Recently i gave two presentations in Lurgan on the Ulster Volunteer Force. The first was for Lurgan District LOL in Brownlow House (30th May 2013) and the second in Lurgan Royal British Legion for the Ancre Somme Association (4th June 2013). Each event included a broad look at the Force, but also included a specific look at the Lurgan area. The following is the full text of the Lurgan section of both evenings….
THE FORMATION AND ORGANISATION OF THE LURGAN ULSTER VOLUNTEER FORCE
At the turn of the 17th Century the area in and around Lurgan is documented as having a very small and sparse Gaelic population. Within the space of just a few decades this was to change considerably. William Brownlow, an English Lord, took on the region in the early years of the Plantation of Ulster and it very quickly became a large settlement. Dominated primarily by English planters, it was to grow continually over the coming centuries, its importance cemented by its status as a thriving market town.
Like much of Protestant Ireland, prior to the act of Union in 1801 there was considerable unease locally about the prospect of tighter links with Great Britain. Many locals had joined the ranks of the original Irish and Ulster Volunteers to campaign for the first and only all Ireland Parliament established in 1782, and they were wary of the economic repercussions Union with England could bring, with several Lurgan Orange Lodges going as far to make written objections. After the Act of Union however this unease rapidly disappeared. Lurgan quickly embraced the innovations of the industrial revolution, and became one of Ireland’s main centres for the textile industry. Union brought prosperity in this Irish Protestant heartland, one in which independent Unionists posed more threat to Irish Unionists than Irish Nationalism in elections. It is not surprising then that when the idea of Home Rule appeared on the agenda of Government, the people of Lurgan were strongly opposed to the concept.
At the outset of the first Home Rule Bill in 1886 some Unionists were already preparing to provide physical opposition to it if necessary. Gun clubs were formed across Ireland, including the South and Woodside Clubs in Lurgan, and arms imported. By the second Bill in 1893 this determination to resist had become entrenched, and when the first mass anti Home Rule organisation was formed, the Ulster Defence Union, Lurgan men also played their part. James Malcolm, Rev W.C. Kennedy, Anthony Bunting, Thomas Hanna, H.G. Mac Geagh, James Johnston, Dr Moore, A. Macoun and Christopher Stevenson each sat on the organisations ruling body. These 9 representatives in the 600 member assembly for the U.D.U. included several names present that would still be fighting Home Rule some 20 years later.
When what is known as the Home Rule Crisis began to rear its head mass demonstrations against or for where the order of the day. One of the most famous took place at Craigavon House, home of James Craig, on Saturday 23 September 1911. Lurgan Loyalists had met in Brownlow House the previous Wednesday night to discuss their plans for the event, which the Lurgan Mail announced would be ‘epoch making’. Two packed train loads left the town at 12.25 and 12.30 on the Saturday morning for the demonstration, carrying hundreds to Belfast. From this point on more Unionist Clubs began to form, and by early 1912 drilling was common place through these Clubs, Orange Lodges and private bodies. By the time of the launch of the Ulster Covenant in September feelings were running high.
One of several massive pre-Covenant rallies took place in Portadown. There Carson was joined on the stage by North Armagh MP William Moore, and by Lurgan business man William Allen. The press estimated 5,000 Lurgan natives were in attendance, where they heard Carson proclaim ‘Men of Portadown, men of Lurgan, men of North Armagh…. if the Home Rule Bill passed the Houses of Parliament will it pass Portadown?’ and answered with emphatic cheers and shouts of no!
Just three days later around 8,000 locals signed the famous document. The Lurgan Mail stated that ‘Never in its history did Loyal Lurgan rise more enthusiastically to the occasion than it did on Saturday in demonstrating its unalterable determination to oppose to the utmost any attempt to set up a Home Rule parliament in Dublin’.
