Macalisters and the Ulster Covenant

On this day in 1912, the Ulster Covenant was signed by nearly half a million people, including more than 900 Macalisters (McAllisters, McAlesters, etc.) – nearly 1,000, if you count some of the Alexanders and Alisters.  Although the Covenant was signed by people in places as diverse as China and the United States, the only Macalister signators outside of Ireland were in England and Scotland – and nearly all of them gave Irish addresses.[1]

The Ulster Covenant was a response to Prime Minister Asquith’s introduction of the third Irish Home Rule Bill on 11 April 1912, which aimed to set up a parliament to govern all of Ireland from Dublin. The proposed Dublin parliament would have limited powers, but many in Ulster saw it as the first step towards Irish independence. Although the majority of those in what is now the Republic of Ireland supported independence, Ulster was in many ways a very different place. Primarily Protestant and more heavily industrialised than the counties further south, Ulster was home to a large pro-Union constituency. Many there feared that an independent Irish parliament would impose Catholicism and create economic difficulty in the north. Emotion was high – so much so that for many years it was widely believed quite a few people had signed their names in blood.[2] Those who signed the covenant pledged to resist the establishment of government from Dublin ‘by all means which may be found necessary’. 

There is a degree of irony in all of these Macalister signatures. The Ulster Covenant was initially patterned on the Scottish National Covenant of 1638. That Covenant was aimed at limiting control from London (in the form of King Charles) over the Presbyterian church of Scotland. It led to the later Solemn League and Covenant (1643) and ultimately to Scotland’s Civil War, in which the Macalisters were among those violently resisting the Presbyterian government. In fact, some Macalisters settled in Northern Ireland after the war to escape the victorious Covenanters. Other Irish Macalisters descended from Scots who had come as mercenaries to support the MacDonalds of Antrim in their fight to keep the English (and, to be fair, most of the Irish) out of northeast Ulster. Yet centuries later, their descendants queued up all across the north to sign a Covenant aimed at maintaining English control of Ireland and protecting the mostly Presbyterian Protestant establishment.

Asquith’s Home Rule bill was defeated in the House of Lords in January 1913, though it is not clear that the Ulster Covenant contributed directly to its defeat. World War I ultimately led to a different solution for Ireland, but the Covenant did have other results. For one thing, with the defeat of the 1912 bill, Unionists began to organise and train a military force whose members were drawn from men who had signed the document. Called the Ulster Volunteer Force, it was a forerunner of the numerous paramilitary groups that perpetuated the late 20th-century Troubles; indeed, one of the pro-union paramilitaries even adopted the UVF name. However, for modern Macalisters whose roots are in Ireland, the signing of the Ulster Covenant had another, very different kind of result – one completely unrelated to politics or religion and probably not anticipated by those who signed it: It provides us with a rich source of genealogical information, which, thanks to the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland, can now be searched on-line. 

Copyright (c) Lynn McAlister, 2012

[1] Chris Paton, in his blog post on this topic, suggests that the ‘address’ column is best read ‘place of origin’; if so, these Macalisters were probably permanent – and maybe recent – migrants to England and Scotland rather than visitors. Also see How Ulster Covenant Drew Support across England and Scotland.

[2] According to an article on the PRONI website: “Contrary to popular belief, only one signature is believed to have been signed in blood, that of Frederick Hugh Crawford, who was to become the  Ulster Volunteers’ Director of Ordnance”. However, even this is now disputed.