He was the nineteenth century Ian Paisley, a powerful orator and head-turning demagogue committed to the notion of the Pope as an anti-Christ, the extirpation of secularism and Godlessness in all its pomps, and possessor of an honorary doctorate from an American university.
Henry Cooke came from a relatively humble background, with the advantage of a Presbyterian ‘mammy’ who nurtured his talents and drove him to achieve educational excellence. The pushy and adoring ‘mammy’ is far from being just an Irish Catholic phenomenon! Much of his erudition, however, may be down to his first teacher, described thus:
The teacher was . . a tall, lanky Scotchman, distinguished by an enormous nose, a tow wig, a long coat of rusty black, leather tights, grey stockings, brogues, and a formidable hazle rod ..’
I’m sure, like me, that he got you at ‘hazel rod’. The prospect of some nasty corporal punishment may have been as influential as ‘the mammy’.
Cooke entered the University of Glasgow at an age when most Irish students would be looking ahead to their Junior Cert, and graduated from there at an age when they would be wondering how to fill out their CAO application. He was an ordained minister of the Presbyterian church by the age of twenty.
Cooke’s religious and professional life—which were one and the same thing really—were dominated by the impulse to make the Irish Presbyterian church, in essence, more Presbyterian. He wanted nothing to do with the Ulster non-conformist political radicals who had been the backbone of the United Irishmen’s rebellion in 1798. He also wanted to root out something called Arianism among dissenters. I’m not even going to get started on exactly what that was, except to say that it had something to do with a lukewarm acceptance of the Trinity, and that it was so esoteric a dispute that Jonathan Swift must have had something like it in mind when he wrote about the toxic political dispute in Lilliput over whether people should break off their breakfast egg at the ‘big end’ or the ‘little end’.
Cooke opposed the establishment of a non-denominational system of primary education in Ireland in 1831, which the British government of the day was keen to establish. Here he was, of course, ably assisted by his Roman Catholic, and Church of Ireland peers. Thanks a lot for that guys, it’s been a real boon for cross-community understanding.
He was also a determined enemy of the repeal of the Act of Union, and vigorously opposed Daniel O’Connell’s Repeal Association. When it was rumoured that the Liberator was coming to Belfast in 1841 to make his case, Cooke challenged him to a debate. O’Connell responded, like any good politician, by abusing his opponent, describing Cooke as ‘Bully Cooke … the Cock of the North.’ Cooke, in his turn, accused O’Connell of having skulked away from the challenge ‘beneath the meanness of a falsehood … it will pursue you like a shadow.’
When O’Connell finally did make it Belfast Cooke was the keynote speaker at a huge counter-demonstration attended by thirty-two MPs and, more worryingly, three hundred and thirty-five magistrates. A short while later grateful Ulstermen presented Cooke with a gift of £2000 (or nearly £200,000 in today’s money) for having seen off O’Connell and Repeal.
Life wasn’t all a bed of rose petals for Henry Cooke though. Anyone who has ever spent half an hour writing something, and then lost it when Word crashed, will sympathise with what happened to the poor man. For seven years, he spent every spare hour working on a book called Analytical Concordance of Scripture. With a snappy title like that it was bound to be a huge seller. Full of the joys of authorship he brought the completed manuscript—the only copy—to London to be published. Yes, you’re right, you can see where this is going. He put up at a hotel for the night before handing over the book to his publisher. As you’ve probably guessed the hotel burned down taking the manuscript with it. He never got around to re-writing it, and the world was probably denied a racy, theological classic.
One of his last public appearances was at a Belfast rally against the disestablishment of Church of Ireland (of which he was not a member). This meant that he was one of the longest words in the English language, an ‘antidisestablishmentarianist’ – it was as close as he ever got to Arianism of any kind. He had the good fortune to pass away a few months before Gladstone finally disestablished the Church of Ireland in 1869.
Henry Cooke, fiery preacher and unlucky author, was born two hundred and thirty years ago, on this day.