The Solemn League and Covenant

Ronald McNeill
Chapter X

Ulster Day, Saturday the 28th of September, 1912, was kept as a day of religious observance by the Northern Loyalists. So far as the Protestants of all denominations were concerned, Ulster was a province at prayer on that memorable Saturday morning. In Belfast, not only the services which had more or less of an official character—those held in the Cathedral, in the Ulster Hall, in the Assembly Hall—but those held in nearly all the places of worship in the city, were crowded with reverent worshippers. It was the same throughout the country towns and rural districts—there was hardly a village or hamlet where the parish church and the Presbyterian and Methodist meeting-houses were not attended by congregations of unwonted numbers and fervour. Not that there was any of the religious excitement such as accompanies revivalist meetings; it was simply that a population, naturally religious-minded, turned instinctively to divine worship as the fitting expression of common emotion at a moment of critical gravity in their history. "One noteworthy feature," commented upon by one of the English newspaper correspondents in a despatch telegraphed during the day, "is the silence of the great shipyards. In these vast industrial establishments on both sides of the river, 25,000 men were at work yesterday performing their task at the highest possible pressure, for the order-books of both firms are full of orders. Now there is not the sound of a hammer; all is as silent as the grave. The splendid craftsmen who build the largest ships in the world have donned their Sunday clothes, and, with Unionist buttons on the lapels of their coats, or Orange sashes on their shoulders, are about to engage on what to them is an even more important task." He also noticed that although the streets were crowded there was no excitement, for "the average Ulsterman performs his religious and political duties with calm sobriety. He has no time to-day for mirth or merriment, for every minute is devoted to proving that he is still the same man—devoted to the Empire, to the King, and Constitution."[37]

There is at all times in Ulster far less sectarian enmity between the Episcopal and other Reformed Churches than in England; on Ulster Day the complete harmony and co-operation between them was a marked feature of the observances. At the Cathedral in Belfast the preacher was the Bishop of Down,[38] while a Presbyterian minister representing the Moderator of the General Assembly, and the President of the Methodist College took part in the conduct of the service. At the Ulster Hall the same unity was evidenced by a similar co-operation between clergy of the three denominations, and also at the Assembly Hall (a Presbyterian place of worship), where Dr. Montgomery, the Moderator, was assisted by a clergyman of the Church of Ireland representing the Bishop.

The service in the Ulster Hall was attended by Sir Edward Carson, the Lord Mayor of Belfast (Mr. McMordie, M.P.), most of the distinguished visitors from England, and by those Ulster members whose constituencies were in or near the city; those representing country seats went thither to attend local services and to sign the Covenant with their own constituents.

One small but significant detail in the day's proceedings was much noticed as a striking indication of the instinctive realisation by the crowd of the exceptional character of the occasion. Bedford Street, where the Ulster Hall is, was densely packed with spectators, but when the leader arrived, instead of the hurricane of cheers that invariably greeted his appearance in the streets, there was nothing but a general uncovering of heads and respectful silence. It is true that the people abundantly compensated themselves for this moment of self-restraint later on, until in the evening one wondered how human throats could survive so many hours of continuous strain; but the contrast only made the more remarkable that almost startling silence before the religious service began.

The "sense of ceremony" which The Times Correspondent on another occasion had declared to be characteristic of Ulstermen "in moments of emotion," was certainly displayed conspicuously on Ulster Day. Ceremony at large public functions is naturally cast in a military mould-marching men, bands of music, display of flags, guards of honour, and so forth—and although on this occasion there was, it is true, more than mere decorative significance in the military frame to the picture, it was an admirably designed and effective spectacle. It is but a few hundred yards from the Ulster Hall to the City Hall, where the signing of the Covenant was to take place. When the religious service ended, about noon, Sir Edward Carson and his colleagues proceeded from one hall to the other on foot. The Boyne standard, which had been presented to the leader the previous evening, was borne before him to the City Hall. He was escorted by a guard consisting of a hundred men from the Orange Lodges of Belfast and a like number representing the Unionist clubs of the city. These clubs had also provided a force of 2,500 men, whose duty, admirably performed throughout the day, was to protect the gardens and statuary surrounding the City Hall from injury by the crowd, and to keep a clear way to the Hall for the endless stream of men entering to sign the Covenant.

