Home » People » Forgotten Folk » Francis Joseph Bigger, His Life and Times
Francis Joseph Bigger Blue Plaque
Francis Joseph Bigger Blue Plaque on the Crown and Shamrock, Antrim Road, Newtownabbey

Background

Francis Joseph Bigger was born on 17th July 1863 at 9 Little Donegall Street, Belfast. He was the seventh son of Joseph Bigger, who was the seventh son of David Bigger of The Trench Mallusk, who was himself the seventh son of William Bigger of Biggerstown! Joseph Bigger was a prosperous Provisions Merchant in the town, with premises in Trinity Street. Francis’s mother was Jane Ardery, a farmer’s daughter, from Ballyvally near Banbridge. The couple had married on 7th May 1850 at the Parish Church of Seapatrick.

As a delicate child, Francis was sent to stay in the countryside with his Bigger relatives at Mallusk for the sake of his health. Here he had an idyllic childhood and fell in love with nature, rural life and Irish folklore. He also learned about his ancestry, his grandfather David had been a prominent Volunteer and his father’s cousin Joseph Gillis Biggar, was a Parnellite and Nationalist M.P. for County Cavan. The young Francis heard tales of Celtic courage in myth and legend and the heroic days of the 1798 Rebellion. It is very likely that he visited the grave of United Irishman Jemmy Hope in the nearby Mallusk Graveyard. In later years he was to write a series The Northern Leaders of ’98.

At the age of nine however, the Bigger family moved to Liverpool in England for business reasons. This was a bleak time in Francis’ young life but thankfully brief.

Little Donegall Street sign
Little Donegall Street sign (Beside Belfast Central library)

Return to Belfast

Ardrigh

The family returned to Belfast and settled in a house called Ardrigh, 737 Antrim Road. A spacious and elegant dwelling in north Belfast. The best feature about this new abode was the large garden with its mature trees and flowers. Even as an adult Francis relished this peaceful oasis. In 1921 he published a pamphlet entitled The Birds of Ardrigh. He also had a keen interest in bee-keeping, a hobby he inherited from his mother Jane.

A close friend of Francis described this idyll –

“And summer dews it with her softest showers
The while she suns it with an eye of tenderness,
And on its plat of shaven fairy-grass
My bees are housed in hives of beechen wood,
Filling the languorous air with lazy drone”

Joseph Campbell, from The Garden of Bees 1905

Belfast Royal Academy

Francis finished his education at Belfast Royal Academy, a nearby school with close family connections. His grandfather David was one of the school’s founders in 1810 and his father was one of the governors. His brothers and cousins had also all attended. Francis enjoyed happy times at the school and this led him, subsequently to write a history of Belfast Royal Academy, though it was never published.

Education and Early Career

Francis then studied at Queens College (now Queens University), before becoming articled to the leading solicitors firm of Henry and William Seeds of 26 Cornmarket, Belfast. In 1884 with his school pal George Strachan, Francis went to Dublin to King’s Inn to continue his legal studies. While there he met John Crone who became a lifelong friend. In 1890 George and Francis went into partnership in a legal practice with premises in Rea’s Building at the corner of Royal Ave and Donegall Street (only around the corner from Francis’s birthplace). This building had special significance to Francis as it was named after another one of his heroes, John Rea.

Francis Joseph Bigger’s Interests

Naturalism, Archaeology, Literary Theatre, Arts & Crafts…

Francis Joseph Bigger was a man of immense energy and huge enthusiasms. He joined, became Secretary and then President of the Belfast Naturalists Field Club. In 1894 he revived the Ulster Journal of Archaeology which he edited from 1894– 914. He wrote many articles on historical subjects for this journal. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland. Bigger sponsored and was the first President of the Ulster Literary Theatre founded in 1902 by Bulmer Hobson. He also financed the theatre’s journal Uladh. In 1910 Bigger was one of the organisers of the Samuel Ferguson Centenary celebrations. Later he helped his friend John Crone to produce the periodical The Irish Book Lover. He was also the patron of several societies such as Dun Emer Guild, The Craftworkers and The Irish Art Companions, as well as having a successful career as a solicitor!

Irish Language

Bigger also acquired a keen interest in the Irish language. He organised tours to Irish speaking areas of Antrim and Donegal. In 1895 when the Belfast branch of the Gaelic League was formed, Bigger was on the Executive Committee. He also founded the Belfast College of Irish in St Mary’s Hall, Bank Street, which had been built by the generosity of Belfast baker and philanthropist Barney Hughes. In the 1911 Census Francis Joseph’s name is recorded in Irish –Proinnceas Seosamh Bigger.

