The overthrow of James II in 1688 led to three years or warfare in Ireland, but was followed by the longest period of peace in modern Irish History. With political stability, industry and commerce flourished, standards of living rose and a thirst developed for education and new ideas.
However, in the 1790s Ireland again exploded into bloody violence . The United Irish Rebellion of 1798 was followed in 1801 of an Act of Union tying Ireland to Great Britain.
The Downshire Potteries
Belfast’s Downshire Pottery, specialising in the manufacture of decorated cream ware, a type of fine china, was founded in 1787 by the wealthy Belfast businessman and merchant, Thomas Greg, then aged 69, in partnership with two other prominent Belfast men, Dr Samuel Stephenson and John Ashmore.
Greg was a linen and cotton magnate with extensive lands in Russia, England and the Americas. He was a ship owner, with a fleet plying the Atlantic emigrant trade as well as carrying cargo. He was a founder member of the Belfast Chamber of Commerce, the first in Ireland and, after Leeds, the second in the British Isles, and invested heavily in canal building and the search for coal and minerals.
Greg’s partners in the Downshire Pottery were both heavily involved in the Belfast Charitable Society and one motive for the decision to found the enterprise was to provide employment for the town’s poor.
The move was also part of Greg’s wider plan to develop the Belfast region of Ballymacarret as a zone of industry through the establishment of a major glassworks and a fine pottery. The ‘Belfast Glass Company’, home to Ireland’s largest glass kiln, started manufacturing in April 1786, with notice to form the adjacent pottery published in the Dublin Chronicle in May 1787.
By 1790 production of Downshire Pottery cream ware was well underway. Both businesses enjoyed significant success. However, such was the central importance of Greg’s involvement in each of them that neither survived his death in January 1796. By the end of that year, each had ceased business, with the partnership that had founded the Downshire pottery finally formally wound up by public notice in October 1799, by Greg’s son Cunningham, who had inherited the complicated task of settling his father’s estate after his death.
For more information see: Peter Francis, A Pottery by the Lagan: Irish Creamware from the Downshire Pottery, Belfast 1787 – c.1806, Institute of Irish Studies / National Museums Northern Ireland (2001)
Napper Tandy was a founding member with Wolfe Tone of the Society of United Irishmen and became its first Secretary. His ideas were strongly influenced by revolutionary ideas from France and in 1792 took a leading part in organising a new military organisation in Ireland, modelled on the French National Guard. He was also closely associated with the Defenders, a Catholic physical-force group bent on agrarian and political reform, with whom he proposed the United Irishmen should ally themselves.
He fled Ireland for America in 1795 to escape prosecution for the distribution of a seditious pamphlet and his Defender membership, and in February 1798 travelled to Paris where Wolfe Tone and a number of other Irish emigres were planning rebellion in Ireland with the support of a French invasion.
Later that year he sailed for Ireland with a small group of men to raise a revolution. The absence of local sympathy for his cause convinced him of the futility of this venture and he set sail for Hamburg, where he was detained, returned to Ireland and finally tried and sentenced to death in 1801. Doubts as to the legality of his extradition from Hamburg, coupled with vigorous intervention on his behalf by Napoleon, secured his reprieve and release. He returned to France where he was welcomed as a person of note and distinction, and died the following year.
This very fine pair of signed, long-barrelled, side-flintlocked, percussion duelling pistols was made in Belfast towards the end of the 1700s by the gunsmith Robert MacCartney, who was active in Belfast between 1791 and 1794 when he moved his business to Dublin.
He had premises in Belfast’s Arthur Street in 1793, where these guns may have been engineered. He may have been related to the gunsmith John McCormick, who had a workshop in Castle Street in Belfast between 1759 and 1769 after moving there from London.
For more information see: James Kelly, ‘That Damn’d Thing Called Honour’: Duelling in Ireland 1570-1860, (Cork 1995)
Beggars’ Badges were a means of controlling and identifying those who had licence to beg in specific areas. In Ireland they were usually issued on a parish basis to people who were deemed to be deserving of support but unable to live by any means other than asking for charity.
Their use in eighteenth-century Ireland was most famously promoted in a satirical pamphlet by Jonathan Swift in 1737, arguing that ‘the original poor’ of each parish in Dublin should be issued with a means of identification, to be worn at all times on pain of punishment, in order to control the ‘evil of foreign beggars’ swamping the city.
