Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Something the North Belfast News doesn't tell you

Clifton Street graveyard in North Belfast has many an interesting story to tell and I was therefore drawn to an article about it in the North Belfast News (25 August).
The article described a tour of  the graveyard, concentrating on 'famous republican rebels'.  It was given by 'local historian' Jack Duffin on behalf of Croi Eanna, an Irish language and cultural society from Glengormley.
Some of the graves in Clifton Street do indeed help to tell the story of the Society of United Irishmen but that is only one of the many stories that can be told for Clifton Street was the graveyard of unionists and liberals as well as republicans, the graveyard of wealthy businessmen and paupers, as well as Presbyterian ministers, newspaper publishers, indutrialists and the founding fathers of the shipbuilding industry in Belfast.  One thing many of them share in common is that they were Ulster-Scots.  The graveyard was established at the end of the 18th century, at a time when Belfast was an overwhelmingly Ulster-Scots town.
According to the report the tour started with the grave of William Dixon (sic) but it is clear that this was in fact Rev William Steel Dickson, who was born at Kiln Road, Ballycraigy, near Belfast, and who became a Presbyterian minister.  It is surprising that the journalist, Gemma Burns, has got his name wrong throughout the article.
The next grave was that of Dr William Drennan, who was born in Belfast and was the son of a Presbyterian minister.  He was the real founder of the United Irishmen and one of the most interesting.  It is also noteworthy that in later years he became a unionist, something that Jack Duffin appears to have ignored.

In a speech delivered at a town meeting in Belfast in 1817 Drennan said, 'that, in the event of a full, free and frequent representation of the people in Parliament for the whole empire he would be reconciled to the Union.  He would not unwillingly merge his country in a fair and faithful representation of these realms.'  [Northern Whig 3 November 1893]

Even more interesting is the following statement by William Drennan in the Belfast Penny Magazine (31 December 1811) when he wrote, 'Be Britons with all your souls - and forget that your father called himself an Irishman.'

In 1891, the centenary of the founding of the Society of United Irishmen, for which Drennan wrote a prospectus, Irish nationalists and republicans tried to lay claim to Drennan.  However they were answered by his son John Swanwick Drennan (1809-1893).  The same thing happened in 1897 and this time they were answered by Drennan's grand-daughter, Mrs Maria Duffin, who said of him, 'Dr Drennan was at first opposed to the Union but afterwards modified his view of it.'

I wonder if Jack Duffin included that side of Drennan in his talk, or the fact that most of the United Irishmen in Ulster, both leaders and rank and file, soon became unionists?

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