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Reading the riot commission: Belfast, 1857

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  13 December 2019

R. J. Morris
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University of Edinburgh
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Abstract

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.

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Research Article
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Copyright © Irish Historical Studies Publications Ltd 2019

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26 Memorandum to Lord Carlisle, 5 July 1857 (N.L.I., Larcom papers, MS 7504).

29 Memorandum to Lord Naas, 7 July 1858 (N.L.I., Larcom papers, MS 7504).

31 Larcom to Lynch, 12 Sept. 1857 (N.A.I., C.S.O., R.P., 1857/16743).

32 Tracy to Larcom, Belfast, 13 July 1857 (ibid., 1857/5926). Although each report was given its own entry number in the register, they were eventually all filed under ibid., 1857/16743.

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48 Ibid., pp 37, 45 (QQ 676–86, 1142–3). The notion of establishing ‘facts’ was frequently used during the inquiry.

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59 Ibid., pp 97–8 (QQ 3970–4066).

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62 Ibid., p. 167 (QQ 7903–04).

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74 Ibid., p. 9.

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102 Ibid., entry for 10 Mar. 1857.

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115 Seaton to Larcom, 13 Sept. 1857 (N.A.I., C.S.O., R.P., 1857/7805; N.L.I., Kilmainham papers 1056, f. 214).

116 Proclamation, 19 Sept. and 3 Oct. 1857 (N.A.I., C.S.O., R.P., 1857/8397).

117 Larcom to D. C. Leach, 9 Aug. 1857 (N.L.I., Larcom papers, MS 7624, ff 33–4).

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121 Report, p. 10.

122 Ibid., p. 32 (Q. 507).

123 Ibid., p. 10.

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132 Report, p. 121 (QQ 5211–17); a rougher worked heckling flax, a process preparing the flax for spinning.

133 Report, p. 106 (QQ 4507–08).

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