Page:Dictionary of National Biography volume 46.djvu/187

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as a politician till after the suppression of the volunteer movement by the Convention Act of 1793. One effect of this arbitrary measure was to throw into alliance with the secret society of United Irishmen those who, like Porter, were in favour of parliamentary reform and catholic emancipation, but were now debarred from the holding of open meetings for the agitation of constitutional reforms. Porter in 1794 became a contributor to the ‘Northern Star,’ founded in 1792 by Samuel Neilson [q. v.] For this paper he wrote anonymously a number of patriotic songs, which were afterwards reprinted in ‘Paddy's Resource.’ In 1796 he contributed a famous series of seven letters by ‘A Presbyterian.’ The first, dated 21 May, was published in the number for 27–30 May. They were at once reprinted, with the title ‘Billy Bluff and Squire Firebrand,’ Belfast, 1796, 8vo (of numerous later editions the best is Belfast, 1816, 12mo, containing also the songs). This admirable satire deserves the popularity which it still enjoys in Ulster. The characters are broadly drawn, with a rollicking humour which is exceedingly effective without being malicious; the system of feudal tyranny and local espionage is drawn from the life. Witherow well says that ‘in these pages of a small pamphlet there is, on the whole, a truer picture of country life in Ireland in the last decade of the eighteenth century than in many volumes, each ten times its size.’ The good Witherow laments that the exigencies of realism compelled a divine to represent a County Down dialogue (of that date) as ‘interlarded with oaths,’ which fail to please ‘a grave and sober reader.’ The original of ‘Billy Bluff’ was William Lowry, bailiff on the Greyabbey estate; ‘Lord Mountmumble’ was Robert Stewart, then baron Stewart of Mountstewart, afterwards first marquis of Londonderry [q. v.]; ‘Squire Firebrand’ was Hugh Montgomery of Rosemount, proprietor of the Greyabbey estate (so, correctly, Classon Porter and Killen; Madden and Witherow erroneously identify ‘Squire Firebrand’ with John Cleland, rector (1789–1809) of Newtownards, co. Down, and agent of the Mountstewart estate).

Later in 1796 Porter, whose name was now a household word in Ulster, went through the province on a lecturing tour. His subject was natural philosophy; he showed experiments with an electric battery and model balloons. He had previously given similar lectures in his own neighbourhood, and there is no reason for supposing that he now had any object in view apart from the advancement of popular culture, though the authorities suspected that his lectures were the pretext for a political mission. He had written for the ‘Northern Star’ with the signature ‘A Man of Ulster,’ and he began another series of letters on 23 Dec. 1796, addressed, with the signature of ‘Sydney,’ to Arthur Hill, second marquis of Downshire. In these he attacked the policy of Pitt with extraordinary vehemence, and the publication of the paper was for some time suspended by the authorities. Meanwhile, on Thursday, 16 Feb., the government fast-day of thanksgiving for ‘the late providential storm which dispersed the French fleet off Bantry Bay,’ Porter preached at Greyabbey a sermon, which was published with the title ‘Wind and Weather,’ Belfast, 1797, 8vo. This, which was perhaps the most remarkable discourse ever printed by an Irish divine, is a sustained effort of irony, suggested by the text, ‘Ye walked according to … the prince of the power of the air’ (Eph. ii. 2). Its literary merit is considerable.

On the outbreak of the rebellion of 1798 Porter was a marked man; a large reward was offered for his apprehension. There is no evidence of any knowledge on his part of the plans of the insurgents; it is certain that he committed no overt act of rebellion, and all his published counsels were for peaceable measures of constitutional redress. He withdrew for safety to the house of Johnson of Ballydoonan, two miles from Greyabbey, and afterwards sought concealment in a cottage among the Mourne mountains, on the verge of his parish. Here he was arrested in June 1798, and taken to Belfast, but removed to Newtownards for trial by court-martial. The charge against him was that he had been present with a party of insurgents who, between 9 and 11 June, having intercepted the mail between Belfast and Saintfield, co. Down, had read a despatch from the commanding officer at Belfast to a subordinate at Portaferry, co. Down. The postboy from whom the despatch had been taken could not identify him; but a United Irishman, who had turned informer, swore to his guilt. Porter's cross-examination of this infamous witness was interrupted. He made an impressive appeal to the court, affirming his innocence, and referring to his own character as that of a man ‘who, in the course of a laborious and active life, never concealed his sentiments.’ He was sentenced to be hanged and quartered. His wife was told by the military authorities that Londonderry could suspend the execution. With her seven children, the youngest eight months old, she made her way to Mountstewart. London-