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How good fortune conspired to set Susie on the trail of an ancestor dubbed Belfast's Dick Whittington

Co Down mother-of-two Susie Cunningham's great-grandfather, Sir Crawford McCullagh, was a witness to history during an incredible 17 years as Belfast's Lord Mayor... but almost as unbelievable was the bizarre coincidence that led to her unearthing his fascinating story

Sir Crawford McCullagh's great-granddaughter Susie Cunningham, who chronicles his amazing life in her new biography
Sir Crawford McCullagh's great-granddaughter Susie Cunningham, who chronicles his amazing life in her new biography
The cover of Susan's book
Ivan Little

By Ivan Little

The amazing coincidence that sparked Susie Cunningham's interest in writing a biography of her influential great-grandfather, who was a prominent civic and political leader in Northern Ireland during the wars and who was dubbed "Belfast's Dick Whittington", is worthy of a chapter all of its own.

For it was that one-in-a-million happenstance that convinced her to press ahead with the fascinating life story of Sir Crawford McCullagh, a former Belfast Lord Mayor and the man who came up with the idea of a silent tribute to honour the war dead.

Susie had only the scantest knowledge of her ancestor's background, but it was when she and her husband Alan bought a new house in Comber that fate took a hand and presented her with a serendipitous sign that she should definitely write her book.

Susie says: "After we fell in love with the house, the vendors asked if we would be interested in having a large collection of books which they'd acquired. And we said yes, because they were so lovely to look at."

What Susie didn't initially realise was that the books had belonged to Sir Crawford before her father - who had inherited them - sold them at auction.

She says: "I didn't know anything about the books and I couldn't believe it when it emerged that they were actually from a private collection linked to my own family. I even stumbled on my great-grandmother's Bible and prayer book from Helen's Bay Presbyterian Church."

The find kickstarted Susie's voyage of discovery in 1997, but three years later there was another stroke of good fortune when she received a call from a woman in Canada who had papers and Press clippings about Sir Crawford.

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Susie says: "She told me she was coming over to Ireland and that I could have all the material if I wanted it. It turned out that the woman was a relative of ours."

In among the diaries and letters she handed on to Susie was an old manuscript from Belfast journalist Alfred S Moore for a book about Sir Crawford, who never gave his approval for its publication.

The manuscript was a godsend for Susie, who'd been disheartened to learn that many more of McCullagh's personal documents had been burned in a fire.

Crawford McCullagh at his Lismara home, where he entertained dignitaries such as General Dwight D Eisenhower
Crawford McCullagh at his Lismara home, where he entertained dignitaries such as General Dwight D Eisenhower

So, Moore's musings proved to be a crucial research tool when Susie was piecing together the story of Sir Crawford, who's still acknowledged as the longest-serving Lord Mayor in the UK, having been in office for no fewer than three different terms, spanning 17 years and guiding Belfast through two World Wars.

McCullagh, who was a front-row eyewitness to earlier history in Belfast, too, was present for the launch of the ill-fated Titanic in May 1911 and for the signing of the Ulster Covenant at the City Hall in September 1912, as well as Edward Carson's anti-Home Rule rallies.

It was during the Great War that McCullagh advocated a five-minute silence in honour of the thousands of soldiers who died at the Somme in 1916, and his tribute was later adapted to a two-minute silence, which is still a potent symbol of respect for the fallen worldwide.

In Belfast's City Hall two large stained-glass windows, which depict Sir Crawford and his wife Lady Margaret, were commissioned in recognition of his public service and for his development of the commercial centre of the city before he died in 1948 at the age of 79.

His drive and vision are also credited with pioneering many familiar landmarks including the development of the zoo at Bellevue and the Floral Hall after he'd negotiated the donation of Belfast Castle and its 200-acre demesne to the city from Lord Shaftesbury. Unlike many other unionist politicians, McCullagh had turned his back on a prosperous lifestyle with a family who were farmers and ran away at the age of 14 to work in Belfast as an apprentice in the Bank Buildings.

Susie says that to supplement his meagre earnings in the city, McCullagh became a paper boy selling copies of the Belfast Telegraph from a pitch in Castle Place.

However, she says his work ethic and his initiative caught the eye of a mentor, William Gibson, who offered McCullagh the chance to run his own drapery business.

Big oaks were to grow from the tiny acorns, as McCullagh became the director and owner of several major concerns and built Castle Buildings in the city centre before going to Toronto, where he forged a relationship with Ballymena exile Timothy Eaton, the owner of Canada's biggest independent department store.

Back in Belfast politics beckoned for McCullagh, who was elected first as a representative on Belfast Corporation and then as a unionist MP. He went on to serve as High Sheriff as well as Lord Mayor, and was knighted in 1915.

Sir Crawford McCullagh bestows the Freedom of Belfast on war hero Field Marshal Montgomery
Sir Crawford McCullagh bestows the Freedom of Belfast on war hero Field Marshal Montgomery

As she dug deeper and deeper into McCullagh's story, however, Susie became increasingly concerned at the way he'd been either forgotten or subjected to derogatory assessments of his life and work.

Records show that Sir Crawford came in for strong criticism after scandals involving housing and health issues, but they didn't hold his career back, according to Susie, who says: "Because he was in the City Hall for such a long, long time and because he was the chairman of virtually every committee on the Corporation and public bodies, he took a lot of the flak for a number of controversies.

"But it seems to me that a lot of the criticism was unfair. After all, he became a Privy Councillor, and that wouldn't have happened if there'd been anything at all untoward.

"I've read a number of pieces about Sir Crawford which said he was a whistleblower about the corruption that was rife in the City Hall."

But Susie says her book is more about the man than the myths, adding: "It really centres on the times my great-grandfather lived in and his fascinating rise from nothing to a lofty position where he entertained the great and the good at the City Hall, including King George VI and his wife and their daughter, the future Queen, in 1945.

"That was the same year that General Dwight D Eisenhower visited the McCullagh family home at Lismara - now the Abbeydene Guest House at Newtownabbey."

McCullough welcoming the royals on a visit to Belfast
McCullough welcoming the royals on a visit to Belfast

Other photographs in Susie's book show Sir Crawford bestowing the Freedom of Belfast on Field Marshal Montgomery and presenting Victoria Cross winner, Able Seaman James Maginnis, with a cheque in recognition of his gallantry.

Susie says Sir Crawford's legacy is immense. "It's all around you in Belfast. He redeveloped Castle Place, where he also owned a cinema, the Classic. He brought a lot of business and employment to the city, which he promoted at every turn.

"He was an optimist and I think he helped Belfast through some really hard times, especially during the First World War and the years of (the) Depression when he was trying to rally people and bolster morale.

"But, sadly, he seems to have been airbrushed out of some history books, where he's described as a 'discredited' politician, while others speak of him in glowing terms."

Susie, who is a volunteer for the National Trust at Mount Stewart, called her book Sir Crawford McCullagh: Belfast's Dick Whittington as a nod to the four-times Lord Mayor of London, whose path to prominence was similar to his Belfast counterpart.

"But Sir Crawford never went home and came back. He stayed," adds Susie.

Sir Crawford McCullagh: Belfast's Dick Whittington is published by Ballyhay Books and is available from the Ulster Historical Foundation, from Amazon and from bookshops, including Eason's

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