The County Down tourist town of Newcastle nestles in one of the most picturesque parts of Ireland. Sitting at the foot of Slieve Donard on the edge of the Mourne Mountains it has a rich history. One of the most interesting episodes in its colourful past is the contribution of the greater Newcastle area to the Ulster fight against Home Rule during the Crisis of 1912 to 1914.
At the beginning of the 19th Century Newcastle and its hinterland was split between two different parliamentary constituencies. A large rural area that encompassed the hamlets of Dundrum, Annsborough, Kilmegan, Clough and Tyrella all fell into the East Down area; whilst Newcastle, Maghera, Castlewellan, Bryansford and right down the southern coast to Kilkeel came under the South Down Parliamentary area. Despite these artificial borders, locals were actively organising against Home Rule at an early stage.
In February a call went out through the pages of the Down Recorder Newspaper to form a Unionist Club in Newcastle town. The call was answered almost immediately and in the second week of march a Club was formed facilitated by prominent East and South Down Unionists Colonel Wallace and Captain Frank Hall. Political unionism was of course already active in the town, indeed it was stated at a meeting at the end of the month the Newcastle Branch of the South Down Women’s Unionist Association alone had over 100 members. Political campaigning however was only a secondary function of the Unionist Clubs. Their main function was to provide an organisational structure against Home Rule. A function that was to manifest itself in one key and focal way, drilling.
The surrounding districts of Newcastle were organising as well. The Castlewellan Branch of the South Down Unionist Association held its AGM on the 15th of March and was notable given that the area’s Unionist Club had assembled some distance away prior to the occasion and paraded to the venue as an escort to the principle speaker, William Allen from Lurgan. At the great Balmoral Review of April 1912 specially commissioned trains from East and South Down brought thousands of Unionist Club members, with Annalong, Castlewellan, Seaforde, Tyrella and Bryansford Clubs among those represented.
In the months prior to the Ulster Covenant campaign drilling and marching was already a common sight in South and East Down. Empire Day in May saw Bryansford, Castlewellan and Newcastle Clubs marching to Maghera. Further militant activity took place the same week at Tyrella where a new rifle club was formed. As Ulster Day approached demonstrations took place at Finnebrogue Downpatrick which included the inspection of Unionist Clubs by Colonel Wallace with Dundrum and Seaforde among those present. The last demonstration prior to Ulster Day took place at Ballyroney, where Dundrum and Seaforde were also joined by Annalong, Ballymartin, Newcastle and Castlewellan; with specially chartered trains transporting the men. The massive Ballyroney event was overshadowed two days later by the success of the Ulster Covenant locally, with thousands of men and women signing their respective documents. With the Covenant campaign now over, thoughts turned to other means to fight Home Rule.
A County Down Committee to organised the Volunteers was created on 23rd December 1913, with Clotworthy Murland one of the five County representatives. Unionist Clubs were still forming and organising, and demonstrations protesting the dreaded Bill became regular occurrence’s for locals. On July 15th 1913 Edward Carson and James Craig visited Clough for the Seaforde Unionist Club, while Banbridge paid host to a massive demonstration on the 28th of the month.
The U.V.F. had been officially formalised in January 1913, but many Unionist Clubs were choosing to stay within their own existing structure. Following appeals in August from Carson to the Clubs to enlist in the Volunteers this changed significantly, and by September the U.V.F. were being reviewed publicly at further great demonstrations including a large affair in Kilkeel where Annalong and Ballymartin Volunteers joined the Kilkeel Companies and were inspected by Carson himself. The event was described in the local media as the ‘First shot in South Down’.
In the first official U.V.F. County returns to Headquarters in October 1913, under the category of South Down the Newcastle District Volunteers were listed as numbering 412 men. This included 100 in Ballymartin, 105 in Annalong, just 11 in Newcastle Town, 67 in Bryansford, 40 in Castlewellan, 20 in Ballywillwill and 15 in Aughlisnafin. In addition under East Down, Seaforde had 73 and Kilmegan Dundrum Town 50. By the peak of the Force in July 1914 this would increase by over 60% to 890 men.
Commander of the 1st South Down Battalion was Dr Robert Magill J.P. of Victoria Place in Newcastle. A talented golfer, he had won the Irish Amateur Gold Championship when aged 18, he was also heavily involved in local theatrical societies and from 1910 overlooked the Dispensary in Bryansford. A relatively young man, just 30 in 1913, it is not clear under what criteria he was deemed to be worthy of the role. What is clear however is that he must have possessed some military acumen given his eventual elevation to Colonel in the North Irish Horse during the Great War.
