Maverick Presbyterian Samuel Young has place in history as the oldest serving MP

Samuel Young MP, who died exactly 100 years ago on Wednesday (April 18, 1918), is pictured here in 1902
Samuel Young MP, who died exactly 100 years ago on Wednesday (April 18, 1918), is pictured here in 1902
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Ahead of the centenary of his death, historian GORDON LUCY looks at the colourful life and times of Samuel Young MP

Samuel Young used to merit an entry in The Guinness Book of Records as the oldest serving member of the UK House of Commons whose exact dates were known.

He was first elected MP for East Cavan at the age of 70 and continued to represent the constituency until his death at the age of 96 years and 63 days.

He was born on February 14 1822, the third son of Samuel Young, Dunavaly, Portaferry, and Sarah, daughter of Arthur Black of Ballyhaft, near Newtownards. He was educated locally and at the Old Presbyterian College, Belfast.

For the greater part of his life he was an extremely successful businessman rather than a politician. He was a partner in the firm of Day & Bottomley, wholesale woollen merchants; head of Young, King & Company Ltd, distillers and blenders, Belfast and Limavady; chairman of Bernard Hughes Ltd, bakers and millers, Belfast; and a member of Royal Commission on Licensing Laws established in 1896.

His father was a supporter of ‘Catholic Emancipation’ and he recalled that in 1829 his father had taken him and other family members to a vantage point some miles from their home to view the bonfires blazing to hail Daniel O’Connell’s great triumph.

In 1842 he joined the Repeal Association and regarded himself as the last man to wear a Repeal button in 1840s. In the 1850s he supported the League of North and South.

From the 1870s onwards he supported the Home Rule Party.

Thus, during the course of his long life he was a supporter of Butt, Parnell, McCarthy (after the Parnellite split), Redmond (after the reunion of the party in 1900) and Dillon.

He claimed that he had supported every popular cause in Ireland since O’Connell but that would depend on one’s definition of ‘popular’.

He was first elected for East Cavan on July 16 1892 when he polled 6,024 votes, giving him a majority of 4,664 over H J B Clements, his Unionist opponent. Thereafter he was returned unopposed at five successive general elections.

Many regarded him as an eccentric Belfast Presbyterian businessman but T P O’Connor, the Nationalist MP for Scotland Exchange (a Liverpool constituency with an overwhelmingly Irish electorate), added: “Even in this Mr Young was typically Ulster, for belonging to a minority at variance with the overwhelming majority of his fellow provincials and co-religionists he brought to his views the characteristic dourness and inflexibility of the Ulster temperament.”

According to O’Connor, “one of his [Young’s] favourite jokes was that he had avenged the wrongs of Ireland by the amount of bad whisky [sic] he had induced Englishmen to drink”.

Young was by far the wealthiest member of the Irish Parliamentary Party.

His views were conspicuously right wing in a party with broadly but ill-defined left-wing sympathies.

As the Anglo-Celt of November 27 1918 observed: “He did not always agree with his colleagues.

“On questions that involved Capital and Labour he took the side of Capital, and he was an avowed enemy of any legislation that he thought Socialist in tendency.”

He was not a cultural nationalist, having no time for either the Irish language (like Daniel O’Connell before him) or the Gaelic League.

He had no compunction in defying the Irish Party’s ban on attending Royal functions.

He attended the coronation of Edward VII, despite instructions from the party not to attend.

He also attended the Royal garden parties.

He regarded himself as a ‘loyal subject’ and was a great admirer of the monarchy (again like O’Connell).

O’Connell used to refer to Queen Victoria as his ‘darling little Queen’.

Through his careful cultivation of the Roman Catholic clergy in his constituency and by virtue of his wealth he was able to defeat attempts at his deselection.

Indeed he praised Roman Catholicism so regularly and so extravagantly as to rouse expectations of conversion but it never happened.

His principal recreation was ‘omnivorous reading’.

He had a genuine interest in literature and was an enthusiastic member of the Linen Hall Library in Belfast, speaking regularly at the library’s AGMs.

He was a huge admirer of John Redmond.

Of the Wyndham Land Act, in April 1903 he wrote to Redmond: “When I was a young man this would have been thought a marvellous bill.

“I think it even now.”

In a letter read out at a meeting at Kingscourt, Co Cavan, on March 17 1918, Young described the death of John Redmond as “a national calamity”.

Young passionately believed John Redmond was “a great man” and that “the seed sown by him will fructify and he will live in the memory of unborn generations”.

Posterity has not proved to be as kind to Redmond as Young anticipated.

Arguably Young’s most significant contribution to the course of Irish history may have been his insistence (and that of his protégé and former employee Joe Devlin) during the third Home Rule crisis that unionists were bluffing.

Young said that he had done business with these people all his life and their threats were nothing but bluff.

Some Nationalist MPs, notably Hugh Law (West Donegal) and J C R Lardner (North Monaghan) privately thought otherwise but Young and Devlin’s view prevailed with Redmond for at least two reasons.

First, Devlin was considered to be the man best placed to evaluate the situation.

Secondly, Redmond’s own experience of and contacts with unionists led him to suppose that if Home Rule came into operation, after a few years their fears would be proved groundless.

Young died on April 18 1918, a little more than a month after Redmond’s death.

An Irish News editorial took strong exception to the unionist press’ perfectly accurate assessment that “Mr Young was that rare type of politician, a Protestant who strongly favoured Self-Government’.

Young was buried in Balmoral cemetery in Belfast.

At his large funeral the mourners reflected his business, political and literary interests, as well as the various public and philanthropic bodies with which he was associated. Significantly five of his grandsons were absent on active service.