Sunday, June 14, 2020

14 June 1690 - Landing of William III at Carrickfergus; and 200 years later an unlikely advocate

"O my Protestant countrymen of Ulster and Ireland, let us all look to the awful past, not for motives of continued division, but for reasons why Irishmen of different creeds should at length begin to understand that the mutual knowledge of the real facts of history, which the clerical spirit has so long distorted or hid, is the surest guide to toleration, to mutual respect, to the unity of the common country, and the same dear Irish home!"

Frank Hugh O'Donnell, Belfast News-Letter, 11 July 1903

This painting is in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery, depicting the arrival at Carrickfergus of William of Orange, an event that took place 330 years ago today.

What you will hear about 1690, pretty much all the time, is the boil-in-the-bag simplified description that it was only and always about "Protestant King defeats Catholic King". But this doesn't even scratch the surface.

What will not be properly explained is "why?". As Simon Sinek's leadership book title shows, 'why' is the essence, 'why' is the reason, 'why' needs to be the starting point. Always 'start with why'. So why did William of Orange show up at Carrickfergus in 1690?

Some of those who celebrate these events often do so with a kind of unthinking and uninformed triumphalism, which they have grown up imagining is a positive. But in doing so they misrepresent the story, and also play into the hands of their opponents. Because when one claims to be the perpetual victor, then it follows that someone else must be the perpetual victim. It is an historical moment that's usually presented as an attack, whereas perhaps it was actually a defence. But never mind the old "two sides" stuff. It is far better, as per the O'Donnell quote above, to look at these events for improved understanding and to be better neighbours. Historical commemorations are important, but understanding the meaning behind the commemorations, is even more so. It can even improve the quality and relevance of those commemorations.

That's all good in theory, but to continue the junk food metaphors, the Pot Noodle approach of "just add boiling water, let it simmer and frequently stir" is still far too common in Northern Ireland, in print, on airwaves, and online, to inflame and provoke. What you'll seldom hear about 1690 in particular is the absolutely essential context:

• the series of tyrannical Stuart Kings from 1603 onwards

• 1641 massacres which were still in living memory

• the Cromwellian bloodbath of 1400 Ulster-Scot tenant farmers in one day Lisburn in 1649

• 1685 Edict of Nantes revoked in France, large-scale Protestant persecution commenced.

• persecutions of Presbyterians up to 1688

• the Covenanters in Scotland (and the "18,000 martyrs" of the 'Killing Times' at the hands of the Stuart state from 1661–1688, as quoted on the Greyfriars monument which was erected in 1707)

• the Comber Letter of December 1688 proposing widespread massacres again; even though probably a hoax, the fear and refugee situation that it caused was very real: "they are to fall on, to kill and murder man, wife, and child, and to spare none". 3000 fled from Dublin alone, boats in the harbour were overloaded – "it resembled the flight of the Jews out of Egypt".

• Siege of Derry, 18 April – 1 August 1689 (8,000 civilians dead by starvation at the hands of their own King James)

• May 1689: there were so many Ulster Presbyterians in Glasgow that all of the meeting houses overflowed.

• Spring 1689: The rampage of James' troops through the countryside. As two examples from Reid – "General Buchan, with the horse, proceeded to Newtownards, Donaghadee and Portaferry, driving before him the fleeing Protestants" / "three hundred were slain in this break of Killyleagh".

• Ongoing opposition from Bishop William King (Wikipedia here)

• Soon after William died in 1702, forms of anti-Presbyterian persecution resumed. There had been just 12 years of relative liberty. But in 1718 a consequent and massive migration to America commenced.

Context is meaning. In the annual chatter about 1690 you will hear almost none of this. Pot Noodles have zero nutritional value but they are handy and tasty. Keep adding the boiling water. Keep stirring. Keep it simple.

• James Seaton Reid's landmark History of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland (1834) has a detailed account in chapter 20 (online here) of the events prior, during, and after the arrival of William at Carrickfergus – detailing who was present with him and who was sent to greet him, including various named Church of Ireland and Presbyterian ministers.

• Among those gathered at the quayside that day was John Wilson, a brother of Covenanter martyr Margaret Wilson who was one of the more famous of the 18,000. She and an older friend, Margaret McLachlan, had been drowned at the stake by King James’ troops at Wigtown Bay in 1685 for attending a State-unauthorised church service. William had referred to her murder in his Declaration ... for Restoring the Laws and Liberties of the ancient Kingdom of Scotland written from The Hague on 10 October 1688 (full text online here) with his reference to '... drowning them without any form of law or respect for age and sex, not giving some of them time to pray to God for mercy'. John Wilson settled at Rashee near Ballyclare; Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson (1864–1922) was a descendant of John (see here).

Some people do think outside the box. One writer who saw the events of 1690 in a positive light was Frank Hugh O'Donnell (1846–1916). As with the painting above, O'Donnell's portrait is in the National Portrait Gallery. Born either in Carndonagh in Donegal, or possibly in Devon, O'Donnell appears to have been a bit of a maverick but also a staunch Home Ruler, as the title page of his History of the Irish Parliamentary Party (1910; online here) shows. It lists his credentials as 'formerly MP for Galway and Dungarvan; ex-member of Council of Home Rule League of Ireland; ex-Vice-President of Home Rule Confederation in Great Britain; and ex-President of Glasgow Home Rule Association'.

In 1903 one of his articles was published as a booklet, and if the statistic quoted on the cover can be believed, it was a bestseller. But the subtitle is wrong; it should be "What no-one is ever told". O'Donnell appears to have been another 'man o' independent mind'.