“I was deeply shocked to learn of the tragic death of your father and brother; Prince Philip joins me in sending you and your sister all our deepest sympathy on your dreadful loss. Sir Norman’s loyal and distinguished service will be remembered.”
Such were the words of Queen Elizabeth II to the daughter of Sir Norman Stronge following his murder and that of his son by the IRA at Tynan Abbey in January 1981. It was a brutal and callous end to a life that had contributed massively to Northern Ireland.
Born on the 23rd July 1894 in the hamlet of Bryansford in County Down the son of Sir Charles Edmond Sinclair Stronge, a colourful career saw Sir Norman serve in both First and Second World War’s and become a highly regarded long serving Member of the Parliament of Northern Ireland. Educated at Eton, a staunch and devoted member of each of the Loyal Orders, his dedication also saw him installed as the Sovereign Grand Master of the Royal Black Institution.
There is little doubt that Stronge’s commitment to the armed forces and the loyal orders was heavily influenced and colored by the pedigree of the Stronge family lineage. His father was in 1916 the Deputy Grand Master of County Londonderry Orange Order, and during the Home Rule crisis he had presided over the inaugural meeting to establish the Ulster Volunteers in the Aghadowey area in the local Parochial Hall. Charles Edmond Stronge eventually became the commanding officer of the 1st Battalion of the South Derry Regiment of the Ulster Volunteer Force covering the Aghadowey, Garvagh and Kilrea districts. Sir Norman Stronge was a member of one of the Aghadowey Company’s of the Ulster Volunteer Force, and at just 20 years of age was one of the commanding officers of the 1st South Derry Battalion when they were inspected by Edward Carson in Garvagh in 1914. Their family home at Lizard Manor in Aghadowey was the scene of regular maneuvers for the local Force
The dedication and commitment of the Stronge dynasty to the Union had its roots much further back however, namely at their ancestral home, Tynan Abbey. Having played a part in the raising of the original Volunteers in 1780’s to defend Ireland from French and Spanish invasion, and later the Yeomanry to combat the United Irishmen Rebellion, the seat of the Stronge’s was bursting with history.
In 1914 Tynan Abbey was occupied by Sir James Henry Stronge, a cousin of Sir Norman Stronge’s father. Sir James was Worshipful Master of the Killylea Orange District and later of County Armagh Grand Orange Lodge. In 1914 the 12th of July commemorations for the entire County of Armagh were held within his homes spacious grounds..
During the Home Rule Crisis Sir James like his relatives in South Londonderry was prominent in the anti Home Rule Movement, indeed even more so. Tynan U.V.F. is acknowledged as being one of the first units formed, again down to the influence of the Stronge name, with Sir James eventually being the regimental commander of the County’s almost 8,000 volunteers and Tynan Abbey becoming its headquarters.
It was the centre for some very significant activity during the period, with the most notable possibly being a Province wide operation for the U.V.F.’s Ulster Signaling and Dispatch Riding Corps. The innovative body had its origins in Armagh, and with the support of James Stronge became of massive importance. In June 1913 the first operation of the unit was based in Tynan Abbey, from where a flying column was tasked with ‘capturing’ Drogheda and the Boyne Bridge. The elaborate operation was designed for PR purposes to illustrate the speed of the cyclists, and via a sixty mile return journey which travelled through Crossmaglen and Dundalk, the men placed mock notices on the targets proclaiming that they had been ‘captured by the Ulster Volunteer Force’.
Given this abundance of Loyalist heritage it is almost inevitable that the life of Norman Stronge would take a similar path. His involvement in the County Londonderry U.V.F. led directly to his recruitment into the locally raised Volunteer Battalion, the 10th Battalion Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers. He received a commission as a second lieutenant, but within a few months had been further promoted to the rank of Lieutenant. Following the tragic events that began on the battlefields of the Somme on 1st July 1916 he was promoted to Captain, and bears the singular honour of being the first soldier mentioned in despatches by Field Marshall Haig after the beginning of the Somme offensive.
