Social and political activities of a middle class Irish Catholic family in 1900

The Macauley family of Belfast

My husband’s grandmother was a Macauley. Her father grew up in Belfast, Northern Ireland, in the late 1800s. His was a middle class Irish Catholic family, with an income likely coming primarily from their linen manufacturing business on Linenhall Street in Belfast, called Macauley & Sons. It seems that their lives were more comfortable than many of their Catholic countrymen and women. Did they enjoy their relatively privileged social positions without much thought for others? Not at all.

Searching through old Irish newspapers from that era, I’ve found quite a few articles that recount their social and political activities in their community.

Lillian Ann Macauley (formerly Gracey) served on committees that sent aid to evicted tenant families across Ireland. Moral support was also offered by her womans’ groups, such as in 1887, when an article in the Morning News of Belfast reported:

The following resolution on the motion of Mrs Hugh M’Cauley, seconded by Miss B M’Donnell, was adopted “That we strongly condemn the cruel and infamous conduct of Kerry landlords in carry [sic] out their revolting course of eviction and burning in Glenbeigh, and unhesitatingly express the belief that as long as similar atrocities are permitted on an outraged tenantry, so long shall they continue to believe in ‘the wild justice of revenge.’ “

Lillian’s son Maurice John Macauley (1878-1965), my husband’s great-grandfather, was active in public service in a number of ways, in addition to his role as a physician. In 1907, he addressed a meeting held to draw up recommendations for a Belfast health commission. The commission was formed to investigate public health conditions in the city. Maurice spoke about the high death rate compared to larger cities in the British Isles, due to rampant diseases like tuberculosis and typhoid. He blamed in part conditions such as crowded, dark, and damp housing with poor ventilation, as well as defective plumbing that led to contaminated water supplies.

Maurice John also spent a good deal of effort on political pursuits, particularly working toward Irish independence. He was a member of the Ancient Order of Hibernians in Belfast, an Irish Catholic support society. In 1905, he was elected president of the recently formed St Patrick’s Belfast branch of the United Irish League. The UIL was a Irish nationalist political party established in 1898 to agitate for the distribution of land in Ireland to small tenant farmers, using nonviolent methods. A newspaper article covering the St Patrick’s branch meeting stated.

…Dr. Macauley had been a tower of strength to the branch since its inception. He had attended every meeting held, and interested himself in its welfare. A professional gentleman like him who could find time to attend all their committee meetings and discuss the affairs of their branch deserved the greatest credit.

At the 1905 meeting, Maurice spoke about recent backlash over the proposed founding of a Catholic university, with some on the Protestant side saying a college shouldn’t be allied with a religion. Dr Macauley stated that no religious group should be given advantage over another. He said that Catholics “wanted equality; they were not seeking superior advantage to their Protestant fellow countrymen, but merely justice and equality”. This is a sentiment that can still heard today in regard to many areas of civil rights. He further suggested, tongue in cheek, that given the Protestant take on the issue, perhaps Trinity College and Dublin University should be closed, as they were clearly sectarian (Protestant) schools.

In 1907, Maurice attended an Irish national convention in Dublin, along with 3000 other delegates from across Ireland and the United States, Australia, and Great Britain, including Irish Members of Parliament and Catholic clergy. Maurice was one of three representatives from the St Patrick’s branch of the UIL. The convention was presided over by John Edward Redmond, a Member of Parliament for Ireland who advocated for Irish Home Rule. The purpose of the meeting was to draw up policies for the political process of moving toward to Irish independence.

Maurice John also supported United Irish League and Irish Parliamentary Party candidates in local Belfast elections, raising campaign funds and attending political events, seated on stage with candidates and dignitaries. A 1908 newspaper article about the St Patrick’s UIL mentioned “the loss the branch had sustained by the departure of their worthy president, Dr Maurice Macauley from the city”. This marks the move of Dr Macauley and his growing family from Ireland to England, where he would live until his death in 1965.


  1. County Kerry, The Irish Question The Truth About Glenbeigh, The Irish Press Agency, 1887
  2. The Irish News and Belfast Morning News, “Unhealthy Belfast”, March 5, 1907
  3. The Irish News and Belfast Morning News, “United Irish League”, November 6, 1905
  4. United Irish League Campaigns,
  5. Papers of John Redmond, National Library of Ireland, compiled 2005-2006
  6. The Brisbane Courier, Irish National Convention, May 23, 1907

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