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Reading the riot commission: Belfast, 1857

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  13 December 2019

R. J. Morris
University of Edinburgh
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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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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.

33 Tracy to Larcom, Belfast, 15 July 1857 (ibid., 1857/6009, 6037).

34 Tracy to Larcom, Belfast, 16 July 1857 (ibid., 1857/6037).

35 William Tracy, Belfast, 20 July 1857 (ibid., 1857/6146, filed under 16743).

36 Bishop Cornelius Denvir to lord lieutenant, 19 July 1857 (N.L.I., Larcom papers, MS 7624, f. 4).

37 Bishop Robert Knox to Thomas Larcom, 1 Aug. 1857 (ibid., f. 18).

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44 Tracy to Larcom, 12 Aug. 1857 (ibid., f. 22).

45 Larcom to lord lieutenant, 17 Aug. 1857; Herbert to Carlisle, 20 Aug. 1857; Carlisle to Larcom, 23 Aug. 1857 (ibid., ff 21, 22, 25).

46 Report, p. 28 (QQ 325–9).

47 Ibid., p. 32 (Q. 482).

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

49 Ibid., pp 83–4 (Q. 3045).

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51 Report, p. 181 (Q. 8534).

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53 Report, p. 10.

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55 Ibid., pp 48–82.

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57 Ibid., pp 82–3, 86-96 (QQ 2966–3045, 3158–3917).

58 Ibid., pp 99–108 (QQ 4079–4625).

59 Ibid., pp 97–8 (QQ 3970–4066).

60 Ibid., p. 124 (QQ 5440–3).

61 Ibid., p. 100 (Q. 4125).

62 Ibid., p. 167 (QQ 7903–04).

63 Ibid., p. 168 (Q. 7935).

64 Ibid., p. 169 (QQ 7968, 7978, 7987).

65 Ibid., p. 184 (Q. 8717).

66 Ibid., pp 145–58.

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71 Ibid., p. 13.

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73 Ibid., p. 4.

74 Ibid., p. 9.

75 The Times, 10 Feb. 1858.

76 Ibid., 15 Sept. 1857.

77 Justices of the peace (Ireland), return to an order of the House of Commons, 7 Dec. 1857. This was a parliamentary paper. A copy was enclosed in a letter from Maziere Brady, lord chancellor, to marquess of Londonderry. Both the letter and the paper are in N.L.I., Larcom papers, MS 7624.

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91 Belfast News-Letter, 12, 13, 14 Apr. 1858.

92 Tracy to Larcom, 14 Apr. 1858 (N.A.I., C.S.O., R.P., 1858/13423).

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96 Lt. Col. James Colborne to Col. Adair, commander of the troops, Belfast, 7 June 1858 (N.L.I., Kilmainham papers, MS 1056).

97 Report, pp 126–7 (QQ 5568, 5583–5600).

98 Ibid., pp 122–3 (QQ 5323–6, 5386–9).

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100 Resident magistrates’ letter books, 1848–76 (N.A.I., C.S.O., LB 459).

101 Government letter book, July 1856 – June 1859, entries for 7 July, 3 Aug. 1856. (N.L.I., Kilmainham papers, MS 1056).

102 Ibid., entry for 10 Mar. 1857.

103 Draft notes for memorandum, Larcom to Carlisle, sent July 1857. The same points were made in a memorandum sent to Lord Naas, Aug. 1858 (N.L.I., Larcom papers, MS 7504).

104 Government letter book, entries for 30 Apr., 2, 26 May 1857 (N.L.I., Kilmainham papers, MS 1056).

105 Register of letters received 1844–60, entries for 17 Apr. 1857, 12, 13 Aug. 1858 (N.L.I., Kilmainham papers, MS 1290).

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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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120 Judson, Pieter M., The Habsburg Empire: a new history (Cambridge, MA, 2016)CrossRefGoogle Scholar outlines attempts to counter the disruptions of rising nationalism and complex religious loyalties.

121 Report, p. 10.

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

123 Ibid., p. 10.

124 Downshire to Lord Carlisle, 24 Sept. 1856. (N.A.I., C.S.O., R.P., 1856/7624) Downshire, being a marquis, wrote directly to Carlisle, a lord, rather than Tracy who may or may not have found the information useful.

125 Report, p. 12.

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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).

134 Banner of Ulster, 13 Oct. 1857. This was a Presbyterian paper which was critical of the inquiry but still saw Hughes and Watson as members ‘of the brotherhood of self made men’.

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143 Bew, Paul, ‘The role of the historical adviser and the Bloody Sunday Tribunal’ in Historical Research, lxxviii, no. 199 (Feb. 2005), pp 113–27CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Elliott, Marianne, ‘The role of civil society in conflict resolution: the Opsahl Commission in Northern Ireland, 1992–93’ in New Hibernia Review, xvii, no. 2 (Summer 2013) pp 86102CrossRefGoogle Scholar for a more optimistic view. The initial work for this paper was supported by a British Academy grant. The paper has benefited from a variety of seminars, notably the Irish Urban History Workshop held at Dublin City University in 2017.

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