Ulster Icon………. Abercorn

‘From the time when the Home Rule dangers first appeared, my principle object in life had been to do everything in my power to unite in a firm and invincible phalanx all the friends of order and freed in this country, irrespective of class and irrespective of creed’. The words of James Hamilton in October 1893. On the 28th September 1912, a day that had been given the designation ‘Ulster Day’, the now 73 year old James Hamilton sat underneath an ancient oak tree and wrote one word on a small piece of paper. Abercorn. It was almost the end of the life journey for the man better known as the 2nd Duke of Abercorn. A journey where he had seen major changes in the Ireland in which he lived, and during which he had spent the last 30 years fighting against one specific thing- Home Rule.

The Formative years

abercorn 1stBorn in 1838, James Hamilton bore the name of his father the 1st Duke, and indeed the name of his grandfather and many other preceding generations. Hamilton senior had been appointed the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland in 1866, the British monarchy’s supreme representative in and effectively the sole governor of Ireland, and was a staunch advocate of Conservatism, Monarchy and Empire. At one stage he was one of just three people who held peerages in England, Ireland and Scotland; and was appointed Grand Master of the Loyal Orange Lodge of Ireland in 1874. One snippet of his life that singularly illustrates the extent that the 1st Duke was an Irish Loyalist of his time, came in 1868. That year Gladstone became Pride Minister having recently stated that his ‘mission was to pacify Ireland’. The Duke resigned his Lord Lieutenancy in disgust of Gladstone’s perceived willingness to placate the unruly and disloyal Irish, a disgust underpinned by the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland. It was under this influence and within these environments that the 2nd Duke would develop his own political views, views that would remain very much in the mould of his father.

The Emergence of Home Rule

From the Act of Union in 1800, after some initial hostility Irish Protestants had embraced the new arrangement. In particular this new relationship helped facilitate the onset of the Industrial revolution in Ireland, specifically the Protestant North East, and as such it was perceived that economic prosperity did not just come under Union, but because of Union. In rural South and West Ireland this economic revolution did not become manifest because of its enormous focus and dependence on agriculture. Being regions where Roman Catholicism was dominant gave a new dynamic to perceptions, and economic and social grievances similar to what was being experienced in England and Scotland, began to be perceived by Catholics as being primarily political. Anger regarding land ownership exacerbated feelings, and with it in the 1860’s came the first mention of Irish Home Rule. The Home Rule concept essentially just referred to limited domestic legislative independence and Ireland would remain a part of the United Kingdom; and a new movement was born that would provide the main focus of Irish politics until beyond the end of the Great War.

A new battle. New leaders

The first person who could be defined as the leader of the movement was Issac Butt, a Donegal man who was both a Protestant and an Orangeman.  It quickly developed and soon was de facto the Irish Parliamentary Party, under the leadership of Charles Stewart Parnell. By 1885 it was political power at Westminster with 86 Members of Parliament, with the ultimate political position now an advocate of their cause – Prime Minister Gladstone. The 1st Duke of Abercorn passed away in October 1885, and with his death passed on his zeal to defend Ireland from anything he believed would weaken it. A zeal that the Unionists of Ireland and particularly Ulster shared in wholeheartedly.

A little ‘firmness’…

When Gladstone introduced the Irish Government Bill 1886, the first Home Rule Bill, James Hamilton the younger, now succeeded to his fathers title, at the same time found himself among the forefront of the movement against it, not least as he had also succeeded his father in the role of Grand Master of the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland. He inherited his father’s disdain for Gladstone, saying of him in 1886 that he had ‘misused the opportunity which his position and his previous services gave him’. It was Abercorn’s belief that the granting of ‘Home Rule to Ireland would sooner or later lead to war between the two countries’, and that ‘A little firmness and energy would soon have the effect of restoring order and quietude in the South of Ireland’. The Bill was defeated after mass defections from Gladstone’s Liberal party, but several months of rioting in Belfast followed leaving at least 50 people dead. It had however galvanised Unionism that was now determined to organise to provide an effective counter to Home Rule. The year 1886 saw the formation of the Irish Unionist Party under Colonel Edward Saunderson, and several other mass Irish Unionist lobby groups including the Loyalist Anti Repeal Union.