By this stage the nucleus of the idea to establish the Ulster Volunteer Force to unite all the different bodies drilling was already being formed, and by December 1912 County Armagh had established a County Committee to begin to formalise the force and appoint commanders. The County had five representatives, which included Willaim J. Allen J.P. the current Lurgan Orange District Master. The other local representative on the wider committee was George Lunn who was Deputy District Master. The Force locally was slow to come to the fore, with Unionist Clubs still taking the bulk of the publicity through newspapers. In April a church parade took place from Brownlow House to Shankill Parish Church with 500 Orangemen and Unionist Club members participating. These events were effectively the UVF in all but reported name, and this event would later be referred to as the Lurgan Battalion UVF first church parade. On Tuesday 27th May 1913 Lurgan Unionist Club held a march from several areas across the town to Brownlow House, with over 800 members being accompanied by 5 flute bands. Notably it was stated that the men were under the charge of their drill instructors and officers. Of the evening it was said that the public were not permitted entry to Brownlow grounds where ‘It is understood that after the men were drawn up in line a distinguished officer of one of His Majesty’s regiments recently retired inspected the ranks’. The military preparations were well underway.
The pattern is one mimicked across Ulster. Many Unionist Clubs were reluctant to hand over control to this new ‘Volunteer Force’, and with this in mind Carson launched a campaign in September 1913 to encourage all like minded Unionists to unite behind the new peoples army. A series of reviews of Volunteers across Ulster came to a finale in Armagh City on Saturday 4th October, where the entire UVF of the County was to parade and be inspected. Lurgan shopkeepers made a public announcement in the paper that they were closing from 11.45am to 7pm on the day to allow employees to participate, and at Deans Hill in Armagh City 4,300 Volunteers were reviewed. Of all the districts in the County Lurgan was the largest, with H. Malcolm in charge of 950 men and a large corps of Lurgan nurses. Two trains had been laid on to transport the men and women. Good weather ensured a crowd of over 20,000 was present to watch the men and women marching to review, and M.P. for North Armagh William Moore was among the high profile speaking panel that included Edward Carson and F.E. Smith.
By late 1913 the local men were openly being called the Ulster Volunteer Force, and the first official UVF returns from the area were made on 30th October 1913. In this document Lurgan listed 7 divisions designated A to G numbering a total of 1218 men. This suggests a high level of military professionalism in the district, as other areas tending to return by location alone. The wider UVF structure for County Armagh appears to have taken some time to finalise, with it initially appearing to be divided according to the three County parliamentary constituencies, North, Mid and South Armagh. British intelligence notes from the Colonial office in Dublin had listed 3,643 men in the Force in North Armagh UVF on 30th September 1913, but by early 1914 the media were referring regularly to the 5th Lurgan Battalion of the County Armagh Regiment Ulster Volunteer Force. Battalion Commander was Major G.W. Greer, a former senior company commander of the 3rd Reserve Battalion Royal Irish Fusiliers. Major Greer was highly thought of and had been given permission to retain his rank following retirement. Also an ex-regular officer, having served with the Royal Artillery and the Old Armagh Militia, Major Greer was the sole ex military officer in the leadership of the local Volunteers and his input was therefore very influential. Second in Command was George Fleming, sometimes referred to as Senior Field Officer, with Junior Field Officer William Allen. Adjutant was Mr Herbert Malcolm, a Mr McCourt Quarter master and Joseph Johnston head of Signallers. O.C. of the stretcher bearers was A.W. Mann, Commandant of the Nursing Corps was Miss E. Greer and the Honoury Battalion Chaplain was the Dean of Dromore.
The Battalion consisted of 9 Companies designated A to I, at their peak numbering 1,735 men. The Battalion referred continually to companies solely via their designation letter, again suggesting a degree of professionalism, so it is difficult to place a location for each. Using personalities involved, reports of social occasions and church services, and other small newspaper reports, it is however possible to broadly identify where each Company recruited. A Coy through to D Coy all were based in Lurgan itself, North, South East and West. A Coy was also known as the Derry Lodge Company, centred on the Victoria Road area. Commander was William Waite. B Coy commander was W.J. Fleming, C Coy W.R. Ross and D Coy Thomas Plenderleith. E Company was Kinnego or ‘Lakeview’ under W.T. Duke, F Company Tamnificarbet with O.C. Rev G. Bloomer, G Coy Drumgor under Dynes Gilpin, and H Coy Bleary under George Dobson. I company was formed after the rest of the Battalion in 1914 covering Derrytrasna and Bannfoot, and was noted on several occasions as not drilling with the rest of the Battalion due to being a ‘considerable’ distance away. It was referenced at least once as joining with F Coy Tamnificarbet.
