Blue plaque for Robert Adrain

A fresh late spring morning greeted the guests at Carrickfergus Library where they gathered to celebrate the life and achievements of a local man who made his mark in the field of mathematics the USA in the early nineteenth century.

Chris Spurr, Chairman of the Ulster History Circle, welcoming the Mayor of Carrickfergus and other guests to this special event, said that it was the latest in the series of the Circle’s blue plaques, joining those already here in Carrickfergus; the soldier and yeoman warder Daniel Cambridge VC on High Street; another Victoria Cross recipient, James Bell Crichton on Woodburn Road, and the shipbuilder Paul Rodgers on the Belfast Road. Today these plaques were joined by one to a man who made a significant contribution to mathematics. Robert Adrain was a mathematician of original thought, whose influence was prominent in early 19th century America. His Ulster Scots background gave him a radical bent, which led to his joining the ‘Turn Oot’ of 1798. Its failure, followed by Adrain’s exile, was America’s gain, when he became a teacher of renown in the universities of the east. The Ulster History Circle was delighted to honour Robert Adrain’s achievements with this blue plaque, and in addition Carrickfergus Library was an appropriate place to commemorate this scholar. The Circle would particularly like to thank Libraries NI and Mary Bradley, for allowing the plaque to go on this building, and the Ulster-Scots Agency for the financial support they have given towards the plaque. This was the latest in a series of plaques the Agency is funding this year, all across Ulster.

If one wanted to meet Robert Adrain, not exactly in the flesh, but in the steel, the place go to was the Thompson Dock in Belfast’s Titanic Quarter, to see him in a life-size steel cut-out. Robert was there, along with nine other Ulster Scots Innovators, in a new Gallery on the floor of the dock, which the Ulster-Scots Agency opened last weekend, as part of the Belfast Maritime Festival. Chris was pleased to say that six of the ten innovators had Ulster History Circle plaques, and details of these plaques were on display in the gallery.

Since the early 1980s, the Ulster History Circle had put up more than 170 blue plaques all over Northern Ireland, and one in Co Donegal, to celebrate the achievements of those men and women who have contributed significantly to our history, locally, nationally, and internationally. The Circle is an entirely voluntary organisation, and relies on the support of local authorities, individuals, organisations, and businesses to fund its plaques. Chris thanked Ian Crozier, CEO of the Ulster-Scots Agency for his support and also colleagues Maud Hamill and Mairead Ferguson from the History Circle, who had worked hard on the planning for this event today.

Ian Crozier, CEO, Ulster-Scots Agency, said that he was delighted to be here with the Ulster History Circle to unveil a blue plaque to mark the contribution of another Ulster-Scot to life here and in the United States of America. It was also a pleasure to be in Carrickfergus, the most historic town in Ulster, on the edge of the Scotch Quarter, to add another layer to the richness of its story. He looked forward to continuing cooperation with the Council on a project to erect new signage and interpretations of the old Scotch Corner and to being that aspect of the historic town to a wider audience. Robert Adrain was involved, as were many Presbyterians, in the ‘Turn oot’ of 1798, and that was an aspect of our heritage which was misunderstood and deserving of greater exploration, and the recognition of people like Adrain and others such as Jemmy Hope of Mallusk. With the advent of the new ‘super councils’, where the centre of administration was moving further away from people, things that mean something to people in the identity and heritage of their local area will become more important, and the blue plaques would be an important part of that.

Alderman Billy Ashe, Mayor of Carrickfergus, then unveiled the plaque.

Following refreshment in the Library Dr Steven O’Direan, a distant relative of Robert Adrain, provided a detailed account of Robert’s life and achievements.

Here are some photos of the event.

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The ceremony begins

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Blue Plaque Unveiling – William John English VC

A fine summer evening, cool after a showery day, met the guests at a ceremony to honor Col. English at the home where he lived for over ten years after his retirement from the army in 1930. The present owners of the property, David Hopley and his family, welcomed the company and kindly provided refreshments after the formal proceedings.

In addition to members of the Ulster History Circle, the gathering included Councillor Nelson McCausland and Olga Murtagh, Belfast Tourist Manager. The Headmaster of Campbell College brought along Col. English’s medals (including the Victoria Cross), which had been bequeathed to the College by the Col. His daughter, Mrs Barbara McAnuff, and nephew, Gavin Bamford, were there as well as representatives of the military.

Mrs Doreen Corcoran, Chairperson of the Ulster History Circle, was pleased that members of the family were able to be here as this gave a special meaning to the event. She thanked the City Council for providing the necessary finances as the Circle was a purely voluntary group with no resources of its own. She went on to remark that Col. English, having retired in 1930, returned to uniform at the start of WW2, at age 58, a time when most men were moving into retirement. Neither was he content to serve in a support capacity but was heading to the far east on active duty when he died.

