This years George Dawson Memorial Lecture 2023 was delivered by Dr. David Hume, Orange historian, broadcaster and writer. In an engaging lecture which reflected on George’s contribution to Orangeism he also reflected on his own family connections to Independent Orangeism. 

Dr. David Hume MBE is an author, broadcaster, newspaper columnist and community activist with over 30 years experience in community development and delivery of heritage projects.

He is author of several books on local and Irish history as well as numerous articles, has edited a monthly newspaper and a number of historical journals and has featured on radio and television. In recent years he has co-presented The Long and the Short of it on BBC Radio Ulster with well-known comedian Tim McGarry.

A former member of a Ministerial Advisory Group on Ulster Scots, he is a former journalist and senior administrator with a large cultural organisation. David was awarded a PhD in 1994 from the University of Ulster in Jordanstown. He is a serving member of the Flags, Identity, Culture and Traditions Commission in Northern Ireland and Ulster University Community Fellow for Mid and East Antrim.

The following is the full text of his lecture.

Last year in the inaugural George Dawson Memorial Lecture, the speaker, Wallace Thompson, started by referring to a poem called “The Indispensable Man”, a copy of which hung in the office of his favourite singer Jim Reeves.

This year when I was compiling a community arts performance marking the 70th anniversary of the loss of the MV Princess Victoria on her way from Stranraer to Larne in January 1953, I included a hymn which I remembered being sung by another great country artist, Johnny Cash, called “Let the Lower Lights Be Burning”.

I thought it was appropriate for the seafaring story and I think it is important to have as a reflection this evening as well.

The song comes from the fact that all along America’s east and west seaboards, the Great Lakes region and the gulf shore, light houses stood on the shore of major harbours. There were also lower lights at even intervals along the shore to guide the ships into the harbour, enabling them to steer clear of large rocks near the shore.

If there was a gap in the reflection of the light, the pilot would know to avoid that area as the light had been blocked by a rock.

The evangelist D. L. Moody told songwriter Philip Bliss the story of how a ship on the Great Lakes in a storm made for Cleveland Harbour, following the lighthouse but ignoring the fact that the captain and pilot could not see the lower lights. The ship was lost with 200 souls on board.

Moody made the application that “the Master will take care of the great lighthouse of salvation, but it is our job to keep the lower lights burning to guide men safely to Him.”

I am a historian and not a preacher, so I have not come to preach to you tonight, but suffice to say I think George Dawson would have approved of Moody’s interpretation of the story.

I want to be a little more secular as well, however, tonight.

I think there are men who have the role of ‘keeping the lights along the shore’ in other ways too.

George Dawson, in all that I know of and about him, was one of those men.

In his political life, his church life, his compassion for others as a constituency representative, and as the leading figure in the Independent Loyal Orange Institution, he had responsibilities including but also beyond the spiritual injunction to ‘keep the lights along the shore’.

As a community, we are, I fear, adrift in terms of our understanding of our history and identity. I know education for young people was something that was of interest to George Dawson in his political life. Some years ago, I presented a programme for BBC Radio Ulster called “Cross Atlantic Cousins” which drew on interviews with contacts I had met in South Carolina. I asked one why his Scotch-Irish history was important to him, and he said simply, “If you don’t know where you are coming from, you can have no idea where you are going to.”

It was always true and never more so in a Protestant community which has often been let down when it comes to being taught about its history.

I suppose this sense also informed my quest over many years in relation to the Independent Orange Order. I was intrigued when I found out that there were two Independent lodges in our area and that I lived a few miles from the place where a very famous document was issued from a July Orange platform at Magheramorne in 1905. This document was seen as being very supportive of Home Rule for Ireland and it did cause dissension and division at the time.

But one of the politically nuanced statements which it made seems eminently sensible and reasonable: “On the willingness and ability of Irishmen in carrying out reasonable reforms in their own country will rest their claim to a more extended form of self-government”

 I was more intrigued as I looked into this history and found how those lodges came about. It was also a voyage of self-discovery as I found that my grandfather was at one time secretary of one of the two lodges. I have his old Independent Sash, discovered in the attic some years ago, with the words Manifesto Independent scored out (but still legible), and I found that he later joined or re-joined the ‘orthodox’ Orange lodge in Ballycarry.

