Published online by Cambridge University Press: 13 December 2019
The year 1857 saw the first of the great riot commissions which provided much source material for Belfast history. It should be read as a continuation of the street conflict of that summer. Careful reading shows the skill with which the weak Catholic/Liberal alliance of the city managed the flow of witnesses and the naiveté of the Orange/Protestant lawyers. The Catholic/Liberal side ‘won’ the inquiry, achieving their aim of convincing the Dublin government that the local police force was ineffective if not sectarian and that Orange Order culture and evangelical street preaching was responsible for the disorder. Practical outcomes were limited. Resources were limited due to demands in other parts of Ireland and the process of taking first-class troops from Ireland to deal with the Indian mutiny. Considered in light of theories of ‘civil society’, the court was a means of countering the imperfections of representative government. Considered in the context of Ireland as a whole, events demonstrated the weakness of the Dublin authorities, their ignorance of Belfast and the importance of the resident magistrate. Much was concealed from the inquiry. The following months revealed evidence of an active Ribbon-style organisation, and the animosity of the local police and the constabulary. Attention to working class sectarianism diverted attention from elite failure to manage the class relationships of a fractured civil society.
2 Report of the commissioners of inquiry into the origin and character of the riots in Belfast in July and September 1857 , H.C. 1857–8, xxvi (henceforth cited as Report).
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95 Larcom to Lord Naas, 7 June 1858 (N.L.I., Larcom papers, MS 7504).
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99 Thomas Larcom, memorandum to Lord Naas, Mar. 1858 (N.L.I., Larcom papers, MS 7504).
100 Resident magistrates’ letter books, 1848–76 (N.A.I., C.S.O., LB 459).
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