by John Butler
On Sunday night the town is deserted. It appears plague-stricken. There are lines of parked cars but no sign of a living soul.
Accommodation was not difficult to find. The hotel overlooking the harbour seemed quiet and empty but on entering the dining-room there was a sharp contrast.
The large room was full of diners. Waiters and waitresses in traditional black and white, darted about attending to every need, while concealed speakers blasted out the same aggressive, cacophony of discordant ‘musak’ as one meets in England.
If there is depression in N. Ireland, it is certainly ‘not here’ in this room.
I remember my history. Here in 1778, a ship disguised as a merchantman appeared off Carrckfergus. It was the notorious ‘Ranger’ commanded by that son of a Scottish gardener, Paul Jones. The crew of a fishing smack boarded her and Paul Jones, on learning that they were pilots, detained them. They told him that the ship he could see lying in Belfast Lough was the British Sloop-o-war, ‘Drake’ of twenty guns. Paul Jones then planned an attack that was to reverberate all over Britain, and, incidentally lead to the independence of Ireland.
On the 24th April he was again off Carrickfergus, where he saw The Drake moving out of Belfast Lough. By now, news of his escapade at Whitehaven had spread and the Drake was under orders to find him.
The Drake’s boat was sent out to reconnoitre the Ranger. When the ship’s officer boarded the privateer he was at once made prisoner. The Drake was accompanied by five smaller vessels full of Belfast folk who wanted to see a naval battle. As the Drake approached and the Ranger manoeuvred for position, alarm smoke appeared on both sides of the channel, and the sightseers put back.
The Drake came within hail and hoisted the Union Jack. The Ranger ran up the American Stars. In a few moments the first broadside broke from the side of the Ranger and swept the Drake. The two ships then engaged in battle for over an hour. The Drake then called for quarter, being badly hit.
This was America’s first naval victory, won in the sight of thousands of Belfast people who clearly demonstrated their sympathy with the new U.S.A. although great alarm was caused throughout Britain and militia camps sprang up all over the country.
The Irish, Protestant and Catholic demanded that as England could not defend them, in the event of war they should be allowed to organise a volunteer force similar to the Militia that was training all over England.
Belfast led the way. 40,000 men were enlisted within a year. They were armed and put in uniform.
In return for this gesture, some of the restrictions on Catholics were lifted, and also that of trade and Irish exports and in 1782 certain of the penal laws were lifted.
This led to further emancipation. Parliamentary independence was granted… ‘Home Rule!’
An Irish Parliament sat in Dublin…