Lieut.-Col. William Blacker

From The Dublin University Magazine, Volume 17, Number 101, May 1841

WE this month present our readers with the portrait of Lieutenant-Colonel William Blacker, an upright and high-minded country gentleman; a steady and consistent Protestant politician; an elegant and accomplished scholar; and what is better than all, a sincere and exemplary Christian.

There are probably few of our readers who have not heard of the name of Colonel Blacker in connection with the political discussions of the day. It is not, however, so generally known, that to the subject of our sketch the public are indebted for several of the most humorous and brilliant essays, both prose and verse, which have adorned the periodical literature of late years. We must not reveal "the secrets of the prison-house," by acknowledging the extent to which our own pages have been indebted to his pen. We, in the secret, have often been not a little amused by the guesses as to the authorship of many of his productions: persons who professed to be, and seemed very wise, have attributed them to many persons who never dreamed of them--invariably, however, to writers of acknowledged eminence. We know not why Colonel Blacker has chosen not to own himself the author of some papers which in the pages of our own Magazine have excited attention of which any man might feel proud. He is certainly influenced by none of those motives which frequently deter authors from the responsibility of their productions; for it is the honourable characteristic of his writings that they are altogether free from personality--an exemption, doubly honourable in one who has all the powers of genuine humour and satire which belong to Colonel Blacker, the possession of which offers a temptation, always strong, and sometimes irresistible, to employ those powers in personal attack.

The family of which Colonel Blacker is the present head, traces its origin to times of very remote antiquity. Blacar, a celebrated Danish chieftain (Ware and Chalmers assign him royal rank) was the ancestor of the subject of this sketch. This chieftain held very extensive possessions in the northern parts both of Ireland and England. The figure of this celebrated warrior, wearing the armour, and wielding the war axe peculiar to his nation and his age, is still emblazoned on the shield of the Blackers. For the last two centuries, the descendants of the warrior-chieftain have pursued, in the county of Armagh, the less exciting but more useful occupation of resident country gentlemen.

The Very Reverend Stewart Blacker, for many years Dean of Leighlin, the lineal descendant of the Danish chieftain, was father of Colonel Blacker. Born in the old manor-house of Carrickblacker, near Portadown, in the county of Armagh, William was educated at the college of Armagh, by the Reverend Dr. Carpendale, one of the most accomplished scholars of his day, under whose superintendence the seminary of Armagh acquired the designation of the Eton of Ireland.

About the year 1793 or 1797, Colonel Blacker left Armagh, and entered the University of Dublin, where he enjoyed the reputation of that accomplished scholarship which has graced his maturer years. Before his entrance into College, an incident, however, occurred in his early life, which probably influenced in some degree the whole course of his opinions, and which it is impossible to pass over.

Our readers are familiar with the name, at least, of the Battle of the Diamond. Elsewhere in the pages of this Magazine has been collected all the authentic information that can be ascertained relative to that singular and extraordinary combat, in which it is now well known the bravery and determination of a few Protestants, preserved from the violence of an enraged and sanguinary multitude of rebels, their hearths and their homes. Of the handful of Protestants that guarded the pass of the Diamond from the attack of thousands of their assailants, William Blacker, scarcely yet emerged from boyhood, was one. This sketch is not the place to trace the effects of the resolute stand then made by those few hardy loyalists. That conflict, however, gave its fatal check to the treason of the north. The attack upon the Diamond was the first result of the contemplated union between the hitherto conflicting parties of the republicans and the Roman Catholics. It is a singular fact, but one we believe perfectly capable of being proved, that Neilson, one of the leaders of the republican party, was stationed within a short distance of the scene of conflict, anxiously watching the result.

