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The Honourable The Irish Society in the Modern Era
20 November 2013
The Honourable The Irish Society
in the Modern Era
When I became the Representative in Ireland of the Irish Society in 1996, my father was told by one of his friends, an elderly Ulster Unionist peer 'that will not be a bed of roses'. This was in sharp contrast to many of my contemporaries in London, who thought it was indeed a cushy number, with a delightful office in an idyllic setting by the river Bann, endless fishing and shooting opportunities, long lunches and much civic conviviality thrown in. They were, in short, deeply envious.
Well, the old politician was correct. Despite all appearances to the contrary, the position of Irish Society Representative (and now Secretary and Representative) is a finely judged act of sitting on a fence, trying to manage charitable assets in a post-conflict situation on behalf of a far-away body of trustees, some of whom have very limited knowledge of the organisation. There are many parts to the role; one is in some senses an ambassador from London, or a fishery manager, or a civic relationship and charity worker. Even now, after 17 years in the post, I am frequently embroiled in some entirely new and different matter that is connected to the long and colourful history of the Irish Society.
By way of quick summary for those who may have missed the first two lectures in this series, by Dr Ian Archer and Professor James Stevens Curl, I would define the Irish Society as follows: The Irish Society is a 400 year-old property-owning charity, governed by Trustees drawn from the City of London Corporation under a Royal Charter, operating only in County Londonderry and which uses the income from its assets and its influence for the benefit if the citizens of County Londonderry in general and the city of Londonderry and town of Coleraine in particular.
I felt that the best way of tackling the extensive subject matter of the Irish Society over the course of the 20th Century, while trying to avoid a certain inevitable progression through history, would be to broadly contrast the position of the Society in 1913 and in 2013, and to examine how things had changed, either for the better or worse, over that period. As any student of Irish history will know, the century between those two dates saw some of the most convulsive upheavals and widespread change on that island that any earlier century has witnessed since the arrival of Strongbow in Waterford or Henry VIIIth's decision to annex Ireland to the English Crown. And yet, when we reach the end of the story to date, it may fairly be concluded that the Irish Society has not altered that much, and if Sir Alfred Newton (Governor in 1913) was able to rise from his strychnine-induced grave and make a reappearance today at a Court meeting in Guildhall, he would almost certainly recognise the organisation and quite possibly the subject matters under discussion.
Of course, much has in fact changed in the intervening century, partly as a result of the political and economic events of the 20th Century - the World Wars, the War of Independence and the subsequent Irish Civil War, the creation of the Unionist-dominated Northern Irish state in 1921, economic decline after the Second World War and the impact of the Troubles in the 30 years from 1969. The Society could not possibly have emerged into the 21st century entirely unaffected, and as we shall see it did not, especially with regard to its property owning and civic role. However, its internal structures have continued to withstand the test of time, subject to a modest degree of modernisation.
1913 seems to be a suitable year in which to mark the start of the Society's transformation from its previous role as the unchallenged leading organisation in County Londonderry apart from the Government, to a more modest yet sustainable charitable capacity. The building, and rebuilding, of Londonderry's Guildhall had stretched it very considerably, and this situation was exacerbated by a gradual reduction in rental income as the forced redemption of leases to tenants continued under the terms of the Irish Land Acts. So that year marked the Society's high water mark, much as it did for much of the existing European social order, which would be swept away forever by the First World War. It also saw the virtual ending of the 300 year participation in the Plantation by the City of London's livery companies. These bodies had, with the exception of the Mercers in Kilrea who stuck it out until the 1960s, all withdrawn from their estates and responsibilities by the early 20th Century. A few companies left trusts behind them, to care for what were essentially public assets such as primary schools, turbary rights and town markets, some of which still survive to this day. By contrast, although its income was greatly reduced through the forced sale of its agricultural holdings (several thousand acres outside the city of Londonderry and the town of Coleraine) the Society was still left in control of considerable urban property on short leases in those two centres, as well as of other unaffected assets such as Sporting Rights, particularly the valuable commercial salmon fisheries on the tidal waters of the rivers Foyle and Bann.
