Saturday, 10 January 2009

Belfast 1930s

John Wyse, a blogger with 'Window's Live' is interested in Ireland's 'Other' Poetry, and in June 2008 wrote a piece entitled 'A Vision of Belfast in the 1930s'.  It was a comment on a poem called 'The Athens of the North, 1937' written by someone known only by his or her initials, 'B.S.'.  The poem was published in the Autumn 1937 issue of The New Northman, a student journal for the Queen's University.  Apart from calling Belfast 'The Athens of the North', which I've always thought was Edinburgh, my interest in the poem is that it refers to a Samuel James McIlhagga.  It begins:

'In the year of our Lord one thousand nine hundred and seven and thirty
There was convened at Belfast, Metropolitan city of Ulster,
A large and distinguished concourse of people,
Who had assembled together to witness against the desecration of Sunday,
And to proclaim their will to the world, but more particularly to the Northern Government and Belfast Corporation.

Mr. Saml. Jas. McIlhagga kindly presided,
And Rev. Obadiah McCusker led the Praise.
The principal speaker was Rev. Clugston Maconkey,
Who spoke with regret of secular music broadcast on Sunday,
And, denouncing the practice of Sabbath joy-riding,
Drew a grave picture of beaches strewn with bottles of whiskey....'

As John Wyse puts it, "..the author..paints a vividly realistic picture of an extraordinary group of social allegiances, part of a Belfast that has now all but vanished from the world".  The poem refers, with implicit approval, to 'Holy Rollers', 'Little White Ribboners', 'the Belfast Vigilance Committees', 'The League of Patriots', 'the Band of Hope', 'the Council of the Ruling Elders' Union', 'Total Abstinence Orange Lodges', 'the Jubilee Protestant Defence Association', 'the Peculiar People, British Israel', 'the Anti-Popery League', 'the Purity Brigade', 'The Ulster Unionist Labour Association', 'the Ulster Evangelical Protestant Society', and 'The Little Flock', whoever they were.

The only other reference to Mr. McIlhagga is in  the lines:

'The discussion concluded, the Chairman submitted a motion,
Which was passed with applause, and conveyed to the proper authorities,
And which duly appeared in the press
(Condensed, and its grammar amended).'

We can imagine what the motion said, in no uncertain language!

In my files on McIlhaggas of the 20th Century I have only one 'Samuel James' and wonder if he was one and the same?  He was born in September 1903, so would have been thirty three in mid 1937.  I think he was a Grocer in Belfast who later moved to Preston in Lancashire.  He may well have been one of four sons (and one daughter) of William McIlhagga from Armoy who married Jane Redmond.  He, Samuel, married Annie Morgan and also had four sons (and two daughters).  I would be very interested to have this possible identification confirmed or corrected.

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