Helen Waddell

Scholar and Writer
1889 – 1965

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Helen Jane Waddell was born in Tokyo, where her father was a Presbyterian missionary; Sam Waddell (the dramatist Rutherford Mayne) was her elder brother. She was educated at Queen’s, Belfast, Oxford and Paris, and for a number of years worked for the publishing house of Constable (which also issued her own books).

Helen Waddell is best known for revealing to the modern reader the world of the medieval goliards (The Wandering Scholars, 1927), many of whose poems she translated in Medieval Latin Lyrics (1929). Her one novel, Peter Abelard (1933), is also set in that medieval world and enjoyed considerable success at the time. But her subject matter ranged wider than that; her first publication was Lyrics From The Chinese and she also wrote an authoritative – and readable – book on the anchorites of the Sinai desert (The Desert Fathers). She even tried her hand at plays; The Spoilt Buddha, first performed at the Grand Opera House, Belfast, is reputed to be a portrait of her brother Sam.

A wasting neurological illness put an end to her writing career in 1950. She spent her last years living with her sister Meg at Kilmacrew House, near Banbridge. She died in London.

Location of plaque

At Kilmacrew House, about three miles north-east of Banbridge, Co Down. She is buried in the neighbouring churchyard of Magherally, where Meg’s husband, J.D. Martin, was rector.

Society of United Irishmen

Meeting Place
1791 – 1798

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In 1791 a group of merchants and tradesmen set up the Society of United Irishmen in Belfast. This was followed a month later by a second club in Dublin. The Belfast club was initially composed on Presbyterians while the Dublin one included Catholics and Episcopalians. The Society was dedicated to changing the existing political order under which political power was exercised by the Lord Lieutenant and an Irish Parliament representing only the land owning Episcopalian class. The society’s three main aims were constitutional reform, union among the Irish people and the removal of all religious disqualifications.

The aim of Irish independence from Great Britain was a later development, when it became clear, through the Irish government’s brutal repressive measures, that reform was not possible. That momentous decision was taken in June 1795 on Cave Hill above Belfast by Wolfe Tone, Henry Joy McCracken, Thomas Russell, Samuel Neilsen and a number of other United Irishmen

The following year widespread suppression escalated, with the smashing of presses of the Northern Star, set up in 1792 to disseminate the view of the United Irishmen, and with arrests and executions, and the internment of many of the leaders.

The uprising of June 1798 was a failure with decisive defeat of the forces of the United Men at Antrim and Ballynahinch. The leaders of the two battles, Henry Joy McCracken and Henry Monro were executed and despite a brief attempt to raise the country again in 1803, the movement was effectively finished. The failure of the rebellion led immediately to the passage in 1800 of the Act of Union. Originally intended to include Catholic Emancipation for Ireland, this legislative fusion of Great Britain and Ireland has signposted the political geography of these islands ever since.

Location of plaque: Kelly’s Cellars, Bank Street, Belfast

Date Unveiled: 2 July 2007

Report of Plaque unveiling available HERE

Anthony Trollope

1815 – 1882

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The great Victorian writer has a short but significant Belfast connection. A full-time official of the Post Office, in the autumn of 1853 he took up the post of Surveyor for the entire northern half of Ireland, working from the newly-built Custom House in Belfast. He was already the author of three unsuccessful novels, but found his true voice in the city, with The Warden (which was almost all written there), the first novel in his great Barsetshire series (including, of course, Barchester Towers).

Trollope spent much of his time on horseback, covering his vast territory, but when he was in Belfast his office in the Custom House is believed to have been behind the two first-floor windows to the extreme right of the south-facing (right) facade.

There is a Blue Plaque to him at 39 Montague Square, London W1, where he lived from 1873.

Location of plaque: Under the balustrade on the west side of the Custom House, to the right of the steps.

Joseph Tomelty

Author, Actor, Playwright

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Joseph (Joe) Tomelty was born in Portaferry, Co Down, on March 5th 1911. The eldest of seven children, he left the local primary school at 12 to be apprenticed to his father’s trade of housepainter. He then moved to Belfast and attended classes at Belfast Technical College. His acting debut was in 1937 with St Peter’s Players, and in the following year the Northern Ireland region of the BBC broadcast his first play Barnum Was Right, which became a record-breaking stage success as Mugs and Money.