So, how was the Society organised in 1913, who ran it and what did it do? It was, in fact, still governed by the 1662 re-granted Royal Charter of Charles II, almost unchanged although some of the 17th Century rights and privileges had gone by the board - mainly as a result of the Court's failure to exploit them. 25 Aldermen and Common Councilmen of the City of London, plus the ex-officio Recorder, composed the elected Court. The members sat for strictly limited periods on the body, this had always been an unwieldy and unsatisfactory arrangement but it continued to defy attempts to change it during the 20th Century. Only the positions of Governor and Deputy Governor offered real continuity, involvement and authority - the Governor as one of the senior Aldermen 'past the Chair' as Lord Mayor and the Deputy Governor as a senior Common Councilman. The Governorship had in the past been a job for life, although not stipulated in the Royal Charter, and some individuals had served for very long periods indeed, but as general longevity increased during the early 20th Century, a sensible arrangement of a single 3 year term became the norm after the Second World War. However, the Deputy Governor, effectively the CEO of the organisation, continued to serve for only a single year throughout this period, which was manifestly unsatisfactory and probably contributed to the periodic tendency for collective amnesia that any researcher into the Society's history will find. In 1913, Sir Alfred Newton was already in his 7th year as Governor and had another 8 still to serve - his imprimatur remains in stained glass windows in Londonderry and Coleraine, as well as in considerable numbers of small pieces of presentation silver that regularly surfaces at auction houses.
As well as projecting his personality, Sir Alfred had to preside over a hugely difficult period in the Society's history, as the First World War and an era of 'managed decline' soon followed. From the high water mark of re-opening Derry's Guildhall in 1913, when British rule still held sway across the whole island of Ireland, to his retirement in 1921 by when a vicious civil war had divided the country and the new international border created by Partition ran down the Society's own river Foyle and its fisheries. But, as in other areas, it was the Society's Secretary in London and its General Agents in Ireland who were perhaps most influential in its day to day activities. Durie Miller had set a new record for tenure in his role as Secretary, that will surely never be equalled, reigning for an impressive 52 years until 1917, while various members of the Lane and Boyle families from Limavady served as General Agent in Ireland, sometimes in dynastic succession.
At that time, all decisions on matters affecting the Society were made in London and no structure or formal representation existed whereby local interests in Ireland could take part; this had become one of the main gripes of those in the Corporations of Londonderry and Coleraine, and local MPs, but was not addressed for many years more, until the formation of the Local Advisory Committee in 1974.
In the early 20th Century, the main problems facing the Society were: fishery protection and exploitation, property maintenance and letting, and the direct management of schools and other institutions in the County.
The Society not only still owned the ground rents of literally hundreds of properties in and around both Londonderry and Coleraine, but also significant amounts of land, such as the Springtown Estate outside the northern boundary of Derry and the much larger area of reclaimed land on the margins of Lough Foyle - some 3000 acres - in the area between Limavady, Ballykelly and Eglinton.
Fishery management had been delegated for hundreds of years already to entrepreneurial locals, and in 1913 this was still the situation - the Foyle and Bann Fishery Co had held leases since the 1890s and invested considerable sums of money into fishery protection, restocking and pollution prevention measures. But it was the Society which continually had to bear the expense of defeating poaching and third party ownership claims. A hugely expensive case over the legitimacy of drift netting by Donegal netsmen off the mouth of Lough Foyle had just been heard in 1910 in the Irish Court of Appeal in Dublin, where the Society lost, and when it took a further appeal to the House of Lords the following year, it lost once more. This was an ominous portent of what was to follow later in the century.
In 1920, a new fishery tenant bought into the Foyle and Bann Fishery Company with a renewed lease from the Irish Society. The Petrie and Noble families, merchants of Liverpool, took charge and continued to work the commercial rights both on the tidal Foyle downstream of Strabane and on the Lower Bann estuary at Coleraine (the Cutts fixed traps and the Cranagh nets). These were very labour intensive operations, using large crews of men with boats and often nets of enormous length that had to be set and recovered at the correct state of the tide, but they were lethally effective, as the salmon catch records show - in 1922, for instance, almost 50 tons of salmon were landed, and this figure was frequently exceeded over the next 40 years until a prolonged salmon decline set in, that is with us still.