Badges such as these were also used to control and permit the free movement of beggars from place to place, the most famous of which were the scallop-shell shaped badges issued to persons on pilgrimages to enable them to seek support and sustenance as they made their journeys to shrines and centres of worship.
For more information see: Seaby, W.A and Patterson, T. F., ‘Ulster Beggars’ Badges’, Ulster Journal of Archaeology, 33, (1970)
Emerging Industries: Linen
Linen was lapped – folded in a series of pleats like the pages of a book - to enable easy inspection for sale, and then pressed into tight rolls to ease transportation which during the early eighteenth century was generally by pack horse.
Linen became Ireland’s most important manufacturing industry during the eighteenth century and was heavily concentrated in Ulster, where it underpinned the spread of communications networks, the emergence of banking and credit systems and the industrialisation of the north-east of Ireland during the nineteenth century.
Yorkshireman Robert Whitworth was one of the leading canal engineers of his generation. He came to Ireland in 1768 to assess the on-going project to make a navigable connection between Lough Neagh and Belfast Lough.
Expanding Horizons: William Hincks
William Hincks was born in Waterford and worked in Dublin as an artist and engraver from 1773 until 1780 when he moved to London. His most famous work is a series of engravings depicting various processes in the linen industry in the north of Ireland which was published in London in 1782 from drawings he had made during his time in Ireland. He died in 1791.
This stipple engraving shows Hibernia, described as ‘exhibiting her commercial Freedom’ and carrying aloft a banner proclaiming ‘Free Trade’, flanked by native Americans and an African offering her skins and spices. Behind her stand two soldiers, with barrels of tobacco piled at her sides and ships sailing stormy seas in the background. Her harp sits before her, carrying an overflowing cornucopia, or ‘horn of plenty’.
Free Trade for Ireland was a cause particularly championed by the Volunteer movement, to which Hincks pays tribute in the title of this work, which celebrates the success in 1799 of Henry Grattan, leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party, in finally pushing through Parliament an Act lifting English restrictions on commerce between Ireland and the British colonies.
The anti-slavery halfpenny copper token was modelled after a medal designed by the potter and abolitionist Josiah Wedgewood in 1787, featuring a chained slave pleading ‘Am I not a Man and a Brother?’ on the front and clasped hands and the motto ‘May Slavery and Oppression Cease throughout the World’ on the reverse.
The token was issued by the British Society for the Suppression of the Slave trade and was partnered by a female version bearing the motto ‘Am I not a Woman and a Sister?’
Waddell Cunningham was a Belfast business with a history of involvement with slavery and its products. In 1786, following the relaxation of legislation preventing the establishment of an official slave trade in Ireland, he convened a meeting in Belfast’s Assembly Rooms to discuss the formation of slaving company in the town.
His plans were successfully challenged by Thomas McCabe, a local jeweller, who attended the meeting and wrote in the proposal book ‘May God eternally damn the soul of the man who subscribes the first guinea to such an enterprise'.
Revolution of Ideas
This large, high-headed, wire-strung harp has a one-piece sound box with a narrow brass strip along the centre with thirty-nine perforations for strings and thirty-six surviving brass pins. It was first associated in print with Arthur O’Neill in relation to an exhibition held to coincide with a British Association meeting in Belfast in 1852.
The harp was one of three contributed by Mr E Lindsay of Belfast and was described in the catalogue as ‘The Harp of O’Neill, one of the last of the old race of Irish Harpers’. Lindsay died in December 1852, a few months after his harp went on show, and in his will specified that his ‘Red Harp, formerly O’Niels [sic]’ should go to the Belfast Museum’.
Though this harp is clearly of eighteenth-century origin, there is no evidence to support the story that it once belonged to Arthur O'Neill, who died in 1816. As shown in surviving contemporary protraits of O’Neill, the harp he is traditionally represented there as playing is of a completely different shape and style.
Tyrone-born Arthur O'Neill was one of nine Irish harpers who took part in the Belfast Harp Festival, 11- 14 July 1792, which was organised by Dr James McDonnell, Robert Bradshaw and Henry Joy, proprietor of the Belfast News Letter and uncle of the United Irish leader, Henry Joy McCracken, who also sat on the Festival Committee.
Edward Bunting, a classically-trained musician aged nineteen who lived with the McCracken family, was commissioned to take down the airs played, which formed the major part of his first collection of Irish music, published in 1796.