As a poet and songwriter, I found one of his poems, a tribute to LOL 697 in Ballycarry to have some significant lines, though;

“To no set party pledged to stand,

But Bible, King and Native Land”

In those lines I see the enshrinement of what motivated the Independent Orangemen of his day, the founding generations of lodges and the Independent Loyal Orange Institution itself.

My own research over the years, some of which featured in “A Chosen Few” in 2006, revealed that political radicalism had played an important part within Independent Orangeism in my own local area. The movement came to Magheramorne in 1904 – less than a year after the formation of the Order by Alex Boyd, Thomas Sloan and others –  when Defence not Defiance ILOL was established. A newspaper account from March 8 that year highlighted that the expulsion of some prominent members of the ‘Old Order’ in the local lodge had resulted in resignations and application to form a lodge under the ‘Independent body’. The lodge met in the home of a wealthy Belfast mill owner, James Lowry, at Dalriada House, the ‘hall’ surviving until a relatively short period ago in the farmyard. Among the members were two expelled from the local lodge, No. 291, Archibald Boyd Gibb, an officer of Larne District LOL as well as WM of the lodge, and George Boyle, who had been like Gibb an Orangeman for 30 years. 

The crux of the matter had been support of the men who were expelled for an Independent candidate in the 1902 East Down election; James Wood defeating the Unionist candidate, leading Orangeman Colonel R. H. Wallace by 3,576 votes to 3,429 (a majority of 147). The election of James Wood, who had the support of the Ulster Farmers and Labourers Union and land reform advocate T. W. Russell, was celebrated at Magheramorne by the lighting of tar barrels on Ephraim Craig’s Hill and a parade by the local (lodge) brass and reed band.  The end result was expulsion from LOL 291 of Archibald Boyd Gibb and George Boyle for assisting to pass a resolution in support of Wood. Several others, named as John McKinty, James Rea, John McBride and John Boyle, later resigned and helped form the new lodge. This led to the arrival of Independent Orangeism in the area.

My research showed that there was a relationship between members of ILOL 26, Magheramorne, and the Magheramorne Farmers and Labourers Union branch and also a connection with the Magheramorne Unionist Tenant Farmers and Labourers Compulsory Purchase Association.  In 1898 a branch of the Presbyterian Unionist Voter’s Association was also formed in the area, its chairman being James Lowry of Dalriada House. 

Earlier, in November 1901, Archibald Boyd Gibb had helped form a meeting of the Magheramorne Branch of the Farmers and Labourers Union, telling those present that;

“For his own part, he believed that if occupying ownership was established it would go a great way in removing the cause of Irish discontent. Therefore he thought it would weaken, if not entirely destroy, the Irish demand for Home Rule. He was an Orangeman of twenty or thirty years standing and was not ashamed to appear on that platform to advocate the justice and necessity of compulsory purchase…”

Such sentiments did not sit so well with the landlords, however, and Gibb was probably come to their attention through his expressed views and the political company he was being seen to keep, leading to his expulsion from the Established Order.

The confluence of political radicalism, agricultural reformism, and civic activism can be summarised as what brought about the conditions that led to the arrival of Independent Orangeism in that local area; all politics, it has been said, are local. The lodges belonged to Belfast District of the Independent Order, but they probably had more in common with those in North Antrim in the context of their feelings over landlords. Indeed, Austin Morgan, in Labour and Partition. The Belfast Working Class 1905-1923, suggests that the Magheramorne Manifesto had more appeal in rural Ulster, where the issues of land reform hit home, than in the back streets of Belfast.

