A working-class loyalist narrative

Ruairí Ó Domhnaill reviews Loyalism and Labour in Belfast: the autobiography of Robert McElborough, 1884-1952, Emmet O’Connor and Trevor Parkhill (eds), Cork University Press, £7.50 pbk

THE EDITORS of this slim volume, published in Cork University Press’s Irish Narratives series, have produced a penetrating, enthralling illustration of Irish history.

The author’s mother was a strong, God-fearing, Bible-literate woman, who, when her illiterate ex-soldier spouse lost his job, was visited by an “angel”, a mysterious “lady” who helped to find work for the husband and his sons.

Later, as an employee of Belfast City, the author routinely accessed another arcane power -- the free masonry of Ulster unionism. He pointedly noted that “a councillor named (James, viscount Craigavon) Craig” assisted certain candidates for promotion in local government.

The narrative is spiced, perhaps inadvertently, with humour. The author, then a conductor and master of his tram, battled manfully with his driver and with the fare-dodging public. He managed his social superiors diplomatically but profitably.

Loyalists’ ambivalence towards brother-Britons manifests itself in the description of Winston Churchill, then supporting Home Rule, as “an Englishman who had no knowledge of Ireland”. Jim Larkin, “over from Liverpool” is mentioned -- just! Connolly is not.

Robert McElborough saw himself as a warrior for workers’ rights, but loyalism circumscribed his trade union work. The claim that his “Roman Catholic friends are legion” (he uttered a Catholic priest’s name -- twice) seems like the old golfer’s protest “some of my best friends are Jewish.”

A brief reference to the abolition of proportional representation in the six counties is not developed. Perhaps the narrator was unaware that it torpedoed constitutional arrangements, designed to alleviate the lot of the fabricated minority.

Loyalist bosses diligently kept loyalist workers firmly in their divinely allotted roles, routinely risking their lives for a pittance. It was probably preferable to starvation!

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This document was last modified by David Granville on 2002-10-02 15:50:38.
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