Thursday, April 16, 2020

"A man o' independent mind" - James Wood (1865-1936)

When you assume that communities are uniform groupthink 'blocs' then you totally miss the diversity within. 'Old dead guys' get a bad press today because apparently the only thing that matters about them any more is their gender. But ideas, beliefs and actions are more interesting than any individual's chromosomes. Plenty of men stood up and stood out in their own day, sometimes to great personal or professional cost. Bright blazing moments of conviction.

The 'Establishment' in every era sets the boundaries of what is acceptable, usually to preserve its own power. This also happens today, where a cosmetic approach to 'diversity' brings together carefully selected groups of people who appear to be different, but broadly think the same. However it's the Dissenters and Non-Conformists within who are always interesting. Here is one who, as Robert Burns said, was "a man o independent mind". 


James Wood (1865–1936)
Monaghan-born Presbyterian who broke 'landlordism' control in Unionist politics, standing for "Reform, Sobriety, Equal Rights and Goodwill among men"

James Wood was born in Clones in County Monaghan. His parents had been evicted by landlords from a farmstead in County Fermanagh because they refused to vote "Tory". James moved to Belfast as a young man, became an apprentice in a law firm, and settled at a farm called Mount Salem on the Ballyrussell Road in the hills between Comber and Dundonald. There is a property of that name still there today. Land Reform was a key issue of the time and Wood's legal clients included many tenant farmers.

Wood addressed the Ulster Convention in favour of compulsory land purchase at the Ulster Hall on 5 June 1901, as did a fiery Scot with a famous Ulster name – Thomas Russell. Up to 5000 people are said to have attended – "the great mass of the people were Protestant farmers, men with bronzed faces, clear grey eyes, neat but homely dress and the steady, composed air of the countrymen of the North. There was no excitement, no hysterics, but a serious, determined air, such as men wear who know their business and mean to do it", according to the Ballymoney Free Press of 13 June 1901.

The East Down By-Election of 1902
The Fife-born Scotsman Thomas Wallace Russell was the long-standing MP for South Tyrone, a Liberal Unionist and later an Independent Unionist who was elected with strong support from tenant farmers. Wood joined his cause and stood as a 'Russellite' candidate in the 1902 by-election in East Down. The Irish News published a letter from him on 21 January in which he said –

"... I am and always have been a convinced Unionist, but this election will be fought on One Great Issue, that of the Permanent and Final Settlement of the Land Question ... any scheme for the improvement of the agricultural labourer would have my earnest support ... I am a member of the Presbyterian church... I shall ever advocate the just claims of equal treatment of every other denomination ..."
Wood won by 3576 votes to 3429, his cross-community appeal clinching the victory. He and Russell were carried shoulder high to the Down Hunt Arms Hotel in Downpatrick, where the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian minister of Moneyrea, Rev R Lyttle, praised their success. Bonfires were lit across the constituency that night.

Wood and Russell went to Westminster; the Ballymoney Free Press described Russell as "the lion of the land of Ulster" on 13 March 1902, and quoted him as saying –

"... I believe that all through Ulster there will be an understanding on these lines ... that the Nationalist and Unionist, Catholic and Protestant, will go to the polls and make an end of that land system which has cursed all alike... I am the grandson of an evicted tenant – a man who left his all upon a Scotch farm and went out upon the world penniless and ruined. My father was silent. The grandson has broken out. I have hated Irish landlordism since the day I first understood it ... I am for the Union fixed and irrevocably – I am not for the vested villainies which shelter themselves behind it. Against these I shall maintain constant war ..."
1903: North Fermanagh and James Craig's entry into politics
In the following year of 1903 another election opportunity arose, in North Fermanagh. There was local cross-community pressure to select Sir Horace Curzon Plunkett as the Unionist candidate, but Russell was dead-set against him – "Plunkett was a man of family; Russell was a peasant". So the 'Russellites' put forward their own rival candidate, the well-known Fermanagh man and Methodist farmer Edward Mitchell. In the end, Plunkett wasn't selected, but a young d├ębut candidate from County Down called James Craig was (more about him shortly). Mitchell defeated Craig with a majority of 152.

In 1904 Dundonald Star Flute Band visited Wood's home at Mount Salem to play a selection of tunes in appreciation for his donation to their uniform fund. On 10 June the Northern Whig reported that "he understood that the band were largely recruited from the labourers in the district, and hoped that the attractions that the band afforded would keep them from the public houses".

Wood and Russell in verse, by Robert Brown, the 'Railway Lad'
Robert Brown was a humble railway worker, originally from the Comber and Ballygowan area. He worked on the Belfast and County Down Railway, initially at Ballynahinch. Like so many County Down country people, the railway took him to east Belfast and he took a new job at Neill's Hill station where he worked for most of his career. His modest, but important, collection of Poems by a Railway Lad (c. 1906) includes a masterful Ulster-Scots poem about James Wood's 1902 election success –

(Entitled ‘A Conversation between Twa Auld Farmers at Ballynahinch Junction’)

“Weel my auld frien how are ye fairin?
How's the health and times noo pairin?
I trust that want's no grimly starin'
        But in his den
But that blithe look that ye are wearin'
        Might make me ken?"