The City Hall in Belfast is a building of which Ulster is justly proud. It is, indeed, one of the few modern public buildings in the British Islands in which the most exacting critic of architecture finds nothing to condemn. Standing in the central site of the city with ample garden space in front, its noble proportions and beautiful façade and dome fill the view from the broad thoroughfare of Donegal Place. The main entrance hall, leading to a fine marble stairway, is circular in shape, surrounded by a marble colonnade carrying the dome, to which the hall is open through the full height of the building. It was in this central space beneath the dome that a round table covered with the Union Jack was placed for the signing of the Covenant by the Ulster leaders and the most prominent of their supporters.

To those Englishmen who have never been able to grasp the Ulster point of view, and who have, therefore, persisted in regarding the Ulster Movement as a phase of party politics in the ordinary sense, it must appear strange and even improper that the City Hall, the official quarters of the Corporation, should have been put to the use for which it was lent on Ulster Day, 1912. The vast majority of the citizens, whose property it was, thought it could be used for no better purpose than to witness their signatures to a deed securing to them their birthright in the British Empire.

At the entrance to the City Hall Sir Edward Carson was received by the Lord Mayor and members of the Corporation wearing their robes of office, and by the Harbour Commissioners, the Water Board, and the Poor Law Guardians, by whom he was accompanied into the hall. The text of Ulster's Solemn League and Covenant had been printed on sheets with places for ten signatures on each; the first sheet lay on the table for Edward Carson to sign.

No man but a dullard without a spark of imagination could have witnessed the scene presented at that moment without experiencing a thrill which he would have found it difficult to describe. The sunshine, sending a beam through the stained glass of the great window on the stairway, threw warm tints of colour on the marbles of the columns and the tesselated floor of the hall, sparkled on the Lord Mayor's chain, lent a rich glow to the scarlet gowns of the City Fathers, and lit up the red and the blue and the white of the Imperial flag which draped the table and which was the symbol of so much that they revered to those who stood looking on. They were grouped in a semicircle behind the leader as he stepped forward to sign his name—men of substance, leaders in the commercial life of a great industrial city, elderly men many of them, lovers of peace and order; men of mark who had served the Crown, like Londonderry and Campbell and Beresford; Doctors of Divinity, guides and teachers of religion, like the Bishop and the Moderator of the General Assembly; Privy Councillors; members of the Imperial Parliament; barristers and solicitors, shopkeepers and merchants,—there they all stood, silent witnesses of what all felt to be one of the deeds that make history, assembled to set their hands, each in his turn, to an Instrument which, for good or evil, would influence the destiny of their race; while behind them through the open door could be seen a vast forest of human heads, endless as far as eye could reach, every one of whom was in eager accord with the work in hand, and whose blended voices, while they waited to perform their own part in the great transaction, were carried to the ears of those in the hall like the inarticulate noise of moving waters.

When Carson had signed the Covenant he handed the silver pen to Londonderry, and the latter's name was followed in order by the signatures of the Moderator of the General Assembly, the Lord Bishop of Down, Connor, and Dromore (afterwards Primate of All Ireland), the Dean of Belfast (afterwards Bishop of Down), the General Secretary of the Presbyterian Church, the President of the Methodist Conference, the ex-Chairman of the Congregational Union, Viscount Castlereagh, and Mr. James Chambers, M.P. for South Belfast; and the rest of the company, including the Right Hon. Thomas Sinclair and the veteran Sir William Ewart, as well as the members of the Corporation and other public authorities and boards, having attached their signatures to other sheets, the general public waiting outside were then admitted.

The arrangements for signature by the general public had fully taxed the organising ability of the specially appointed Ulster Day Committee, and their three hon. secretaries, Mr. Dawson Bates, Mr. McCammon, and Mr. Frank Hall. They made provision for signatures to be received in many hundreds of localities throughout Ulster, but it was impossible to estimate closely the numbers that would require accommodation at the City Hall. Lines of desks, giving a total desk-space of more than a third of a mile, were placed along both sides of the corridors on the upper and lower floors of the building, which enabled 540 persons to sign the Covenant simultaneously. It all worked wonderfully smoothly, largely because every individual in the multitude outside was anxious to help in maintaining orderly procedure, and behaved with the greatest patience and willingness to follow directions. The people were admitted to the Hall in batches of 400 or 500 at a time, and as there was no confusion there was no waste of time. All through the afternoon and up to 11 p.m., when the Hall was closed, there was an unceasing flow of men eager to become Covenanters. Immense numbers who belonged to the Orange Lodges, Unionist clubs, or other organised bodies, marched to the Hall in procession, and those whose route lay through Royal Avenue had an opportunity, of which they took the fullest advantage, of cheering Carson, who watched the memorable scene from the balcony of the Reform Club, the quondam headquarters of Ulster Liberalism.

