Friday, 28 September 2012

Signing the Ulster Covenant

Today marks the one hundredth anniversary of the signing of the Ulster Covenant. Around the world on September 28th 1912, half a million people recorded their opposition to the prospect of a Dublin-based Home Rule parliament for all of Ireland. (Strictly speaking a quarter of a million signed the Covenant, and the rest (the females) signed a Declaration framed in similar terms.)

The centenary reminds us of the irony that a country with the least full-population data has two extensive sets collected just 18 months apart. Much can be learned by comparing the returns of the Census taken on Sunday 2 April 1911 (one of only two surviving) with the information provided by signatories to the Covenant or Declaration.

Take as an example our 2xgreat grandmother, Agnes BURTON. In 1911, she was one of seven people of that name recorded on the Census.

In the following year, just four Agnes Burtons signed the Declaration. Can they be matched to individuals in the Census?

The first address (in Tennent Street) seems to be in both data sets but the house numbers are different. Had Agnes moved from number 11 to number 235 in the intervening year? In fact, she did. Her daughters (Isabella and Mary Ann) included on the Census return also signed the Declaration and gave the same new address.

Lindsay Street is even more straight forward. The house number matches and apparently the family was still in residence. But Agnes was the only signatory from that household. Had Mary (aged 24 at Census time) married or left home for another reason? Of course, it is possible that Mary was still at home but declined to sign (which would have created some fascinating dinner conversations!).

The other address in Belfast South (Tassagh Cranmore Park) does not appear in the Census list but there was an Agnes living in the Windsor Ward at 109 Marlborough Park. She had three adult daughters—Winifred, Alicia and Mary. Each of them signed the Declaration and gave addresses in Cranmore Park, but only the youngest Mary was more specific listing the house name(?) Tassagh when she signed immediately under Agnes. Winifred and Alice appear to have signed at a different Meeting Hall.

All of which leaves just one signature to be reconciled; that of the resident of Finmore Street, Pottinger. Was she the other Agnes from Co Antrim, from Co Down, or Co Monaghan?

Agnes from Ballynure Street, Clifton in Antrim was the only one of the seven to list her religion on the census as Church of Ireland (the established Church) and so might be thought less likely to be a supporter of the Covenant than the non-conformists.

Lurganmore in Co Monaghan is a considerable distance (more than 90 minutes drive) from Belfast. If this Agnes was now resident in Pottinger, then it required a major relocation. When you consider that her son James (recorded on the same Census form in 1911) signed the Covenant at Drumgart Hall (in Monaghan), this seems unlikely.

You will note immediately that the two Agnes in Co Down lived at the same address, St Leonard's Street, in 1911. 19-year-old Agnes is our 2xgreat aunt, the daughter of 42-year-old Agnes.

The PRONI database shows that 3371 people signed one or other of the documents at Westbourne Presbyterian Church. Of those just six lived in Finmore Street. Agnes Burton resided with Sarah Nelson at number 6. If there were other adult residents in that household, they apparently were not signatories.

Although the area near the Belfast shipyards has been redeveloped after World War II bomb damage, there is a Finmore Court just two minutes walk from St Leonard's Crescent. Are these the addresses referred to in the century old records? Did Agnes (presumably the younger) move out of home (but not too far) soon after the Census?

It would be useful to be able to explain why Agnes (a member of the Salvation Army) chose to sign the Declaration at a Presbyterian Church. Was Sarah Nelson a member of that church? In 1911, there were four Presbyterians by that name aged between 18 and 28. One was a flax spinner and another a linen weaver, working in the same industry as "our" Agnes.

So the circumstantial evidence that our ancestor signed the Declaration is strong. Will the signatures provide the definitive evidence?

Clearly the person who 'signed' the 1911 Census is not the one who signed the Declaration.

But what about the person who 'completed' the Census?

In the absence of further evidence, I will assert that the younger Agnes filled in the form that was signed by our great great grandmother in 1911 and then signed the Declaration in her own right the following year.

What do you think?

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