A Divided if not A Foolish People? by Michael McLoughlin
‘A Divided, if not A Foolish People’ by Michael McLoughlin
ISBN 978-0-9554524-9-9 Hardback, 492pp, £25, December 2019.
A REVIEW by Dr Darragh Curran
In the years immediately following the Famine, there was little to mark the town
of Dungannon apart from any other similar town in Ulster. Dominated by the
ascendant Ranfurly/Knox family, there had been little political challenge other
than a failed electoral attempt by John Falls in 1841. Intimidated and bruised,
Falls and his supporters melted back into oblivion leaving Dungannon Borough
firmly under the control of the Knox interest. In an area relatively evenly
matched in the religious sense, there seemed little prospect that the under-
represented Catholics, Presbyterians and indeed Anglicans of Dungannon
could ever break the harness of Ranfurly power. But from the midst of political
mediocracy, an inspirational figure would emerge who would change politics
forever in Dungannon and Co. Tyrone. The catalyst for change came in the
person of Presbyterian factory owner and linen merchant Thomas Alexander
The central focus of this work traces the life and career of Dickson through the
extraordinary years spanning from 1860 until the 1890s. More than anyone,
Dickson was responsible for breaking the Ranfurly political monopoly. How this
was achieved is a central theme of this monograph. The journey of this self-
made man from relatively humble beginnings to his representing three different
parliamentary constituencies in the 1870s, 1880s and early 1890s is fully
chronicled in the book.
The years under scrutiny saw significant political transformation for the people
of south-east Tyrone as changes in the electoral system allowed Dickson and
others such as J. W. E. Macartney and T. W. Russell gain election to
Westminster, thereby breaking the vice-like ascendancy grip on parliamentary
representation in Co Tyrone. Key national issues such as the land question and
the issue of Home Rule were played out in Tyrone as passionately as in any
other part of the country, and Dickson was at the fore, as a Liberal MP, in these
Such campaigns proved greatly divisive for the people of south-east Tyrone,
and party spirit which had lain dormant over the previous decades reared its
head again. Opposing factions grew more polarised especially with the rise of
Parnell and the possibility of ‘Home Rule’, a doctrine also subscribed to by
Dickson. The ensuing boiling over of tensions are vividly described by the
author as he details Orange-Green clashes, the most notable of which was the
Lady Day riot of 1880. It is by the examination of these clashes that the reader
is introduced to an array of local characters whose stories allow a fascinating
insight into the everyday lives of the ‘ordinary’ people who seldom receive the
attention they deserve in historical works. The examination of the views of such
people can greatly help in the understanding of the past, and indeed the
present, and the author is to be commended for their inclusion.
Dickson did not escape the societal fissures and cracks that dogged the
campaign for Home Rule and his reason for taking an ‘anti-Parnell’ stance in
the National League split is highlighted. Ultimately however, the key question
requiring answer, at the time, was the one posed mainly to Protestant voters in
Co Tyrone – ‘Can anyone persuade you to support Home Rule?’ Dickson
staked his political career upon obtaining positive answers from them but his
failure to convince them of the merits of ‘Home Rule’ was no disgrace, even if
the rejection of the voters in the 1892 election ended his public political career.
The divisive attitudes formed over the issue of Home Rule still prevail today
and, with hindsight, it is not surprising that Thomas Alexander Dickson, despite
his best efforts and hopes, failed in the endeavour that was so close to his
Retired School teacher and former civil rights activist Michael McLoughlin has
devoted quite considerable time to researching the little-known political career
of T. A. Dickson and has produced an outstanding work. Spanning sixteen
chapters and almost 500 pages, this is a well-illustrated book with an array of
informative pictures and tables. A full and comprehensive index is also
provided, as is a bibliography. Predominantly dealing with local issues, the
book nonetheless does not neglect the overall national picture and describes
how the people of Dungannon and south-east Tyrone dealt with events
originating in London and Dublin over which they had no control. Local history
case studies help put the pieces of a larger national jigsaw together and ‘A
divided, if not a foolish people’ more than does its part in this regard.
Library sales at £25, contact firstname.lastname@example.org
Delivery free of charge to libraries in north possible by prior arrangement.
ONCHS, c/o 8 Main St Benburb, Dungannon, Co Tyrone, BT 71 7LA.
Local sales points at £25:-
- Ranfurly Arts & Visitors centre Dungannon 028 8772 8600.
- Begley’s Gifts, 31-33 Irish St Dungannon.
- 3.Unit 7 Ballysaggart Business Complex,2, Beechvalley Way, Dngannon.
- McAnallen’s Spar shop, Dungannon St, Benburb.