The role of open-air preaching in the Belfast riots of 1857

Holmes, Janice (2002). The role of open-air preaching in the Belfast riots of 1857. Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy, Section C, 102C(3) pp. 47–66.




Open-air preaching was a familiar sight on the streets of mid-nineteenth-century Belfast and was conducted by all of the town's main Protestant denominations. While it was generally tolerated, in the early autumn of 1857 an open-air sermon preached by the Reverend Hugh Hanna provoked a large-scale riot. Why was this? Earlier in the summer the parades and services surrounding the Twelfth of July Orange Order celebrations had provoked extensive rioting and forced magistrates to cancel several open-air services. Hanna's service was quickly subsumed within these existing community tensions. The attitudes of the two major protagonists only exacerbated the situation. To Hanna and his supporters, open-air preaching was evidence of the right of Protestants to practise their faith freely; to Catholics it was an intolerable nuisance, designed to harass them. Thus, the 1857 riots should be explained as the result not only of a battle for territorial control of Belfast, but also of conflicting opinions concerning the acceptability of public manifestations of religious belief within divided communities.

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