Tandragee Ulster Volunteers

Tandragee town and the surrounding areas in the 16th and 17th centuries were the stronghold of the O’Hanlon clan. Its ancient history is largely lost to the depths of time, though the discovery of a 3000 year old statue (the Bronze age) within the town points to it having been an important location. ‘Tandragee Man’ as it is known, is said to be of an Irish king. Tandragee’s Unionist and Loyalist history effectively begins during the Plantation of Ulster when St Oliver St John took possession of over 1500 acres. Here he built the first castle, church and a town that was recorded in 1622 of having 27 houses all populated with ‘English’. The O’Hanlon Clan were responsible for the destruction of the castle and the church during the 1641 rebellion, with the local planter population also suffering horrendously. Large massacres of locals took place at Loughbrickland and there is no doubt the events of this period stayed within the folk memory of local Protestants after control in the area was regained. It ensured that the Greater Tandragee area would remain loyal to the cause of Protestantism and England for the centuries to come.

In the late 1700’s Britain was engaged in the American Revolutionary War, with a vast bulk of its army tied up on those foreign shores. The threat of French and Spanish invasion was very real, particularly in Ireland where it was more feasible because of the Catholic majority, and also strategically would be the perfect launch for the French of attack onto the mainland. Companies of Volunteers were privately raised in the entirety of Ireland, all outfitted privately, under private control, and almost exclusively Protestant (primarily Church of Ireland). The majority of these Irish Volunteers were raised in Ulster, with several strong companies in the Tandragee area. Clare Volunteers were raised in 1779 under Captain Thomas Dawson M.P. With Lieutenants Alexander Patton and the Rev Samuel Livingstone, they were fitted in uniforms of Red and Black and had 50 armed men. Also in 1779 a company was raised in Drumbanagher under Captain John Moore, and Tandragee Volunteers were raised under Captain Nicholas Johnston in their uniform of Scarlet faced with white. Johnston raised a second Tandragee company as well called the Tandragee Invincibles, and in the churchyard there is a grave erected to ones of its Volunteers. The grave of John Whitten recorded as dying in 1785, includes the lines: –

“Amidst the patriot bands for many a year,

He shone in Arms a graceful Volunteers,

In Glorious hope he ran the Christian  race,

By faith sustained, In humble life he moved,

A useful member and by all beloved,

Then to his Saviour yielding up his breath,

Thro’ grace triumphant over sin and death.”


Further companies included the Tandragee Light Dragoons under James Craig, Teemore and Johnstown Volunteers under Benjamin Bell, Marlacoo Volunteers, and Tyrones Ditches and Acton Volunteers under Francis Dobbs. Dobbs was a prominent figure in the Volunteer organisation as a whole. Volunteer activity was largely ceremonial, with reviews and shooting competitions occasionally joined with incitements involving local Catholics. Tandragee Volunteers were involved in one famous incident at Lisnagade in 1791, which resulted in a famous ballad being written. The last two verses go: –

We had not march’d a mile or so,
When the white flag we espy’d
With a branch of podoreens displayed,
On which they much rely’d
And this inscription underneath
“Hail Mary! Unto thee
Deliver us from these Orange dogs,
And then we shall be free.”


At half an hour past two o’clock
The firing did commence,
With clouds of smoke and showers of ball;
‘Mid passion most intense;
They called unto their patron saint,
To whom they used to pray,
But none were near their prayer to hear,
And so they ran away.

More importantly in terms of history is that it was the Volunteers who through effectively the threat of violence, managed to bring about the first and only all Ireland Parliament. The gentry of Ireland who controlled the Volunteers demanded control of their Country, and a British Government with limited troops available had little choice but to agree. They came to an end after the American War, and with new Government sanctioned bodies there was less justification for their existence. The new bodies included the Yeomanry, which with the events in Armagh that resulted in the Battle of the Diamond, soon became effectively a very Orange force.  Tandragee Yeomanry were formed in 1796, with the men in its ranks among many in the County Armagh Yeomanry who would come to put down the 1798 United Irishmen Rebellion across Ireland. With the Irish Volunteers gone, the United Irishmen beaten and the Yeomanry in place, the Act of Union in 1800 dissolved the All Ireland Parliament, and despite some initial strong reservations among Mid Armagh Protestants, as economically they began to prosper the union was embraced wholeheartedly.