At its height, in the months just prior to the outbreak of War, Magill’s Second in command was Clotworthy Warren Murland J.P. Murland, from a line of linen manufacturers and a native of Castlewellan, was heavily involved in militant Unionism against Home Rule, indeed he had been an assembly member of the Ulster Defence Union in East Down in 1893. Two sons were Company commanders and he himself would assume command of the Battalion when Magill left for War.
Adjutant was G.W. Matthew and Mr H. Armytage Moore (Lord Annesley) was Quartermaster. They presided over 8 Companies of Volunteers encompassing the area as far south as Ballymartin, North to Seaforde and West to Tyrella. The Tyrella Company was under the Command of Clarence Craig, Bryansford incorporating Maghera under Viscount Jocelyn and Newcastle under R.J. Dickson. Annalong O.C. was the Rev. E. Pyper, Ballymartin (G Company) commander was S. McKibben and Castlewellan (C Company) incorporating Annsborough was C.H. Murland. Dundrum (including Aughlisnafin and Kilmegan) was under J.W. Murland and Seaforde and Clough (H Company) under Alexander McMeekin.
In common with the rest of the Province, by the beginning of 1914 the local units of Volunteers were appearing regularly in public, whether it be for inspection, route march, church service or other activities. On Tuesday 14th January the Bryansford, Castlewellan and Kilmegan Companies had a joint parade at Kilmegan itself, where they were inspected by Battalion Commander Dr Magill. The following Thursday men from Maghera held a shoot at the Orange hall, with all the nearby Companies sending participants and with D. Melville Dundrum, W.S. Douglas Bryansford, T. Stewart Bryansford and J. Russell Dundrum the highest scorers. The shoot was scheduled to continue the following week. On the 25th Seaforde Company under the Command of Major Forde held a service in the local Parish Church, first assembling at Andersons Meadow within the Demesne before marching to the Church.
The largest church event in the Battalions life took place in early March in Castlewellan at St Pauls. Over 500 1st battalion Volunteers from five Companies attended the occasion, where the Archdeacon told those present that ‘We have shown that we believe that we are right. When men bring their cause into the house of God, when they have prayed over it, it shows that they take it seriously.’ The same week saw the local Volunteer Nursing Corps start a five week series of lectures for new nurses in Bryansford under the tuition of a Nurse Ross.
Not surprisingly the distance of Annalong and Ballymartin from Newcastle severely curtailed the amount of activity the two Companies had with the rest of the Battalion. It didn’t however stop the units working with those that were closer. Interaction between different Battalion areas was illustrated clearly on Easter Monday. At Mourne Park Kilkeel a field day was held that included the Annalong and Ballymartin Companies, where they took part in field exercises with the 6 Kilkeel Companies who at that stage formed part of the 2nd Battalion. The exercises included mock warfare, with the 1st Battalion Commander Magill attending and viewing the abilities of the Companies under his charge in an observer capacity. Just a few weeks later Annalong Presbyterian Church hosted a Volunteer Service, with the Kilkeel Volunteers marching to Ballymartin where they all joined together and made their way to the venue. In June Ballymartin returned the favour by attending a service in Mourne Presbyterian Church Kilkeel under special invitation.
Unionist Clubs and Associations were also still working away of course, and in a relatively rare occurrence, the Newcastle men and women’s Unionist organisations met jointly in February to discuss the political situation and local events. The Volunteers where at the top of the agenda, and during the Thursday night meetings Rev. Woodward very clearly defined local views- ‘The red hand of Ulster ; which is represented upon our Volunteer badge, is not a bloody hand. It is red because it is a living hand, a right hand, the symbol of brotherhood and strength. Above that hand their stands the three letters U.V.F., which to my mind, define our position today, and our prospects in the future- unity, victory and freedom!’ More interestingly, at the South Down Unionist Association AGM in Castlewellan in early April, the members were discussing the real possibility of changing the Nationalist South Down Parliamentary seat to a Unionist one. Always an office held by Irish Nationalists, a member outlined how since 1893 he believed 600 votes had been taken off them and that by the next election they can take another 600 and ensure County Down stood ‘four square for the Union’ wit ha Unionist Member of Parliament.
