Two fin­gers from Belfast: A cen­turies-old cul­ture of dis­sent

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - BOOKS - WORDS BY GLENN PAT­TER­SON

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

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