As we await with some anxiety the coming Orange marching season and especially Tuesday’s threatened Ardoyne confrontation, we recall the dreadful events of 1886 when Gladstone’s Home Rule bill was in the offing and rabble-rousers like Rev Hugh Hanna were stirring up emotions.
Although the majority of RIC men were Southern Catholics – who could be posted anywhere, including the Belfast front lines, and often were – their officers were mainly Protestant, many of whom enjoyed pitting Catholic police against Catholic rioters.
The police got it from both sides, loyalists recognising Southern accents and attacking with fury.One journalist recorded the following conversation:
“Who have you there, Bill?”
“Hold on, and let me have a thump at him!”
“Git along outa this, and find a policeman for yourself!”
Sectarian mobs clashed furiously and it is estimated that as many as fifty souls lost their lives that summer. The military was called in to support the civil authorities.
A curious anecdote is recorded from the Ardoyne interface. Robert Bell (1864-1934) was a hot riveter at the Shipyards but he was also an enthusiastic amateur geologist at a time when that science was in its infancy. One evening on his way home from an expedition to the quarries on Squire’s Hill he was stopped by the military at Ardoyne. He was carrying a bag full of stones and his pockets were bulging with them too. The soldiers took their prized catch to their commanding officer.
The young officer looked at the ‘ammunition’ and his eyes twinkled. Bell had been very fortunate to meet another geology enthusiast. Waving his men away, he asked Robert to sit down and explain his collection to him. The two men had a half-hour’s interesting conversation amid all the mayhem!
The officer then personally escorted Robert past the trouble spot and shook hands on parting
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