In 1940, Tomelty was one of the founders of the Group Theatre, where he became general manager from 1942 until 1951. He wrote eleven stage plays, rich in vernacular language and metaphor, of which his masterpiece All Souls’ Night (1948) is the most often revived. That same year saw the publication of Red is the Port Light, a novel set in his native Co Down. A second novel The Apprentice was published in 1953. His career as a character actor was also developing, and Tomelty appeared in feature films from 1947 to 1963, including Odd Man Out (1947), Hobson’s Choice (1954), Bhowani Junction (1956) and Moby Dick (1956).

The BBC commissioned Joe Tomelty to write a weekly radio serial, The McCooeys, which was first broadcast in 1949. This comic drama ran for seven years, with a 6,000-word script written for each episode. Popular memory informs that the streets of Northern Ireland were empty when the Saturday evening broadcasts kept thousands indoors listening to the wireless. Other writing includes the two novels, short stories for the BBC Home Service, and The Singing Bird (1971); the first drama in colour broadcast by the BBC in Belfast.

Recognised as one of the most important cultural and artistic figures in Northern Ireland since the Second World War, in 1956 Tomelty was the first actor to be awarded MA for services to theatre by Queen’s University, Belfast, a fitting recognition in the city whose character and people he depicted so vividly in his writing. In 1954 Joseph Tomelty was injured in a car accident while working in England, and although he recovered, this restricted his career. He died in Belfast on June 7th 1995, and is buried in Portaferry.

Location of plaques: 22 Shore Road, Portaferry    Date of unveiling: 5 March 2011

Report of Plaque unveiling available HERE
Clip from the documentary “The Northern Irish in Hollywood

Hugh Thomson

1860 – 1920

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Hugh Thomson was born in Kingsgate Street, Coleraine, Co. Londonderry, on 1 June 1860, the eldest child of John and Catherine Thomson. Thomson was educated in the model school in Coleraine. At age fourteen he started work the local linen industry but three years later he entered the employment of Marcus Ward & Co., colour printers and publishers in Belfast where his talent for drawing was encouraged by John Vinycomb, head of the art department. He married Jessie Naismith Miller in 1884 and moved to London, where he took up employment with Macmillan & Co. on the English Illustrated Magazine, joining some of the most distinguished writers and illustrators of the day. Thomson provided scenes of Covent Garden and Regency Bath and the illustrations for the Addison and Steele Spectator papers Days with Sir Roger de Coverley (1886-7). Thompson’s style reflected the nostalgia of the time, his fine line drawing of rural characters and gentle countrified society appealing to the imagination of the public. His next commission was for a series on historic coaching roads, Coaching Days and Coaching Ways, by W. Outram Tristram in 1887-8, published in book form in 1878.

Thompson illustrated Mrs Gaskell’s Cranford for Macmillan (1891going on to illustrate eleven of the twenty-four books that came to be called the Cranford series. He also worked on two books for his friend the poet Austin Dobson, The Ballad of Beau Brocade (1892) and The Story of Rosina (1896). In 1894 he illustrated Pride and Prejudice for George Allen. He returned to Macmillan for five more of Jane Austen’s novels-Emma (1896), Sense and Sensibility (1896), Mansfield Park (1897), Northanger Abbey and Persuasion (1898).

Thomson derived considerable satisfaction from his books on Ireland written by Stephen Gwynne (1864-1950). Highways and Byways of Donegal and Antrim (1899) contains some notable pen-and-ink character sketches. In all Thomson was involved with twelve volumes of the Highways and Byways series, which stretched from Donegal and Antrim to Devon and Cornwall.

From the early 1890s Thomson’s drawings were exhibited on several occasions, beginning with a joint exhibition with Kate Greenaway at the Fine Art Society in 1891. From 1910 the Leicester Galleries were showing illustrations that had been prepared for printing in colour. The last two volumes in the Cranford series, both illustrated by Thomson, Scenes from Clerical Life (1906) and Silas Marner (1907), included colour, as did many of his later commissions, included works by Shakespeare, Sheridan, Goldsmith, and Hawthorne, and the popular plays of J. M. Barrie.