The great value of salmon and the need to protect the legitimate netsmen operating on the Foyle especially, provoked the Society into an energetic attempt to defend its interests against the perennial poachers in the 1940s, and it was also decided to take on the newly independent and possibly politically-unfriendly Irish state. The reason for this was to try and obtain a declaration of the Society's proprietary rights to the fishings, which had been disputed continually since the start of the Plantation. The situation had been worsened since, as mentioned above, the border between Northern Ireland and the Free State as it was then called, ran straight through the fishing zone between Derry and Strabane, and further, the reduction in bailiffing in the Northern side during the Second World War had given rise to an unprecedented level of poaching. Letters and reports sent to London in 1946-47 by the Society's General Agent Peter Dickson, and the Foyle and Bann fishery manager Major Jack Kinnaird, show the extent of the problem: whereas the legitimate netsmen operated around half a dozen boats and crews, on many days over 100 boatloads of poachers with nets were seen and many were armed. The legitimate netsmen had to leave the fishery and there seemed to be no protection from the Southern Irish side of the border; indeed, at one point Major Kinnaird reports that a gang of poachers was seen to be led by a member of the local Irish police force, the Gardai.
The attempt to take on the poachers and the Irish state backfired badly for the Society; after a mammoth hearing in Dublin's High Court in 1947-48, Judge Gavin Duffy, who had been a prominent member of Sinn Fein in the 1920s, found against the Society in a judgement that ran to 35000 words, one of the longest in Irish legal history. Both sides had employed not only the leading barristers of the day, but had recruited a team of outstanding scholars in Irish legal and social history, such as the famous Plantation historian Professor Theodore Moody, and the costs were predictably enormous. The case turned on the issue of whether the English kings, and even their pre-Plantation Irish antecedents, had been wrong to grant tidal fisheries to parties such as the Irish Society, and whether there had instead always been a public right to fish such waters. The experts not only had to examine Magna Carta, but also to try to interpret Brehon law, the ancient Irish legal system, as far back as the 5th Century AD.
The immediate result of the Dublin hearing was of course, further anarchy on the fisheries of the Foyle whilst the Irish Society considered making an appeal. Fairly rapidly, both governments in Ireland saw that this state of affairs could not be tolerated indefinitely, and moved to purchase the Society's claimed rights and set up the first All-Ireland body of the post 1921 era, the Foyle Fisheries Commission. This body continues to this day, although now known as the Loughs Agency, and it safeguards and oversees the whole river Foyle catchment, as well as other cross-border fishing areas such as Carlingford Lough.
There is no doubt that this whole bruising affair put the Society into the limelight far more than at any other time in its recent history, and consumed much of its energies for many years.
Aside from the fisheries, in 1913 the Society directly owned a large number of commercial and residential premises both in Derry and Coleraine and the records bear testament to the routine work of overseeing repairs and putting in place satisfactory tenants to the various properties. As many of the properties were already quite old and required endless repairs, and the economic decline that set in after the First World War started to bite, the results were often far from good. This tended to encourage a pattern of property sales; not much urban property was sold by the Society before the Second World War, but thereafter, sales seem to have accelerated and some of the deals appear by today's standards to have been very poor for the Society indeed. Many buildings in strategically valuable areas such as the Diamond in Coleraine or the docks in Derry, were allowed to pass on to other public bodies without including any standard reversionary clause in the conveyance to allow reoccupation by the Society, or properties were simply sold off for a purely nominal sum such as £1. There is a distinct lack of a clear strategy or co-ordinated policy in the various sales that took place, and some of the deals seem simply to have been born out of desperation to get rid of a troublesome asset without any longer-term view. It is of course easy to be critical with the advantage of hindsight, and one should be careful not to judge one's predecessors too harshly. It is hard to escape the conclusion, though, that from the 1920s onwards, there was a tone of defeatism in some of the Society's reports and actions, no doubt emanating from the difficult political and economic situation in the new Northern Irish state. This can be contrasted with the confident attitude displayed by the Society's leadership during the Victorian era, for instance.
During the first half of the 20th Century, the Society still owned and maintained at its sole expense perhaps the single largest edifice on the island of Ireland - the Walls of Derry, finished in 1618 and over a mile in circumference - complete with all the symbolism and history that went with it. Although the Society had built the Walls, by the end of the 19th Century the developing city of Derry had long outgrown them and at one point the Society and the Corporation of Londonderry had come perilously close to agreeing that they be pulled down to allow for more ease of commercial traffic. The Society also upkept perhaps the single most important building in North West Ireland, from an architectural viewpoint - St Columb's Cathedral. These assets of course produced no income but instead consumed very considerable sums each year in maintenance.