The next major exercise for the 1st battalion was the gun running of 24th April. The Belfast Newsletter recorded that all eight companies were mobilised on the Friday evening to ‘test the efficiency of the Battalion’. In the afternoon the mobilisation order was issued across the district, and by 8pm each unit had gathered at their individual halls. The same report detailed how the different companies kept in touch during the night via signalling, also taking the opportunity to mention that the entire Battalion is ‘ thoroughly well equipped, and ready for all emergencies.’
In mid May the area encompassed by the 1st Battalion had other sights within eyeshot of its shores beyond the usual fishing vessels. The Government had made the decision to convey troops and ships to Ireland in Prime Minister Asquith’s words ‘to vindicate the authority of the law’. In effect an attempt to face down the Ulster Volunteers in the aftermath of the Curragh Mutiny and Larne Gunrunning. The operation included three destroyers placed strategically in the bays at Newcastle, St Johns Point and Annalong. Despite Asquith’s intentions, the true feelings of those onboard the ships however is perhaps indicated best by the actions of the ship at Newcastle, named The Contest. Its Captain, Commander Kerrison Kiddle, felt suitably relaxed and at home enough on the Down coast to come ashore for a game of golf. Not the actions of a Battleship Commander preparing for war!
The same week Commander Kiddle enjoyed his golf was arguably the most high profile in the short existence of the local Volunteers to date. From the 11th May men from the Battalion were encamped at Donard Demesne for a Camp of Instruction. Divided into two bodies of men, each group received 3 days of instruction in drill, tactical exercises, shooting and lectures on various military themes. This culminated on the Saturday with the presentation of official Colours to the 1st Battalion South Down Regiment. Donated by the ladies associated with the Battalion, the Kings Colour and Regimental Colour were presented by Mrs Armytage Moore. The elaborate ceremony copied accepted military conventions, with the flags placed on piled drums before a salute was given by the men, and a reading of Psalm 46 given (Oh God our refuge…) by Dr Montgomery. The Dean of Dromore then dedicated the colours.
Also in attendance, signifying further the importance of the occasion; was G.O.C. of the U.V.F. Sir George Richardson. In his address to all he congratulated the officers and men on the acquiring of such beautiful colours, reminding them that some of the finest episodes in military history revolved around colours. They gave encouragement of spirit de corps, gallantry and devotion to duty; and would be an incentive to every man. He then thanked the men for the splendid work that South Down had carried out on the 24th April. Richardson had earlier that day carried out a full inspection of the various Companies, and also stated that he was pleased with the steadiness and precision of their movements. In conclusion he reminded all that they were ‘going to see this business through’. The day as a whole ended with a massive 1000 guest reception at Donard Lodge.
By the end of May tensions were rising in the area, with the scenario that rival units of Ulster and Irish Volunteers were drilling in the same districts, but relatively normal business continued and remarkably no major incidents are recorded. The Ulster Volunteer Medical and Nursing Corps of Castlewellan; which included nurses from Castlewellan, Bryansford and Newcastle and numbered 36; received their badges in July, and on the 21st of July the Castlewellan Company paraded fully armed. On 6th of August other local companies followed suit when units from Annsborough, Bryansford, Dundrum and Newcastle marched fully armed from the golf links to the Demesne. In early August the East Down 1st Battalion where presented Colours at Finnebrogue, with armed detachments from the Dundrum, Seaforde and Tyrella Companies of the 1st South Down Battalion guarding the gates and grounds.
With the outbreak of War focus began to deviate from the single minded anti Home Rule approach. The recruiting campaign was brought home to the locals with the conversion of Donard Lodge Demesne for the use of training for the army, in fact reported in the newspapers of the time as being solely for ‘members of the U.V.F. who have joined the Kings army.’ The facility was inspected by James Craig and had accommodation for 2000 men.
On Friday 18 September 150 men from the 1st South Down and 1st East Down Volunteer Battalions enlisted at Downpatrick, while on the 16th a farewell social was held in honour of 40 local U.V.F. men from Castlewellan and Dundrum who had enlisted. Their number included their officers C.H Murland and J.W. Murland. The following week similar occasions were carried out in Newcastle and Seaforde, Newcastle providing 21 men and Seaforde 14.
The localised nature of recruiting at the beginning of the Great War, and specifically this en mass joining by members of the U.V.F., would come to ensure that the brutality, death and injury of the War would touch the entire community.