Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Masonic Theatre, Louisville, Kentucky - the 3rd Scotch-Irish Congress, May 1891

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One of the first things to do when planning an event is to make sure nothing clashes with it. This is where the Scotch-Irish Society of the USA went badly wrong for their third Congress. They chose Louisville, Kentucky (declining offers from San Francisco, Charlotte in North Carolina, and Atlanta) but seemingly might not have checked the city’s calendar.

In terms of population size, it was within the 20 biggest cities in the USA, with around 200,000 residents. That very same mid-May weekend there were, the Society later said, ‘several other public gatherings, whose dates had not been decided when ours was fixed’ - but one of these was the annual Kentucky Derby horse racing festival, a world-famous event which had happened for the past 16 consecutive years. The May Musical Festival was also on at the same time, as was the Democratic State Convention, and the annual reunion of the Elks fraternal society. The city had hosted World Fairs for the previous five consecutive years; Oscar Wilde had lectured there, its first skyscraper had just been built. It was a happening place.

Louisville was jam-packed with people, and the Society had difficulty in getting a suitable venue. In the end they used two - the Masonic Temple Theatre in the morning, and the Polytechnic Hall for the evenings. Both were plush venues, centrally located, and despite the shortage of hotel accommodation for visitors, all went pretty well.

Pre-event publicity invited the general public to attend - ‘the local population, without regard to race, will be cordially welcomed’. The Society had managed to secure 100 private rooms for its most important guests, but with just two weeks to go the Louisville newspapers printed ‘A Call For Hospitality’ on behalf of the Society, seeking AirBNB-style accommodation for visitors in spare rooms of private homes. In the published retrospective  Proceedings the Society thanked the citizens of Louisville for their assistance.

A swish reception was held at Galt House Hotel on the riverfront. There is a hotel there today of the same name, but it is a completely new building dating from 1972. Official headquarters was the Louisville Hotel. As had been the case at Pittsburgh, the Sunday evening event was a vast religious service, with Psalms sung and a sermon delivered, with ‘assembled thousands’ - also described as ‘an immense throng’ - present.

One of those present was Captain J.W. Crawford, a man recently honoured through an Ulster History Circle blue plaque.

What is apparent when you read the reports is that there was a more pronounced sense of ‘Ulsterness’ year-on-year, a specificity that was not so clear-cut in 1889. The organisation was now headed by Ulster-born men like Robert Bonner and Rev John Hall. The now-famous Society logo seems to have made its d├ębut in Louisville. A newspaper report said:

...The coat of arms of the society is the red hand of Ulster upon a shield of the Stars and Stripes of the United States. Most of the members have their coat of arms made into a gold badge, which they proudly wear on the lapel of their vests. There is an interesting legend attached to the emblem, which most of the Scotch-Irishmen tell without the least provocation… - The Courier-Journal, Louisville, 13 May 1891

Aaron Baxter, the Glasgow-born mayor of Londonderry had hoped to attend but was unable. Francis Ward of Belfast Chamber of Commerce had planned to be there but fell ill in New York and didn’t make it. Wallace Bruce, who had delivered a poem at Columbia two years before, was now US Consul in Edinburgh and sent his good wishes by telegram.

Inside just two years the Society now had eight State-level chapters. The growth was impressive, building a network of well-connected businessmen and civic leaders in common ancestral cause.

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