The 'Natural Leaders' and Their World: Politics, Culture and Society in Belfast, c. 1801-1832

The 'Natural Leaders' and Their World: Politics, Culture and Society in Belfast, c. 1801-1832

The 'Natural Leaders' and Their World: Politics, Culture and Society in Belfast, c. 1801-1832

The 'Natural Leaders' and Their World: Politics, Culture and Society in Belfast, c. 1801-1832

Excerpt

In March 1854 the committee of First Belfast Presbyterian Church consented to the erection of a memorial tablet in commemoration of the life of a former member, William Tennent. In and of itself, this was far from remarkable. First Belfast was a long-established congregation with a respectable, wealthy membership and over the course of the nineteenth century its walls were adorned with numerous memorials commemorating both the ministers who served the church and the upright citizens who worshipped under them. What distinguishes William Tennent’s memorial, however, is its scale: in contrast to the sober plaques that surround it, it incorporates an elaborate sculpture in which Tennent is depicted reposing, book in hand, under a tree, while, in the rear, two men are busily engaged unloading sacks of merchandise from a ship. Beneath this striking image, an inscription records that Tennent was born near Roseyards, County Antrim, on 26 June 1759; that he died in Belfast, some seventy-three years later, on 20 July 1832; and that he ‘employed the leisure won from an arduous mercantile career in the cultivation of science and letters’. He was, it continues, ‘a consistent advocate of free inquiry and rational liberty […] moderate in times of popular excitement and firm when exposed to the reaction of power’; and ‘he found his chief happiness in the affection of his family and friends’.

Seemingly straightforward, this inscription was composed after much debate by Tennent’s family and offers what is, in effect, an equivocal and, in places, sanitized biography. The reference to Tennent’s ‘arduous mercantile

1 George K. Smith to RT, 16 Mar. 1854 (PRONI, Tennent papers, D/1748/G/612/6).

2 [Alexander Gordon], Historic memorials of the First Presbyterian Church of Belfast: prepared in connection with the centennial of its present meeting-house (Belfast, 1887), pp. 25, 35, 41, 43–48, 51, 113, 119; Tom Moore, A history of the First Presbyterian Church Belfast, 1644– 1893 (Belfast, 1983), pp. 41–42.

3 The memorial was sculpted by the Belfast-born Royal Academician Patrick McDowell, for whom see Dublin University Magazine, 38 (1851), pp. 602–11; Illustrated London News, 31 Dec. 1870; and Walter George Strickland, A dictionary of Irish artists (2 vols, Dublin, 1913), II, pp. 59–63.

4 RJT to George K. Smith, 4 Apr. 1853 (PRONI, Campbell Allen papers, D/1558/1/9/5); James Emerson Tennent to RJT, 23 June 1853 (PRONI, Tennent papers, D/1748/G/ 661/297).

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