seamus dubhghaill

Promoting Irish Culture and History from Little Rock, Arkansas, USA


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Passage of the Special Powers Act 1922

special-powers-act-1922The Civil Authorities (Special Powers) Act (Northern Ireland) 1922, often referred to simply as the Special Powers Act, is passed by the Parliament of Northern Ireland on April 7, 1922, shortly after the establishment of Northern Ireland, and in the context of violent conflict over the issue of the partition of Ireland. Its sweeping powers make it highly controversial, and it is seen by much of the Northern Irish nationalist community as a tool of Ulster unionist oppression. The Act is eventually repealed by the Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) Act 1973, following the abolition of Northern Ireland’s parliament and the imposition of direct rule by the British government.

At the start of the twentieth century, the people of Ireland are divided into two mutually hostile factions. Nationalists, the much larger group, are mostly Roman Catholic, identify primarily as Irish, and want some form of Irish home rule or independence from Britain. Unionists, the smaller group, concentrates primarily in the province of Ulster, are mostly Protestant, identify primarily as British (although many see themselves as Irish and British), and are committed to remaining within the United Kingdom.

Partition is formally established with the Government of Ireland Act 1920. This also establishes the Parliament of Northern Ireland, which comes into being the following year. Partition is followed by high levels of inter-communal violence, especially in Belfast. The Irish Republican Army (IRA), although it spends most of these years fighting in the Irish Civil War, aims to use armed force to end partition and compel the United Kingdom to withdraw sovereignty from Northern Ireland.

The Act is presented as being necessary to re-establish peace and law and order in Northern Ireland, and enables the government to “take all such steps and issue all such orders as may be necessary for preserving the peace and maintaining order,” although it is specified that the ordinary course of law should be interfered with as little as possible. Because it is presented as emergency legislation, the Act is initially current only for one year and has to be renewed annually. In 1928, however, it is renewed for five years and when this period expires in 1933 the Act is made permanent.

Despite rhetoric accompanying the Act which asserts that it is for the purpose of restoring public order, its provisions continue to be used for the entire period of the Northern Irish parliament’s existence. Because the Ulster Unionist Party is the only party ever to form a government in this parliament, the Act is used “almost exclusively on the minority population.” Initially, regulations under the Act are used mostly to curb immediate violence and disorder. One of the most controversial of these is internment without trial.

After the troubles of the early 1920s dies down, the provision for internment is not used until the IRA’s Border Campaign of the 1950s, in which several hundred republicans are interned. Following the outbreak of The Troubles in 1968, many within the Protestant community call for the reintroduction of internment. This occurs in 1971 and authorises internment of those suspected to be involved in terrorism. Although there are loyalist as well as republican terrorists at this time, of the 1,981 men interned, only 107 are loyalists. Due to inadequate intelligence-gathering, many of the interned republicans are members of the Official Irish Republican Army rather than the recently formed Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA), which is much more heavily involved in terrorist activity at the time.

Internment ends in 1975, but is credited with increasing support and sympathy for the PIRA amongst the Catholic community and outside of Northern Ireland. It helps to create political tensions which culminate in the 1981 Irish Hunger Strike and the death of MP Bobby Sands. Imprisonment under anti-terrorism laws specific to Northern Ireland continue until the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, but these laws require the right to a fair trial be respected.

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Ian Paisley’s Retirement from the Power-Sharing Assembly

ian-paisleyOn March 23, 2011, Ian Paisley calls for a new era of sharing and reconciliation in an emotional farewell at his final sitting of the power-sharing Assembly he helped to create at Stormont. Dr. Paisley continues his political career in the House of Lords.

Protestant and Catholic leaders in Northern Ireland‘s unity government celebrate their first full four-year term in power and lauded Paisley, the unlikely peacemaker who made it possible, on his effective retirement day.

Paisley, a stern anti-Catholic evangelist who spent decades rallying pro-British Protestants against compromise, stuns the world in 2007 by agreeing to forge a coalition alongside senior Irish Republican Army (IRA) veterans. Their polar-opposite combination governs Northern Ireland with surprising harmony for the four years leading up to his retirement.

The Northern Ireland Assembly that elects the administration is dissolved on March 14, 2011 in preparation for a May 5 election in the British territory. The 84-year-old Paisley makes his last debate in an elected chamber on March 6, 2011, noting that this local government is not ending in chaos and acrimony, as 1999-2002 attempts at power-sharing repeatedly had done.

