by Sam McBratney
It is a received opinion in many quarters nowadays that deeply-rooted class differences are either a thing of the past or fated to become obsolete in the near future. The main political developments of the twentieth century, democracy, communism, and even their antithesis, fascism, have tended to undermine - the class structures that prevailed during the eighteenth century.
At that time no European government accepted the view that authority depends upon the consent of the adult population or upon the control of economic power and the machinery of repression.
The "masses" tended to be contemptuously dismissed or ignored - unless, that is, they rose in rebellion. To be a king then implied the exercise of real power rather than the duties of a highly esteemed public servant; to be a member of the aristocracy implied the ownership of land and a position of privilege in the community; and membership of the bourgeoisie, that class of - people who controlled capital, factories, labour and other means of production, marked the first steps towards social importance.
The history of eighteenth century Lisburn affords a fascinating glimpse of the class divisions of a time before egalitarian ideas spread from the drawing rooms into the streets of European capitals.
The rise of the linen industry brought prosperity to the manufacturers of Lisburn, and there is ample indication that they were accustomed to follow a way of life which would have been far beyond the means of their employees, the weavers whose work at their looms turned them into part-time farmers and the weavers' sons who found it more profitable, as the century wore on, to earn their livelihood as full-time workers in the linen or cotton industries. The society of the Lisburn manufacturers, by which I mean their behaviour as a group within the town of Lisburn, was not unlike that of similar societies throughout the kingdom of the Georges - lived at a slower pace, perhaps, 'than their contemporaries in London and Dublin, but with the same appetite for good wine, pleasant company and a keen awareness of the social graces.
"Those gay and cheerful assemblies," wrote Charles Teeling of the years before the '98, "for which the North of Ireland was distinguished at that time . . . the recollection of those early scenes is still fresh in my remembrance, and the delightful entertainment they afforded was a true. criterion of the polished manners and the social feeling of the inhabitants of my native town" (Lisburn).
The 'gay and cheerful assemblies' might have been an 'at home' in a Georgian house in Castle Street, or at the Assembly Rooms, where during the 1770s genteel company met once a fortnight and two impressive balls were held annually.
The profits went to support the Infirmary, so it was with a clear conscience that the company listened or danced, perhaps, to the latest strains of a continental waltz. Such charitable entertainment had a splendid setting, in "a beautiful ballroom, 51 by 24 feet wide, well lighted by seven large windows and on the west side of it a very neat constructed orcaster (sic), or gallery, for the music players to sit on.
"Suspended from the ceiling are three handsome chandeliers."
The activities of this Lisburn society were widely known and far from generally approved of. The Hibernian Magazine complained in -1778 that they "much oftener inquired of a stranger at what public house he might be met with in the evening than invited him to their houses." Whether this attitude derived from a natural shyness, a cultivated dislike of outsiders or sheer meanness, I leave the reader to judge after this withering, attack by a tourist who passed through Lisburn in 1812: "The people who call themselves quality in Lisburn consist of a few families of small estates, on which they live without following business and look down with sovereign contempt of such as do; except a few linen-drapers who are admitted associates with them and both together despise such as keep shops . . I remember the first time that I was in Lisburn.
I had an introductory letter to one of those high and mighty linen-drapers. who in consequence invited me to go with him to the club, where I was introduced to some of the principal inhabitants, spent a pleasant evening, and supped on most excellent oysters - at my own expense!"
Thus the pained John Gough, on the want of taste of people who spent pounds on webs of brown linen but would not buy him a plate of oysters. The first sentence is the most important part of the passage, for it suggests a rivalry between the landed gentry and the rising bourgeoisie who made their money from trade.
Without a doubt, there has always been something compelling about the ownership of land. It is as if we assume that an extent of acres adds dignity to the human personality, and for a tiny share of this feeling more and more people in our own society are prepared to mortgage themselves to the hilt.
In the eighteenth century much more than in our own, people owned land on the grand scale. Gracchus Babeuf might rage in revolutionary France about "men so odious as to have more than enough to eat when others are dying of hunger": but he was an upstart who had never known what it was like to own land as far as the eye could see.
Besides, the landed aristocracy of Lisburn had been in possession of their land for all of a hundred and fifty years, so wasn't the land theirs? They thought so, and tried to ensure that the privileges of the estate took priority over the social pretences of business.
But the attitude of the landed gentry could not be maintained against the increasing wealth of the bourgeoisie. Before the dawn of the nineteenth. century George Whitla, a Lisburn cotton manufacturer, of all people, emulated the example of the aristocracy by keeping a pack of hounds, which he "hunted three or four times a week in the season."
There is no doubt that there were firmly drawn class divisions in the Lisburn of this period, and it is not surprising to see them emphasised by the distribution of housing in the town. McCall tells us that in 1803-04, Owenson's players turned a hayloft into a theatre where they entertained the inhabitants of the town and a company of soldiers stationed there after the 1798 rebellion.
But "the ancient dowagers of Castle Street - the Piccadilly of Lisburn - and the other exclusive of that aristocratic quarter, entertaining a pious horror of the stage and it performers, kept aloof from them.'
I checked with Bradshaw's Lisburn Directory for 1819 to see who, in fact, lived in Castle Street then.
Here is the list: two agents (who probably hired Lisburn labour for Belfast or Scottish firms); an apothecary; an attorney; a baker; a carpenter; the cutler; four dressmakers (out of five in the town); a gardener; two haberdashers; a hairdresser; a hosier, four out of the seven linen merchants (Dominick Gregg, John and Joseph Richardson ); the four town magistrates; a mason; one of the town's two physicians; a proctor; a saddler; and a considerable number of people with no profession or trade but designated "Gent."
This composition of Castle I Street is of absorbing interest. Even as late as 1819 the area tended to be the preserve of "gentlemen" and ; professional people.
There were then living in the town 17 butchers, 24 grocers, 28 publicans, 44 shoe-makers and many more weavers and labourers; not one of them occupied a house in Castle Street.
I venture to suggest that if the expansion of later decades had not altered the street as it must have been about 1790, we should have an example of Georgian facades that would stand comparison with any architecture of that period in Ireland.
Lisburn has never, been gayer than in those years of the Georgian period when she was a place of more consequence than Belfast. With her produce second to none in the world, her markets renowned throughout Ireland, the machinery of her factories among the sights of the times and her principal inhabitants affording a way of life they found pleasing, Lisburn has known nothing like it since, and it is with a little regret that the historian, or at any rate that this historian witnesses the creeping influence of the conventions of a duller age.
In 1837, the first year of Victoria, the people of Lisburn were given the opportunity of playing cricket near the town, a practice which, no doubt, was considered more conductive to proper moral living than the dancing, card playing and cheerful assemblies' of earlier years.
The Ordnance Survey of 1837 sums up for us this peculiar change of spirit .when it records that "for many years after the ballroom being fitted up by the Marquis of Hertford. the quality of Lisburn held a ball there every fortnight, but this practice has been relinquished for some time-past and religious practices substituted on its ruins."
Little remains to us of `Georgian Lisburn, not even many of its buildings. But it is of the highest importance to remember that a mere handful of Lisburn people circulated in the society described above: the others, the majority whose labour kept turning the wheels of trade and flowing the laughter and wine of those halcyon days, had no part in it, and it is to their condition that I turn next week.