By April 1918 he had been appointed as adjutant of the 15th Battalion Royal Irish Rifles, a battalion of the 36th Ulster Division originally formed from the North Belfast Ulster Volunteers. Before surrendering his commission in August 1919 after injury in battle, he had been awarded the Military Cross and the Belgian Croix de Guerre. His war service was rewarded with the granting of the honorary title of Captain.
After the war Norman returned to Aghadowey, and just a few years later married Gladys Olive Hall from County Galway. James Henry Stronge of Tynan Abbey died without heir in 1928, his son also James had been killed in the Great War, and it was then that Norman moved to take up residence in the ancient family home at Tynan. After the death of Sir James Henry Stronge’s brother and then Norman’s father, he himself inherited the baronetcy of Tynan. In 1939 he became the 8th Baronet.
He entered the upper echelons of politics in 1938, being elected to Stormont for the Constituency for Mid-Armagh, a seat which he was to hold until his retirement 31 years later. A rich parliamentary career was possibly most notable for his role as speaker for which he was elected in 1945.
Politics did not stop Sir Norman entering the fray when World War Two began however, and he took a commission directly into the North Irish Horse Royal Armored Corps as a second lieutenant. Unfortunately he had to relinquish that commission in 1940 because of ill health, however his military experience was to be utilised once again when he was appointed with a Territorial Army unit of the Royal Irish Fusiliers as an Honorary Colonel.
As a pastime he was both an expert on wildlife and an expert shot. In Tynan Abbey he enjoyed observing swans, wild geese and woodcock, captivated by them. He equally enjoyed shooting however and regularly could finish a day with as many as 200 pigeons. Sir Norman Stronge often went shooting with his cousin, Sir Basil Brooke, but despite his skill Viscount Brookeborough always seemed to finish the day with more kills.
Among Sir Norman Stronge’s many other roles throughout his life he was President of the Northern Ireland Council of the Royal British Legion, Chairman of Armagh County Council, Her Majesty’s Lieutenant for Armagh and Justice of the Peace for both Counties Armagh and Londonderry. As an Orangeman he was a prominent member of Derryhaw Boyne Defenders LOL 768 Killylea District, and was an active parishioner within St Vindic’s Church of Ireland in Tynan. In 1948 he became the Sovereign Grand Master of the Black Institution, a role that Sir Knight Stronge held until he resigned from it in 1971 at the age of 77.
Shortly after 9pm on Wednesday 21st January 1981 a Provisional IRA mob arrived at Tynan Abbey. Composed of seasoned terrorists and murderers from across South Tyrone, North Monaghan and South Armagh, they were armed with explosives and with machine guns. The 86-year-old Sir Norman Stronge and his son James were each murdered within the Abbey’s library by shots to the head, and Tynan Abbey burnt to the ground.
The reason gave for the brutal murder was that the Stronge’s were, from the mouth of the IRA, ‘symbols of hated Unionism’. Gerry Adams made the disgusting statement that ‘the only complaint I have heard from nationalists or anti-unionists is that he was not shot 40 years ago’. In contrast SDLP politician Austin Currie said of Sir Norman that ‘even at 86 years of age… (he was) still incomparably more of a man than the cowardly dregs of humanity who ended his life in this barbaric way.’
Both Sir Norman and his son were buried in St Vidic’s Parish Church Tynan in a joint service. The coffin was carried by the successors to his old regiment, the 5th Battalion Royal Irish Fusiliers.
Sir Charles Norman Stronge was a man of calm demeanor, strong reserve and intellectual thinking. He held scrupulous moral values and was loyal and pious. A man who believed in justice and a man who, when elected as speaker in Stormont, was said to be from a ‘family which has been known for generations for its fairness, it’s courtesy, and its neighbourliness.’ Sir Norman Stronge was highly respected among both communities, and possessed both benevolence and courage.
When Tynan Abbey was burnt to the ground centuries of history were destroyed. Thousands of documents and records relating to the most important episodes in Ireland over almost 200 years. More so however, a man was destroyed, who while 86 years of age, had still much to offer to the world.
One man was charged with the brutal murders. He was later acquitted.
© Catherine Dougan 2014