McComb, William (1793–1873), journalist and poet, was born 17 August 1793 at Coleraine, Co. Londonderry, son of Thomas McComb, linen manufacturer and draper, and his wife (née Foster). The ‘pushing and ambitious’ Thomas soon afterwards moved his family and business to Derry city and acquired business contacts in Belfast. After a local education, McComb was apprenticed to a Belfast draper. During this period he and another apprentice founded one of the earliest Sunday schools in Belfast, with the purpose of countering the organised promulgation of Painite political and religious ideas. From his early twenties McComb published verse in local newspapers; his first book, a verse lament for the harper Arthur O'Neill (qv), appeared in 1817.
McComb trained as a schoolmaster with the Kildare Place Society. He managed and taught at the society's Brown Street school in the Shankill area until 1828, some of his experiences being recorded in a pietistic long poem The school of the sabbath (1822). During his mastership catholic pupils were withdrawn amid allegations of proselytism; McComb subsequently opposed any compromise with non-denominationalism. The Sunday school movement brought McComb into contact with such evangelical activists as James Digges La Touche (qv) and the 3rd earl of Roden (qv). In 1828 he set up as a bookseller and publisher with the aim of ‘giving increased circulation to a sound religious literature’; the Belfast Linenhall Library has over 120 titles published by him, mostly on religious topics.
McComb was a staunch political and religious follower of the Rev. Henry Cooke (qv). From 1829 he published the monthly Orthodox Presbyterian (co-edited by Cooke), which advocated trinitarian orthodoxy against the Arianism of the new Non-Subscribing Presbyterian church. McComb published accounts of Cooke's controversies, notably The repealer repulsed (1841) on Cooke's challenge to O'Connell (qv) to debate repeal; the volume's satirical verses on O'Connell's visit to Belfast show a talent for parody unexpressed in McComb's formal literary productions. His tourist guide to Belfast and the adjoining counties (1861), containing previously unpublished accounts of the battle of Ballynahinch, reflects on the folly of the rebels and the blessings conferred by the union.
From 1840 he published McComb's Presbyterian Almanack, combining the usual information found in almanacs with verses by himself, lists of presbyterian ministers, and accounts of the progress of presbyterianism in Ireland, Scotland, and America, and the Continent. From 1839 his verses rallied support for presbyterian overseas missionary work; he also advocated missions to the Jews and to Irish catholics. McComb was active in many charitable organisations, notably as co-founder and first treasurer of the Ulster Institute for the Education of the Deaf and Dumb and the Blind. In 1845 his was the first appointment as registrar of marriages for Belfast.
McComb's The voice of a year, or, Recollections of 1848 (1849) reflects, in verse, on the year of revolutions in Europe. It expounds presbyterian millennialism, equating the downfall of the French monarchy and the expulsion of Pius IX from Rome with the opening of the fourth seal in the book of Revelation. As a poet McComb employed received literary forms and his works eschew dialect, though he was proud of his friendship with Robert Burns's granddaughter and knew the weaver poet David Herbison (qv). Contemporaries called him ‘the laureate of the Church’ (Jeffrey, 63) but by the late twentieth century only his poem on the bicentenary of the Irish presbyterian church and his ballad on the death of Betsy Gray (qv) at the battle of Ballynahinch were still quoted.
McComb retired in 1864, though his almanac continued until 1884. He cultivated flowers, taught blind children at Fisherwick Place school, Belfast, and wrote occasional poems. He died 13 September 1873 at his home on the Lisburn Road, Belfast, after three weeks’ illness. He was twice married: in 1816 to Sarah Johnson of Hillsborough (d. 1827), and in 1830 to Eliza Barkley, widow of Captain Robert Walkinshaw Campbell, who survived him. His newspaper obituaries mention one daughter, Anna (apparently from the second marriage); he seems to have had several other children who died young.
McComb's enterprise and concern for those less fortunate than himself deserve respect. He spoke for an increasingly confident, prosperous, and evangelical Ulster presbyterian middle class. Some commentators maintain that something valuable was lost amid the developments he represented.