O 'Neill won second prize for his playing and was presented with a yearly stipend of £10. He later served as the Belfast Harp Society’s tutor until 1813.
For more information see: Sanger, K and Billinge, M, ‘The Belfast Museum Harp’, in Wirestrung Harp, August 2011
Up in Arms: Death Masks
Death masks are wax or plaster casts of notable or notorious persons’ faces following their death and are part of funerary customs in many countries. They date from the late Middle Ages and were generally not interred with the deceased (as, for example, were the sculpted face masks of Ancient Egypt) but were kept in private or public collections. Many were housed in libraries, museums and universities where they were available for study, reflection and memorialisation.
In the days before photography death masks were also used for purposes of identification, portraiture and criminal or forensic record.
This death mask is of James ‘Jemmy’ Orr (1764 – 1847), a plain, self-taught, working man from Templepatrick, Co. Antrim with an instinct for radical democracy who became a leading figure in the United Irish movement. He died at the age of eighty-three and is buried in the graveyard near Mallusk, Co. Antrim, close to where he was born. His tombstone refers to him as an ‘honest man, steadfast in faith and always hopeful in divine protection in the best era of his country’s history a soldier to her cause, and in the worst of times, still faithful to it …’
Commemorative objects relating to United Irishmen include:
- A posthumous miniature water-colour portrait of the United Irish leader, Wolfe Tone, painted in America by his daughter-in-law Catherine Anne Sampson.
- A gold ring containing a lock of the executed Belfast leader, Henry Joy McCracken, which was presented to Belfast Museum by his great-grand-nephew, Henry Harrison.
- A watch paper exhortation to avenge the death of the young United Irishman, William Orr, who was sentenced under the Insurrection Act to his death by hanging in October 1797 by a rigged court relying on false testimony and falsified evidence.
This coloured engraving is part of a great tradition of eighteenth-century satirical prints and shows a French Republican soldier, in ragged uniform wearing a cap of liberty with cockade, riding a donkey which tramples underfoot a crown, a sceptre and a mitre, the symbols of monarchy and church. The soldier carries a drawn sabre inscribed ‘Fraternite’ and the donkey, which is branded on its flank with an Irish harp with the standard and cap of liberty, is laden with plunder – Usquebaugh (whiskey), Beef and Pork, Linen and Potatoes – and prodded onward by a devil’s spear. In the background to the left is a castle in flames while to the right two bodies hang from a gibbet and a French soldier ravishes a woman.
France’s revolutionary armies were notorious for their rapaciousness in the countries they liberated and there were serious concerns among United Irish leaders about the possible behaviour of a French army in Ireland and the temptation for a successful French government to treat Ireland as a subject province once freed from British rule. This anti-French print warns graphically of the unhappy consequences for Ireland of inviting French aid and support.
The title of the print is a corruption of the Anglicisation of the Irish phrase Eirinn go Brach, ‘Ireland Forever’, which became a rallying cry of Irish Nationalism.
Another famous ‘Erin go Bray’ engraving, printed in London in 1799 and entitled ‘An Irish Field officer on his Charger’ features a ragged uniformed Irishman holding a lance, sitting astride a donkey which is cursing the Priests and Proctors for taking all the potatoes. This takes a pro-Union stance in lampooning the belligerence of the 1798 Rebellion and promoting the peace that greater unity between Ireland and Britain could bring.
The verses below, written in pidgin English with a trace of a French accent, extol the delights of Ireland to victorious Jacobins:
From Brest in de Bay of Biskey
Me come for the very fine Whiskey
To make de Jacobin frisky
While Erin may go bray (repeat)
Me have got mealy pattato
From de Irish democrato
To make de jacobin fat o
While Erin may go bray
I get by de Guillotine Axes
De Wheats and de Oats and de Flaxes
De Rents and de Tides [tithes] and de Taxes
While Erin may go bray (repeat)
I put into Requisition
De Girl of ev’ry condition
For Jacobin Coalition
While Erin may go bray
De linen I get in de scuffle
Will make de fine shirt to my ruffle
While pat may go starve in his Hovel
And Erin may go bray (repeat)
De Beef is good for my Belly
De Calf make very fine Jelly
For me to kiss Nora and Nelly
And Erin may go bray
Fiztgerald and Artur O Connor
To Erin have done de great Honour
To put me astride upon her
For which she now does bray (repeat)
She may fidget and Caper and kick o
But by the good help of old nick o
De Jacobin ever will stick o
And Erin may go bray