The history of the local lodges showed strong support from leading figures in the Independent movement; with Lindsay Crawford, Thomas Sloan, and John Peacock appearing on platforms locally. It also showed the support of several local Presbyterian clergymen, who were not Orangemen and who were prepared to be critical of the establishment, as Rev. Thomas Bartley of Ballycarry did in 1907 when he spoke at the Independent Twelfth, supporting the dockers and carters then on strike in Belfast and again in 1909 when he chaired a meeting at which Thomas Sloan was guest speaker. The minister said “he stood himself on a unionist platform, as he had never advocated any self-government for Ireland; but at the same time he was convinced a great deal could be done within the Empire by allowing her, while remaining an integral part of the Empire, to govern and manage her own affairs.”

In my quest for information I was assisted in identifying who the leading lights in these lodges were. In 1906 there were two, at Magheramorne and Ballycarry, the latter meeting on the Tuesday after the full moon at Bro. William Glenn’s granary. In 1906 Bro. Hugh Hume is listed as the WM of the lodge and this is my grandfather’s brother, who later emigrated to Edmonton in Alberta and took part in the Great War with the CEF, being wounded in France.

Hugh seems to have forsaken his Orange connections – perhaps there were no Independents in Edmonton – and went on to be a foundation member of Dominion Masonic Lodge 117 in the city in 1920.

His brother William James, ILOL records reveal, was the secretary of ILOL 64 in 1912 and in our attic was also the warrant for the lodge, reissued in 1909 and signed by Thomas Sloan MP. By that time, however, the lodge may have been finding difficulty as the Home Rule crisis intensified and orthodox Orangeism and Unionism was strengthened by the presence of local MP Colonel McCalmont, whose arrival in Magheramorne to live was probably not unconnected with the more radical political agitation in the constituency. Interestingly, when it came to signing the Ulster Covenant in 1912, my grandfather’s name does not appear but my grandmother did sign the Women’s Declaration. 

There were few surviving memories of the Independents when I was conducting my research. 

I was intrigued when an old member of our Orange Lodge, the late Hugh Reid, told me of a story from his father David of how the Independent Orangemen had paraded at Magheramorne on the Twelfth morning and some of the ‘orthodox’ Orangemen had thrown stones at them. A short time afterwards, having written a short article in the local newspaper about the Magheramorne Manifesto of 1905, our elderly neighbour, the late Willie Burns, showed me an old sash belonging to his uncle; it was from the Independent Orange Lodge in the area.

But history has a way of throwing up the odd titbit from time to time. On the first Twelfth after Covid, when local parades was permitted, I was sitting on the bus from Magheramorne Presbyterian Church to Larne and happened to be beside William Craig, whose family have lived in Dalriada House for a few generations now. I mentioned about part of the area being called Manifesto Hill, although I did not know exactly where it was. He pointed to the field behind their farm; “That’s it there,” he said. Manifesto Hill got its name because that was where the Magheramorne Manifesto was issued. It may also have been the hill called Ephraim Craig’s Hill in 1902 from which the tar barrels were lit to celebrate the East Down election result. 

My knowledge of the Independent Loyal Orange Order is far from complete, locally or otherwise, and I still continue to research. Some years before I met George, his manuscript history of the Independent Orange Order came to the Ulster Society, of which I was an executive committee member. I felt it was an important contribution to historical understanding and a detailed record of the Order over the years. For various reasons including an extensive publishing schedule and also economic problems faced by the Society, the manuscript never got published. Some years later I encouraged George to consider publication and I gathered at that time that the manuscript was on paper and not computer. It is a disappointment that George’s work has not been published hitherto.

In more recent years I found to my interest that there was an earlier Independent Orangeism out-with the mainstream of the Loyal Orange Institution. This dated back to the 1860s. Politics was again at play, the expulsion from the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland of Carrickfergus MP Marriot Dalway for supporting a Liberal candidate in an election resulting for a (short) time at least in an Independent Grand Orange Lodge of Carrickfergus. But more significantly, in 1870, I found a reference to an Independent Orange Association which was based on Ballymoney. Its President was W. H. Walker, a working saddler, while Thomas Brown, a copying clerk, was secretary, and James McFarlane, a small country dealer in eggs, was treasurer. In referring to this body, much emphasis was given at the Grand Lodge to the occupations of those who had the temerity to establish their ‘Independent’ organisation. As George Dawson noted in A Chosen Few, Orangeism had not kept pace with societal change; it had a growing Presbyterian influence and been class dominated, Anglican dominated and politically dominated. The scene was set for internal conflict in 1902, but equally so in 1870.