Local papers no longer referred to Unionist Clubs drilling and walking by November. Church parades, route marches and other Volunteer events were now common place. In November a Church parade of 500 men of the Lurgan Battalion made its way to the Parish Church, joined by Waringstown and other rural companies. A Company constructed its own drill hall off Victoria Street around this time, and by the end of December William Allen was referencing the satisfactory condition of the local Volunteer Force in a report to the North Armagh Unionist Association. In relation to the Force, at the same meeting he told delegates that they were not bluffing and that from this point on more privacy should be used in organising the local Force.
Activity increased vastly during the first 3 months of 1914, with R.I.C. intelligence reports estimating that Volunteer numbers had increased by 50% since October. Most reported activity was limited to Church parades, with Lurgan Presbyterian hosting once such event in February with A,B,C,D,G and H companies attending. Easter however saw military operations and mimic warfare take place on a significant scale. On Easter Tuesday the entire 9 Companies of the Battalion travelled to Oxford Island for field operations. A mock battle took place with 3 companies taking up a defensive position and being attacked by the other 6. County Armagh Regimental Commander was present, as was the Dean of Dromore. The turnout was 656 officers and men, accompanied by 20 carts for equipment. Its next major operation was the famous gun running coup of 24th April. Approximately one half of the Battalion was mobilised for the operation, with their prime duty covering the roads at either side of Lurgan for a radius of 7 miles. Positions were taken by midnight, where they remained until 5am.
By May a sense of almost normality had set in regarding the Force and this was reflected in the press. Bleary Company (H) held a social occasion at the end of the month for its instructor Samuel Carson. A military reservist, Carson had been called up to return to duty. A night of music and song was closed with the National Anthem. Just a few nights later F and G Coy’s (Tamnificarbet and Drumgor) assembled at Drumgor for a route march to Tamnificarbet. The men wore putties and haversacks, under the charge of the instructors for the Companies, F Coy’s F. Girvin and G Coy’s Mr Russell and Mr Wilson. Other notable local happenings during the period revolved around the Towns linen trade. One of the largest linen centres outside Belfast, Lurgan was plagued with strikes at the beginning of 1913 and disputes throughout the Home Rule Crisis. This was made all the more awkward given that all of the main manufacturers played large roles in the Volunteer movement. Whether it was to placate workers or for genuine reason, these employers regularly gave time off for employees who were Volunteers, and indeed for all employees when there were large Unionist related events taking place. During the war, all enlisted men were also promised their jobs would be kept for them.
More major field manoeuvres took place in August, the first time the Battalion had paraded fully armed and equipped. The meeting on the outskirts of the town at Lakeview took place on land owned by Robert Duke, and 656 men took part. With the outbreak of War, a new dynamic took hold of the area, and many Volunteers who were reservists returned to their ranks in the British Army. In the first week of August 25 Lurgan members of the Royal Irish Fusiliers returned to barracks in Armagh, and a further 133 Royal Irish Rifles returned to Downpatrick.
In September Major Greer placed a notice in the Lurgan Mail requesting every man to attend a special Battalion parade to Brownlow House at 4pm on the coming Saturday, and by Tuesday 14th of the month Brownlow House was being used to do medical examinations and administer oaths to Volunteers signing up for service. The first Volunteer to sign up on the evening was Edward Martin, with another 176 following suit. On 21st September the local recruits left Lurgan for Clandeboye, with over 300 Lurgan men formed into 4 platoons, along with contingents from Waringstown, Donacloney and Maralin. Full lists of local UVF recruits appeared in the local paper and were regularly updated. A letter to the Lurgan Mail from the commander of B Company on 10th October outlined that 315 members of the Lurgan Battalion Volunteers were in camp in Clandeboye, and that a further 117 reservists who were Volunteers had already left. A grand total of 432 members of the Lurgan UVF in Kitcheners Army.
The first Lurgan victim of the war had already been reported at this stage. Private Thomas Martin, son of Hamilton Martin Moyraverty, was killed while on duty with the 27th Inniskillings. The greater Lurgan area would eventually send over 3000 men to the services, with almost 400 killed on the battlefields and over 700 wounded. Their finest yet worst hour would eventually pass into folklore, the Battle of the Somme 1st July 1916.
Article Copyright Quincey Dougan 2013
Not to be copied or reproduced without permission