Saturday, 2 October 2010

The Ulster Covenant

We all know that researching records in Ireland is not easy, partly because many were destroyed in Dublin in 1922 during 'The Troubles'. We are fortunate to have the 1911 Census now, though before we did, there was the 'Census substitute' of the Ulster Covenant, signed on 28th September 1912 during the reign of King George V. Even since the 1911 Census went on line, the Covenant signatures can give us extra information. PRONI, the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland has digitised this list of about half a million signatures, about half men and half women. Most signatures have addresses or at least place names, so that although the men and women signed separately it is often possible to know who are related by comparing addresses. The Record Office has written a 'Background to the Covenant', of which the following is a part:

The Ulster Covenant was part of a response by Ulster Unionists to the efforts of successive Westminster governments to settle the running sore of the 'Irish Question' by giving Ireland a limited measure of local autonomy known as 'Home Rule'. The first two Home Rule Bills, in 1866 and 1893 had been rejected by Parliament, following concerted pressure from Unionists in Great Britain and Ireland. In April 1912 Asquith introduced the Third Home Rule Bill (to which) Unionists (at Westminster) put up fierce opposition to each stage and the third reading was not carried until January 1913, after which the Bill received its expected defeat in the House of Lords. The outbreak of World War I then halted further progress.

Clearly the Covenant played its part in 1912 and among the half a million signatures are 45 Clan names, mostly McIlhagga, but also McIlhaga, McIlhaggar and McIlhagger. Three only signed their initials, one a woman from Belfast, Mrs. J.B. McIlhagga, the other two men, N.D. McIlhagga from Ballyweaney and W.J. McIlhaga interestingly from Courtai, Belgium. A woman, presumably W.J.'s wife Norah (wrongly transcribed as Lenah) is also listed from Belgium. 29 signatures are of men and 16 of women.

So where were our clan members in Ulster living in 1912? 18 were in County Antrim Parliamentary Constituencies, one in Londonderry and the rest (26) were from the city of Belfast. Six Antrim villages or townlands are represented, Ballyweaney (one man 'N.D.'), Knockahollet (James and Annie McIlhagga), and Robert with the interesting name variation of McIlhaggar), Harryville (John), Ballygallough (Jenny), Maxwellswalls (Henrietta and Eliza), and no fewer than 7 from Tullygarley (Jack, Andrew, William S., Lizzie, Jeannie, Mary and Matilda). There are 15 addresses recorded in Belfast, 9 with a single signature, 6 with two signatures and one in Agnes Street, South Belfast with no fewer than five, all men (Nathaniel, John, William and two Roberts).

In a subsequent blog I will compare what we can find in the 1911 Census and in the 1912 Ulster Covenant. In the meantime, to what did all these people sign? It was strong stuff. The men signed as follows:

Being convinced in our consciences that Home Rule would be disastrous to the material well-being of Ulster as well as of the whole of Ireland, subversive of our civil and religious freedom, destructive of our citizenship and perilous to the unity of the Empire, we whose names are underwritten, men of Ulster, loyal subjects of His Gracious Majesty King George V, humbly relying on the God whom our fathers in days of stress and trial confidently trusted, do hereby pledge ourselves in solemn Covenant, throughout this our time of threatened calamity, to stand by one another in defending, for ourselves and for our children, our cherished position of equal citizenship in the United Kingdom and in using all means which may be found necessary to defeat the present conspiracy to set up a Home Rule Parliament in Ireland. And in the event of such a Parliament being forced upon us, we further solemnly and mutually pledge ourselves to refuse to recognize its authority. In sure confidence that God will defend the right, we hereto subscribe our names.

The women signed a somewhat shorter statement:

We, whose names are underwritten, women of Ulster, and loyal subjects of our gracious King, being firmly persuaded that Home Rule would be disastrous to our country, desire to associate ourselves with the men of Ulster in their uncompromising opposition to the Home Rule Bill now before Parliament, whereby it is proposed to drive Ulster out of her cherished place in the constitution of the United Kingdom, and to place her under the domination and control of a Parliament in Ireland. Praying that from this calamity God will save Ireland, we hereby subscribe our names.

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