Cllr. McCausland commended the Ulster History Circle for undertaking the work involved in producing the plaque. This was an important event which contributed to civic pride. It honoured and made visible to visitors the remarkable people who lived in the city and many would be inspired by the remarkable things they had done.

Gavin Bamford, Col. English’s nephew, was pleased that the Circle had taken up his suggestion for a plaque. He said that Col. English was buried in Aden where his grave could not be visited. He introduced Mrs McAnuff who would perform the ceremony.

Mrs McAnuff unveiled the plaque and the company adjourned to enjoy the refreshments.

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Blue Plaque Unveiling – John B. Yeats

John B Yeats’ father was “tall, red headed, scholarly and disapproved of Presbyterians”. When Macauley’s Histories were published he took to his bed and left the parish in his curate’s hands until he had read them all. This according to John B’s grandson, Michael Yeats, at the ceremony to unveil a blue plaque in John B’s memory.

An overcast but sultry day on a hilltop in County Down was the occasion to mark the birthplace of a remarkable and talented man, the father of two great literary and artistic figures, William and Jack Yeats. Present for the event were Michael and Grainne Yeats, the Chairperson of the District Council, members and friends of the Kerr family, current owners of the property, and the Ulster History Circle.

Mrs Doreen Corcoran, Chairperson of the Ulster History Circle, welcomed the guests, including Mrs Cassie McDermott, Chair of the Banbridge District Council. She thanked the Kerr family for agreeing to the erection of the plaque and the District Council for the financial assistance that made it possible. She was pleased that Michael Yeats and his wife Grainne had agreed to attend the event and that Michael would unveil the plaque.

Michael Yeats said how pleased he was to have been invited to unveil the plaque to his grandfather who had been born 165 years ago and spent the last 15 years of his life in New York. He had retained all his life the easy-going attitude of his father. He had spent 12 happy years in Tullylish. He had a profession as Barrister but had given it all up to the detriment of his family as he had no commercial sense. His approach to portraiture was idiosyncratic – if he wasn’t interested in a sitter he wouldn’t finish the painting and if he was was he would spend so much time in discussions that the painting was often not completed either. He once delivered a delayed painting of a wife two years after she died and on the day that a new marriage was being solemnised!

The group adjourned to the District Council Offices in Banbridge where the Council had provided refreshments. Victor Price, a member of the Ulster History Circle and a student of the Yeats legacy gave a short, interesting and most enjoyable discourse on the Yeats family and how WB’s poetry had inspired him and provided him, as a young man, with insight and understanding of some of life’s contradictions. The informal discussions provided many interesting and amusing anecdotes of John B’s approach to art and commerce and it was with regret that we parted company with Michael and Grainne at the end of a happy and delightful occasion.

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Blue Plaque Unveiling – Archbishop William Crolly

It was a fine, sunny, early summer evening when the company, which grew to about sixty people, began to gather at the little church on the quiet country road to that leads to Tyrella Beach. St Malachy’s is in the townland of Ballykilbeg (the townland of the little church!) where William Crolly was born in 1780. There were members of the Ulster History Circle and of the Lecale Historical Society, many people from the parish and further afield. Bishop of Down and Connor Patrick Walsh was accompanied by Canon Brendan Murray and Fr. Glavin from the Parish of Downpatrick of which the church is a part. Archbishop Brady was represented by Monsignor Raymond Murray PP Cookstown and Monsignor Ambrose Macauley was in attendance to give a talk about Archbishop Crolly. Two generations of the descendants of the Crolly family were represented. Although the wind was cool in the shade of the setting sun, the atmosphere was warm and welcoming as the company chatted in the few moments before proceedings started.

Mrs Doreen Corcoran, Chairperson of the Ulster History Circle, welcoming the gathering, was pleased at the number of people who had come to honour a worthy son of the area. Bishop Walsh performed the unveiling ceremony and the company entered the church to hear Monsignor Macauley’s talk.

The Monsignor, whose scholarly book about the Archbishop has been widely acclaimed, said that the Crolly family had been in the area since Anglo-Norman times. Originally called Swords, the family had adapted the Irish form of the word. Once extensive landowners in the County most of it had been sold in the 17th century due to a family dispute. The townland of Ballykilbeg remained in their hands until 1784 when it was sold and the family remained on the land as tenants. William Crolly was known for his liberal views on inter church relationships and was something of an ecumenist before his time. His relations with the other main churches during his time a Bishop of Down and Connor was excellent, demonstrated by the way in which financial support for church building and for Catholic Emancipation in the 1820s was extended by Presbyterian and Church of Ireland alike.