At this point, Paisley has already stepped down as a member of the British and European parliaments and as leader of the Democratic Unionists, a party of hard-line Protestant protesters that he founded in 1970 and watched grow over the previous decade into the most popular in Northern Ireland.

Those lauding him include Peter Robinson, who succeeded him in 2008 as leader of both the government and the Democratic Unionists and Sinn Féin‘s Martin McGuinness, the senior Catholic politician who spends decades as a commander of Paisley’s archenemy, the IRA.

The IRA kills nearly 1,800 people in a failed 1970-1997 effort to force Northern Ireland out of the United Kingdom. Northern Ireland remains part of the United Kingdom when the overwhelmingly Catholic rest of Ireland gains its independence in 1922. The outlawed IRA formally renounces violence and disarms in 2005, clearing the way for its allied Sinn Féin party to recognize the legal authority of Northern Ireland and its police.

Still, few observers expected Paisley to agree to a pact so quickly after the IRA-Sinn Féin peace moves or to get along so warmly with McGuinness during their year in partnership.

McGuinness, whose organization once considered Paisley a prime target for assassination, addressing his remarks to the stooped, silver-haired Paisley across the chamber, notes that Ulster wits had christened the two of them “the Chuckle Brothers.” He adds, “And I would like to think that we showed leadership. I think my relationship with him will undoubtedly go down in the history books.”

(From: “Northern Ireland power-sharing marks 1st full term,” the Associated Press and CTV News, March 23, 2011)


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The First Dungannon Convention

bank-of-ireland-college-greenThe first Dungannon Convention of the Ulster Volunteers on February 15, 1782 calls for an independent Irish parliament. This is the parliament that Henry Grattan also campaigns for and later becomes known as “Grattan’s parliament.”

The Irish Volunteers are a part-time military force whose original purpose is to guard against invasion and to preserve law and order when regular troops are being sent to America during the American Revolutionary War. Members are mainly drawn from the Protestant urban and rural middle classes and the movement soon begins to take on a political importance.

The first corps of Volunteers is formed in Belfast and the movement spreads rapidly across Ireland. By 1782 there are 40,000 enlisted in the Volunteers, half of them in Ulster. Strongly influenced by American ideas, though loyal to the Crown, the Volunteers demand greater legislative freedom for the Dublin Parliament.

The Dungannon Convention is a key moment in the eventual granting of legislative independence to Ireland.

At the time, all proposed Irish legislation has to be submitted to the Privy Council of the United Kingdom for its approval under the great seal of England before being passed by the Parliament of Ireland. English Acts emphasise the complete dependence of the Irish parliament on its English counterpart and English Houses claim and exercise the power to legislate directly for Ireland, even without the agreement of the parliament in Dublin.

The Ulster Volunteers, who assemble in Dungannon, County Tyrone, demand change. Prior to this, the Volunteers received the thanks of the Irish parliament for their stance but in the House of Commons, the British had ‘won over’ a majority of that assembly, which led to a resistance of further concessions. Thus, the 315 volunteers in Ulster at the Dungannon convention promised “to root out corruption and court influence from the legislative body,” and “to deliberate on the present alarming situation of public affairs.”

The Convention is held in a church and is conducted in a very civil manner. The Volunteers agree, almost unanimously, to resolutions declaring the right of Ireland to legislative and judicial independence, as well as free trade. A week later, Grattan, in a great speech, moves an address of the Commons to His Majesty, asserting the same principles but his motion is defeated. So too is another motion by Henry Flood, declaring the legislative independence of the Irish Parliament.

However the British soon realise they can resist the agitation no longer. It is through ranks of Volunteers drawn up outside the parliament house in Dublin that Grattan passes on April 16, 1782, amidst unparalleled popular enthusiasm, to move a declaration of the independence of the Irish parliament. After a month of negotiations, legislative independence is granted to Ireland.

(Pictured: The original Irish Parliament Building which now houses the Bank of Ireland, College Green, opposite the main entrance to Trinity College, Dublin)


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The Clones Ambush

clones-train-station-11-22-1960On February 11, 1922, Irish Republican Army (IRA) volunteers stop a group of Ulster Special Constabulary (USC) constables on a train at Clones, County Monaghan, a short distance into Southern territory in an event recorded in history as the “Clones Ambush.” A gunfight begins in which one IRA officer and four USC constables are killed. The remaining USC constables are captured.