In one of the more curious, short and simple divestments of its property that I have yet come across, the Society in 1955 effectively transferred the City Walls to the NI Government, retaining not even the formal right to be consulted about their use or management, even if the purely symbolic ownership was retained. Despite this action, I have noticed over the years that the emotional ties between the Society and its Walls still remain strong, as does the wish of many in the city of Londonderry to see the Society retain its connection with them. In more recent years, the NI Environment Agency has adopted a more inclusive approach to the way in which the city Walls are managed and the current relationship between the Society and the government is a positive one, as witnessed by my serving on the City Walls Steering Group for the past 6 years. The Walls are of course still one of the best known assets of Northern Ireland, because of their blood-soaked history and more importantly because of the valuable tourism potential that they embody. Many thousands of visitors come to the city every year to walk the Walls and although tourism was certainly not on the minds of those who built them for protection in the 17th Century, the real legacy now lies in how much the city can benefit from international and home-grown visitors. There has even been some discussion about gaining UNESCO World Heritage Status for the Walled City of Londonderry, but ironically it seems there is an oversupply of such cities already nominated, and UNESCO are currently focussed on other priorities.
Not all of the operations of the Irish Society in 1913 could be devolved entirely to local management, and the tradition of 'Visitations' by the members of the Court continued to take place, even during the World Wars. Visitations had started 100 years earlier, in response to concerns about poor absentee management by the Society, with reports of 'rack-renting' middlemen exploiting tenants in the absence of the landlord. They also fitted in well with the early 19th century philanthropic zeal with which many members of the Court were imbued, as the detailed reports kept by the Society make clear. The desire to do good and to improve the lot of their tenants and dependants in Ireland seem to have been the primary motive for the visitors. Actually, visitations made a great deal of sense, even if they were criticised on occasions from both ends - by those in London who had to commit to many days and even months away from home and business careers, and by those in Ireland who saw them simply and erroneously as a 'holiday' for the Court members. There is very strong evidence that Visitation members did a great deal of work on their trips, reviewing properties and leases, meeting business people and politicians, authorising all manner of expenditure and charitable giving. But it was all being done by Londoners, operating from London, and as the 20th Century went by, this became more and more of an issue.
In 1913, the charitable donations made annually by the Society already went to a surprisingly wide range of beneficiaries - although almost all of them within the bounds of Coleraine or Londonderry, and not across the wider county as today - and for that time, there was a refreshing absence of bias against Nationalist/Catholic organisations and institutions, many of which benefited from grants. By this I mean that the Society in London sought to work for both communities and it recognised early on in the 20th Century that Derry had become a Nationalist-dominated city.
However, there was little co-ordination or strategic purpose in the Society's annual donations, which were entirely run by the Secretary from London and generally in response to suggestions received from the General Agent in Londonderry. The difficulty of the Society's position, then as now, was that it was trying to be a charitable body in a small area where it was also a large land and property owner. The result was often that it seemed, to outsiders, to give with one hand, and take back (in rents) with the other. This was an uncomfortable position. Throughout the 20th Century the Society also had to trim its charitable budgets in reaction to its own declining economic circumstances, which until the very end of the 20th Century meant a gradual reduction in funds. Nor was the Society structured to run as a charity; the accelerating speed of forced property sales by Vesting Orders and the Londonderry Development Company in the 1960s and early 1970s almost overwhelmed the small and ageing team running the Society at the time - Major Leslie Landragin (Secretary) and Peter Dixon (General Agent) to the extent that other aspects of the Society's charitable role were not developed fully. It was only after the retirement of Mr Dixon in 1974, and the creation of a new role for Commander Peter Campbell as the Society's Representative in Ireland, that more attention was paid to the need to modernise and formalise the charitable role, as we shall see later on.
The Society's closest ties in the educational field historically lay with 3 primary schools that it had founded during the 18th and 19th Centuries; Culmore and Ballougry on the outskirts of Londonderry, and the Irish Society's school in Coleraine, which eventually had to split into 3 schools to cope with the increasing population of the north coast town. Other key educational ties lay with Foyle and Londonderry College (now Foyle College), with which the Society had been involved since its foundation in 1617 at the start of the Plantation. But while these institutions all had roots in the Protestant community, the Society had long since committed considerable funds on a regular basis to Roman Catholic schools such as St Columb's College in Derry, and as the number of Catholic schools increased to cater for the city's enlarged population during the 20th Century, so did the extent of the Society's involvement in supporting such schools and other institutions.