Archaeology

Bigger was a keen archaeologist and loved exploring potential sites mostly in Counties Antrim and Down. In Ardglass he unearthed a pre-Reformation statue of the Virgin Mary and Child, which now stands above the entrance to Dunsford Church. In 1911, Francis purchased the ruined Jordan’s Castle in County Down. As was often the case at this time, the project was more a romantic restoration than an archaeological scientific study. The Castle was reopened with great fanfare and was frequently the location for Irish music and dancing festivals and cultural parties, when the guests were encouraged to dress in traditional Irish or Elizabethan attire. He subsequently bequeathed the Castle to the State.

Music – Songs of Uladh and Francis McPeake

One of Bigger’s great passions was the love of old Irish music. In the summer of 1903 Bigger, the musician brothers Herbert and Freddy Hughes and poet John Campbell, toured Donegal to write down unrecorded folk tunes. The result was the collection of music published in 1904 called Songs of Uladh. Campbell had written the lyrics to the old melodies and songs such as My Lagan Love and The Blue Hills of Antrim became immensely popular. In the same year he helped organise the Irish Harp Festival.

Francis Joseph was also to support and patron the young Francis McPeake. He arranged for the aspiring musician to learn the Pipes by hiring the blind Galway piper John O’Reilly to come to Belfast and tutor the young man. McPeake was the first Belfast-born man to play the Uillean Pipes in a century.

Photography

Another of Bigger’s many hobbies was photography. He wanted to record as much as possible of Ireland’s disappearing traditions. Bigger took over 5,000 photographs of archaeological remains, feis and fleadhs, county people and rural homesteads. He captured on film farming life, traditional crafts and pursuits. This collection, now held in the Ulster Museum, is an invaluable source of social history.

Cushendall’s Glens Feis

On 30th June 1904 Francis Joseph Bigger opened the Glens Feis in Cushendall, a showcase of all things Irish. There were over 700 participants – musicians, poets, dancers and singers. There were competitions and prizes and it was a great success. It is a tribute to Bigger’s organizational skills but also to his charm and persuasiveness that many of Belfast’s Protestant businessmen contributed to the event.

The Ulster Public House Association

It is indicative of Bigger’s romantic idealism that he set up the Ulster Public House Association. Its aim was to buy and improve run down pubs. One such was the disreputable Ballyvesey Spirit Grocer, which he restored and ‘traditionalised’ and is now the thriving Crown and Shamrock.

The Crown & Shamrock with Francis Joseph Bigger Plaque
The Crown & Shamrock with Francis Joseph Bigger Plaque, Antrim Road Newtownabbey

And the list goes on…

Another Bigger venture involved the design of labourers’ cottages in response to a competition run in the Irish Independent. While the 2-roomed cottages are lovely to look at, they are impractical harking back to era of idealised peasant life, for example “an open hearth with large hobs….The washing up…. done in a bucket or basin on a large stool…

Bigger was also responsible for having the granite slab placed over the grave of Ireland’s patron Saint Patrick in Downpatrick. He funded restoration work on ancient monasteries and monuments and had an interest in medieval stained glass. One enterprise close to his heart was getting permission to remove the remains of Henry Joy McCracken from their burial place in the old St George’s Graveyard in High Street. He had these reinterred in the grave of Mary Ann McCracken, the patriot’s beloved younger sister.

“Bigger’s name is now almost forgotten in his native city, but in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries he was something of a living legend. He was known throughout Ulster and, indeed, the whole of Ireland for his infectious enthusiasm for Irish history and the Irish language and for his personal contribution to the preservation of castles, high crosses and patriot graves throughout the country”.

Eamonn Phoenix A Century of Gaelic Culture in the Antrim Glens

Social Gatherings of Francis Joseph Bigger

Francis Joseph Bigger was a gregarious, generous and charming host. His house became the centre of hospitality for all those interested in Irish life and culture. Musicians, poets, artists, historians and scholars all flocked to these informal gatherings for debate and entertainment.

