Rev Henry Cooke

The ‘archetypal Ulster protestant political parson’

Henry Macook was born in Grillagh, near Maghera, Co Derry, in 1788. Educated in local ‘hedge schools,’ he matriculated at Glasgow University at the age of 14, although he did not take a degree. Following further instruction in divinity Cooke was licensed to preach the gospel and ordained at Dunean, Co Antrim, in November 1808. Here he changed his name to the more familiar Henry Cooke.

As minister at Killyleagh in Co Down, from 1818, Cooke’s first foray into public controversy came in the early 1820s, when he attacked the influence of Arianism in the liberal Belfast Academical Institution, the main educational establishment for Belfast’s Presbyterian community. Politically conservative, as well as theologically orthodox, he was described as the 'archetypal Ulster protestant political parson.'

Cooke’s election as Moderator of the General Synod in 1824 gave him a position from which to engage in theological and political controversy, culminating in his mobilisation of mass loyalist opposition to the visit of Daniel O’Connell to Belfast in 1841.

In the same year, Cooke was elected Moderator of the General Assembly (he was re-elected in 1862). As minister to the congregation of May St church, built for him in 1829, and as Professor of Rhetoric at the Presbyterian Assembly’s College from 1847, his profile in Belfast and among the wider Presbyterian community was such that on his death, in December 1868, the town authorities arranged a ‘public funeral’.

Cooke was buried at Balmoral cemetery in the south western suburbs of Belfast. A memorial statue by FS Lynn, its back pointedly turned to the Academical Institution, was erected in 1876.

Further Reading:
The Oxford Companion to Irish History (2002), by SJ Connolly; A Dictionary of Irish Biography (1998), by H Boylan; Henry Cooke’s Centenary (1993), by E Dunlop; Dictionary of Ulster Biography (1993), by K Newmann; Henry Cooke (1981), by R Finlay; The Life and Times of Henry Cooke (1875), by JL Porter.