Until the NI Education Act of 1947, the Society ran its primary schools directly and entirely at its own cost, but following the transfer of responsibility to central government for these matters, the Society's role became, thankfully no doubt for the Court, restricted to prizes, special visits and more honorific duties. In each case, however, the Society continued to nominate a proportion of the Governors as its nominees on the board of governors, as it does to this day. In other cases, such as Foyle and Londonderry College, we find that in the 1960s the Governor of the Irish Society also served as Chairman of the School governors, and seems to have taken a very 'hands on' role in support of the school. At that time, the Society was actively assisting the school by transferring to it on very generous terms large amounts of land at Springtown for new building and sports fields. Similar support was given to other grammar schools such as Coleraine Academical Institution and Coleraine High School.
The impact of The Troubles
From the late 1960s, when the Troubles started in Londonderry, the Society was poorly prepared to meet the challenge. At the time, one of the great issues that sparked the civil disturbances was the poor housing in Catholic areas such as the Bogside, and an Urban Development company was set up by the Unionist government to address this. The Society held considerable areas of land both inside and without the Walled City under 19th century Fee Farm Grants, and there was a rapid succession of Vesting Orders that removed its ownership almost overnight, and for very paltry compensation. The elderly and ailing General Agent, Peter Dixon, struggled to deal with this and a wave of bombings that destroyed dozens of shops and premises in the city centre owned on determinable leases by the Society. It is fairly evident that a number of local property developers and others saw an opportunity to take advantage of the Society at this point and a lot of sales at 'knock down' prices seem to have been transacted during the 1970s and 1980s, the overriding concern in London being to get rid of 'difficult' property at almost any price and keep the Society's local profile as low as possible.
As a result, the Society lost a large part of its remaining urban property in Londonderry in these years, perhaps over 80% in total, for very modest sums of money. Its remaining Coleraine property was less affected, as the Troubles had not yet taken such a toll in that town. At least the capital from the property sales in Derry was largely re-invested in a portfolio of stocks and shares, and was thus kept immune from further local economic and social turbulence.
Eventually, in 1988, a bomb aimed at Derry's fine Courthouse building also caused devastation to the Society's own offices in St Columb's Court, and the organisation was faced with a move to new premises for the first time in very many years. Eventually, rightly or wrongly, the decision to move to Cutts House in Coleraine was taken more on sensible management grounds rather than on the emotional one of staying put in Londonderry where the office had been since the 18th Century. Cutts House was a former fishery manager's house for the Lower Bann river, and had been in the Society's ownership for over a century, but at the time was unlet, following the departure of the last fishery tenants in the mid 1980s - members of the Noble family who had held a lease for almost 3 generations. The suitability of the arrangement was that the main fishery asset now lay on the Bann rather than the Foyle, as did the majority of the Society's income-producing properties in Coleraine, so having the management office there made good business sense. But that has not stopped people in Londonderry from commenting to me that Coleraine is only a temporary office for the Society, and they expect it to return to the city again some day.
The Troubles also made it much harder for the Society to promote its links to Northern Ireland in the City of London, and few worthwhile projects could take place while under the shadow of bombings and shootings in the capital city. However, although Visitations were greatly reduced at times, the links between London and the County were never broken and if events could not be held in Northern Ireland then they often took place in London, for instance a campaign to help some of the Grammar schools promote themselves and connect to a wider audience in such places as Hong Kong, to increase their boarding numbers.
The Local Advisory Committee
When Commander Peter Campbell took over as Representative in Ireland at the start of 1974, he rapidly concluded that the Society urgently needed to address its image and modus operandi in the County. He found that it was not held in much esteem by the bomb-weary population of Derry in particular, and its very aloofness and remoteness in London was exacerbating the problem. His solution was to enlist the active support of the two main Councils that had just been created to run the main urban centres in the county - Londonderry City Council (which became Derry City Council in 1984) and Coleraine Borough Council. At that time, some Nationalist politicians in Derry had called on the Secretary of State, William Whitelaw, to abolish the Society and transfer its assets to the people of the County. However, when it was pointed out that the assets belonged to the City of London and the proceeds of any sales would simply go there, more moderate opinions prevailed and it was resolved by both Councils to work with the Society for the betterment of all in the County. The first meeting of the Local Advisory Committee took place in March 1974, under the Chairmanship of the then Deputy Governor, and included the Mayors of Londonderry and Coleraine, 2 further Councillors from Coleraine Council and 3 from Londonderry, to reflect its greater size. The Town Clerks of both Councils were also brought on board, to give improved continuity.
