Thursday, September 27, 2007

Fenians, Orangemen, Confederates and Ulster Scots.

Now if ever there was a controversial title for a blog posting, that's the one! But behind it lies a tale of propaganda and literature from the late 1800s. Allow me to explain…

Frank Roney (1841 - 1925) was a leading figure in the trade union movement in Belfast during the mid 1800s – he was an active member of the Friendly Society of Ironfounders, and was also a committed Irish nationalist and Fenian organiser. Roney’s family background was varied – he was a Catholic, but his mother had been raised as a Presbyterian, one of his uncles was an Orangeman, but his grandfather had been a committed United Irishman. Quite a cocktail of influences.

Roney was arrested in 1867 for his Fenian activities and, after a period in prison in Dublin, was allowed to emigrate to the USA on the condition that he never return to the UK or Ireland. He became heavily involved in the union movement in the USA, and died at Long Beach, California in 1925, aged 84.

A portion from his 1931 biography “Frank Roney, Irish Rebel and Labour Leader” (Univ. of California Press, 1931) was used by the renowned Sam Hanna Bell in his own compilation “Within Our Province – a Miscellany of Ulster Writing” (Blackstaff Press, Belfast 1972).

In the book, Roney describes the scene of the arrival in Belfast of the famous Confederate steamship the CSS Alabama, presumably at some point during the American Civil War (1861 – 1865). She was by far the most successful Confederate raider of the Civil War, sinking 58 Yankee ships. There is even a famous folk song about her history and exploits called "Roll Alabama Roll".

Here is the portion of Roney's book, quoted by Sam Hanna Bell:



The Confederate cruiser "Alabama" put into Belfast Lough ostensibly to get provisions, but really to create sympathy for the Southern cause. The aristocracy, Orange magistracy, and men of wealth, whom we classed as the natural enemies of the Irish people, hailed the coming of the vessel, knowing her mission, as an event by which to show, in the reception given her officers, how desirous they were to see the American Republic smashed to fragments.

The town put on its gala garb and with a band playing, and banners flying, the enemies of Ireland boarded a tugboat decorated with bunting, visited the ship and escorted the officers of the cruiser to the city. Carpets were laid from the gangplank of the tug to the carriages, and the sworn enemies of the American Republic were escorted to all points of interest in the city and vicinity, and feted at a banquet where every speaker delivered messages of comfort and encouragement to their Confederate guests. Bumpers were heartily drunk to the destruction of their common enemy, the United States.

No Irish Nationalist could complacently accept the compliments paid these officers as the expression of Irish opinion, and when in after years many of us were forced to leave our country, we naturally attached ourselves to the Republican Party, principally because the South, whose representatives were thus feted by our enemies, was the dominating power of the Democratic Party.


It’s certainly a very romantic story, and heavily loaded with political allegations. The claimed allegiances between Orangemen and the Confederates will confirm the prejudices and suspicions of some readers, and the hopes and dreams of others!

But, the story is utter fiction. Roney invented the whole story, perhaps to try to stimulate pro-Irish nationalist sympathy in the USA in the early years that followed the defeat of the Confederates during the American Civil War. Equating the Confederate foe with the Orange foe in the minds of the American public would be a useful propaganda victory for him, and might secure American support for the Irish republican cause.

The truth of the story is:

1) The man who commissioned the Alabama to be built was Admiral James Bulloch, Confederate Purchasing Agent based in England. For a time the British government seemed to support the Confederate effort. Bulloch's nephew was the future US President, Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt later persuaded Bulloch to write “The Secret Service of the Confederate States in Europe”. The Bullochs had emigrated to the New World from Glenoe in County Antrim in 1729.

In the book, Bulloch wrote:

… At 2.30 a.m. (31st), we got under weigh, and stood out of the bay under steam alone. At 8 a.m. the ship was off the Calf of Man, the sky clearing and wind dropping. We set all sail to a middling fresh breeze, and bowled along 13 knots, good. By 11 a.m. the wind fell light, and we lost the effect of the sails; at noon passed South Rock**, and steered along the coast of Ireland. At 6 p.m. entered between Rathlin Island and Fair Head. At 8 p.m. stopped the engines off the Giant's Causeway, hailed a fishing-boat, and (George) Bond and I went ashore in a pelting rain, leaving Captain Butcher to proceed with the Enrica, in accordance with his instructions.

During the evening it rained incessantly, and the wind skirled and snifted about the gables of the hotel in fitful squalls. Bond and I sat comfortably enough in the snug dining-room after dinner, and sipped our toddy, of the best Coleraine malt ; but my heart was with the little ship buffeting her way around that rugged north coast of Ireland. I felt sure that Butcher would
keep his weather-eye open, and once clear of Innistrahull, there would be plenty of sea-room ; but I could not wholly shake off an occasional sense of uneasiness. Bond gave me the exact distances from point to point, from light to light, and having been taught at school to work up all sums to very close results, I made the average speed of the Enrica to have been 12*89 from Moelfra to the Giants' Causeway, and felt well satisfied with the performance.

The next morning, August 1st, Bond and I took a boat and pulled along the coast to Port Rush. The weather was beautifully fine, and the effect of the bright sun and the gentle west wind was so exhilarating that I felt no further solicitude about the Enrica. From Port Rush we took rail to Belfast, and then steamer and rail via Fleetwood to Liverpool…

2) The ship that sailed from Liverpool wasn't even called the CSS Alabama. She was built by John Laird and Sons of Birkenhead in Liverpool under the codename Vessel 290, and at the time of her launch had been renamed as Enrica. Enrica was launched on 28th July 1862.

3) The ship never came to Belfast. After leaving Liverpool Enrica did however anchor briefly at the Giant’s Causeway around July 31st, where Bulloch and the ship’s pilot disembarked, stayed a while in Ulster, and then went back to Liverpool.

4) Enrica then sailed round Ireland to the Azores, where she was renamed CSS Alabama on 24th August 1862.

5) When CSS Alabama left Liverpool, she had a civilian crew. Even if she had come to Belfast there would have been no Confederate officers onboard as Roney’s account alleges.



In the chapter “A Soldier of the Irish Republic”, Roney acknowledged the language spoken in the Ards.

…As an evidence of the principles actuating the Newtownards men, the following personal experience may be of interest. I started out with one of them, one lovely Saturday afternoon, to visit the “Greenboys of “Greba” as Grey Abbey was called in the Scotch dialect of that section…

(** - South Rock is just off the coast of the Low Country, near Cloughey)