Learning by accident.
You know how it goes. After the evening rush of fighting the traffic, grabbing a coffee, walking the dog and seeing to her needs, then raiding the kitchen cupboards to make a half way nourishing meal, you finally get to sit down in front of the telly and relax. My long suffering wife, Trish cuddled up beside me, and the dog (Tilly) was doing her usual ‘upside down is comfortable’ thing in her bed at the side of the sofa. All was right with the world except for the crap on the telly; 57 channels and nothing on (spot the music reference). Time to turn it off then, by which time Trish was asleep, pinning me to the corner of the sofa.
It seemed a shame to disturb Trish, so I enjoyed sitting in this picture of domestic peace and bliss for as long as I could. Unfortunately the next day was a working day, so eventually I had to extricate myself from the sofa to go and do the dishes. I wanted a little entertainment while doing this so I switched on the radio (quietly). My usual music station choices were playing dance music, and that would have disturbed the evening peace, so I scanned through to Radio 4, something I have not done for years. There was a history program on and even though it was not directly linked to our own fair island, I was soon hooked and making connections.
The program was on the Gordon riots (1780). While I had heard of these riots, I had always filed them in the same category as a load of other social unrest from the 17 and 1800’s, like the Luddites. How wrong could I have been? Instead it seems that Gordon was a Scottish Protestant member of parliament, and was stirring the masses into a frenzy of anti-Catholic sentiment after a Catholic relief act was passed through parliament, undoing some of the excesses of Cromwell’s religious and political zealotism. The aims of the act were pragmatic, and in reality gave few extra rights to English Catholics. Britain was at war at the time with Spain and France and in the struggle for independence in America. They needed extra troops, and as much as anything extra rights for the Catholic population was designed to fill the ranks of an overstretched army.
Anyway, a few things struck me as interesting in all this. Firstly, since political representation was somewhat limited at the time, Gordon used an existing petition system to raise the issue. Parliament were meant to take notice should any petition gain sufficient support, and I suppose they could not fail to take notice of Gordon’s petition when it was delivered to parliament by a 40 to 60,000 strong mob who took over parliament’s lobby. Any similarity to the current system where any on-line petition that gains 100,000 signatures must be debated may be coincidental, but if you look at some of the populist issues that have achieved this level of support, (like the petition to start college later in the morning because teenagers like to sleep late), then perhaps not much has changed in parliament during the last 250 or so years!
Secondly, the riot came about because a Member of Parliament stirred up the mob over sectarian issues, and while England at least seems to largely dealt with that kind of stupidity, we here in Northern Ireland appear to be about two and a half centuries behind the times. Lastly, I had already (for some obscure reason), been thinking about local links to the United Irishmen rebellion of 1798. This of course was a rebellion where Protestants (largely Presbyterian), and Catholics came together to fight the then current social order. Ireland as a whole seems to have been politically a good 20 years or so behind England, and this may well have been an additional driver for the 1798 rebellion?
Betsey Gray, a 20 year old rebel who died in battle during the 1798 rebellion is reputed to have lived in the countryside between Bangor and Newtownards. I have found references to 3 possible local sites for her family’s cottage, but no conclusive data to link her with any particular one of them. As usual here in the North, we are not good at preserving any historical link not associated with the Union, so at any rate the cottage is now nothing more than a pile of stones. In the usual confusion of identity that prevails here, we can even create conflict over our rebels! A hundred years or so after her death, a memorial to Betsey was erected, but when a party of nationalists wanted to visit it, local Unionists destroyed the memorial rather than share her heritage. It’s all good stuff.
A similarly negligent attitude towards our history sees what is perhaps the original settlement of my home town, Bangor, neglected. There is a road here still called the Rathgael Road, so the Rathgael settlement that is mentioned a few times in the Annals of the Four Masters probably lay somewhere in its vicinity. Despite the area being heavily developed in recent years, I know of no archaeological searches being done in advance of the building. The chances are that if anything did still exist, it is now gone.