Two fingers from Belfast: A centuries-old culture of dissent
From Mary Ann McCracken to Stiff Little Fingers, from George Best to Terri Hooley, dissent runs in Belfast’s blood
In the middle of the last decade of the 18th century, half a dozen young men met on Cave Hill, overlooking the town (as it still was) of Belfast and swore an oath to unite all the people of Ireland, Catholic, Protestant – that is to say, Established Church Protestant – and Dissenter, which for Ireland then and for Belfast in particular was synonymous with Presbyterian.
Four of the six (the exceptions were Wolfe Tone and Thomas Russell) were themselves Presbyterian. Religious and political dissent were, if not everywhere intertwined, far from strange bedfellows in the northeast corner of the island.
The oath on Cave Hill is in more ways than one the pinnacle of our political history to date, the clearest, most succinct expression of a non-sectarian politics that still eludes us and the pursuit of which in the late 1790s – for every peak here, alas, a trough – ended in bloodshed and the very sectarian strife those swearing sought to transcend.
They did, though, succeed in leaving their stamp on the city in other ways. The Belfast Society for Promoting Knowledge, more commonly known as the Linen Hall Library, still flourishing 230 years after its foundation, is a product of that radical moment. Several of its founding members died in, or were executed after, the United Irish rebellion of 1798. And though it is commonplace to say that the repression of the rebellion and the Act of Union that quickly followed focused the attention of Dissenters thereafter on matters more spiritual than temporal, some of the openness to new ideas that characterised the