By the first Home Rule bill in 1886 Tandragee had became a staunch Conservative and Unionist heartland, and had a strong representation within the first ever mass Ulster Loyalist movement, the Ulster Defence Union. Within its 600 man ruling central assembly nominated on 21st October of 1886, the southern section composing the counties of Armagh, Cavan and Monaghan; had eight local representatives- Rev P.A. Kelly, Rev. W. McEndoo, Rev R.J.Whan, Maynard Sinton, Thomas White, William O’Brien, John Atkinson and Rev. George Laverty. Some of these names would still be appearing within the records of militant Unionist activity almost twenty years later.

As early in the third Home Rule crisis as May 1912, the R.I.C. believed Tandragee to be one of only ten Orange Lodges to be actively receiving instruction in drill, but it would be the Unionist Club movement who would come to be at the forefront of organising militarily in the area. The original Unionist Club movement formed in 1893 to oppose the second Home Rule Bill had gradually dwindled away, but was revitalised in 1910. Tandragee, Clare, Scarva, Poyntzpass and Ballyshiel each quickly established their own branches. Under the eyes of the Duke of Manchester, the Tandragee Club were drilling in September prior to the Ulster Covenant.

After the Ulster Covenant campaign of September 1912, the Unionist leadership took the decision to unite the various bodies drilling. In December 1912 the County Armagh Committee membership consisted of many of the most prominent personalities in the world of business, the legal profession and of the aristocracy in the County. The two Tandragee representatives were Rev R.J. Whan; and George Davison, who was listed as a car owner on the committee roll. It was these men who would be among those instrumental in eventually. establishing a local Battalion of the Ulster Volunteer Force.

Not surprisingly very few official documents relating to the operations of the Volunteers in the Tandragee area have survived the test of time. In addition, the last County HQ of the force was in Tynan Abbey, and it’s thought that most of the records of the County Armagh Regiment as a whole were destroyed when Sir Norman Stronge and his son were murdered and the house burnt in 1981. Newspaper reports of the period cannot be always relied on their accuracy either, with Unionist run papers tending to exaggerate numbers involved in exercises and Nationalist papers minimising them. The Force was continually growing and evolving structurally right until around May 1914, and these changes combined with a lack of knowledge within the papers led to many contradictory descriptions of units. For example Newtownhamilton and Keady were each occasionally said to be the 3rd and 4th Battalion, and Tandragee was mentioned at different times as being a part of a Newtown Battalion, a Markethill Battalion and a Portadown Battalion!

Groups of volunteers from many small districts were also regularly referred to as being ‘Companies’, even though it is blatantly impossible for them to have had enough recruits to be properly regarded or to function as a full company. What we can piece together from the surviving Armagh U.V.F. files, U.V.F. Belfast Headquarters files, the Royal Irish Constabulary intelligence reports; and cross referencing them against media reports, does give us a reasonably clear picture of the organisation in the Orchard County.

The County of the period was divided into three Parliamentary constituencies, North, Mid and South Armagh; with Tandragee nestled in Mid-Armagh, but the South Armagh constituency taking in a significant section of Tandragee and Markethill districts, along with Bessbrook and Newtownhamilton right down to Crossmaglen. For most of 1913 it appears that three separate Regimental areas were considered as being in place, with R.I.C. intelligence regularly referring to them, as did newspaper reports. The R.I.C. September 1913 intelligence report estimating strength for the three had North Armagh with 3,642 volunteers, Mid-Armagh with 1,495 and South Armagh with just 310.

