Joseph Gillis Biggar

A Belfast tradesman of Presbyterian stock who became a leader of 19th century nationalism

Born in Belfast in 1828, Joseph Gillis Biggar, a Presbyterian, was educated at Belfast Academy. He followed in his father’s footsteps as a provisions merchant, rising to head the firm in 1861. On August 15, 1872, Biggar led Belfast’s first nationalist parade, calling for the release of Fenian prisoners from English jails. Fiercely opposed by ‘Roaring’ Hugh Hanna, the demonstration led to serious disturbances in the town.

Prominent in Isaac Butt’s Home Rule League, Biggar was elected MP for Cavan in 1874, where he developed the policy of obstructing Westminster business to draw attention to Irish issues later adopted by Charles Stewart Parnell.

At the same time, Biggar was a member of the Supreme Council of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, until his expulsion in 1877 for refusing to abandon parliamentarianism. In the same year, he converted to Roman Catholicism.

JG Biggar died in London in February 1890, and was buried in Belfast.

Further reading:
Holy War in Belfast (1969) by Andrew Boyd; Ireland Since the Famine (1971) by FSL Lyons; Belfast: An Illustrated History (1982) by Jonathan Bardon; A Dictionary of Irish Biography (1998) by H Boylan; The Oxford Companion to Irish History (2002) by SJ Connolly.

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