On the field of the Diamond was formed the ORANGE INSTITUTION, in which the loyalists united for mutual protection and support. On that field Colonel Blacker became one of the original members of that noble though maligned brotherhood. Of the necessity which forced that combination on the Protestant loyalists of the north, of the value of their association in times of peril to the British throne, of the purity of the principles of Orangeism, their ill-requited services, and their misrepresented objects, we have spoken elsewhere. Enough for the purpose of this memoir to say, that Colonel Blacker never deserted the banner under which amid such circumstances he had been enrolled. Through evil report and good report, when Orangeism was encouraged and fostered by the government, and when it was discountenanced and oppressed, he remained steady to its constituted principles; and as he had the honor of being one of the earliest members of the institution, he can boast of the melancholy pride of being among the last.

On the 14th of April, 1836, the Orange Institution, after forty years' existence, during which it had consolidated, strengthened, and united the elements of Protestant loyalty in this country, was by the vote of the Grand Lodge of Ireland dissolved. The circumstances which led to that vote are now matters of history; its effects may not be felt for years to come. In the debate upon the question of dissolution, we have heard that Colonel Blacker took a conspicuous part. He was, we have been informed, the mover of a resolution that the society should still continue to exist with such alterations as the king's message to the House of Commons might render necessary. A majority of the Grand Lodge determined on a contrary course, and the brotherhood, which had for forty years bound together the Protestants of Ireland, ceased to exist. The relative wisdom of the two courses cannot be decided upon until the time comes when perils such as those the Orange Institution warded off, shall try again the strength of the British throne.

During Colonel Blacker's undergraduate career an incident occurred which many of our readers we are sure will readily recollect. In the year 1798 it became necessary for the heads of the university to hold a special visitation to inquire into and punish the spread of the principles of the United Irishmen within the walls of the university itself. It was found that secret branches of that society had been formed within the college, and several expulsions resulted from the inquiry which was held. Among those whose conduct then became the subject of investigation, was one justly respected for his great talents, and beloved for his social virtues, but at the time of the rebellion more than suspected in his principles--Dr. Whitley Stokes, the present professor of natural history, then a fellow of the college. Dr. Stokes was asked if he knew of any secret societies among the young men, or of any students connected with them. He replied, that he had heard of a Mr. Blacker, who was one of the leaders of a secret society called Orange in the north. To the astonishment of the grave and learned conclave, our young student, who was present, thus individually alluded to, sprung from his seat, and mounting the railing which separated the visitors and fellows from the place allotted to the students, respectfully but boldly avowed his connection with that loyal society. The scene was a remarkable one. Many whose eyes these pages will meet were present at that celebrated visitation; they will readily recall that scene, and the personages in the picture, many of them long since passed away--the excited but subdued energy of the young student, the genuine delight of Paddy Duigenan, the dignified but not displeased astonishment of Lord Clare, the evident annoyance of Dr. Stokes, and the tremendous peal of applause which burst from the assembled undergraduates, forgetful of the restraints of academic discipline, and even of the awful presence of the chancellor and visitors, shaking the vast hall, and for some minutes disturbing the gravity and suspending the proceedings of the grave and reverend conclave.

Soon after taking his degree, Colonel Blacker obtained a commission in the 60th regiment, then serving in the West Indies. His health was unequal to the trying ordeal of one of the most unhealthy of the tropical islands, and parental fondness and authority forced him reluctantly to relinquish his military predilections. He soon afterwards accepted a company in the regiment of his native county, one at all times distinguished for its appearance, discipline, and efficiency. In 1806 he was promoted to its majority, and in 1812 rose to his present rank of Lieutenant-Colonel.

In 1816 the militia regiments were disembodied, and in the latter end of that year Colonel Blacker was appointed by his uncle, the late Sir George Hill, to the important office of assistant vice-treasurer of Ireland. As a public officer he gave universal satisfaction by his punctuality in business and his courtesy of demeanour. During his official residence in Dublin he was an active and zealous promoter of all the various societies for the promotion of Christian knowledge and scriptural education.

