Archive of the Month
The Foundation of Northern Ireland: Two Jurisdictions – One Church
By Professor Brian M. Walker
For this decade of centenaries, the Church of Ireland Gazette is an important source for understanding historical events in Ireland, north and south. It provides a valuable record of developments around the establishment of Northern Ireland in 1921.
While the paper, based in Dublin, always covered the affairs of the Church of Ireland countrywide, the editorials tended to reflect a southern unionist perspective. At the same time, every week, extensive ‘Notes from Belfast’ reported on northern matters.
During 1920, editorials, ‘in common with all southern unionists’, had declared strong opposition to the idea of partition as proposed in the new legislation for two parliaments in Ireland. By early 1921, however, after the Government of Ireland Act received royal assent, the paper declared that partition was now a fact which had to be accepted. An editorial, 14 January 1921, expressed the hope that there would be ‘ultimate unity through the Council of Ireland’.
The paper also carried reports on the ongoing violence between crown forces and the IRA in many parts of Ireland. Editorials regularly made pleas for peace. On 13 May, for example, the Gazette recorded the speech of Charles D’Arcy, Archbishop of Armagh, at the General Synod when he spoke at length of the violent state of the country, referring to the terrible loss of life, including members of the Church of Ireland, some of whose names he recorded.
In spite of this violence, normal church activities continued in many parts of the country. A regular feature in the paper’s columns was the dedication of war memorials in local churches, such as a tablet in St Paul’s church in Dublin in memory of 47 members of the parish who were killed in the world war.
On 10 June, there was a description of the first sitting of the Northern Ireland parliament which led to the establishment of the government of Northern Ireland. The Gazette also reported a special Sunday intercessory service in St Anne’s cathedral in Belfast for the new parliament and government.
Among those present were various politicians, including Sir James Craig, the prospective prime minister, and the four Church of Ireland bishops whose dioceses were in the new state, as well as leading Methodist and Presbyterian clergy. The preacher was Archbishop D’Arcy who urged that regard be given ‘to the welfare of all the people of this province, of every creed and class, of the minority as well as of the majority’.
The official opening of the Northern Ireland parliament by King George on 22 June was recorded in the Gazette on 1 July. The large, enthusiastic crowds in attendance and the ‘solemn pageantry’ of the opening moments of the parliament in the city hall were described. The paper noted especially: ‘His majesty’s speech put a totally new aspect on the Irish situation’. His appeal for peace gave new hope for the future.
In its report of the 1 July 1921, the Gazette observed that the king’s speech had proved to be the signal for a series of important steps towards negotiations between Sinn Fein and the British government. This led to the 11 July Truce which, the Gazette, on 15 July, declared, ‘every loyal Irishmen received with the deepest joy’.
In conjunction with the June Archive exhibition, the RCB Library is pleased to release free access to another new historical resource in a digital format – the Journals of the General Synod. These record the annual business of the Church, including motions, bills, and key speeches. Copies of the journals, amounting to over 10,000 pages of text have all been digitized for the period 1912–22, complementing the resources available in the Gazette, and allowing further deeper analysis of the period through a similar search engine as the institutional Church began to conduct its business in two political jurisdictions. Going forward it is hoped to digitize and make searchable further decades of the Journals on an incremental basis, as funds will allow. To search the Journals, 1912–1922 see this link:
Professor Brian M. Walker is author of a chapter on ‘Southern protestant voices during the War of Independence and the Civil War: reports from Church of Ireland synods’, in his new book Irish history matters: politics, identities and commemoration (History Press Ireland, 2019).