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Hail James Porter, his pen was mightier than any sword

By Eamonn McCann

Published 01/07/2015

Eamonn McCann
Eamonn McCann

We tend to remember best historical figures who championed one side or the other. Each must now be revered as representative of one of the two traditions which somehow have to be reconciled in the interests of peace.

So how are we to regard James Porter? Tomorrow marks the anniversary of the day in 1798 when he was strung up from a beam behind his church in Greyabbey, his wife having walked with him to the gallows, his children, two sons and six daughters watching from the doorway of the manse, just 100 yards away.

Lord Londonderry and the rest of the ruling class had wanted Porter made an example of as a warning to others tempted towards subversion. He had been convicted of treason after an hour-long trial conducted by military officers appointed by Londonderry. Almost all of the evidence came from local informer Robert Millar, a weaver and dyer.

Upon conviction, Porter appealed to the court: "Therefore, pause, gentlemen, before passing sentence of death upon me who, in the course of a laborious and active life, never concealed his sentiments, but expressed the honest convictions of his mind… upon all occasions when he thought the interests of his country were concerned" (by "his country" he meant Ireland).

Porter, originally from Ballindrait in Donegal, had become minister of the Dissenting Presbyterian church in the Co Down village in 1787.

With a stipend of £50 a year, he lived, a contemporary recalled, "in peace and poverty".

His interest lay in literature, science and philosophy, not politics. But he was increasingly distressed at the second-class citizenship of his co-religionists and the third-class status of the Catholic masses.

In 1793 he joined the Volunteer Movement - out not for the overthrow of the constitution, but for reform of the franchise and a strengthened Irish Parliament.

It may have been the fact that he was a brilliant satirist who lampooned the great and the good for the amusement and edification of the lower orders which sealed his fate in the end.

The passing of the Convention Act in 1793 put supporters of parliamentary reform and Catholic emancipation in the same category as outright revolutionaries like Wolfe Tone.

Public meetings in support of reform were banned. Many who had sought only modest change now reasoned that they might as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb and joined the United Irishmen.

Porter travelled the north, delivering sermons on the crying need for justice of such reputed eloquence that be regularly drew congregations of 1,500, spilling out onto the roads, many from mainstream Presbyterian and Church of Ireland backgrounds.

This was seen by the authorities as a potentially dangerous development. But most of all, it was his writing which enraged the upper echelons.

In 1794 Porter became a contributor to the Northern Star, the newspaper of the United Irishmen, founded by Belfast draper Samuel Neilson two years earlier and published from his premises in High Street.

In 1796 the paper published Porter's 'Seven Letters' under the pseudonym 'A Presbyterian', a rollicking series of wounding satires on easily identifiable public figures.

Londonderry was 'Lord Mountmumble', John Montgomery, owner of Greyabbey estate, was 'Squire Firebrand', Montgomery's bailiff and spy Billy Lowry was 'Billy Bluff'. The 'Letters' were widely read and read out and made Porter a household name across Ulster. For the likes of Londonderry and the Chief Secretary for Ireland, Lord Castlereagh, Porter's pointed ridicule was as reprehensible as rebellion.

Although Porter always denied that he had joined the United Irishmen, he swore in others. He never personally advocated violence, but continued to denounce those whose oppressive behaviour, he maintained, created conditions in which violence could thrive and grow.

According to A T Q Stewart in The Summer Soldiers, "he kept clear of everything forbidden by law".

Decades later his son James, who had become Attorney General and then US Senator for Louisiana, wrote of the heroic stoicism of his mother on the day her husband went to his death: "When she returned to the manse, the children were all at the door. She did not sit down. In an hour after, the body she had left in health and strength and all the pride of manly beauty was delivered to her as a corpse. She had it carried into the room, and I remember than until the next morning no solicitation or entreaty could tear her from its side. She stood and looked on it with her hands clasped. Not a tear fell nor a word escaped her lips."

One of the significances of Porter's life and death is that he was a fighter for the rights of the oppressed of Ireland, but cannot be fitted neatly into either Orange or Green narratives.

He should be better commemorated. The "two traditions" don't encompass all.

Perhaps a reading from his 'Letters' next July 2? Or a James Porter summer school in Glenabbey?

Belfast Telegraph

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