When Craigavon Historical Society launched Montiaghisms in November 2007 as a tribute to their esteemed former member Mr. Samuel C. Lutton, the editorial committee decided to include Francis Joseph Bigger’s preface to the first edition of the booklet published 1923. The question arose ‘Who was Francis Joseph Bigger?’ Later that month Belfast Central Library had a major exhibition entitled ‘F.J. Bigger, Ireland’s Cultural Visionary’; this left no one in any doubt as to Bigger’s great contribution to the cultural and political life of Ireland during his lifetime.
Francis Joseph Bigger was born 1863 at 9 Little Donegal Street, Belfast, a descendant of Scots settlers who had come to Ulster in the 1630s; as such they belonged to the Presbyterian community in Belfast. With increasing wealth the family purchased land in the Mallusk area. As a child Francis Joseph was rather delicate and his parents sent him away from the city atmosphere to the healthier rural area of Mallusk, where he lived with relatives. This appears a very happy period of his childhood and his later love of folklore and rural life is attributed to this period – rather reminiscent of George Russell (AE).Both grew up to be described as visionaries. While resident with these relatives Francis Joseph became acquainted with Joseph Gillas Biggar (on conversion to Catholicism this gentleman changed the spelling of his surname) the famous Nationalist M.P.for County Cavan, and a cousin of the young Joseph’s father.
After a short spell in Liverpool the family returned to Belfast and settled in Ardrigh, a fine house with a large garden on Antrim Road. Francis Joseph attended Belfast Royal Academical Institution, of which his father was a governor and his grandfather had been a founder. He matriculated from Queen’s College in Law and from there proceeded to King’s Inn in Dublin. In 1890 he entered into partnership with his friend George Strachan as a successful solicitor in premises at the corner of Royal Avenue and Donegal Street. From then onwards Francis Joseph Bigger became deeply involved in Belfast’s cultural life. He joined the Belfast Naturalists’ Field Club, becoming its Secretary, then its President. Although the club’s interests were mainly botanical, his were more and more historical and archaeological. In 1894 Bigger was instrumental in re-launching the Ulster Journal of Archaeology. Week-ends were spent exploring archaeological sites in counties Antrim and Down. It was F.J. Bigger who had the great granite slabs erected over the supposed grave of Saint Patrick at Downpatrick cathedral. In 1911 he purchased the derelict Jordan’s castle at Ardglass, repaired and furnished it. The restored castle was used to entertain friends and to hold festivals of Irish music and dance. Later historians however, regarded Bigger’s approach to archaeology as that of “a romantic historian not a scientific archaeologist”.
During the closing decade of the nineteenth century, Bigger developed his interest in the Irish language and Gaelic League, and began organizing trips to Irish speaking areas in Donegal and the Glens of Antrim. When the Gaelic League was formed in Belfast in 1895, Bigger was appointed to the Executive Committee. By now his home Ardrigh had become a centre not only for those associated with the Gaelic League but for a range of young artists, writers and musicians from Belfast and further afield. There they could discuss music and politics with distinguished guests including Roger Casement, Douglas Hyde and Alice Milligan. In 1903 Bigger took some of the musicians and folk singers to east Donegal to collect folk music. On their return to Belfast, Bigger asked Joseph Campbell, a young Irish student and poet, to compose words to accompany the unrecorded airs. In this way words were put to long forgotten melodies, and thus were written ‘My Lagan Love’, ‘The Blue Hills of Donegal’ and others. The outcome was the publication of ‘Songs of Uladh’ by W.J. Baird. It was dedicated to Bigger and published at his expense. One of the songs from the collection, the words of which are attributed to F.J. Bigger, is ‘Bonnie Portmore’ –
Oh! ‘tis pretty to be in Ballinderry’,
‘Tis pretty to be in Aghalee;
But prettier far in little Ram’s Island,
Trysting under the ivy tree.
It’s often I’ve roamed in little Ram’s Island
Side by side wi’ Philemy Hyland;
And oft he’d court me, and I’d be coy,
Though at heart I loved him, my handsome boy.
“I’m going” he said “from Ballinderry,
Out and across the stormy sea;
Then if in your heart you love me, Mary,
Open your arms at last to me”.
I opened my arms – ah! Well he knew me;
I opened my arms and took him to me;
And there in the gloom of the groaning mast,
We kissed our first and we kissed our last.
It was pretty to be in Ballinderry,
But now it’s as sad as sad can be;
For the ship that sailed wi’ Philemy Hyland
Is sunk forever beneath the sea.
Without doubt one of Bigger’s most important legacies was his photographic collection; 5000 of these pictures are held by the Ulster Museum. They reflect his archaeological interest, the fleadhs and other events he helped organize – together with photographs of country people, their homes and their occupations. In recording pictures of Orange parades, he was a pioneer in recognizing them as part of an Irish tradition.
The year 1926 was a notable one for Francis Joseph Bigger. At the summer graduation of Queen’s University he was awarded an Honorary degree of M.A. Later in the summer he set off to trace the footsteps of the Irish saints across the north of England to Lindisfarne. From there he travelled to Belgium where he visited churches and cathedrals. On his return home he felt tired and ill and died 1st December, aged 63.
A year later his brother Colonel Frederic C. Bigger presented the valuable collection of Irish archaeological, antiquarian and historical books, manuscripts and other papers totalling in all some 40,000 items to Belfast Central library. To-day it is one of the most notable local history collections in Ireland, and is available for all users to consult. The newspapers, maps, pamphlets, periodicals and books are of particular value to local study researchers.
Francis Joseph Bigger is recognized as a visionary with a belief in the unifying power of culture and history.