"Ay, Dannie, mon, ye see the beam
That dances thro' my twa auld e'en;
The news I've heard, and things I've seen,
       Would make ye whussle;
Oor negleckit cause is noo between
        Brave Wood and Russell.

Each has an Ulster heather besom,
And a' that dirt ca'd landlordism
'Ill be conveyed doon that dark chasm
         From whence it sprung;
Oor champions, weel, I'll say 'God bless 'm'
          Wi fervent tongue.

The landlords, they're such idle buddies,
And struts about in finest duddies,
While we, like some dumb-driven cuddies,
         Ill-fed and shod,
Wi' worn wife and wee bit laddies
         Hirple oor the clod.

But worse than a', my auld meere Fenny
That earned me mony a bonnie penny,
Sure just last spring she slipped doon cannie
          At the land's en';
But we'll a' stop there, mind ye Dannie
          Baith beasts and men.

I never pass the green-clad heap
But thro' the hedge I take a peep;
The unbidden tear will gie a leap
         And downward birl.
I stammer oot, ‘I trust ye sleep

         Contented, girl!’

"None better served for sweetest rest,
O' a horse kind she was the best
And up life's hill, oft sairly press'd
         In straiten’d gap,

Yet ne'er a brae wi' highest crest
         She could na' tap.

Misfortune oft has me tight-laced.
Worse than this year I never faced;
For a' the hills spring had embraced
        Tae coax the seeds,
Ere the auld plough a rig had creased
        Tae kill the weeds.

But, still, I clear my bleared eye,
Though cauld, wet spring does sairly try
The backward corn, ill-thriven rye
         In hill and bog;
But a' this soon we can defy
         An' merrier jog.

"Ay, ay," speaks Dan, "your story's true,
In a' you've said I'm just wi' you.
Such things mysel' I oft came thro'
         But still I'm canty
To think that a' that hellish crew
         Must shift their shanty.

“Wha' tills the land but each son's fether;
Landlords were shipp'd in some ill-weather
And nestl'd here, and still they neither
        Toil or yet spin,
But greedy takes a' we can gather
        And thinks nae sin.

"If yin ye meet this very hour,
He'd take a long, disdainful glower
Just wi' a face as deadly sour
       As the infernal;
You'd want some sure surpassin' power
       To keep your internal.

“Of oor heritage we've been shorn,

As if we were a' bastard-born
And had for a father that auld horn
       With cloot acloven.
His features in those that do us scorn
       Are better proven.

“But it's no the men, 'tis that spirit

by some ill-luck they do inherit;
My concience, Will, we will tear it
        Topsy turvy,
And show that we are men o' merit
        And aye right worthy,

"I've heard o' Wood, I've heard o' Russell,
At the east Down election tussle;
The landlords need nae make sic bustle
        They're fairly doomed;
We'll neither spare oor tongue or muscle
        Till glory croon'd."

Wi' that the train did skelp the rail
Which somewhat shortened Dannie's tale;
I trust their hearts'll never fail
       Tae earn their breid;
Hae rousing crops o' grain and kail
       For a' in need.

Hopefully you can get the gist of it, an overheard conversation between two farmers (called Dannie and Will - potentially two symbolically cross-community names?) who were delighted that Russell and Wood might sweep out landlordism once and for all, a landlordism that treated people like beasts.

Later career

Wood ran again in 1906 (but this time lost to the former Fermanagh candidate, the future Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, James Craig by 670 votes) and 1910 (again losing to Craig, this time by 974 votes). The labourers of North Down had approached Wood to run in their constituency in 1910. The land issue had been progressed by the Land Act of 1903 and the Labourers Act of 1906. The political landscape had shifted, and James Wood's moment had come and gone.

He died in 1936, at his home Marino House near Holywood. the Irish News describing him as –

"... unsparing in his efforts on behalf of the downtrodden small farmers under the regime of landlordism ... impatient of anything that savoured of oppression or tyranny, of which he was an implacable foe."
He was buried at Belfast City Cemetery.

Not all landlords were exploitative of their tenants - William Sharman Crawford of Crawfordsburn is just one example. I am very sure that James Wood, Thomas Wallace Russell and many others of their ilk were far from perfect. They probably had self-advancement in mind just as much as any other politician. Yet it seems that they were champions of the working people in the era when both of my grandfathers were born into tiny cottage homes.

My maternal grandfather, William James Wilson, was born in 1906. His father Hugh lived in a labourers cottage on the Crommelin estate in Carrowdore. William bought an old pig shed in 1940 and turned it into a home where my mother and all of her 8 siblings were born.

My paternal grandfather, William Thompson, was born in 1901. His father Robert Thompson managed to buy the tenant farm in 1929. Many generations of Thompsons were born there, including my father and his four siblings.

Wood and Russell, as Robert Brown wrote, spared neither "tongue or muscle". Ulster is a better place because of the improvement of conditions of ordinary folk they helped to bring about.

• Article about Wood by Berkley Farr in the Journal of Liberal History, Spring 2008, is online here
• James Wood's archives are understood to now be in the Linen Hall Library
• The elections that James Craig ran in are described in great detail in his 1949 biography by St John Ervine


(Here's a short film about the poet Robert Brown that I worked on a few years ago with my lifelong friend, and a descendant of Brown's, Darren Gibson)

Robert Brown from Storyhouse Films on Vimeo.