The war years brought ill health and financial hardship. In 1915 for the first time in many years there was no Thomson book or magazine illustration for the Christmas market. With very little work apart from some commissions from friends and an American edition of Thomas Hughes’s Tom Brown’s Schooldays (1918), in 1917 Thomson was took a job with the Board of Trade, where he worked until 1919. In 1918 he was granted a civil-list pension of £75. In spite of his deteriorating health he accepted what proved to be his last commission from Macmillan in 1919 to do a Highways and Byways volume on Gloucestershire. Thompson died of heart disease at his home, 8 Patten Road, Wandsworth Common, on 7 May 1920.

The Ulster Museum in Belfast holds a number of his watercolours and drawings as well as a complete set of his illustrated books.

Acknowledgement: Olivia Fitzpatrick – Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

Location of plaque:   9 Kingsgate Street, Coleraine, Co Londonderry


Sam Thompson

1916 – 1965

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Sam Thompson was born on 21 May 1916 in 2 Montrose Street, Ballymacarrett in East Belfast. The house was demolished in redevelopment and the site is now vacant. He worked in the nearby shipyard as a painter from age 14. After the war he worked for a while for Belfast Corporation. He was an active trade unionist and member of the Northern Ireland Labour Party. He actively opposed the practice of religious discrimination he witnessed in the Corporation and was dismissed for his pains, subsequently setting up his own business.

Thompson was a keen observer of the community in which he grew up. In the mid-1950s Sam Hanna Bell, the writer and broadcaster, then a producer in the BBC, heard him telling tales of the shipyard and its characters and encouraged him to write for radio. Over the following three years the BBC broadcast Brush in Hand (1956), Tommy Baxter, Shop Steward (1957), The Long Back Street (1958) and The General Foreman (1958) as well as the serial The Fairmans (1958).

In 1955 he began work on a stage play, Over The Bridge, about the dilemmas of trade union officials faced with an eruption of sectarian conflict in the shipyards. James Ellis, Head of Productions of the Ulster Group Theatre, accepted it for production. However in May 1959, a fortnight before it was due to be opened, the Board of the Theatre withdrew it on the grounds that it was ‘full of grossly vicious phrases and situations that would undoubtedly offend and affront every section of the public. It is the policy of the Ulster Group Theatre to keep political and religious controversies off our stage’. There was uproar; James Ellis and many others resigned from the Theatre and set up new company, Over The Bridge Productions, that on 26 January 1960, staged the play in the Empire Theatre. It was a resounding success, and far from creating conflict was widely praised for its realism and originality. The play toured Dublin, Scotland and England was was received with acclaim.

Thompson wrote three more plays; The Evangelist staged in the Grand Opera House in 1963, Cemented with Love a TV play screened in 1965 after his death and The Masquerade, which was discovered after he died.

Thompson stood unsuccessfully for the NI Labour Party for the Constituency of South Down in the 1964 General Election. He died, of a heart attack, on 15 February 1965.

Over The Bridge is ‘regarded as an important turning point in the history of Northern Ireland’s cultural moderinisation’ (Lionel Pinkerton). Northern Ireland theatre was never to be the same again.

Location of plaque: Rear of gable wall of 1 Vicarage Street (best viewed from Montrose Street South)

Date of unveiling: 26 January 2010

Report of Plaque unveiling available HERE

Isabella Tod

Suffragist and Campaigner for Women’s Rights

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Isabella was educated at home, apparently by her mother, who had a profound influence on her life. By the 1860s she was living in Belfast with her mother, who died in 1877. Tod was always proud of her Scottish blood and frequently alluded to the fact that one of her ancestors signed the copy of the Solemn League and Covenant at Holywood, Co. Down, in 1646.

For a period Tod earned her living by writing leaders for the Belfast newspaper the Northern Whig. She was a contributor to the Dublin University Magazine and The Banner of Ulster.

She was the only woman called upon to give evidence to a select committee inquiry on the reform of the married women’s property law in 1868 and served on the executive of the Married Women’s Property Committee in London from 1873 to 1874.

Tod successfully campaigned for the repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts of 1864, 1866 and 1869. Under the terms of this legislation, any woman suspected of being a prostitute could be arrested and forced to undergo medical examination for venereal disease. She opposed these acts as an infringement of women’s civil liberties. A life-long advocate of temperance, in 1874 she and Margaret Byers formed the Belfast Women’s Temperance Association.