“To walk into that house was a thrilling experience, you were almost certain to meet an established or rising celebrity. Even if you didn’t, there was the vast army of books in the library, the relics of McCracken, Orr and Jemmy Hope in the little museum; and if you strolled out into the garden, you could feast your eyes on the parterres of flowers or inhale the scents of musk, thyme or sage or gaze in wonder at the little shrine dedicated to St Francis and the birds”

Hugh McCartan Capuchin Annual 1943

Among his regular guests were Roger Casement, Douglas Hyde, Bulmer Hobson, Rutherford Mayne and John Crone. Bigger championed the revival of Celtic literature and language and was an inspirational figure.

“….the library of ‘Ardrigh’ Belfast, the residence of Francis Joseph Bigger antiquarian, litterateur and host to Gaels of Erin….the lights were lit – a ceilidh was toward – and the heaped up fire of turf glowed upon the wide hearth, around which was gathered a merry band of young and old, with the hospitable host, happy and jovial, in the midst”.

Cathal O’Byrne

Promotion of Irish life and culture

Bigger’s immersion in Celtic culture led to him becoming sympathetic to the Nationalist cause. Although a Protestant and a Freemason, he empathised with those who wanted an Ireland where all creeds were recognised as equal and without English rule. Perhaps in this he was influenced by his great admiration of the Protestant leaders of the United Irishmen. He was a supporter of the Dungannon Clubs, set up by his pal Denis McCullough. These were to promote education, encourage Irish industries and to spread local culture through national games. In 1907 Bigger got into trouble with the governors of the Linenhall Library when he gave a speech entitled The Hills of Holy Ireland. Instead of a historical topic as expected, this was an indictment of British injustice in Ireland.

The End of the Road

Although Bigger had no active involvement in the Easter Rising, his heart lay with the rebels. The aftermath saw him turning away from current politics to the more ‘romantic’ world of historical revolutionaries. The Civil War and the creation of the border both enraged and depressed him. He refused to ever cross the border for the rest of his life.

He continued to write and travel and add to his collections. On 9th December 1926 Bigger died at Ardrigh. His funeral took place at St Peter’s on the Antrim Road and was attended by mourners of all faiths and beliefs. He was laid to rest in the family plot at Mallusk Cemetery, near where he had spent so many happy childhood days.

“Universal regret amongst a very diversified circle of public and professional thought will be felt at the announcement of the death of Mr Francis J Bigger which took place yesterday at his residence. Mr Bigger was one of the foremost figures in the antiquarian, historical and literary life of Ulster, and, in addition, was well known as the joint principal of the firm of Messrs Bigger and Strachan, solicitors Royal Ave, Belfast… Mr Bigger devoted a large portion of a busy life to the study of nature, art and literature, with special reference to the history and antiquities of Ireland”

Irish News 10th December 1926
Francis Joseph Bigger Grave - Mallusk Cemetery
Francis Joseph Bigger Grave – Mallusk Cemetery
Mallusk Cemetery Twilight
Mallusk Cemetery Twilight

Francis Joseph Bigger Legacy

Francis Joseph Bigger left a vast collection of over 18,000 books, pamphlets, maps, periodicals, sketches and notebooks. There are 3,500 letters alone. His own works include The Ulster Land War of 1770, Irish Penal Crosses and the fictional works Aeneas O’Haughan and Four Shots From Dawn. He had also compiled biographies of the United Irishman, six were completed – William Orr, Henry Joy McCracken, James [Jemmy] Hope, Thomas Russell and Samuel Neilson. In 1927 The Bigger Archive was presented to Belfast Central Library by his brother Lieutenant F. C. Bigger. An amazing collection it is available to consult at the Heritage Department of the Library.

“…he was a great loss to a widespread community and his memory will long remain fragrant in the land he loved so dearly”

Belfast Telegraph December 1926

Bigger Archive Contact Details

Heritage Department,
Belfast Central Library,
Royal Ave, Belfast BT1 1EA

Telephone: 028 90509156
email: belfast.heritage@librariesni.org.uk

Songs of Uladh, Francis Joseph Bigger
Songs of Uladh, Francis Joseph Bigger
Francis Joseph Bigger, The Irish Book Lover
Francis Joseph Bigger, The Irish Book Lover
Francis Joseph Bigger, Armorial Scultured Stones in County Antrim
Francis Joseph Bigger, Armorial Scultured Stones in County Antrim
Francis Joseph Bigger, News of Death Belfast Telegraph
Francis Joseph Bigger, News of Death Belfast Telegraph 9 Dec 1926
Francis Joseph Bigger, News of Death Irish News
Francis Joseph Bigger, News of Death Irish News 10 Dec 1926

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