conventionWith the Conservative’s being re-elected into power in late 1886, Unionist fears of Home Rule fell into the background for a short time, but soon became re-ignited when Gladstone returned to power in 1892. Earlier that year Ulster Unionists had began to organise a mass convention, where representatives from across the Province would gather to show opposition to Home Rule. Meetings where held in polling districts prior to the main event, at which delegates where elected to attend the convention. In North Tyrone a series of meetings were held to select the 50 delegates it was entitled to, with Newtownstewart Town hall the venue on the 23rd may. Mr E.T. Herman took the chair at the meeting in which he said that the proposed convention would be historical in its importance. On the 3rd June 1892 Castlederg hosted the fifth meeting in North Tyrone parliamentary constituency, where William Gamble told the assembled throng that they were determined to oppose it to the end.

Convention 2

On the 17th June around 20,000 people attended the Ulster Unionist Convention, including some 12,000 democratically elected delegates with every polling district in Ulster represented. Abercorn played a prominent role in the organisation, and when he entered the venue with the Lord mayor of Belfast he was received with loud applause, and then subsequently appointed as the ‘President’ of the proceedings. In his ‘Presidential’ address he stated the following ‘the motive that brings us here today is love of our country, family, homes and religion; and above all a determination to live, as they had always done, as an integral portion of Her Majesty’s subjects. We intend to show our English and Scotch friends that the name of Ulster was not a sham, but reality. This meeting is not intended to be a menace, but was holding out the hand of friendship to the rest of Ireland… We are united in determination to fight for home and liberty. We Will Not Have Home Rule!’ The Times newspaper said of the convention that ‘these were men to be reckoned with’.

Unionist Clubs formed

Despite the show of strength and display of mass support and unity that the Convention represented, in early 1893 Gladstone introduced the Government of Ireland Bill 1893, the second Home Rule Bill. With it too came two defining moments within the campaign against Home Rule. The first was the organisation of Unionist Clubs by Lord Templeton, and the second was the formation of arguably the first mass militant Unionist movement in Ulster- the Ulster Defence Union.

Ulster Defence Union

The Ulster Defence Union was an attempt to gather together as many different strains of Unionism as possible underneath the one banner. It adopted the Latin phrase ‘Quis Separabit?’ (Who Shall Separate) as its motto, and officially launched a manifesto of its aims on the 17th march 1893. The manifesto, addressed to ‘the Loyal people of Ulster’ set out clearly that the U.D.U. was to be more than just a political pressure group. It stated that ‘we must be prepared for every possible eventuality’, clarifying the statement with ‘the intense state of public feeling now demands further and more extreme action’. The manifesto included a plan of organisation that would later bear striking similarities to a further mass Ulster organisation that would arise in 1913. Among the signatories not surprisingly was the Duke of Abercorn.

Enrolment to the Ulster Defence Union was closed on the 1st June 1893, by which time it was reported that its membership totalled 170,409. This membership now proceeded to elect representatives for a central assembly. This ruling body was to have 600 members, proportionally allocated within every parliamentary constituency according to its Unionist electorate. The chosen representatives were announced in the press in October and included 18 men from the North Tyrone constituency covering Strabane, Newtownstewart, Donemana and Castlederg-

John Herdman, J.P., Carricklee, Strabane.
Robert Dawson, Strabane.
R.S. Smyth, J.P., Bowling Green, Strabane
W.C. M’Deviette, Strabane.
E.T. Herdman, D.L. Sion House, Strabane.
Archibald Duncan, Eden, Plumbridge, Newtownstewart.
Thomas Miller, Brook House, Newtownstewart
Matthew Neilson, Carnkenny, Newtownstewart.
Henry Danton, Raspberry Hill, Dunnamanagh.
W.J . Aiken, Benowan, Dunnamanagh.
R.J. Craig, J.P., Binaley, Dunnamangh.
Victor Love, Foyleside, Bready, Strabane.
W. King-Edwards, Castlederg.
R. H. Moore, Drumclamph, Castlederg.
Rev. James M’Cay, The Manse, Castlederg.
Rev. W. Vernon, Lisnaloon House, Castlederg.
George M’Farland, Creevy Lower, Castlederg.
William Johnston, Killeen, Drumquin.