This structure has worked well since then, and has brought about a great improvement in understanding and collaboration between the 3 entities involved. Every year, the Society provides a delegated budget to the Advisory Committee, and this is expended on a wide range of small grants to community groups, sports clubs, senior citizens groups and other deserving causes within the county of Londonderry. The Society is clearly no longer in a position to build large public buildings or projects itself, but it has definitely found a useful niche as a 'seed corn' grant provider, often helping larger charitable projects get off the ground with a small donation. The Advisory Committee also serve as a useful sounding board for matters of strategy and policy for the Society, especially given the fully-cross party makeup of the Committee, which is elected every year by both Councils.
The Committee puts its views forward to the Society as recommendations and these are invariably ratified by the Court in London at the earliest opportunity.
Bann System Ltd
Following the forced sale of the Foyle fisheries in 1952, the Society continued for many years to run its fisheries in an entirely 'hands off' manner, through leases. This worked well enough until it became evident that the commercial salmon fishing operation run by the lessees was no longer sustainable in the late 1980s, and a rethink was needed as to how best to run what was a very large, publicly accessible asset - the 40 miles of the Lower Bann river. The river is very large in UK terms, and drains almost half of Northern Ireland and its catchment extends even into the Republic of Ireland.
Very much against the Society's wishes, in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s this large waterway was heavily dredged to prevent flooding and also turned into a navigable waterway, for commercial and recreational boat traffic. Very much as the Society feared, the result was the loss and damage of many miles of salmon spawning grounds in the main river stem, as the natural boulders, gravels and fauna and flora were removed by diggers mounted on barges. A lengthy battle for compensation had some rewards eventually, but the reality was that this activity can only have contributed to the sudden and steep decline in the commercial fishery's fortunes after the record year of 1962 when 34,000 salmon were taken in the Bann traps and nets, representing over 100 tons of fish.
Therefore, in the mid 1980s Commander Campbell once again decided it was time to change the way in which the fishery was managed, taking advantage of the retirement of the last lessee of the Noble family in 1984. His vision was for the Society to take charge again, not only managing the remaining commercial salmon operations in the Estuary and at the Cutts, but also developing a significant angling tourist business, principally based around the spectacularly prolific beat at Carnroe weir, about 10 miles upstream of Coleraine, where the salmon rest in shallow (and undredged) waters below the weir before making the ascent towards their native rivers to spawn. He also saw the potential for development of pike and coarse fishing, which had superb natural waters in the upper reaches of the Bann, in and around the shallow Lough Beg area. There was even the prospect of developing Cutts House into a tourist angling hotel, and of building a hydro-electric scheme at the Cutts to generate renewable and 'green' electricity. Much of this vision is still work in progress today, for many reasons, but the move to base the Society's fishing income and business onto angling, and away from traditional netting and trapping of wild fish in large numbers, was an immediate success. Although the Cranagh net closed in 1989, and the Cutts traps in 1995, with the subsequent sale of the commercial rights to the government in 2000, by then the income from salmon and trout angling had greatly increased and more than compensated for the lost commercial catch.
Fishery management, especially of a wild fishery, is not just about collecting income, however. To safeguard the river properly, including its many tributary rivers, requires investment and personnel, and Bann System Ltd, as the body created in the 1980s was called, employed more than half a dozen bailiffs, ghillies and seasonal workers at its height. The bailiffs job was to patrol the length of the river, focussing on the upper reaches where poaching had always been a problem, and also the Estuary, where on occasion unlicensed drift netting boats from Donegal would take advantage of a run of salmon into the river mouth to try their luck. The ghillies looked after the main salmon beats, principally Carnroe, where they also manage a fleet of fishing boats to allow anglers to fish in the variable depths with all legal methods.