The Northern Whig of February 1, 1870, reported on a meeting of the Belfast branch of the Independent Orange Association in the offices of the Grand Lodge in Donegall Street. Representatives were present from Derry, Coleraine, Ballymoney, Ballymena, Randalstown, Carrickfergus, Banbridge and Newry. The chairman, a Bro. Henry, said that the Orangemen of Ulster had been for too long in the hands of “the clergy, bailiffs and landlords” and the Association called for a Commission of Inquiry into the internal organisation and working of the Orange Institution of Ireland. At a further meeting, reported on March 23, 1870, there was a lengthy discussion on the land reform issue and praise for Sir Shafto Adair, seen as a “model landlord of the county of Antrim”. Interestingly, it was for supporting Adair in the election in County Antrim that Dalway ended up being expelled.

What might be constituted the first Independent Twelfth involved the lodges of the County of the Town of Carrickfergus in July 1870, when 2,000 Orangemen gathered with their Grand Master, Marriott Dalway at his Bellahill estate outside the town. There were five lodges listed; Woodburn, Carrickfergus True Blues, Old Rock Lodge, Carrickfergus, Bella Hill and Loughmourne. Dalway spoke and so did a John Reid who said he was grieved to see men prepared to use the Orange Institution to make political capital and, when defeated in politics, to seek revenge “using the Orange Institution as a tool”. More research is needed to understand the relationship between the Independent Orange Association and people such as Dalway and others. But this is a reflection of issues concerning use and control of the Institution which would surface again just over thirty years later.

The Ulster Examiner, in an article on February 2, 1871, suggests a simmering situation at the Grand Lodge of Ireland;

“The Grand Lodge met today at twelve o’ clock — Stewart Blacker, Esq. in the chair. There was a large attendance of Ulster Tory landlords. The appeal against the return of Robert Waring, corporation clothier, as Grand Master, was supported by the independent Orange brethren of Belfast, opposed by Messrs. John Preston, Wm John Johnstone, and Revs. Hans, Woods, and Crosby. The meeting adjourned until tomorrow. William Johnstone, M.P., was in attendance. Meeting stormy,” A subsequent report suggests that the Tory faction in Belfast, including such notables as Sir Charles Lanyon, had wanted William Johnstone MP displaced as County Grand Master and appear to have established new Orange lodges and a new district to enable them to create votes to defeat Johnston and the more working-class elements which supported him. It seems from a subsequent report that the Conservative interest failed, but the word ‘impertinence’ being used to described the ‘Independent’ element of Belfast Orangeism during the debate says as much as we need to know about the socio-political upheaval which was being feared.

History is, of course, all about context and this 19th century context helps explain the early 1900s formation of a more developed Independent Order. In a more modern context, George Dawson and I along with others were engaged in what may be viewed as a historic re-approachment between the Established and the Independent Orders in the early 2000s.  

During my time as Director of Services of the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland I was pleased to see developing fraternal links between the two Orange bodies. The first move in this direction was a request from County Antrim Grand Lodge to allow members to attend Independent Order church services, which brethren were being invited to each year and wanted to officially be allowed to do. I was asked to provide a report for the Central Committee of the GL to outline the background to the situation.

There was a generally sympathetic discussion on this (although I remember some voices which were raised in opposition).  The then Grand Master Robert Saulters shared my view and could not see why antagonism should remain almost a century later; this sympathetic response led to wider discussions which continued over the following years. But it was really a foundation laid by the fact that the two Grand Masters had a good personal relationship which helped to build on mutual respect and co-operation.