Abercorn addresses delegates

On the 25th October this general assembly met in the Ulster Hall, where at 11.30am the main meeting was opened and a portion of prayer read. As was now the pattern in all things Ulster and all things anti Home Rule, the first motion before the meeting was ‘That his Grace the Duke of Abercorn should be President of the Central Assembly’. Abercorn, now well accustomed to taking the position of prime importance at gatherings, addressed the crowd, cheers being given throughout this entire speech. He referenced that they were now into year eight of their campaign, and highlighted the immense importance that they were united in common purpose with no dissension in the ranks. The Duke stated ‘We are fighting for a high and noble cause, and not for selfish objects. All personal considerations have been subordinated to public interests. Our object is so sacred that every mans ambition is satisfied with a place in the ranks, and no man craves leadership or prominence. In a cause so noble and so just the humblest place carries with it as much honour as the highest’.

Referencing the Convention the previous year, he stated that then they had ‘told the people of Great Britain that the freedom our fathers had won for us with their blood no power on earth could force us to abandon’. The language of the Duke was careful to not be intemperate, however the militancy was apparent with further calls for strong organisation; and more tellingly that they ‘must be equipped for the struggle. The sinews of war must be procured’. In the short term as Abercorn had also stated in his speech, the Home Rule Bill was indeed ‘dead’. It had passed the House of Commons earlier in the year but was defeated in the House of Lords the month following the Ulster Defence Union gathering.

The Union was safe yet again, and the Unionist efforts at facilitating and creating strong and active organisation were not maintained, with the Ulster Defence Union slipping into obscurity. With Gladstone’s Liberals out of power yet again there was no danger of Home Rule being placed back on the statute books, however the return of the Liberals in 1906 would yet again revive the old fears. That year the Ulster Unionist Council was formed to yet again bring together all the different shades of Unionism in one common purpose. Their commitment was tempered however by the fact that the Liberals, now with a huge majority, were not displaying any great inclination to once again push the Home Rule agenda. This security changed fundamentally after the two general elections of 1910. A hung parliament meant that the Irish pro Home Rule MPs now took on a new level of importance.

In 1910 Edward Carson took on the role of Irish Unionist leader within the Irish Unionist Alliance, and Ireland entered a third period of crisis over Home Rule. Back in the houses of Parliament a series of political battles had been ongoing where the Lords sought to impose its power over the Commons, eventually resulting in the Parliament Act. No longer could the Lords infinitely prevent any act voted on by the Commons.

Craigavon 1911

Once again Unionist thoughts turned to mobilisation, and mass demonstration of their commitment, and with it Vice Chair of the Irish Unionists James Craig began to organise a demonstration for September 1911 within the grounds of his home in Craigavon East Belfast. Over 100,000 Unionists paraded at the demonstration. Most notably of the day, Sergeant Edward Pearson of the Royal Irish Constabulary Special Branch remarked in his report that ‘ by far the greater number of the men who marched in the procession carried themselves as men who had been drilled, particularly the members of the Unionist Clubs and the Orangemen from Counties Tyrone and Armagh’. Military preparation was well underway.

Tyrone Unionist Clubs

The Unionist Club movement that had fell to the way side in the late 1900’s, was revitalised with clubs reforming and new clubs starting; and these men joined Orangemen on the march. County Tyrone soon boasted over 80 such clubs, composing thousands of members.