In the spring of 1822, government received information of an intended meeting of ribbon delegates in Armagh. Colonel Blacker was specially entrusted with the duty of surprising and apprehending the conspirators. Proceeding to Armagh with the aid of some of the staff of bis regiment, and some of his own corps of yeomanry, he surprised about twenty delegates from various parts of Ulster, with all their papers. For his management of this affair he received the thanks of the Marquess Wellesley, then Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. In the same year he was presented with a splendid piece of plate by the first brigade of Armagh yeomanry, a fine body of men, who had arrived under his training at a state of discipline little inferior to regular troops.

It was in consequence of the arrests made by Colonel Blacker at Armagh, and the transactions connected with this discovery, that the celebrated trial of Keenan took place at the Commission Court in the city of Dublin. Keenan was indicted for administering an unlawful oath. In his address to the jury, the Attorney General, the present Lord Plunkett, stated that an association existed, widely spread through Ireland--exclusively Roman Catholic--bound by oath to extirpate Protestantism, while the machinery by which it was sought to effectuate such purposes was one of a very complicated contrivance, and "far beyond the capacity and ability of the persons who appeared to be engaged in it." Of administering such an oath Keenan was convicted. Strange that these warnings, thus clear and distinct, should be disregarded; and now, nearly twenty years after this statement of Mr. Plunkett, the depths of the mysterious confederation are still unfathomed.

In 1829, the death of his father brought him into the possession of his ancestral estates, and a short time after Colonel Blacker resigned office, and retired to his paternal mansion, where he has since continued to discharge the duties of a resident gentleman. A universal favourite in his own rank, he is beloved by a tenantry distinguished even in Ulster for their respectability and comfort. Exemplary in every relation of life, enlivening every circle by his humour, and instructing by his information, universally respected for his integrity, beloved for his kindness, and looked up to for his talents, he spends a happy life in the retirement of his country-seat, among the friends and neighbours who surround him; while the superiority of his tastes and his information enables him to refine and elevate his retirement by the pursuits of literature and science, to which a richly stored library, too rare an appendage in the house of an Irish country gentleman, assists him still to devote his leisure hours.

By his Roman Catholic neighbours he is equally beloved as by his Protestant. Decided as he is in his attachment to Protestantism, he is liberal to all who differ from him. An answer of his is on record before a committee of the House of Commons in 1835, which fairly speaks the sentiments of the man, although we honestly confess it is one of which we do not altogether approve--the less perhaps, because it earned the marked approbation of some of the Roman Catholic leaders on the Committee. When pressed as to the alleged intolerance of the Orange Institution, Colonel Blacker replied, -- "All my reading and all my thinking tends to show me I have too little religion of my own to sit in judgment on the path my neighbours may choose to eternal life."

We are sure no man would be more ready than Colonel Blacker himself to acknowledge that it is in no man's power to choose a path to eternal life, and that in this respect he would modify the language of this characteristic answer. With the spirit of forbearance which it so happily expresses, few, we trust, will be inclined to find fault.

Here we wish we could close our sketch, and that we could write the memoir of such a man without being compelled to record, that he has been insulted in that which we scarcely wish to call the evening of his life, by the country which he adorns and the government he had so long and so faithfully served. The reasons for the dismissal of Colonel Blacker from the commission of the peace in 1833, by the government of the day, after having for so many years faithfully and impartially discharged the duties of a magistrate, has never been given to the public. It has been hinted indeed that some of the connoisseurs of political colours were dissatisfied with some obnoxious hues which appeared in his lady's dress, a conjecture which, however improbable, we might rather say incredible before, derives now some countenance from the ascertained fact, that a judicial discretion is claimed in regulating the livery of the sheriffs of counties. A more probable, we believe indeed, a much better grounded conjecture is, that it originated in personal dislike. We have, unhappily, too many instances, that few have the wisdom to act on the principle of the ancient monarch, who when pressed after his accession to the throne to revenge an injury offered to him before, declared it beneath the dignity of a king to revenge the quarrels of a private individual. An old grudge, or a long-cherished animosity has often influenced movements which apparently might be traced to motives of a higher character; and even in exalted stations the meanness of revenge has dictated acts which prove that in exaltation of rank there may be no corresponding elevation of sentiment or feeling. Revenge is perhaps the last meanness that clings to the human heart.