The first available official returns for the County Armagh Volunteers (form O H.2) illustrate very clearly that it was very much organising under the same lines as the Armagh Orange Districts. In the return dated 30th October 1913, a note from County Secretary George Crozier suggested a final Regimental Structure for Armagh consisting of 5 Battalions. In the scheme of organisation for the entire Force, this was very late in the day, as confirmed by H.Q. in November in a reply after Crozier was requesting additional resources.  All evidence afterwards however indicates this suggestion is what was implemented in Armagh bar changes in the Battalion number.

The first Battalion took in Armagh, Killylea, Loughgall and Richhill Orange Districts and was regarded as the Armagh Battalion. The second Battalion took in Newtownhamilton, Keady and Markethill Districts, along with Hamiltonsbawn; referred to as the South Armagh Battalion. This Battalion never had a commander appointed, and was eventually noted as having its companies divided up among adjacent Battalions. Cullyhanna and Crossmaglen had U.V.F. members within their boundaries, indeed it was noted in the Great War enlistment papers of the Rev. Samuel Mayes of Creggan Church Crossmaglen, that he had been an officer of Crossmaglen Company in the 2nd South Armagh Battalion  The fourth was the Portadown Battalion and the fifth the Lurgan Battalion.

By April 1914 H.Q. Documents were recording monthly returns for each of the five Battalions, and by May 1914 the Royal Irish Constabulary intelligence reports too were recognising that the system had been put into place.

The third Battalion of the County Armagh Regiment Ulster Volunteer Force became composed of the Tandragee District and the Bessbrook District, two areas always with a community bond, primarily as a result of the transport networks that had evolved between the two, and particularly due to the canal system. At different times it was referred to as both a Mid-Armagh Battalion and more often, an eight company strong Tandragee Battalion.

The Battalion was under the Command of Major Maxwell Close of Drumbanagher Castle Poyntzpass.  The Close family had originally came to Ireland from Yorkshire in the aftermath of the 1641 Rebellion, and had a strong military and political lineage. Maxwell Close’s father had been a MP for Armagh, and the family also had ties to both the Brownlow’s of Lurgan and the Hall’s of Narrow water, two other staunch Unionist families. His military service had came with the 11th Hussars, and the family home Drumbanagher Castle was also the Battalion headquarters and was nestled well within the South Armagh Parliamentary Constituency. Major Close was the Vice Chairman of and delegate for, the South Armagh Unionist Association to the Ulster Unionist Council.

All indications are that the Bessbrook area had two Companies of men, with one encompassing the greater village area, and the other stretching out beyond Mullaghglass, Tullyhappy and Jerretspass. Media reports commonly referred to the Coy’s as being the South Armagh Companies of the Tandragee Battalion, with one of the initial Commanders a Major Young. Dr Scott who worked for Bessbrook Spinning Company later became the areas senior officer, with sub commander John Hardy. Scott was born in County Cork. Mullaghglass sections of Volunteers were under the charge of H. Whiteside and Tullyhappy sections under W. Lockart. The Altnaveigh hamlet of South Armagh below Bessbrook provided a full company to the 2nd Battalion South Down Regiment Newry.

The rest of the Battalion had units of Volunteers very active in Tyrone’s Ditches, Lisavague, Manordocherty, Tannyoky, Moyrourken, Teemore, Drumbanagher, Cornascriebe, Tannaghmore, Ballynewry, Acton, Ballyshiel and Cabragh among many, many others. The original area returns in October listed 73 men for Ahorey, 69 for Clare, 50 for Lisavague, 18 for Manordocherty, 46 for Tyrones Ditches, 13 for Poyntzpass, 92 for Scarva, 90 for Tandragee and 31 for Laurelvale; and it seems clear that eventually company remits were broadly defined as Tandragee, Laurelvale, Ahorey, Marlacoo, Scarva and Poyntzpass. There is one surviving record that defines Tandragee as B Company within the Battalion structure.

Local commanders included William John Menual of the Laurelvale Coy, later to rise to the rank of Captain in the 9th Battalion Royal Irish Fusiliers. Menual was the assistant manager of Sinton’s factory. The very famous local figure of Rev. R.J. Whan, and R.J. Harden were prominent in the Clare Company, indeed Hardens grounds at Harrybrook were used several times for military manoeuvres. Dr Quinn of Marlacoo was a leading figure in the Marlacoo area, like Harden giving the use of his grounds up for occasional reviews. Scarva Commander was the Reverend P.A. Kelly.

By mid-1913  reports on the activity of the local U.V.F. were appearing in the local newspapers, the Armagh Guardian and Ulster Gazette; and the Newry Telegraph and Newry Reporter. The first, and only, full gathering of the entire County Force came in October 1913 when Edward Carson inspected the Force in Armagh City. The Ulster Gazette stated that among over 4,300 volunteers on parade including 620 from Tandragee under Rev. Montgomery and 150 from Bessbrook under Dr. Scott. The Gazette was however prone to exaggeration and other figures from the R.I.C. placed the total at nearer to 3,000 Volunteers on the day.

By early 1914 reports of activity had increased significantly. Reviews tended to compose of companies that crossed the battalion boundaries, a common occurrence of the Force across Ulster, but one that also sometimes leads to confusion in the Newspaper coverage. Tandragee Town area Coy’s tended to work with Portadown and Markethill areas; Scarva with Gilford and Bessbrook area almost exclusively with the Newry Companies of the South Down Regiment.

On January 14th 1914 Harrybrook saw an inspection of Tandragee, Clare, Ahorey, Laurelvale, Cornascriebe and Teemore Volunteers numbering between 200 and 300, with the Regimental Commander Stuart Blacker the inspecting officer. Just a few days later Marlacoo Volunteers joined with Hamiltonsbawn Company to again be inspected. The same month at Scarva House, Scarva, Tullylish, Gilford, Acton and Poyntzpass units were on show. Tandragee Castle appears to the base of operations for B Company Tandragee, and the Duke of Manchester is recorded as occasionally reviewing troops and for giving the usage of his grounds.

Church Services tended to draw representatives from Volunteer Companies much further a field. An Ahorey service for the U.V.F. in February was stated to have representatives from Tandragee, Tannaghmore, Teemore, Clare, Richhill, Hamiltonsbawn and Mullabrack. The largest Service for the Battalion was held in April at Acton Church with Scarva, Tandragee, Tullyhappy, Drumbanagher, Tyrones Ditches, Loughbrickland and Killysavin represented. Bessbrook Volunteers attended church services in Glenanne as well as churches in its local area and Newry.

In the aftermath of the Larne gun-running operation on the 24th April, tensions throughout County Armagh between Unionism and Irish Nationalism elevated considerably. The eight companies of the 3rd battalion were all mobilised for the event, with the County Armagh weapons coming from Donaghadee from the S.S. Innismurray that had been loaded with a consignment of Vetterli rifles in Larne Harbour. A County Armagh Regiment tally for weapons after April listed the 3rd Battalion of the Regiment as having 411 weapons for its 1000 Volunteers. The County total was 2564, however this would rise to over 4000 over the next few months. The County, and Ulster as a whole, was on the brink of civil war.

On the 4th of August 1914 the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, after much posturing, was formally at war. From the very beginning many thousands of Ulster Volunteers became active in the British Army. Some were Officers that had merely resumed their commissions in various regiments; others were ordinary Volunteers, some ex-soldiers, who felt it was their duty to join in the battle against the ‘Hun’. It was not to be long before there was public plan for the Ulster Volunteer Force to become an active part of Kitcheners new Army. Hundreds would enlist from Tandragee District, with a considerable number joining the ranks of the Armagh Volunteer Battalion, the 9th Battalion Royal Irish Fusiliers. Many would never return.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.