BALLYMONEY Museum manager Keith Beattie is organising a centenary event in the Town Hall on October 24 to mark what he describes as a ‘political anomaly’, when 400 to 500 liberal protestants assembled in the Ballymoney area to proclaim their message that “self-government…would pave the way to civil and religious freedom which we do not now possess and give scope for a spirit of citizenship.”
“In the early 20th century the political lines in Ulster were clearly defined,” writes Beattie in the foreword to an account of the enigmatic ‘Protestant Protest’ of 1913. There were the two sides in the well-known argument, outlined in Beattie’s foreword as “the Unionists, from Protestant Communities, (who) vehemently resisted Home Rule; against them were Roman Catholic Nationalists who were growing increasingly impatient to see an Irish Parliament in Dublin.”
The title of the book about the Town Hall protest, published by Ballymoney’s Ullans Centre, puts North Antrim’s curious revolt in context, calling it A Ripple in the Pond.
The event organisers hoped it would be the beginning of a major thrust for Home Rule and some described it as a ‘grand success’. Other contemporary commentators termed it ‘a political illusion’. The Presbyterian weekly publication The Witness stated ‘the hum of a corner (the Route) is not the buzz of a province.’ A later counter-demonstration proclaimed the Protestant Home Rulers as ‘rare birds’.
There are a variety views and differing analysis of what went before, during, and after the Town Hall gathering but two elements of the historic narrative are for sure - it was part of a liberal Protestant movement which condemned the stance taken by the Unionist establishment, and it was packed with drama!
The organisers argued about and questioned each others’ motives, insults flew, tempers frayed, plans and strategies were won and lost, Roger Casement was hounded by besotted lover Ada McNeill, and there were (unfounded) rumours of a plot to disrupt the meeting by ‘a band of Orange rowdies to drown the speakers.’
Historian J.R.B McMinn describes the event questioningly as “a Nationalist mirage?” adding “it was to be the final manifestation of the North Antrim constituency’s Protestant liberal tradition before the outbreak of the First World War.”
Locally the gathering will always be linked to Rev J.B. Armour, but it seems to have been devised and instigated by Captain Jack White D.S.O. though records reveal that Sir Roger Casement “appears to have had much the same idea”, claims J.R.B. McMinn, describing both men as “incurable romantics” in their different ways.
McMinn reckons they chose Ballymoney as the venue “largely because of its traditional reputation as a centre of radical, anti-Unionist politics.” Guest speakers Casement, White and Alice Stopford Green were on the Town Hall stage along with over 30 other like-minded stalwarts.
It was a hugely colourful platform party! Broughshane-born Boer War hero Captain White was married to a half-Spanish Roman Catholic wife, despite opposition from both their families.
“With my bible and shillelagh,” White stated “I went to the Route to chase the most elusive of all hares, the spirit of ’98.”
McMinn’s description of the Captain proposes an enigmatic character who knew little of Irish history or politics - an “ex-soldier, ex-tramp, ex-lumberjack, a devotee of Bergeson and Marx, fresh from a Tolstoyan community in Gloucester…”
Rev J.B Armour and another of the speakers, Dr. Thomas Taggart, both had their qualms about White who confidently expected them “to respond to the predestined something I felt in myself.” According to Armour, who considered White to be (at least) ‘peculiar’, Roger Casement had suggested a similar kind of meeting as the Captain and his newly formed committee was organising.
McMinn recounts that Casement “hoped, with the assistance of every drop of fenian blood ‘in my soul’ to ‘light a fire’ which would ‘set the Antrim hills ablaze’ and would ‘unite (for I think it is possible) Presbyterian and Catholic farmers and townsmen at Ballymoney in a clear message to Ireland’”
Armour and White countered Casement’s ‘Irish-Ireland’ agenda by limiting the meeting to Protestants, trumpeting their essential message that not all Protestants supported Carson.
The path to the Protestant Protest was a rocky one, cobbled with behind-the-scenes controversy, debate and disagreement, but ultimately the veteran Ballymoney Protestant Liberal John McElderry agreed to preside over the proceedings and a cast of speakers was decided.
