James McKnight was born on February 27, 1801 at Rathfriland, Co Down into a farming family of the Presbyterian denomination.
To this day he is well regarded amongst historians of Ulster’s nineteenth century political turmoil as a stalwart of the liberalism often lacking in this part of the world.
Identified as an exceptionally gifted linguist from a young age, his education saw him become able to converse in Latin, Greek, Hebrew, German and French as well as being a fluent Gaelic speaker having learned it from his father.
Initially educated in Newry he then entered the seminary of the old Royal Academical Institution in Belfast in 1825 and was regarded as a sound theologian and a powerful orator. However, he dropped his religious studies in favour of a career in journalism.
However, prior to this he had gained a doctorate from Edinburgh University for his contribution to charting the history of the church. It was during this particular course of study that he submitted some articles to the Belfast News Letter that led to an invitation to become a member of its staff.
He accepted this position and by 1846 he was the paper’s editor.
In 1846, after a political dispute with the News Letter’s owner he resigned and briefly became editor of the Londonderry Standard.
Then, between 1848-1853 McKnight was appointed editor of the Banner of Ulster and it was in this period, as a result of the tenant grievances that he witnessed, he became fearful that another rebellion in the mould of the 1798 United Irishmen would erupt.
When he returned as editor of the Londonderry Standard he further developed the campaign for tenant rights. Also upon his return to the Standard he married the owner of the paper’s sister-Miss Catherine McPherson of Balloughry.
At this time the majority of small farmers in Ulster relied on weaving to bolster their income as well as working the land.
The coming campaign of agitation was a daunting one and its success depended upon defeating Tory landlords who held all the Parliamentary representation in the country.
In effect, farmers were serfs who were obliged to pay rents regulated solely by landowners who also firmly held the reins of political power. As a result, tenant farmers lived in almost perpetual fear of increased tariffs and eviction if they failed to pay them.
As Repeal of the Union agitation gathered strength in the south of Ireland, James McKnight simultaneously championed the cause of Presbyterian farmers in the north. The fight centred on the three F’s-fixity of tenure, fair rents and free sale.
An example of Dr James McKnight’s famed oratory was captured in a speech he delivered whilst on the tenant rights campaign trail in Newtonards in this era.
“I have no language sufficiently strong to convey my contempt for policies which, under the hypocrisy of religion, degrade Christianity to an engine of State intrigue,” he said.
The journalist’s abilities seemed to be sufficiently feared by the English political hierarchy to the extent that after he had led a deputation to meet Prime Minister Robert Peel on the issues at hand, he was offered a Parliamentary seat in County Wexford in an obvious attempt to bring him ‘from the cold.’ James McKnight declined the offer.
The Tenant Right League was established in August of 1850 and was formed chiefly by Charles Gavan Duffy and Frederick Lucas.
The movement was remarkable in that for a time it united Protestant and Catholic tenants. In fact, Duffy named his movement The League of North and South.
The political battle was framed against the backdrop of the Encumbered Estates Act of 1849. Essentially, this legislation enabled the sale after the Great Famine, of Irish estates whose owners could not meet their financial obligations.
In the north of Ireland, Anglican and Presbyterian ministers feared these new landlords would destroy the established Ulster custom of compensating tenants who made improvements to the land.
At the same time in the south, politically conscious Catholic priests wanted to adopt the compensation custom in the north as a measure of reform in their part of the island.
The League was a conglomeration of the Tenant Protection Societies and the Ulster Tenant Rights Association led by William Sharman Crawford. Unity between the organisations was unfortunately short lived because of objections to the involvement of Catholic clergy in the south.
Larger tenant farmers were primarily interested in securing Fixity of Tenure while the smaller farmers prioritised fair rents. To strengthen the campaign the leaders of the League sought the support of Irish MPs to oppose any government that would not back the ‘Ulster Custom.’
In this respect, the Tenant Rights League achieved success through the efforts of its national organiser John Martin. It garnered the support of the surviving Repealers of the Union in the House of Commons as well as a number of radical English radical MPs.
And, all of these supportive elements agreed that a Land Act incorporating the three F’s would be the overall objective of the political campaign.
