An Anglican cleric’s book in 1912 predicted much of what would happen in coming years, writes BBC reporter STEPHEN WALKER
IN the next few days we will see and read much about the signing of the Ulster Covenant of 1912.
It is a narrative that many of us know well. A period in our shared past that altered the course of history.
What is not well known is the story of a man whose book predicted the political fallout from the Covenant and the loyalist gun-running of 1914.
Canon James Owen Hannay was a Church of Ireland minister and a best-selling writer. His book The Red Hand of Ulster, which was published just months before the Covenant was signed in September 1912, is still regarded as one of the most remarkable accounts of this period of Irish history.
In the novel Hannay wrote about gun-running, loyalist meetings and a short-lived uprising on the streets of Belfast. Published a century ago as the Home Rule crisis took hold, Hannay’s work has been described by the historian Roy Foster as ‘strangely prophetic’.
Hannay’s book and career are the subject of a BBC Radio Ulster documentary that marks the centenary of the publication of his novel and chronicles the political tensions of 1912.
The book tells the story of unionist opposition to Home Rule through the eyes of a fictional peer, Lord Kilmore, who unwittingly becomes involved in a conspiracy of loyalist rallies and the smuggling of guns.
The Anglican clergyman, who was born in 1865, wrote numerous novels under the pseudonym of George A Birmingham. He came from a long line of clerics as his father and grandfather were both vicars. He had a unique popular writing style, often satirising the behaviour of politicians and fellow clergymen.
Hannay’s books and personal views often attracted controversy. Although he came from a unionist background he was attracted to the ideals of Irish nationalism and he embraced the Irish language and joined the Gaelic League.
The Canon’s works attracted critics and fans in equal measure. His play General John Regan, which tells the story of an American arriving in a west of Ireland town, became a hit across the world.
When it was performed in Westport it provoked a major disturbance as locals believed Hannay was mocking them. Up to 700 people rioted and 20 were arrested in the most violent riot in the history of Irish theatre.
Hannay, who died in 1950 in England aged 85, was an industrious writer and penned dozens of novels
Academic Norman Vance regards Canon Hannay as one of Ireland’s most important writers. He says “at one level he is an Irish PG Wodehouse with a wonderful gallery of beautiful girls and silly asses and bumbling peers”.
Historian Dr Eamon Phoenix agrees. “He will be remembered as an Ulster voice in the world of WB Yeats, George Bernard Shaw and Lady Gregory,” he says.
Much will be made over the coming week of the big political figures who took centre stage in 1912. Perhaps we should also remember a lesser-known figure – James Owen Hannay, a Belfast writer who it seems was ahead of his time.
The Red Hand of Ulster is broadcast on BBC Radio Ulster on Sunday, September 23 at 1.30pm. It is repeated on Thursday, September 27 at 7.30pm.