She was a consistent advocate of access to secondary and tertiary education for girls. The Ladies’ Collegiate School Belfast (1859), the Queen’s Institute Dublin (1861), Alexandra College Dublin (1866), and the Belfast Ladies’ Institute (1867) owe their existence to Tod’s campaigns. In her publication On the Education of Girls of the Middle Classes (1874), she called for practical education along the lines provided by the Belfast Ladies’ Institute, which she had helped establish in 1867, to enable middle class women to earn a living. She pressured government to include girls within the terms of the Intermediate Education act of 1878.

In 1871 Tod organised the first suffrage society in the country, the North of Ireland Women’s Suffrage Committee, and her speeches were widely reported in the suffrage journals and daily newspapers in both Ireland and England. She shared platforms with, and was a friend of, many of the leading English suffragists.

In February 1872 Tod embarked on the first Irish campaign to secure the vote for women, addressing meetings at Belfast, Carrickfergus, Coleraine and Londonderry. On 21 February she addressed a meeting in Dublin which resulted in the establishment of a suffrage committee which evolved into the Dublin Women’s Suffrage Society. In 1873 she formed the North of Ireland Women’s Suffrage Society. Her campaign to ensure that women were granted the municipal franchise was rewarded for her efforts by the granting of this franchise to Belfast women in 1887, eleven years before women in other Irish towns were given the same privilege. She addressed meetings in London, Glasgow and Edinburgh, and visited London annually during the parliamentary session to lobby politicians.

She was a Liberal in politics but capable of co-operating very effectively, if circumstances required it, with Conservative politicians. Prime Minister Gladstone’s conversion to Irish Home Rule split the Liberal Party, produced realignment in British politics, and sundered many old friendships. This too was Isabella Tod’s experience; old friends and fellow campaigners became political opponents. She organised a Liberal Women’s Unionist Association in Belfast and spoke on platforms in Devon, Cornwall, and London. She argued that: “Home Rule would destroy Ireland’s economic base, not only would there be a withdrawal of capital… many skilled artisans would come over to England which would not tend to raise wages”. She worked tirelessly as a publicist and was the only woman member of the executive committee of the Ulster Women’s Liberal Unionist Association in 1888.

The last few years of Tod’s life were dogged by bad health. By this time, her work was much appreciated by many individuals in both England and Ireland. In 1884 she was presented with a testimonial of £1,000 contributed mainly by her “English fellow workers in various philanthropies”. In November 1886 she was presented with a full-length portrait as a token of appreciation for her work in Ireland. Another testimonial, some years later, consisted of an album, which contained 120 signatories, many from the front rank of the Unionist Party. She died at her home in Botanic Avenue, Belfast on 8 December 1896.

Isabella Tod is regarded as the most prominent feminist in nineteenth century Ireland.

Location of plaque: 99 Botanic Avenue, Belfast

Date of Unveiling: 8 March 2013

Report of event HERE

Jonathan Swift

Author of Gulliver’s Travels

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Born in Dublin on 30 November 1667, of English parents, Swift was the greatest satirist of his age. He was educated at Kilkenny College and Trinity College Dublin. He went to England in 1689 and became secretary to Sir William Temple at Moor Park, Farnham, Surrey; while there he met the young Esther Johnson, who, as `Stella’, was to remain a close friend for life.

Ordained in the Church of Ireland in 1695, he was appointed curate at Kilroot, near Lame, Co. Antrim, where he stayed for just one year. His first major work, A Tale of a Tub (1704), was a satirical attack on `the Abuses and Corruptions in Learning and Religion’. Between 1699-1710 he was in London to represent the Church of Ireland seeking the relief from ecclesiastical taxes. From 1710 he was a close confidant of Harley and Bolingbroke, then at the centre of English political and literary life. He wrote propaganda for the Tory government. He was a founder-member of the Scriblerus Club with his friends Alexander Pope, John Arbuthnot and John Gay. Swift did not get the position he sought, an English bishopric, but was made Dean of St Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin.

