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A PLAY for TODAY
Rev. James Porter was a Presbyterian Minister who wrote savage satirical tracts for the United Irishmen's newspaper in 1798 - and was hanged for his efforts. There's a lesson in his story, 200 years on, for Catholic, Protestant and dissenter alike.
Eamonn McCann, 29 Apr 1998
On May 22nd, voters North and South will give the thumbs up or down to the Belfast Agreement. The following day will mark the exact 200th anniversary of the beginning of the 1798 Rebellion.
Important Maydays. But then, every Mayday is important.
"Fáilte," said the big Boy, smiling, as he welcomed a stream of Bogsiders into the headquarters of the Loyal Order for a celebration of Republicanism.
It was the witching night of May 1st and we'd gathered at the Apprentice Boys' Memorial Hall to kick off a weekend of songstering, speechifying and general jollification marking the 200th anniversary of the '98 Rising. About a hundred of us showed, many intrigued to be setting foot in the world HQ of an outfit generally encountered only in aggro and marching array.
A handful of members of the Boys themselves joined the audience for a talk on the United Irishmen in the Derry area, and a discussion on the apt theme: "Must we always walk like beasts of prey through fields our fathers stained with blood?"
Not many of us had known that Presbyterian Derry had been a hotbed of sedition in 1798, that Oliver Cromwell Bond (the Dublin Corpo expurgated "Cromwell" when naming the flats) was a merchant from Ferryquay Street, that the Catholic Church in the town made it a mortal sin to get ready for revolution, that Paine's "Rights of Man" had been published in Derry before its appearance in Belfast or Dublin, and so on and so forth.
We also learned that the Rev. James Porter was from our north west neighbourhood, Ballindrait (just outside Lifford), which added resonance to the performance of his play, Billy Bluff Anbd Squire Firebrand, on its belated Derry premiere.
The brilliant paradox about 1798 is that its stories seem strikingly vivid and its lessons sharply relevant still, but that none of it fits at all into the pattern of our politics today - one of the reasons, quite likely, that the Apprentice Boys felt able to give us the use of their grand hall.
Tone, Neilson, Russell, Hope, the McCrackens, Grey and the others believed with a transfiguring fervour that it was possible, and necessary, for Catholics and Protestants to identify themselves in politics by reference to an aspect of their existence other than the community they "belonged" to. Hardly anybody believes that today.
It's seen as so obvious now that it hardly needs stating that "the two communities" will always and ever act and react separately, that "peace" means placid coexistence between two distinct camps, each respecting the integrity of the other.
To the United Irishmen, the exact opposite was obvious: that while separate camps remained, strife between them remained possible, and eventually inevitable.
The truth of that time has persisted ever since. The only occasions in our history when Catholics and Protestants in sizeable numbers have abandoned rivalry and linked arms have been those occasions when they linked arms against the prevailing power, to push together at privilege, the lower orders against the ascendancy.
The Agreement made in Belfast on April 10th depends on the plain people of each side staying placid behind responsible leaders of their "own" side, accepting that their interests are adequately and separately protected.
The Agreement will probably be endorsed the week after next. In most minds, and almost all of the media, the choice is between the Agreement and resumption of war. There's almost nobody up for war, and rightly so. But in terms of dealing with the source of our political ills, the Agreement doesn't carry us as far forward as 200 years ago.
We had the Mayday march on the morning after the night out with the Boys, placards and speeches and a marching jazz band which gave us the style of a New Orleans funeral as we sashayed across Craigavon bridge, calling for a #5 an hour minimum wage, North and South. Now there's an idea for bridging the divide.
If an all-Ireland body took executive power to impose that modest provision, there would be few in Protestant working-class areas of Derry or Belfast who'd balk at it.
Contrarywise, there would be outpourings of anger and panic from propertied sorts of all designations. But both sides in this conflict would transcend State and religious divisions.
This is one road towards Irish unity. The other is via the Taigs outbreeding, outsmarting or outfighting the Prods.
Speaking in Guildhall Square at the end of the march, Jimmy McGovern, writer of Cracker, The Lakes, Priest and a number of splendid polemics against the huge hypocrisies of New Labour - said: "People in politics and the media tell us that the things we have marched for today are impossible. They say that because they are afraid. These are things for the future."
The march hadn't set off on time. Nothing does in Derry. The Rev. Porter's play started 200 years late.
Porter, a Presbyterian minister at Greyabbey in Co. Antrim, died in the torrent of vengeance which followed the failure of the Rising. He was hanged on a temporary gallows built on a hill overlooking his own church. His wife, Ann, travelled with him in the carriage which brought him from prison in Newtownards, kissed him goodbye on the steps of the scaffold, then walked the short distance home.
Her husband's body was delivered half an hour afterwards to the doorstep where she waited, her seven children gathered around her. Her son, James, then 12, later attorney general of Louisiana, was to recall: "She had it carried into the room, and I remember that until the next morning no solicitation or entreaty could tear her from its side. Nor would she sit down. She stood and looked on it with her hands clasped. Not a tear fell, not a word escaped her lips."
Porter was hanged on the orders of Lord Londonderry, although he had taken no direct part in the Rising. It was purely personal. Londonderry had been lampooned to hilarious effect in Porter's play, Billy Bluff And Squire Firebrand, which had been published in 1796 in serial form in the United Irishmen's newspaper, the Northern Star.
The day before the hanging, Ann Porter had gone to plead with Londonderry for her husband's life. Instead, he handed her a letter confirming that the hanging would go ahead. She said afterwards that "nothing in her life ever filled her with so much horror as his lordship's smile as he held out the letter."
Porter was executed for satirising the ruling class. He may be the only Irish writer ever to suffer this fate for this reason. He should be better remembered.
Billy Bluff and Squire Fire-brand was written for public reading rather than for theatre performance. In an era when radical tracts were read out to largely illiterate audiences, it was designed for dialogue recitation in halls, taverns, homes and hillsides. It was, in modern parlance, a huge hit at the time. Gales of plebian laughter wafted over the walls of the Londonderry estate at Mount Stewart, filling the blue-bloods therein with murderous rage.
The text of the play was "rescued" and revived recently by John Grey of the Linen Hall Library in Belfast and the theatre group, the Osborne Players.
On a Sunday night in Derry, it was greeted with guffaws and hoots of recognition. Porter wasn't short of targets - tithes, the game laws, unfair leases, excessive drinking, the French war, the established church, the yeomanry, immoderate sobriety, the Orange Order, the persecution of Catholics, the government, the forced swearing of loyal oaths, capricious justice, informers.
Difficult as it is to know what a fellow might say were he alive now and not dead this two centuries past, it's reasonable to surmise that Lifford playwright Porter would add blasphemously low wages to his list of targets to take pot-shots at. Liverpool playwright McGovern thinks the same.
These are things from the past precious for our future, truths travelling through time, towards freedom. n