The Society has often been accused, unfairly in my view, of merely taking from its fisheries and not putting back. This is not borne out by the evidence, and even in the middle years of the 20th Century the Society was restocking the rivers Bann and Foyle from 2 fish farms that it ran and supported. The positive impact of its bailiffing activity today benefits many anglers upstream and in the rivers around Lough Neagh, and it is very important that this effort be maintained if at all possible. Every threat to these wild fisheries, whether it be from natural predators such as gray seals and cormorants, or human poachers, or pollution from farms and factories, needs to be addressed and confronted and the Society's own efforts are appreciated by the NI government, whose own resources are deemed insufficient for the tasks.
New challenges constantly face the fishery today, such as how to react to the continuing decline in Atlantic Salmon numbers; a move to full Catch and Release angling has already taken place on our waters. Having to work with the government and statutory bodies such as Rivers Agency and Waterways Ireland ,whose remit to control flooding and provide a navigable waterway, is not always easy, but the Society is probably more collaborative now than in the more distant past.
The London Office & Modernisation
The biggest change in recent years, and one which in 1913 would have seemed unthinkable, has been the sale of the former London headquarters in Guildhall Yard, known as the Irish Chamber, and allied to this has been a gradual downsizing of the London administrative operation. In 1991, the Court decided to sell the freehold of its office, but as it lay within the City of London Corporation's precincts, it found that the Corporation insisted on being the only bidder. This was undoubtedly a very difficult episode, compounded by a governing regime within the Society that held some radical views, including at its extreme, the proposal to close it down completely (this was happily not agreed to by the great majority of the Court). While the fittings and fixtures were largely transferred to Cutts House, where they confer a much greater air of opulence to that building, the then Secretary and his assistant spent the next 18 years in rented accommodation in various office buildings, some more unsatisfactory than others.
But, what goes round comes round as they say in Ireland, and in 2010 the Society returned to the Guildhall again, albeit into a much more modest single room, rented from the Corporation. There, the Assistant Secretary, my colleague Candya Farmer is ready to welcome anyone interested in finding out more about the Society and its current activities. Her daily role is to co-ordinate the members of the Court, arranging meetings and dealing with much of the banking, billing and accounts function.
As well as returning to Guildhall in 2010, under the dynamic leadership of the then Governor, Sir David Lewis, the Society at last grasped the nettle of modernising its structures. The main change was to seek a Supplemental Royal Charter through the Privy Council, which was eventually successfully arranged in late 2012 and this enabled the Society to approach the Charity Commissioners to become a Registered Charity, finally achieving this goal in early 2013 - some 399 years and 11 months from its foundation by James 1. The then Secretary, Charles Fisher, worked tirelessly to ensure that this came about, just ahead of his retirement after a busy and successful 10 years working for the Society. His role was then divided between myself and Candya Farmer, allowing for a new title : Secretary & Representative (Ireland).
In order to obtain the Supplemental Charter, the makeup and size of the Court had to be modernised too, and the overall effect has been to reduce to a more manageable size of 15 (3 Aldermen including the Governor, plus 12 Common Councilmen including the Deputy Governor). While the Governor still has a 3 year term in office, the Deputy Governor is now elected for 2 years, in an effort to improved continuity, and the whole Court is now elected on a 3 year basis, with some initial 1 and 2 year elections to allow for 'new blood' to be elected each year in future. It is hoped that this structure will serve the Society well in the future, as it no doubt has to grapple with new issues and problems.
400th anniversary and the Livery Companies
It would be wrong not to include here some mention of what the Society has been doing outside of its routine activities in Northern Ireland and London.
Planning for the 400th anniversary of the first granting of a charter to the City of London started some years ago, under the able and energetic chairmanship of Deputy Catherine McGuinness, a former Deputy Governor of the Society. The aim was to deliver a range of activities and projects that would help cement the relationship between the City and Northern Ireland, and the need for a special effort was underlined when it became known that Derry-Londonderry had been awarded the accolade of the first UK City of Culture for the same year, 2013. Some key projects emerged, principally the specially-commissioned Cantata 'At Sixes and Sevens' that brought together a classical musical production held simultaneously in both Guildhalls, London and Londonderry, featuring an English composer, an Irish poet, and a long list of first class musical and cultural bodies, such as the London Symphony Orchestra, Camerata Ireland, the City of London Festival, the Barbican and the Guildhall School of Music and Drama to name but a few, and many schools and other bodies in Londonderry.