Within six years, roused by the injustices in the relationship between England and Ireland, he took up his pen on the Irish side with such success that he became known as the ‘Hibemian Patriot’. His Proposal for the Universal Use of Irish Manufacture (1720) urged the Irish people to boycott English goods, while The Draper’s Letters urged them not to accept the new coinage imposed on them by the English government.

During the 1720s and 30s Swift was the centre of a wide circle of Dublin wits and poets and authored many pamphlets. Much of his best verse dates from this time, particularly Verses on the Death of Dr Swift and The Legion Club, an attack on the corrupt Irish Parliament. He also wrote Gulliver’s Travels (1726), the most challenging satire of the age. The 1720s also saw the death of ‘Stella’. From the late 1730s his health declined, he faded from the Dublin scene, and he died on 19 October 1745.

Location of plaque: Ballynure Old Church

Date of Unveiling: 23 September 2004

Report of Plaque unveiling available HERE

Robert Sullivan

Educationalist and Benefactor
1800 – 1868

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Robert Sullivan was born in Holywood, Co. Down on 3 January in 1800, the son of a Kerry man who was stationed locally in the Revenue Service. Showing great academic promise, the young Robert Sullivan was admitted to the relatively newly opened Royal Belfast Academical Institution, having been nominated by a local landowner, Mr Cunningham Greg of Ballymenoch. After a very successful school career, Sullivan entered Trinity College, Dublin in 1824. He was elected an Inspector of Schools in May 1832; one of four appointed by the National board of Education for the whole of Ireland. It was after this that he began to write a series of school text books on subjects such as spelling, English grammar, geography and an English dictionary. The Sullivan textbooks were used and sold throughout the English-speaking world and became the basis for his considerable wealth. In1838 he was promoted to the important office of Superintendent or Professor of the Teacher Training Department in Marlborough Street, Dublin. Through this and the use of his textbooks, his name became known and his lessons studied throughout the whole island of Ireland.

He was called to the bar in 1838 and obtained the degree of LL.D. from his Alma Mater, Trinity College Dublin in 1858. A generous man throughout his life, Dr Sullivan made numerous donations to educational causes including his old school, R.B.A.I., the Queen’s College, Belfast and for the erection and support of National Schools all over Ireland. He firmly believed and worked towards a type of schooling founded in Christian principles but essentially non-sectarian in nature. In 1859 he entrusted to his early benefactor Mr Gregg the sum of four thousand pounds to set up a National School in Holywood Co. Down where he was born: the original building, now beautifully restored and serving as the town library, is still to be seen there. After his death in 1868 the trustees of his Will were required to pass on more of his bequests to educational causes. His executors were left a sum of four thousand pounds for the benefit specifically of the Sullivan National School in Holywood and the residue of his property, which amounted to over eight thousand pounds, was to be made available for the promotion of National or unsectarian education in Holywood. Thus it was that Sullivan Upper School came into being in 1877 and which not only bears the Sullivan name, family motto and coat of arms but also subscribes to Dr Sullivan’s principals of unsectarian or non-denominational education. This successful surviving voluntary grammar school of over one thousand pupils is one of the most tangible reminders of the life of this remarkable educationalist whose remains, at his insistence, reside in the old Priory graveyard in the town of his birth and where his name is remembered with pride and gratitude.

Text by: John Stevenson
Sullivan Upper School
May 2006

Location of plaque: High Street, Holywood at the site of a cottage where he was born

Date of unveiling: 25 October 2000

George Vesey Stewart

Pioneer New Zealand Settler
1832 to 1920

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Stewart was born in Martray, Co Tyrone, and educated at Trinity College, Dublin. After a period of farming in Tyrone he emigrated to New Zealand; his plan was to settle Ulster gentry and tenant farmers there. With that in mind he bought land from the New Zealand government at Katikati, Tauranga Gulf, on the eastern shore of North Island, and sold it off in farming lots to the immigrants. A first group of twenty-eight families arrived in 1875, and a further three hundred people in 1878. All in all he settled four thousand Ulster people in New Zealand, at Katikati and in a second settlement at Te Puke. The venture got off to a slow start, but the settlers finally achieved success as dairy farmers. The opening of the Martha gold mine at Waihi, twenty miles away, added to their prosperity. Stewart is buried at Katikati.

Location of plaque: Martray, Co Tyrone

Date of Unveiling: 20 March 1995