Be this as it may, in Colonel Blacker's person the first attack was made upon the independence of the magistracy of Ireland. How that attack has been followed up we need not say. As regards the individual, the malice of his enemies was harmless. His removal from the commission but drew forth expressions of confidence and regard which were always felt for the individual, but expressed towards the victim of injustice. An address was presented to Colonel Blacker on this occasion by the corporation of Dublin; his reply was a very admirable document. Not content with this, the same body claimed their privilege of addressing the throne upon the removal of Colonel Blacker. Well would it have been for Ireland if by all grades and classes every attack upon Protestant rights had been resented with equal energy. Well if the gentry of Ireland had manifested equal zeal in resisting the aggressions upon their own order. But it is the misfortune of our country and our age that tameness in surrendering rights is now regarded as prudence by the selfish philosophy of a manless generation. The indignant sense of wrong that once guarded the liberties of all classes is gone, and the generous chivalry which once nerved the hearts of men to resent and resist the invasions of privilege by power has passed away with the feelings and the fashions of elder and better times.

Colonel Blacker has had many offers of a seat in parliament, which his attachment to home and his aversion to the fatigues and confinement of a parliamentary life have induced him to decline. We confess we regret, although we cannot disapprove his choice. His eloquence and habits of business fitted him for success in parliamentary life, and we might have hoped that in him we would have found a stern advocate of unyielding principle even in these days of expediency and compromise. He does not often appear in public. Occasionally, however, the cause of Protestantism brings him to the platform of a public meeting, where his speeches are invariably distinguished by chasteness yet brilliancy of diction, a classical taste, and a genuine wit that is at once humorous and refined.

From the newspapers of the day, we take extracts from two speeches delivered by Colonel Blacker, which will, perhaps, be a fair specimen of his style as a public speaker, observing that his delivery is admirable, his appearance most gentlemanlike, and that his whole manner adds incalculably to the humour of what he says.

At one of the Longford elections, a Mrs. Prunty had, in persuading her husband to vote for the radical candidate in opposition to his landlord, called after her good man as he left his house to attend the hustings, the remarkable expression, "Remember your soul and liberty;" such at least was the story of the Repeal Association, in which Mr. O'Connell moved that a pillion be presented by the association to Mrs. Prunty. A few days after, Colonel Blacker, at a meeting at the Mansion House, in January, 1837, thus alluded to this transaction:--

"Your gallantry will dispose you to bear with me a few minutes longer, when I tell you there's a lady in the case.--(Hear, hear, and cheers.) I know not whether your lordship has the honour of her acquaintance, but you must have heard of Mrs. Prunty, a lady of such redoubted pluck, and, to carry on the pugilistic metaphor, of such prodigious bottom, that the National Convention have decreed her a pillion for it.--(Great and continued laughter.) When I first heard of this worthy dame, I considered her some virago of agitation, some 'Penthesilla Furens,' who was to ride her newly-gotten charger rough-shod over everything that was Protestant. But what is the fact?--to speak in seriousness, my lord, were I to choose a fitting motto for Luther or Calvin--were the genius of the Reformation walking the island, and seeking an inscription for her banner--I would inscribe on it in letters of gold, or of fire, the words of Mrs. Prunty, 'Remember your soul and liberty.'--(Hear, hear, and loud cheering.) Were a Romanist who had grown weary of penance and priestcraft, and had been ordered to burn or bury the Book of Truth, to resort to me for advice--were that man, whose case has just been so affectingly described by Mr. Woodward, to ask me, in his agonizing dilemma, whether he should obey the tyrant who commanded him to surrender what God had joined, I could give no better reply than the words of Mrs. Prunty, 'Remember your soul and liberty.'--(Cheers.) Oh, my Lord, what a world of meaning is concentrated in those few words. They contain the pith and marrow of all that could be said and written on the great topic of the Reformation; and is it nothing that these words are ordered by the Association to be engraven on the hearts and recollections of those with whom they have to do? I cannot, my lord, but think there is a power at work to turn their devices to their own discomfiture.--(Cheers.) There is a little book, published some years ago by a pious and elegant writer, which should be in the hands of every well-wisher to the Church; it is entitled the Velvet Cushion. Now, my lord, I will from henceforth place next to the Vicar of Harrow's Velvet Cushion, Mrs. Prunty's pillion; long may she bump it through the land, proclaiming to her enslaved and benighted countrymen, `Remember your sowl and liberty.'"--(Immense cheering, which lasted some time.)