Baronscourt 12th

baronscourt 12thFurther mass demonstrations followed including one at Omagh in January 1912 and at Balmoral in April; while in July the military aspect of contemporary Unionism was no longer being kept in the background. On Friday 12th July one of the designated 12th July venues was Baronscourt Demesne. In all seven Orange districts were set to participate; Raphoe, Sixmilecross, Fintona, Omagh, Killeen, Strabane and Newtownstewart; but it was much more than just an Orange parade. The day had also been set down to having a drill competition for the Unionist Clubs of North Tyrone. The Clubs of Ardstraw, Artigarvin, Baronscourt, Castlefin, Carricklee, Douglas, Drumquin and Sion Mills each competed for the elaborate and ornate Abercorn Shield; illustrating to the world at large that what was happening was not just a display of culture.

12th 1912

Here at his own home, the now aged Duke of Abercorn once again took to the stage. The Duke, once temperate in his speeches, now did not hold back in any way his true feelings ‘In a short time the Home Rule Bill will be driven through the House (of Commons and Lords) by trickery and violence, and we will be called upon to do it reverence as the law of the land. I warn this government. If they attempt to enforce this sham on Ireland they will be guilty of murder in the worst form. Bloodshed WILL take place’.

The Ulster Covenant

While the North Tyrone men were drilling, and indeed they continued to do so on a weekly basis, in the background the leadership of Ulster Unionism was planning to make the ultimate public constitutional declaration of its objection and determination to resist the imposition of Home Rule. Authored by Thomas Sinclair, a man who had shared the stage with the Duke of Abercorn almost 20 years earlier at the Ulster Unionist Convention, the Ulster Covenant and its sister document the Declaration, were signed by some 471,414 men and women. The day designated for this mass show of unity, resolve and purpose was 28th September 1912. In every town and Hamlet across Ulster, despite it being a Saturday, businesses went quiet and factories closed for the day. Streets and buildings were decorated with Union Jacks and banners against Home Rule; as hundreds of thousands of men and women attended worship in their local churches before filing out and placing their signatures on the document. In Strabane the Carricklee Unionist Club were inspected before making their way to a service at Urney Church. In Newtownstewart the Presbyterian Church held a large service, with the Rev Morton assisted by Methodist minister Rev Waugh- each of the Ulster Day events was noticeable for the inclusion and participation of all Protestant denominations, including it was noted the Society of Friends. In Ardstraw the Rev Leith opened proceedings with the hymn ‘God is our refuge and our strength’, while at Drumlelagh Presbyterian that evening the Duke of Abercorn attended his second service of the day.


abercorn covenantThe Duke had spent his day at his home at Barons Court. Still a very much revered figure in Unionism, he was simply too frail to attend the higher profile demonstration in Belfast with the other Unionist leaders. In the churchyard following the morning service, the Duke was the first to sign. In hushed tones and surrounded by the drilled men of the local Unionist Clubs, he added his name, following which others made a rush to append theirs to the document.

UVF Committee

The day was an immense success. It had provided a propaganda coup for Unionism that literally would be reported upon in every newspaper in the British Empire and far beyond. A militaristic spark too had been ignited and cemented, a spark that was to develop into something much bigger. The Duke of Abercorn, whilst undoubtedly behind the cause in heart, was no longer physically capable of taking his place as the head of demonstrations and organisations. The next phase of Unionist opposition to Home Rule in North Tyrone and Ulster would not see his name affixed. Locally other names would became more prominent such as the Herdman’s and Ambrose Ricardo.



The 2nd Duke of Abercorn passed away on 3rd January 1913. For a short time his successor the 3rd Duke would too follow in the footsteps of his father, indeed just like his father had followed in the footsteps of his grandfather. By November 1913 the 3rd Duke held the position of the Officer in Command of the County Tyrone Regiment Ulster Volunteer Force, in a new chapter in the battle against Home Rule. Meanwhile however the name of James Hamilton 2nd Duke of Abercorn was still remembered and will be still remembered for his continual devotion to a cause, and particularly for giving Ulster and Irish Unionism a phrase still known by everyone regardless of creed, age or gender.










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