yet more uncovering needs to be done. For one thing, questions must be raised about those Presbyterians outside the charmed circle of the natural leaders but not fully within the corporation establishment who appear as politically impotent. William Bruce, minister of the First Presbyterian Church in Rosemary Street was one such example. Once a friend of William Drennan, one of the original United Irishmen, he returned to Belfast in 1807, but, according to Wright, jettisoned his earlier liberalism and became politically inactive. However, there is evidence suggesting otherwise. Moderate reformers like Bruce were as zealous to control Belfast's public and political reputation as the Tennent- Drennan circle. Arguably the real conflict after the Union was not between liberals and the corporation clique but between moderates like Bruce and radicals over control of the growing town's intellectual and cultural reputation. Military affairs are not considered at much length in this book; yet, as John Cookson argues, wartime service in voluntary corps in similar industrializing towns in England and their ostentatious public display were part of the town-making process. Belfast's equivalent to the English Volunteers was its yeomanry. Though these corps included members of the corporation elite, including Lord Donegall, they also comprehended moderates and liberals like Bruce and Henry Joy and even some ex-United Irishmen like the fabulously wealthy Gilbert McIlveen. Belfast's yeomanry were envisaged as part of the town's post-rebellion identity, as evidenced in the lavish preparations (including new colors, musical instruments and instructors) for the 1804 visit of the viceroy, Lord Hardwick, which included a yeomanry review. Wright notes a continuity of the language of classical republicanism as a distinguishing feature of the natural leaders, yet Bruce's 1803 sermon to the "Christian Soldiers" of Belfast Merchants Yeomen infantry, which distanced them from ultra-loyalists, advocated old Whig sentiments about the superiority of armed citizens over a standing army.

If Belfast's political identity was complex and nuanced so too was its cultural identity. Wright examines the Belfast Monthly Magazine's hostile review of the first piece the Belfast Literary Society published (William Richardson's memoir on florin grass) as evidence of the strength of radicalism. Yet that pamphlet contained a politically provocative dedication to Bruce as the promoter of "religion, learning and loyalty." In the context of the time this was explosive. The review of Richardson's pamphlet does indeed bear out Wright's contention about the Britishness of Belfast's natural leaders, by suggesting that the town's Literary Society lagged well behind British "Lit and Phils" in publishing their proceedings. Indeed, the reviewer, probably John Templeton, another of the natural leaders circle, attacked Richardson for his refusal to use the universally recognized scientific Linnaean description of the grass as Agrostis stolonifera. Perhaps in an indicative straw in the cultural wind, Richardson doggedly stuck with the Irish designation for florin (from the Gaelic fiorthann meaning straw grass). These qualifications should not, however, detract from a fine and well-written book on a neglected but vitally important aspect of Belfast's complex and sometimes surprising history.

--University of Ulster
COPYRIGHT 2014 Irish Studies Program
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2014 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:The 'Natural Leaders' and Their World: Politics, Culture and Society in Belfast, c. 1801-1832
Author:Blackstock, Allan
Publication:Irish Literary Supplement
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 13, 2014
Previous Article:Revisiting Ulysses in the courts.
Next Article:Past and present in Dublin.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2018 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters