The story of pre-war Donegal is unsurprisingly entwined around the Home Rule debate. At the turn of the 20th Century the County’s population was a staggering 173,722, and while predominately Catholic and nationalist in character, it still was approximately 22% Protestant namely 38,000 people largely concentrated within the Eastern border. This was almost equal to the combined Protestant populations of Cavan and Monaghan in 1901. Given the strong Protestant and Unionist element, the anti Home Rule campaign was embraced locally, and on Ulster Day 28th September 1912, 18,808 men and women signed the Ulster Covenant and Declaration; with a further 500 signing elsewhere across the Empire, including two in South Africa.
This already radical movement evolved very quickly into the organisation of Unionist Clubs, and by July 1913 the County Royal Irish Constabulary inspector was reporting that 10 clubs were in operation with a membership of 350 men. An explosion in the scale of the movement came with Edward Carson’s visit to Raphoe in October to review the local Ulster Volunteer Force. The decision to form such a body in December 1912, was taken by the Ulster Unionist Council, the goal being to provide a physical army to oppose Home Rule; but perhaps more importantly from the Unionist leadership, to control an ever growing militancy within its communities, and also to create what would be an excellent propaganda and PR tool in the British and world media. The Volunteers had been slow to recruit in many areas of Ulster, and Caron’s Raphoe visit was part of a tour designed to change that.
On the 2nd of October Carson inspected 1,500 Donegal U.V.F. members, telling them that he hoped to be back to inspect them again with increased numbers and with a rifle on each man’s shoulder. They desired no ascendancy over those who differed from them… but they should not give up the Government which they knew to be successful for a gamble in a Government they felt almost certain would be unsuccessful. After the visit the Unionist Clubs multiplied to 19 in number with 1,550 members, but more notably the Ulster Volunteer Force too increased vastly.
A secret report produced by the Colonial Office in Dublin on the ‘Condition of Ulster’ in October 1913 was relatively optimistic about the possibility of violence in the County. Within it on Donegal it was stated by the County Inspector that ‘One thing is certain and that is that there is a very bitter feeling against Home Rule amongst the Great majority of Protestants in this County, but I honestly think that if Home Rule were passed tomorrow they would not be capable of doing anything to prevent it being operative; and owing to the friendly feeling that generally exists between the Protestants and Roman Catholics, the Protestants would not as a body turn on their Roman Catholic neighbours for revenge.’ The reports author has only been in position for a few months, and it would appear that both his intelligence and his opinions were lacking and underestimating events on the ground.
In an official returns document to Headquarters in the Old Town Hall Belfast dated 20th December 1913, the Donegal Regiment Volunteers were detailed as a three battalion strong Regiment consisting of 2,205 men. The first was made of Inver, Donegal, Ballintra and Ballyshannon districts. The Ballintra contingent totalled 324 men from across Moyne and Cully, Laghey, Ballinakillew, Ballintra, Hilltown, Rossnowlagh and Dig Park. The second included Mulroy, Milford, Ramelton, Manorcunningham, Lifford, Raphoe, Convoy and Stranolar areas; while the third covered Muff, Newtowncunningham, Burt and St Johnston.
At the head of the Donegal Volunteer movement was the Earl of Leitrim, Charles Clements. Before the third Home Rule Crisis arrived Leitrim had already some military experience under his belt, having been commissioned as a Second Lieutenant into the 5th battalion Rifle Brigade in 1898, before promotion to Lieutenant and a spell of action in the Boer War before resigning his commission in June 1902. Throughout late 1913 and early 1914 Leitrim oversaw a very active and continually growing Regiment of Volunteers. He was a renowned ‘hawk’ within Ulster Unionism who along with such figures as Fred Crawford and Lord Farnham, believed that a strong military response was preferable to a political only response to the impending imposition of Home Rule. This manifested itself in strong and tight military organisation in the County, with regular mobilisations and drills deemed a necessity in ensuring a capable body of men. Unsurprisingly Leitrim was deemed a hate figure for Donegal Irish Nationalists, a hate that manifested itself in an extreme form on several occasions. In June 1914 The Earl was awarded compensation of £120 for the malicious burning of over 1,300 trees near Mulroy. The area was said to be an important reserve that was planted 30 years previously and would take a further 20 years to restore. His motor car came under attack on several occasions, the most serious being at Carrigart when he was pelted with stones from a crowd of 60 Nationalists.
The optimistic intelligence information from the Donegal County Inspector in the previously mentioned report also stated that ‘arms… do not appear to have been introduced into this County.’ In this respect he was also vastly misguided. The Donegal Ulster Volunteer Force were allegedly one of the best armed in the entire Force, due for the most part to the efforts of its Commander. Leitrim had been involved in gunrunning from shortly after the Ulster Covenant campaign. From February 1913, Leitrim with the assistance of his chauffeur Stephen Bullock, used his own steamer ship the SS Ganiamore to bring in weekly shipments of arms from Birmingham. For many months Bullock and David McIlhenny were effectively paid by Leitrim as full time gun-runners, changing the nature of their smuggling operation whenever the current one was discovered or undermined. During the summer of 1913 the use of carbide (normally used for lamps) trebled in the Greater Mulroy District. One of the many schemes devised by Leitrim and his deputies was the importation of carbide barrels chockfull of ammunition.
The continual series of manoeuvres, reviews and mobilisations of the Donegal Regiment Volunteers included some very high profile events. In March the General Officer in Command of the U.V.F. Sir George Richardson travelled to the COunty to make several inspections of the troops in different districts, however at the first in Newtowncunningham he was thrown from his horse and was unable to attend gatherings elsewhere. In April a county side mobilisation took place, with each Volunteer unit ordered to assemble at 8pm that evening. A camp of instruction for the Londonderry City, Tyrone and Donegal Regiments at Baronscourt near Newtownstewart in May and June 1914 proved both a major publicity coup, and a useful exercise to increase the ability of the Volunteers.
At this stage in the Regiments development it had increased to four Battalions but by the end of July 1914, the Regiment had morphed yet again into a 5 Battalion structure with a total strength of 3,360 volunteers. The creation of a fifth Battalion appears to have been carried out to balance a larger membership in the North East of the COunty, and its strong ties with Londonderry City. The 1st Battalion under J. Sproule Myles of Ballyshannon was based in Donegal Town and had 818 men; the 2nd with head-quarters in Raphoe and 751 men was under the charge of Colonel Baillie; the third was centred on Carrigans and had 541 men under W.R. Williamson, the 4th O.C. was J. Allan Osbourne of Milford and was centred on Ramelton and had 575 Volunteers; and the 5th Battalion covering the north-east corner of the county and with its head-quarters in Londonderry City had 675 men under the interestingly named Major Pine-Coffin.
In July 1914 the professionalism of the Regiment was again underlined, this time by the purchase of a set of Regimental Colours from flag manufacturer to the British Army, Hobson’s of London. The Regimental Colour is unique in all of the colours produced for the Ulster Volunteers during the period, in that it did not actually contain the letters U.V.F. or the words Ulster Volunteer Force. Instead the moniker for King George V, GR, was central surmounted via Kings Crown and wreath. The Kings Colour was of a more traditional design.
The Ulster Volunteers of Donegal of course did not have a free run at military activity locally, and in direct response the Irish National Volunteers had been brought into existence at the end of 1913. To the U.V.F. 3,300 men, the Donegal Irish national Volunteers mustered 10,215 men, but the numerical vast superiority was the only notable one. In terms of armament and training, the Donegal Unionists were in a vastly advanced position over their Nationalist counter-parts. In his report of July 1914, the Inspector stated his fears for the County very clearly. ‘Outwardly the general condition of a considerable portion of the COunty is peaceable, but in a portion of it embracing the central and eastern districts the condition of affairs cannot be regarded as wholly satisfactory owing to the feeling of unrest and suppressed excitement that prevails consequent upon the present political situation; the fact that the Ulster Volunteers are for the most part now armed and openly parade under arms while the Nationalist Volunteers have not so far succeeded in getting arms to any great extent, has not tended to allay excitement and jealousy.’ The Inspector noted that of the 3,300 Ulster Volunteers, he regarded 2,277 as being as well trained and efficient as regular soldiers.
With this very volatile situation in play, the comments of the same Inspector in August had changed dramatically. It was his belief that ‘political unrest had considerably abated since outbreak of war’ and that’ the feeling of the people over the war is strongly sympathetic with England and strongly anti-German’. Donegal like much of the rest of Ireland had been on the knife edge of conflict, and the entry of the United Kingdom into the War had given an opportunity to step back from the ‘brink’ of possible civil war.