Then, at the 1852 General Election some fifty Tenant Rights candidates including Gavan Duffy, Frederick Lucas and John Sadlier all won seats at Westminster where they sat as the Independent Irish Party.
The League’s success however proved short lived when it was first weakened and then ultimately destroyed by the resurfacing of old sectarian divisions.
Firstly, a number of prominent members broke away and formed the Catholic Defence Association-referred to as the ‘Pope’s Brass band’ by some in the organisation. Supporters of the League were also subjected to a campaign of intimidation by the landlords.
However, the most serious blow came when Frederick Lucas came into conflict with the Archbishop of Dublin, Dr Paul Cullen. The high-ranking cleric had forbidden his priests from involvement in political issues causing Lucas took his complaint about Dr Cullen to Rome. This succeeded only in alienating the Catholic church in Ireland from the fight.
Then, Frederick Lucas died in October 1855 shortly after the failure of his plea to the Papacy. A month later, Gavan Duffy emigrated to Australia.
The League finally fell apart in 1859 with the Independent Irish Party following it into oblivion the following year.
It was not however the end of the tenants rights campaign. The baton that had been dropped by the League and the Independent Irish Party was picked up again by Bishop Thomas Nulty of Meath. It was then spearheaded by the Land League in 1879 and the three F’s became anchored in legislation under the Land Law (Ireland) Act in 1881.
In general, the cause of tenants rights was more successful in the south of Ireland. In the north, landlords were more firmly entrenched and the issue of the Repeal of the Union had caused many northern delegates in the League to walk away and fight the cause as unionists or Liberal Tenant Righters.
However, almost 25 years before the Land Law (Ireland) Act enshrined the F’s in law, in the north Mr SM Greer had gained the County Derry seat against the power of landlordism.
Thirteen years later in 1870 when Gladstone introduced a Land Bill that embodied the principles of tenant rights, it was Dr James McKnight that the government of the day consulted. That same parliamentary term also saw the introduction of the Ballot Act which ended intimidation.
This shows that the journalist had at the outset been for a period a lone voice advocating social reform in Ireland.
Without doubt, Dr McKnight had been regarded as the leader and champion of the rights of the Presbyeterian farmers and for his efforts was presented with a testimonial and £600 by them. He died on June 8, 1876 aged 75 at his house on East Wall in his adopted homeplace of Derry.
A glimpse of the life of James McKnight and his wife outside of the newspaper business and political campaigning came around 15 years after his passing when his former paper, the Derry Standard marked the death of his spouse Catherine on February 17, 1892.
The Standard said: “We greatly regret to record the death of Mrs McKnight, formerly of this city, which took place at College Square East, Belfast, on Monday after a somewhat protracted illness during which she was tenderly nursed by her sister, Miss Rebecca McPherson.
“The deceased was the wife of the former editor of this paper, James McKnight L.L.D and was well known in this city thirty years ago, when Dr McKnight’s house on the East Wall and subsequently at Warrenhill, was the rendezvous of a circle of congenial spirits, who often met to enjoy the refined society of Dr McKnight and his accomplished wife.
“Among the welcome guests were generally to be found the late Rev William McClure, Reverend Professor Wallace and Reverend Richard, afterwards Professor Smyth MP.
“At an earlier period in their domestic history they had the honour of entertaining the late Thomas Carlyle, who met at their house all the leading Derry celebrities of the time and in the book which he afterwards published made some remarks on his fellow guests that were more plain than pleasant; but he said all that was kind and complimentary of the host and his gentle helpmate and commended the quality of the doctors tobacco.
“After the death of Dr McKnight, Mrs McKnight visited the principle cities on the Continent, and spent some time in Italy enjoying the beauty and art of that classic land, which she was so well able to appreciate.
“Although highly cultivated, and possessing good literary abilities, she was not successful as a writer, and her only work, ‘The Friend of the Poor’, was not read beyond her personal circle of friends.
“For some years past Mrs McKnight has lived in Belfast, and there she passed away on Monday morning last, after a lingering illness, which she bore with patient and cheerful resignation.
“The interment will take place in the Cemtery at Derry today, the funeral leaving the terminus of the Northern Counties railway at ten o’clock.”
Dr James and Mrs Catherine McKnight had no children.
CAPTION: Dr James McKnight.
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