Other projects were a Coleraine primary schools' history and cultural project, run in collaboration with Coleraine Borough Council, cross community church services in Londonderry and Coleraine, symbolic oak tree planting at chosen locations and institutions in the County, encouraging the restoration of the Great Parchment Book of 1639 and indeed, commissioning this series of 3 history lectures.
Another very important project, which underlines a new and growing role for the Irish Society in the post-Troubles era in Northern Ireland, was to hold, jointly with the City of London Corporation, an investment seminar for Derry and Coleraine, followed by an investment dinner for the whole of Northern Ireland with over 400 guests, including the First and deputy First Ministers from Stormont, Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness, together with Arlene Foster, Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Investment, including Tourism. This was a major effort, that would have been quite impossible to pull off only 15 years ago, and opens up a valuable new role for the Society as the City's networking link to Northern Ireland. Encouraging inward investment from the City and UK in general to Northern Ireland as a whole, and to Derry and Coleraine in particular, puts the Society on a much more positive course for the future than it has been able to envision since its old role started to decline back in 1913.
As well as working more closely with the Corporation, the Society wishes to encourage the many Livery Companies that were once involved in the Plantation of Ulster, and even those that were not, to reconsider their attitude to Northern Ireland and seek to re-engage there as charitable benefactors. This year alone, the Mercers and their Associated Companies (Broderers, Cooks and Masons), the Drapers, the Clothworkers, the Salters, Cutlers, Dyers, Saddlers, the Engineers and Woolmen have all had a presence in Northern Ireland or have generously donated funds to educational, cultural and other charitable projects. I wish publicly to thank them for their contribution, which has helped make our 400th anniversary year so special, and to those who have not yet seen the light, to point out that there are many opportunities for a new relationship to develop between companies and their former lands in County Londonderry, and I will be hoping to work with more companies to do this in the future.
How best to sum up the first 400 years of the Society, and in particular its efforts in the modern era?
It is safe to say that the biggest achievement is probably merely to have survived so long, in the face of intractable difficulties presented to the members, from both sides of the Irish Sea. If it was not local interests in Ireland seeking to take advantage of the Londoners' precarious position as managers of the Plantation, it was the Crown itself in London trying to do the same in the early years. Nothing much had changed by the 20th Century; there were still political and economic pressures on the Society to sell and dispossess itself in County Londonderry, and at the same time the London and later Stormont governments did little to make the Society's role easier, at best regarding it as an ineffectual anachronism, at worst a leftover from a bygone era that could be disregarded or walked over.
Much of the assets with which the Society entered the 20th Century had gone by the end, and indeed a number of significant property sales continued in the early years of this century against a backdrop of rocketing NI property prices which encouraged the Court to get rid of a number of old and difficult buildings at, for once, a good price - eg The former Foyle Fisheries site, the old Irish Society school, the Clothworkers building. The result has been an asset base that is better balanced, a mix of listed investments managed in London, and commercial property in Coleraine and Londonderry, and hopefully, further development possibilities still exist in some cases. Overall, whereas the Society had only £200k of assets in the mid 1970s, it has almost £10m today, which is no mean achievement, and its income from those assets has risen steadily over the past 25 years with only a short hiatus caused by the 2008 financial crash and subsequent severe recession.
The organisation itself is much less aloof, remote and out of touch - gone are the days of visitations in Rolls Royces and top hats - as a registered charity the Court members are now Trustees with all that implies. It is perhaps a little less independent from the City of London than it was even when I started, back in 1997, but that may be a small price to pay for the undoubted benefits that the closer relationship has brought. It has also become more collaborative and willing to work with other interests, be they private businessmen or public bodies in the Province.
The Local Advisory Committee's creation and its working relationship with the Society has been an entirely beneficial experience for all concerned, and it has removed any real political sting remaining from the old days of 'master and servant'.
Finally, the future is full of opportunity for the further development of the Society's role as a bridge or link for the North West of Ireland to the City of London, to help and assist local people and organisations to attract inward investment, source charitable funding and derive other benefits from their historic relationship with the City. Although no-one could have foreseen it back in 1613, or maybe even in 1913, the Society is now in some ways in a stronger position than ever before.
© Professor Edward Montgomery 2013
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