Blue Plaque for James Viscount Bryce

Blue Plaque for James Viscount Bryce
Unveiling the plaque to James Viscount Bryce at 13 Chichester Street, Belfast on Friday 10 May 2013

Sunday, 29 January 2012

Next Plaque - Strabane-born industrialist & philanthropist

Next Friday, 3 February,  the Circle unveils a plaque on the Strabane Library in Railway Street to an almost forgotten son of Strabane. Members of the Donnell family will be present as will the Chairman of the District Council, Councillor Brian McMahon.  

Ezekiel J. Donnell was born in the townland of Ballee in 1822. He arrived in America when he was eighteen years old, becoming a successful merchant in Montgomery, Alabama  before moving to New York in 1854 where he established himself as one of the foremost cotton merchants in the United States. 
Ezekiel J. Donnell (1822-1896)

In 1872 he published a Chronological and Statistical History of Cotton and became an acknowledged authority on the industry. He was a strong believer in individual freedom in trade and an active opponent of trade protection. He was one of the earliest advocates of a comprehensive public education system claiming the right of person to be educated at the public expense. In pursuit of these views he donated one million dollars towards building a library where young people could achieve the self-improvement that he saw as essential for the development of economy and society. The donation was to “erect a fireproof building suitable and proper for the purpose of a library…. With a reading room open free every day in which young people can spend their evenings profitably away from demoralising influences.”

This bequest was publicly if rather belatedly recognised in the opening of the Donnell Library Centre in the New York Public Library in December 1955. In May 2008 the Library was temporarily closed while efforts are being made to redevelop the whole New York Public Library site. Ongoing problems about the viability of the planned site have now been resolved and it is planned that the library will reopen in 2014.

Donnell was an active and vocal member many trade organisations and progressive clubs.  Some of his public addresses were published in pamphlet form. 

Donnell died in 1896.

Monday, 9 January 2012

Blue Plaque for Ulster-Scots writer and storyteller

This is a very late report of the unveiling of a blue plaque in Ballyclare on 8 October 2011 to a local man whose fiction and stories were grounded in the observation of the people in his local community around the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. 

The occasion was a double celebration as the Ulster-Scots Language Society launched a reproduction of his best-loved book, The Auld Meetin' Hoose Green. Both events were at the Town Hall in the village Square. 

Archibald McIlroy was born in 1859 in a townland close to Ballyclare, where his father was a small farmer. He studied Belfast at the Mercantile Academy and the Royal Belfast Academical Institution. Hving worked as a clerk in the Ulster Bank he set up his own business on his own account. He became a JP, and a member of Down County Council, a position that gave him the chance to promote the cause of land reform, a contentious issue in late-Victorian Ireland.

McIlroy's young son started his writing career by badgering his father for stories. A series of sketches based on his youthful exploits around Ballyclare became McIlroy's first book, When Lint was in the Bell. This book's popularity encouraged him to write The Auld Meetin' Hoose Green in1898, a humorous re-working of tales told to him by his mother, and by workers in the east Antrim countryside. McIlroy uses the true Scotch tongue of the countryfolk in his writing. The book sold well on both sides of the Atlantic.

Five more books followed, By Lone Craig-Linnie Burn, A Banker's Love Story, The Humour of Druid's Island, Burnside and By the Inglee Nook. The popularity of his writing made McIlroy in demand as a lecturer, when he would regale audiences with tales of old Ballyclare. In 1912 he travelled to Canada to work for the Presbyterian Church, but his final journey was to be on the RMS Lusitania, which was sunk off the coast of Cork by a German U-boat on May 7th, 1915. One of almost 1200 souls who perished that day, McIlroy never returned to the land of his birth.

Although the weather was indifferent there was a great turnout of the local people for the occasion. 

In the Town Hall after the ceremony Ronnie Hassard, Principal of Ballymena Academy, McIlroy's biographer spoke movingly about McIlroy's life, work and times. Jeanette McKendry, of the Ballyclare Historical Society read excerpts from The Auld Meetin'-Hoose Green. It was interesting to listen to the authentic voice of the local people over a century ago as conveyed through McIlroy's words.

A musical group from Ballyclare High School entertained the company. It was a wonderful performance and soundly acclaimed. 

In the Town Hall there was an Exhibition of McIlroy's life and work, contributions from the Ballyclare Historical Society, refreshments courtesy of the Borough Council and the launch of the reprinted book by the Ulster-Scots Language Society.

By the end of the day it was clear that Archibald McIlroy was forgotten no longer; the book and the plaque being tangible reminders of his contribution to his community and to the world.