Prominent and influential men in the country districts refrained from coming to Belfast, preferring to sign the Covenant with their neighbours in their own localities. The Duke of Abercorn, who had been prevented by failing health from taking an active part in the movement of late, and whose life unhappily was drawing to a close, signed the Covenant at Barons Court; his son, the Marquis of Hamilton, M.P. for Derry, attached his signature in the Maiden City together with the Bishop; another prelate, the Bishop of Clogher, signed at Enniskillen with the Grand Master of the Orangemen, Lord Erne; at Armagh, the Primate of All Ireland, the Dean, and Sir John Lonsdale, M.P. (afterwards Lord Armaghdale), headed the list of signatures; the Provost of Trinity College signed in Dublin; and at Ballymena the veteran Presbyterian Privy Councillor, Mr. John Young, and his son Mr. William Robert Young, Hon. Secretary of the Ulster Unionist Council, and for thirty years one of the most zealous and active workers for the Loyalist cause, were the first to sign. But a more notable Covenanter than any of these local leaders was Lord Macnaghten, one of the most illustrious of English Judges, whose great position as Lord of Appeal did not deter him from wholly identifying himself with his native Ulster, by accepting the full responsibility of the signatories of the Covenant.

Ulstermen living in other parts of Ireland, and in Great Britain, were not forgotten. Arrangements were made enabling such to sign the Covenant in Dublin, London, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Manchester, Liverpool, Bristol, and York. Two curious details may be added, which no reader who is alive to the picturesqueness of historical associations will deem too trivial to be worth recording. In Edinburgh a number of Ulstermen signed the Covenant in the old Greyfriars' Churchyard on the "Covenanters' Stone," the well-known memorial of the Scottish Covenant of the seventeenth century; and the other incident was that, among some twenty men who signed the Covenant in Belfast with their own blood, Major Crawford was able to claim that he was following a family tradition, inasmuch as a lineal ancestor had in the same grim fashion emphasised his adherence to the Solemn League and Covenant in 1638.

The most careful precautions were taken to ensure that all who signed were properly entitled to do so, by requiring evidence to be furnished of their Ulster birth or domicile, and references able to corroborate it. The declaration in the Covenant itself that the person signing had not already done so was in order to make sure that none of the signatures should be duplicates. When the lists were closed—they were kept open for some days after Ulster Day—they were very carefully scrutinised by a competent staff at the Old Town Hall, and it is certain that the numbers as eventually published included no duplicate signature and none that was not genuine. Precisely the same care was taken in the case of the Declaration by which, in words similar to the Covenant but without its pledge for definite action, the women of Ulster associated themselves with the men "in their uncompromising opposition to the Home Rule Bill now before Parliament."

It was not until the 22nd of November that the scrutiny and verification of the signatures was completed, and the actual numbers published. They were as follows: In Ulster itself 218,206 men had registered themselves as Covenanters, and 228,991 women had signed the Declaration; in the rest of Ireland and in Great Britain 19,162 men and 5,055 women had signed. Thus, a grand total of 471,414 Ulster men and women gave their adherence to the policy of which the Ulster Covenant was the solemn pledge. To every one of these was given a copy of the document printed on parchment, to be retained as a memento, and in thousands of cottages throughout Ulster the framed Covenant hangs to-day in an honoured place, and is the householder's most treasured possession.