Monsignor Macauley described some of the controversies in which the Archbishop became embroiled, involving education and the role of the church in its management and oversight. However, his life was taken by the same disease, cholera, which caused so many fatalities in the final years of the Famine.

The company adjourned to the Parish Centre in Downpatrick where Canon Murray had kindly provided refreshments, an occasion for further discussion over a refreshing cup of coffee.

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Blue Plaque Unveiling – Ernest Walton

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At major Conference in Methodist College, Belfast, in honour of his life and achievements, a Blue Plaque to Ernest Walton, was unveiled by his daughter Marion. Here some of the guests gather at the front entrance for the event.

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Marion Walton unveils the Plaque, rather hurriedly, unfortunately, as the weather suddenly turned nasty, showering the guests with a chilly rain.

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Doreen Corcoran (Chairperson of the Ulster History Circle, Headmaster Wilfred Mulryne, Marion Walton and Dr. James Hawthorne (Ulster History Circle)


Blue Plaque Unveiling – Professor Frances Hutcheson

Your reporter had forgotten to bring a pen and could not borrow one; perhaps he was not trusted to return it, which has been known to happen in the past! In any case, this report has to be from memory, which is getting predictably less reliable by the week, let alone the year. Apologies therefore for any errors of omission and commission.

Unseasonably damp and cool weather greeted the guests gathering for the unveiling of the plaque to Professor Francis Hutcheson at Saintfield. As well as the Minister, Rev James Hyndman and his wife Janice, the guests included members of the congregation, representatives of the Down District Council, Down County Museum and the Friends of the Museum (who sponsored the event), Saintfield Heritage Society and the Ulster History Circle (who provided the plaque).

Because of the weather, the unveiling ceremony, by Mrs Janice Hyndman, was necessarily brief and the company adjourned to a large function room in the church. Mrs Elsie George, Chairperson of the Saintfield Heritage Society, introduced the speakers.

Rev Hyndman described how much Prof. Hutcheson had influenced the liberal views of many Prysberterian Ministers in the late 1700s, including Rev. Steel Dickson, Rev James Porter and his predecessor in Saintfield, Rev Thomas Ledlie Birch.

Dr James Hawthorne outlined the origin and objectives of the Ulster History Circle and described some of the often lengthy processes that were needed to erect a plaque. Unlike its counterpart in England, English Heritage, which had a budget of £200,000, the Circle had no budget and depended on sponsorship such as that provided by the Friends of Down Museum in the present case.

Philip Orr, Head of Theatre Studies at Down High School, spoke about the life Francis Hucheson and about the wide influence his published thoughts had on a great number of the seminal figures of the late eighteenth century, Hume, Smith, the United Irishmen, and the framers of the American Constitution. Mr Orr knew his subject and spoke with authority and passion. It was noted that his one man play “The Final Words of Thomas Russell” was being performed by actor Will Irvine in Down Museum next week and again in September.

Miss Enid Minnis, President of Saintfield Heritage Society, described the origin and development of the Society. She mentioned that one of her tasks in the early days of the Society was to contribute an article on Francis Hutcheson. She urged anyone interested in the Society to join.

Ken Dawson, Chairman of the Friends of Down Museum, said how delighted he was that the Friends was able to sponsor the event. The mission of the Friends was to engage the public to bring a knowledge of our heritage to a new generation and to help with the development of local societies. He commended the Friends to those present and suggested that those not already a Friend should consider joining.

Mrs Elsie George thanked everyone for their attendance and the speakers for their contribution to what was a historic event in giving recognition to a local man of great importance.

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Blue Plaque Unveiling – Sir Robert Ponsonby Staples

The sun shone and a light warm breeze played around the old house as Mrs Dolling, the granddaughter of the artist, unveiled the Blue Plaque in his honor. She suggested that he deserved recognition. His first painting exhibited by the Royal Acadamy was of Slieve Gallion and his last, 51 years later, was of a snow scene in County Tyrone. She described him as a man of great imagination and character. She gave a moving and sometimes humourous account of some episodes of his life and times.

Doreen Corcoran, Chairperson of the Ulster History Circle, said how delightful it was to in the lovely heart of Tyrone and to be associated with a plaque which was on a building that was itself significant as well as honouring a famous person. She described Sir Robert as a restless mind seeking to commit what he saw to canvas.

The Chairman of Cookstown District Council, which had funded the Plaque, said how delighted the Council was to be able to help and urged everyone to watch the BBC Programme “Restoration” on Friday 22nd and be sure to vote for Lissan House.

The ceremony was followed by a tour of the house with so many of the Sir Robert’s paintings on display.