On January 22, the Ulster Gaelic Football Final is played in Derry. The previous evening six cars leave Monaghan to bring the Monaghan players to Derry, many of the members of the team being members of the IRA. They are stopped by a B Specials (Ulster Special Constabulary) check point at Dromore station. After a search the Specials discover weapons in the cars and arrest ten of the men. The IRA men are led by Dan Hogan O/C of the Fifth Northern Division. The men are taken to Omagh and interned.

The IRA waits impatiently for a chance at reprisal and on February 11, a group of Irish Republican Army volunteers attempt to ambush a party of Ulster Special Constabulary policemen travelling on a train through Clones. The volunteers enter a carriage of a train and order the Specials to put their hands up. IRA Commandant Matthew Fitzpatrick is shot and killed in the ensuing fight and five members of the Specials, Doherty, McMahon, McCullough, Lewis and McFarland are shot and killed. Several members of the Specials run down the track and cross the border into Fermanagh. The few remaining B Specials on the train decide to surrender and are arrested.

The IRA lifts the body of the Commandant Fitzpatrick and it is attended to by Monsignor E.C. Ward who gives him his Last Rites.

The Clones railway station is on the Dundalk and Enniskillen Railway. The Dundalk and Enniskillen Railway opens the station on June 26, 1858. The station closes on October 1, 1957.

(Photo: Clones Train Station, Co Monaghan, caught in mid-demolition by photographer James O’Dea on November 22, 1960)


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Birth of Historian George Benn

george-bennGeorge Benn, Irish historian of Belfast, is born in Tanderagee, County Armagh on January 1, 1801.

Benn’s grandfather, Jonn Benn, came from Cumberland about 1760 as engineer of the Newry Canal. His father, also John Benn (1767-1853), was proprietor of a brewery in Belfast. He is educated at the Belfast Academy, under Rev. Dr. Bruce and afterwards under Sheridan Knowles, then a teacher of English at Belfast. He enters the collegiate classes of the Royal Belfast Academical Institution in 1816, being one of the original alumni, and takes gold medals in logic (1817) and moral philosophy (1818).

In 1819 the faculty prize is offered for the “best account of a parish.” Benn is the successful essayist, with the parish of Belfast as his theme. He also gains in 1821 the faculty prize (The Crusades), and Dr. Tennant’s gold medal (Sketch of Irish Authors in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries). His essay of 1819 attracts the attention of James M’Knight, LL.D., then editor of the Belfast News-Letter who offers to print and publish it. It is issued anonymously in an enlarged form in 1823, with three maps and sixteen engravings by J. Thomson. For so young a writer it is a work of uncommon judgment and research, exceedingly well written, with an eye for scenery and a taste for economics as well as for antiquities. It is not superseded by Benn’s later labours.

Benn, with his brother Edward (1798- 1874), engages in distilling near Downpatrick. Subsequently the brothers spend the prime of their days on an estate they purchase at Glenravel, near Ballymena. Here, in an unimproved district, they plant the hillsides, plough the moors, build good houses, and collect a valuable library. They endeavour to create a new industry by an experiment in the manufacture of potato spirit, but excise regulations in place at the time frustrate their object. The cost of the experiment, and the losses from potato disease, induce the brothers to undertake a business in Liverpool for some years. Returning to Glenravel, a casual circumstance leads to a rich discovery of iron ore in the Glenravel hills. The first specimen is smelted in 1851 under Edward Benn’s direction. In 1866 an agreement is made with James Fisher, of Barrow-in-Furness, to work the mineral beds. Hence comes a new and valuable addition to the commercial products of Ulster, which has since attained important proportions.

Meanwhile, Edward Benn is contributing antiquarian articles to various journals and forming a fine archaeological collection, now in the Ulster Museum. It his proposed to George to resume and complete the history of Belfast. He modestly indicates, as more fit for the task, William Pinkerton, who collects some materials, but dies in 1871 without having begun the history. Pinkerton’s papers are submitted to Benn for publication, but he finds employment of them impracticable, and states in his preface to his history, “It is all my own work from beginning to end.”

Benn returns to Belfast after his brother’s death in 1874, publishing A History of the Town of Belfast in 1877. A second volume appears in 1880. This supplementary volume, though the proof-sheets are “corrected by a kind friend,” the late John Carlisle, head of the English department in the Royal Academical Institution, bears evidence of the author’s affecting statement: “Before I had proceeded very far, my sight entirely failed.” Benn dies on January 8, 1882.

Edward and George Benn are members of the nonsubscribing presbyterian body, but wide in their sympathies and broad in their charities beyond the limits of their sect. Edward is the founder, and George the benefactor, of three hospitals in Belfast and their gifts to educational institutions are munificent.