Although the main business of the day was over, so far as Carson and the other leaders were concerned, when they had signed the Covenant in the City Hall at noon, every hour, and every minute in the hour, until they took their departure in the Liverpool packet in the evening, was full of incident and excitement. The multitude in the streets leading to the City Hall was so densely packed that they had great difficulty in making their way to the Reform Club, where they were to be entertained at lunch. And, as every man and woman in the crowd was desperately anxious the moment they saw him to get near enough to Carson to shake him by the hand, the pressure of the swaying mass of humanity was a positive danger. Happily the behaviour of the people was as exemplary as it was tumultuously enthusiastic. The Times Special Correspondent thus summed up his impressions of the scene:

"Belfast did all that a city could do for such an occasion. I do not well see how its behaviour could have been more impressive. The tirelessness of the crowd—it was that perhaps which struck me most; and, secondly, the good conduct of the crowd. Belfast had one of the lowest of its Saturday records for drunkenness and disorderliness yesterday. I was in the Reform Club between one and three o'clock. Again and again I went out on the balcony and watched the streets. I saw the procession of thousands upon thousands come down Royal Avenue. But this was not the only line of march, for all Belfast was now converging upon the City Hall, the arrangements in which must have been elaborate. It was a procession a description of which would have been familiar to the Belfast public, but the like of which is only seen in Ulster."

The tribute here paid to the conduct of the Belfast crowd was well merited. But in this respect the day of the Covenant was not so exceptional as it would have been before the beginning of the Ulster Movement. Before that period neither Belfast nor any part of Ulster could have been truthfully described as remarkable for its sobriety. But by the universal testimony of those qualified to judge in such matters—police, clergy of all denominations, and workers for social welfare—the political movement had a sobering and steadying influence on the people, which became more and more noticeable as the movement developed, and especially as the volunteers grew in numbers and discipline. The "man in the street" gained a sense of responsibility from the feeling that he formed one of a great company whom it was his wish not to discredit, and he found occupation for mind and body which diminished the temptations of idle hours.

From the Reform Club Carson, Londonderry, Beresford, and F. E. Smith went to the Ulster Club, just across the street, where they dined as the guests of Lord Mayor McMordie before leaving for Liverpool; and it was outside that dingy building that the enthusiasm of the people reached a climax. None who witnessed it can ever forget the scene, which the English newspaper correspondents required all their superlatives to describe for London readers next day. Those superlatives need not be served up again here. One or two bald facts will perhaps give to anyone possessing any faculty of visualisation as clear an idea as they could get from any number of dithyrambic pages. The distance from the Ulster Club to the quay where the Liverpool steamer is berthed is ordinarily less than a ten minutes' walk. The wagonette in which the Ulster leader and his friends were drawn by human muscles took three minutes short of an hour to traverse it. It was estimated that into that short space of street some 70,000 to 100,000 people had managed to jam themselves. Movement was almost out of the question, yet everyone within reach tried to press near enough to grasp hands with the occupants of the carriage. When at last the shed was reached the people could not bear to let Carson disappear through the gates. The Times Correspondent heard them shout, "Don't leave us," "You mustn't leave us," and, he added, "It was seriously meant; it was only when someone pointed out that Sir Edward Carson had work to do in England for Ulster, that the crowd finally gave way and made an opening for their hero."[39] There had been speeches from the balcony of the Reform Club in the afternoon; speeches from the window of the Ulster Club in the evening; speeches outside the dock gates; speeches from the deck of the steamer before departure; speeches by Carson, by Londonderry, by F. E. Smith, by Lord Charles Beresford—and the purport of one and all of them could be summed up in the familiar phrase, "We won't have it." But this simple theme, elaborated through all the modulations of varied oratory, was one of which the Belfast populace was no more capable of becoming weary than is the music lover of tiring of a recurrent leitmotif in a Wagner opera.

At last the ship moved off, and speech was no longer possible. It was replaced by song, "Rule Britannia"; then, as the space to the shore widened, "Auld Lang Syne"; and finally, when the figures lining the quay were growing invisible in the darkness, those on board heard thousands of Loyalists fervently singing "God save the King."

Read "Ulster's Stand for Union" at your leisure

Ulster's Stand for Union

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Ronald McNeill provides a truly fascinating account of the Home Rule Crisis of 1912 from a Unionist perspective. The book covers, inter alia, the formation of the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), the drafting and signing of the Solemn League and Covenant, gun-running to Larne and Donaghadee, Ulster in the Great War, and the establishment of the Ulster Parliament in 1921.

The ebook is available in .mobi (for Kindle), .epub (for iBooks, etc.), and .pdf formats, and a sample PDF can be downloaded. For more information on the book see details ».