The event was considered to be something of a security risk and the authorities were fearful for the safety of the speakers and the attendees. Ticket holders only were allowed entrance to the Town Hall. It was reported that 80 additional police were drafted in, but there were no disturbances.
An amusing side-show transpired when two unsuspecting land surveyors arrived in the town centre with their theodolite and tripod on their car’s back seat. “In the darkness the police mistook their theodolite and levelling staff for a dismantled Maxim Nordenfeldt gun,” quotes McMinn. The police were just about to arrest the two surveyors “when the mistake was realised.”
Across the road, “the interior of the Town Hall was (very significantly) decorated with Union Jacks and other flags. Over the platform was a large panel inscribed ‘No provisional or provincial government for us.’”
The speakers pledged lawful opposition to Carson’s Unionism and called for the government to bring “all Irishmen together in one common field of national effort.”
The complete “almost verbatim report of the principle speeches” was later recorded in a hefty one-penny pamphlet entitled ‘A Protestant Protest’. Most commentators agree that “the speeches were based on romantic ideals rather than political reality.”
The event began with a resolution setting out the organisers’ objectives which “far from proclaiming a Republic,” most commentators recount “called upon the Government of Britain to intervene and take action against Carson and the anti-Home rule movement.”
Captain White then attempted to explain why so many Protestants were opposed to Home Rule, with pro-Home Rule historian and Meath-born Anglican Alice Stopford Green giving a similar address “with a message of ecumenical exhortation to her fellow Protestants” surmises the book A Ripple in the Pond “playing down the feared influence of the Roman Catholic Church and reminding her co-religionists who, in her eyes, the real enemy was.”
Captain White contended that “the Protestants of Ulster are afraid of Rome Rule, (with) undue preference given to Catholics and interference in politics and in education on the part of the priests. Were it not for that fear there is not a man in this hall tonight but knows that the opposition to Home Rule here in the North would collapse through want of fuel. But I propose to show,” continued the Captain “throughout the past there has never been a…demand for a free and united Ireland, but the authority of Rome opposed it or gave it a tardy and reluctant support.”
Stopford Green reminded the audience how co-operation and unity of purpose between Presbyterians and Roman Catholics had been achieved in the past. “Never has there been in Ireland a persecution of Protestants for religion’s sake,” she stressed, adding that the Presbyterians “have been the Church of the people, not of the aristocracy or of a political hierarchy. They have suffered with the Irish people,” she stated, “and stood by them in the old days. They have nobly shown the virtues that spring from a true democracy and high human fellowship.”
This theme continued throughout all of the speeches, seemingly a re-assural to Protestants rather than a stamp of approval on Home Rule.
“Certainly, all of those who addressed the meeting were in favour of Home Rule,” observes the book A Ripple in the Pond, “but all for different reasons.”
Casement was the third speaker, undaunted by the presence in the audience of his unrequited lover Ada McNeill. He continued the previous speakers’ themes of reconciliation, stressing the need to look to Ireland’s past. He argued that politics were as important as “the welfare of the common country of Ireland.”
Casement strongly maintained that the exclusion of Ulster would not be a solution to the Home Rule crisis. “We want Ulster for Ireland and Ireland for Ulster,” he concluded dramatically. The gathering ended with everyone singing the National Anthem.
Despite Casement’s intentions, the Protestant Protest did not “set the Antrim hills ablaze”, and no further meetings took place. In contrast, an anti-Home Rule meeting was held in the same building a month later and the surrounding streets were apparently packed with crowds.
Local historian Alex Blair notes that the Protestant Protest “put Ballymoney into the press headlines across the United Kingdom. All the big London papers had a representative in the Town Hall and The London Times carried an editorial as well as a report.” The lack of support for the cause showed that Protestant Home Rulers were, as one journalist of the time wrote, ‘rare birds’.
The centenary talk in Ballymoney Town Hall on October 24 is being presented by Alex Blair. For details of the event phone Ballymoney Tourist Information Centre (028) 2766 0230 or visit www.visitballymoney.com