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Birth of Playwright St. John Greer Ervine

st-john-greer-ervineSt. John Greer Ervine, unionist playwright, author, critic, and manager of the Abbey Theatre from 1915 to 1916, is born in Ballymacarrett, Belfast on December 28, 1883. He is considered to be the founding father of modern Northern Irish drama.

Although accepted to study at Trinity College, Dublin, circumstances force Ervine to leave school at the age of 15 to begin working in an insurance office.

Two years later, Ervine immigrates to London, where he discovers a love for the theatre. He begins his writing career with Mixed Marriage (1911), an Ulster tragedy, and produces three plays between 1911 and 1915. In 1915, after a meeting with William Butler Yeats in London, he becomes the director of the Abbey Theatre in Dublin. It is however, not a happy appointment as his personality and politics clash with the management of the theatre.

Ervine then joins the Royal Dublin Fusiliers and fights in Flanders, losing a leg in the conflict. Returning home, he feels increasingly alienated by nationalism and more attracted to the unionism of his family background. He becomes a vehement detractor of the south, describing Ireland in a letter to George Bernard Shaw as brimming with “bleating Celtic Twilighters, sex-starved Daughters of the Gael, gangsters and gombeen men.”

Ervine is a distinctively Ulster orientated writer, focusing on a naturalistic portrayal of rural and urban life. His most famous and popular work amongst his Northern Irish audience is Boyd’s Shop (1936), which becomes one of the Ulster Group Theatre’s stalwart productions. The play is a classic of the homely yet sincere Ulster genre and centres around the struggles of the folk that Ervine grew up with in his grandmother’s shop on the Albertbridge Road. Ervine creates in Boyd’s Shop a template for Ulster theatre that is to dominate until the advent of Samuel Thompson‘s Over the Bridge.

Ervine’s reactionary unionism and anti-southern hatred becomes more pronounced as he ages and eclipses his more subtle characteristics and abilities as a writer. Although many of his novels and plays are at times clouded by his prejudices, they are also very often capable of tremendous feeling and humanity showing he is a writer of note.

St. John Greer Ervine dies at the age of 87 in London on January 24, 1971.


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Birth of Poet John Harold Hewitt

john-harold-hewittPoet John Harold Hewitt is born in Belfast on October 28, 1907. He is the most significant Belfast poet to emerge prior to the 1960s generation of Northern Irish poets that includes Seamus Heaney, Derek Mahon and Michael Longley.

After attending Agnes Street National School, Hewitt attends the Royal Belfast Academical Institution from 1919 to 1920 before moving to Methodist College Belfast, where he is a keen cricketer. In 1924, he starts an English degree at Queen’s University Belfast, obtaining a BA in 1930, which he follows by obtaining a teaching qualification from Stranmillis College, Belfast.

From November 1930 to 1957, Hewitt holds positions in the Belfast Museum & Art Gallery. His radical socialist ideals prove unacceptable to the Belfast Unionist establishment and he is passed over for promotion in 1953. Instead in 1957 he moves to Coventry, a city still rebuilding following its devastation during World War II. He is appointed Director of the Herbert Art Gallery & Museum where he works until retirement in 1972.

Hewitt is appointed the first writer-in-residence at Queen’s University Belfast in 1976. His collections includes The Day of the Corncrake (1969) and Out of My Time: Poems 1969 to 1974 (1974). He is also made a Freeman of the City of Belfast in 1983, and is awarded honorary doctorates at the University of Ulster and Queen’s University Belfast.

Hewitt has an active political life, describing himself as “a man of the left,” and is involved in the British Labour Party, the Fabian Society and the Belfast Peace League. He is attracted to the Ulster dissenting tradition and is drawn to a concept of regional identity within the island of Ireland, describing his identity as Ulster, Irish, British and European. He officially opens the Belfast Unemployed Resource Centre (BURC) Offices on May Day 1985.

John Hewitt dies in Belfast on June 22, 1987. His life and work are celebrated in two prominent ways – the annual John Hewitt International Summer School and, less conventionally, the John Hewitt Bar and Restaurant, a Belfast pub is named after him. The bar is named after him as he officially opens the Belfast Unemployed Resource Centre, which owns the establishment. It is a popular meeting place for local writers, musicians, journalists, students and artists. Both the Belfast Festival at Queen’s and the Belfast Film Festival use the venue to stage events.