It was the beginning of other connections and George as Grand Master of the Independent Order and an MLA was uniquely placed to encourage and seek to develop. The centenary dinner of the Independent Order had as chief guests Governor William Allen of the Apprentice Boys of Derry and Robert Saulters of the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland.  George in his preface to the booklet A Chosen Few remains deeply proud of his Institution and referred readers to the story of Gideon and his 300 men; “In this Institution we have cause to be thankful that the small and feeble band can often accomplish more than the thousands in other organisations,” he remarks.

There were some within the Orange Institution who saw these developing links as a sign that the ‘Independents’ might return to the fold, but there was never any indication from George that this was an end game for him. I think his remark about Gideon and his 300 is very relevant in this regard. Numbers were not significant for him; what was important was working together in common purpose. 

The Independent Orange Order has a rightful and historic place within the family of the Loyal Orders. George Dawson did much to encourage that understanding through his stewardship as Imperial Grand Master and also his personality.

I have been pleased on a number of occasions to hear fraternal greetings at the East Antrim Combine Twelfth read on behalf of the Independent Order and it was well received.

As the project leader of the 1912 Ulster Covenant centenary event at Stormont I also was pleased that all the Loyal Orders were together and to see the Independent Order come proudly into the Stormont estate – my only regret was that by the time the lodges arrived they more or less had to parade to their buses, the parade from the city centre was so large and had thus taken so long.

At a time when the Orange Order’s official links to the UUP were ending, I used to joke with George that, with active people like himself, Gregory Campbell and Mervyn Storey, the Independent Order was going to have more politicians at high level than the ‘old’ Order – which was why the split had occurred in the first place. It was just a gentle joke and he took it well.

As a student of the history of Orangeism, I can understand the divisions which led to the split of the early 1900s. It is difficult to argue with the rationale of the time. The split was bound up in other issues than just political control of the Old Order, but also class and social issues, and for me a sign of radicalism that goes back to the 1790s and earlier. In the early 1900s that radicalism reflected in support for Liberal candidates in the Presbyterian heartlands of Antrim, Down and East Donegal. But history is a complicated thing. In 2004 George agreed to be one of the guest speakers at the James Orr Spring School in Ballycarry, addressing the topic of ‘Radicals in the Ranks: a consideration of the promoters of the Magheramorne Manifesto’. He outlined how, by 1908 “The consensus of the various strands ended” – Crawford, Boyle, Sloan – and it was to be sometime before there would be “another decisive challenge”, much of it “from the same mingling of Protestantism with social interest also”.

This contextual and very honest approach to the events of past history are the sign of confidence. And George was always supremely confident in explaining and defending the actions of the Independents of that bygone era.

It was always a pleasure to meet George, and we had many enjoyable history chats and reflections; although, sadly, not enough. He was a great loss to his nearest and dearest, of course, but also a great loss to his country and to his beloved Institution and to the wider Orange family.

In 2007 George had agreed to deliver a talk at Belfast City Hall to mark the centenary of the Belfast Docker’s Strike. George passed a message to ask me would I deliver this lecture on his behalf, owing to his being ill, which I was honoured to do. I did not know how ill George was at that time. It remains an abiding memory for me and I hope I did George proud that night.

To conclude, George Dawson was someone who was aware of the value of ‘the lower lights’ in our community. I view those lower lights as the compass points from which we take and understand our heritage and culture. History happens and we cannot brush it aside. We need to know the stories of our milestones. Those include the stories of the Covenanters, the Scots Borderers, the American frontiersmen and women. They include the American War of Independence, the 1798 Rising (particularly in the Presbyterian heartlands), resistance to Home Rule in 1912-1914. We need to know that we have had poets, pioneers, presidents, explorers, composers, inventors and more, both men and women. We need to have inspirational figures. In the context of our being on the sea of history, those lower lights are important to us, because they are guides to who we are and the voyage we should be charting. If the lower lights are not there to guide us, we will go onto the rocks and our story will be over. 

George Dawson was one of our leading lights and the best legacy for his memory is to ensure that the lower lights are burning…

Let the lower lights be burning
Send a gleam across the wave
Some poor fainting, struggling seaman
You may rescue, you may save