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Blue Plaque Unveiling – Vere Foster

The ceremony took place at the Northern Ireland Offices of the Irish National Teachers Organisation (INTO) at 23 College Gardens, Belfast in the early afternoon on a sunny October day. The unveiling of the plaque was combined with the reopening of the building after a major refurbishment.

Gerry Malone, INTO President said that it was an appropriate occasion as Vere Foster had been the first President of INTO. He thanked all those who had contributed to the redesign and upgrading of the premises, including the architects and the staff of the Northern Committee.

Doreen Corcoran, Chairperson of the Ulster History Circle, briefly outlined the work of the Circle and described how the Circle and INTO had worked together to prepare and erect the plaque. She thanked all those involved.

Martin McGuinness, former Minister of Education in the NI Executive, described some of the challenges facing the education service and said he remained optimistic about the return of the institution of Government.

Unveiling the plaque, Mr McGuinness paid tribute to the work of Vere Foster and commended the Ulster History Circle on its approach to commemorating men and wome who had made a significant contribution to the life of the province.

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Blue Plaque Unveiling – William Drennan

Very Rev Nigel Playfair, welcoming guests to the event at the First Presbyterian Church Rosemary St Belfast, called William Drennan a man of peace, speaking his message to us still as citizens of Belfast and Ireland. Theologically liberal, to him all people were equally children of the one Creator and throughout his life he had remained true to these beliefs.

Belfast Lord Mayor Cllr. Alex Maskey congratulated the Ulster History Circle and all those associated with the event. The City Council was supportive of its work and he promised its continued co-operation. He said that William Drennan was an inspiration to to us all, in his work for medicine, education and political thinking.

Lady Quigley, unveiling the plaque, (erected on the site of the old manse where Drennan was born), described Drennan as a man of many parts, neatly encapsulated by the Ulster History Circle’s characterisation of “Patriot and Radical”. He came from and was influenced by an enlightened family and community, themselves much affected by the revolutionary events sweeping Europe and the Americas. Drennan graduated as a Doctor of Medicine in Edinburgh and while there began the forty year long correspondence with his elder sister Martha McTier. Recently published in three volumes, these letters provide a unique insight into the social and political conditions of those turbulent times, written by people intimately involved in many of the events which changed the history of the period.

In common with all doctors at the time, Drennan treated symptoms since the causes of disease were unknown. He was not apparently a very successful doctor, financially, probably because of his known political views, which made him dangerous to be associated with. Yet his enquiring mind made him an early advocate of hygiene in the prevention of disease. He had suggested to the Belfast Charitable Institution that it offer smallpox vaccination (then using the dangerous practice of using contact with infected people, which nevertheless seemed to work in many cases) to the poor. When Dr Jenner suggested the use of the milder cowpox he accepted this with alacrity and used it successfully on his youngest son in 1802.

Turning to the political events that shaped Drennan’s views, Lady Quigley described the ferment of an England at war with the American Colonies where some forty thousand colonists from the north of Ireland maintained close links with home and whose description of their sufferings matched those in Ulster. The war with France changed many attitudes and many, including Drennan, joined the Volunteer movement. This involvement increased his radicalism and he was involved in the increasing demands for Parliamentary reform and for Catholic Emancipation. The French Revolution in 1789 had a significant impact on political thinking and Drennan advocated a ‘benevolent conspiracy’ uniting all the people of Ireland. He called for ‘publication, declaration and communication’ – a major feature of the revolutionary movement. Change should be through argument, debate and appeals to reason. In 1791, with Wolfe Tone and others he helped set up the Society of United Irishmen whose aims were to unite Catholics, Protestants and Dissented in common cause.

In 1793 the war with France started again and the Government, alarmed by the radicalism of the Volunteer movement, suppressed it. Drennan was arrested and prosecuted. He was acquitted. As his acquittal was due mainly to a technicality, he realised that to continue in the United Irish movement would be suicidal and thereafter he maintained a back seat as the men of action replaced the men of reason. Drennan did not change his views. He opposed the Act of Union and mounted a series of strong protests against it, continuing his demands for Parliamentary reform and Catholic Emancipation.

In 1807 he returned to Belfast from Dublin. His advocacy of Catholic Emancipation remaine strong but Daniel O’Connell’s references to a ‘Catholic Ireland’ offended his principles of uniting Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter. In 1814 he helped establish the Belfast Academical Institution with strong emphasis on the teaching of Irish and Irish culture. This approach led to the withdrawal of government support in 1816 when at a St Patrick’s Day dinner Governors and teachers drank a toast to the American and French revolutions.

In conclusion, Lady Quigley painted a picture of a socially shy, insecure man, with little sense of humour and quick to take offence at imagined slights. These characteristics demonstrated his humanity and helped to provide a rounded picture of a great man of his times.