The other extract is from a speech very recently delivered at a conservative dinner at Cheltenham, where the Colonel had been compelled to go for the benefit of his health. His name had been associated with the Protestants of Ireland:--

Colonel Blacker, in rising to return thanks, said--"Mr. President and brother Conservatives, this is the third time you have drawn upon yourselves the infliction of my thanks. I have read somewhere of a certain vain Italian who, seated beneath the image of a popular saint, took to himself all the genuflexions and salutes bestowed upon the effigy over his head. Now, I am not so fond of Italian matters in general as to follow his example by attributing your kindness to any but the real object of it, and would, therefore, tender you my acknowledgments on behalf of the cause, and the sufferers of that cause, with whom you have associated my humble name. But the field, or rather the garner, of gratitude has been already so industriously gleaned as not to leave to a late-comer a single flower to weave a chaplet withal. Allow me, then, instead of attempting any new variations upon the old theme of 'I thank you,' to put you on your guard, and warn you of a danger which I foresee is impending over your heads. You little dream of the hornets' nest you are in a fair way of bringing about your ears: let me tell you you are doing your best to draw upon you the wrath and indignation of a body of no less importance than the medical men of Cheltenham. I see you stare, but I will solve the enigma. Time was when a poor Irish Protestant visited Cheltenham, bending beneath the weight of bile, chiefly engendered by the disheartening prospects of his caste and creed at home; he first called upon the doctor, who duly recommended him to the tender mercies of the surgeon, or the gracious dispensations of the apothecary, who on their part sent him to waste away 'the winter of his discontent' at one or other of your springs, among whose hands the poor Patlander was salted, or sulphured, or steeled into something like convalescence. But mark the difference of things now; he finds himself bidden to the banquet of men nobly associating in defence of a cause which his sickened spirit has so long deemed forlorn; he hears it recognised with fostering acclaim; the sunshine of hope gilds his darkened heart; and he cries out with Shakspeare, 'throw physic to the dogs, I'll none of it.' Small wonder, then, if the medical fraternity should take alarm, and deem their craft in danger. I tell you they will be down upon you; you will have to stand a charge from the lancers, men accustomed to bleed for their country next to those bombadiers the apothecaries. In short, you may be prepared for a general onset, mortars, cannon, and all." [1]

To the public we have nothing to add to this sketch of an "Irish gentleman," (sixty years do not warrant the prefix,) "all of the olden time." To himself, when these pages meet his eye, we have a few words of precept. That he will perhaps be displeased with the freedom with which we have spoken even of his virtues, we do not doubt, and, if truth must be told, we do not care. But we do doubt whether he will attend to our injunction, and we care much that he should. History has latterly been written in the memoirs and reminiscences of individuals. We know of no one whose reminiscences would present so full or so interesting a picture of the events of the last fifty years as those of the gentleman whose life we have sketched--we know of none more capable of describing what he has seen. By his allegiance to the literature and the protestantism of his country--and in the name of both we have some right to command--we do command and enjoin on him the performance of our high behest--and nothing doubting his dutiful and loyal obedience, we wish from our heart, and in no language of hollow compliment, that he may long be spared to see many editions of his reminiscences, and to give to his country a pattern of a consistent politician, a benevolent landlord, a well-educated gentleman, and a sincere and practical Christian.


[1] Dr. Cannon is the leading physician in Cheltenham.