The period of the third Home Rule bill was a turbulent one throughout the United Kingdom. It is somewhat ironic however that in Ireland during 1914 the greatest number of public order incidents were not actually related to the bill at all. From March to August 1914 there was a campaign enacted that included bomb attacks and arson attacks, with cinemas and church’s among the many targets. The protagonist’s were not Unionist or Nationalist militants; they were women agitating for suffrage, the right to vote. During that six month period no less than 13 women were arrested for various offences, many specifically targeting Ulster Unionism, with County Antrim alone paying out over £93,000 out for claims for damages related to the campaign.
Ulster and Irish Unionism was divided on the question of female suffrage. Initially many were warm to the cause, but this cooled as Unionism became more focused on the growing crisis situation in relation to the possible imposition of Home Rule. The Irish Parliamentary Party too had sympathy with the women; however it eventually took a strong stance against them, believing that it would actually be detrimental to the prospect of home rule being enacted.
The women of Ulster were very much divided on the subject; however their commitment and belief in the Union was paramount and provided a unifying force. Unionist women prior to 1911 had been organised in several pro-Union bodies including the County Londonderry based Women’s Unionist Registration Association and the Women’s Liberal Unionist Association, however the formation in January 1911 of the Ulster Women’s Unionist Council was to vastly over shadow those groups. In what was easily the biggest female political group ever formed in Ireland, in a very short period of time it could boast of almost 200,000 members. Every Ulster Parliamentary Constituency could boast at least once branch, many with thousands of members. The Mid-Armagh Association alone consisted of almost 3,500 women, covering the Armagh City, Loughgall, Tandragee, Markethill and Keady areas.
Essentially the Council and its many branches acted as a back-up and support organisation to its male counter parts. At its inception on January 23rd, the following was accepted as its main purpose, ‘secure the maintenance in it’s integrity of the legislative Union between Great Britain and Ireland, and for this purpose to resist all proposals, of whatever kind they may be, which have for their object the establishment of any form of an Irish Parliament’. Their self defined role was detailed as consisting of campaigning at elections, distribution of pro-Union pamphlets and, on a very broad basis, anything else that the Ulster Unionist Council wished them to do. The association was to prove invaluable in the build up to the Ulster Covenant, culminating in more women actually signing the female version, the Ulster Declaration. In fact, more women attested to the Declaration than men to the Covenant in almost every parliamentary district of Ulster. Given this level of determination, upon the formation of the Ulster Volunteer Force it was inevitable that women would play a significant role within its ranks.
There is no doubt that primarily the UVF was to be a bargaining tool for Unionism, a measure of its commitment against Home Rule while also at the same time a warning. With that in mind the goal of the Unionist Political establishment was to ensure the Ulster Volunteers were as close to a fully functioning army as physically possible. It was to be a military body that could act independently and be totally self- reliant. The main manifestation of this outside its central military structure, modelled on the British Army, was its diversity in terms of its many different specialised units. There was an acknowledgement that an army was not just built on foot soldiers, it needed support. Some of the most prominent support units included the Ulster Signalling and Dispatch Riding Corps, the Motor Car Corps and the Ulster Special Service Force. Not surprisingly however, women were to play their largest role within the Force’s nursing Corps.
The UVF Nursing and Medical Corps was formed in 1913, with the Ulster Women’s Unionist Council being the prime driving force behind it. It was the organising committee’s goal that each company of the Volunteers should also have one female Voluntary Aid Detachment, it being asserted that all women over the age of 16 and who had signed the Declaration should be giving their time to the movement as much as was physically possible. Via the St John’s Ambulance and Red Cross organisations, women took courses, most lasting around five weeks, in such practises as bandaging and treating broken bones. The number of nurses in different areas varied considerably, Carnmoney for example boasting over fifty, while one of the Kilkeel units had just thirteen. The UWUC was certainly very pro-active in populating nursing units. In just an eight month spell from October 1913 to May 1914, almost 5,000 were awarded with proficiency certificates relating to first aid. The sheer scale of this is all the more striking when it is realised that in the previous 47 years only 4,000 certificates had been issued.
The provisions and kitting out of hospitals was another prime function of the nursing corps. The large stately homes and country houses of every district were the main locations; however Orange and Town Halls too were utilised. In official records it is noted that in all Ulster had 220 hospitals, with other facilities further afield including London where a 120 bed building was furnished and a Nursing body consisting of four companies was formed.
At the many Volunteer reviews across Ulster during 1914 the nurses began to play a more visible and prominent role in proceedings. On occasion however the attitudes of the day towards females did rear their head, with the approach of their male counterparts and the media verging on being patronising. At least once, a nurse detachment complained that at a review of Volunteers they had not been inspected in the same way as the male volunteers, while newspapers regularly simply referenced the nurses in terms of the colour they added to displays. In all the Voluntary aid detachments of the UVF consisted of 3,520 nurses, with a further 600 doctors and nurses undertaking to aid the units if their services were required.
While the Nursing Corps was the most prominent place for the female Ulster Volunteer, arguably their most valuable position was through the auspices of the Signalling and Dispatch Riding Corps. There is no doubt that the Government of the day was closely monitoring all communications between Unionist politicians and internally between various Volunteer units, and with this in mind the UVF created its own internal postal system. In all 43 post houses were established, with all but one house having a post mistress appointed to ensure they operated efficiently. Each Post House was given a coded reference designation, with many located in private residences as opposed to Orange Halls. For example Crumlin Post House (CU) was located in Crumlin House on the Main Street, Irvinestown (IT) in the areas Rectory and Newry (NY) in the towns UVF Drill Hall. Elaborate procedures were followed to ensure the integrity of the post system, with detailed record keeping enforced and scrutinised. Messengers had to sign a copy of a form upon receipt and delivery, with duplicates taken.
There do not appear to have been any female dispatch riders within the Volunteers; however there were several units of female signallers and they played a large role in general. For example, the Kilkeel Signalling and Dispatch Riding Corps consisted of four riders and fifteen signalling personnel, with seven of those women. Their purpose was to transmit messages via systems of flags or lamps, and they were considered very important. Indeed the UVF actually brought into use a lamp called the ‘Ulster Lamp’, an invention by USDRC President Mr Maguire that could transmit signals a significant distance further than existing army lamps. This lamp made it possible to send and receive signals between Ulster and Scotland. In one specific night operation a transmission was sent between Scotland and Fermanagh via a number of positions, regarded at the time as a record in terms of night time communication via signal.
Nursing and Signalling aside, there were of course a small number of women regularly taking part in full military drill. All evidence indicates this was largely limited to those women of the upper-classes whose husbands played prominent roles in the Volunteers. In the Omagh Battalion of the Tyrone Regiment, a female unit of around forty women regularly participated in rifle shooting and handling practise. Elsewhere female drilling frequently took place in South Donegal, Portadown and West Belfast. Some women took the activity a step further and were actively engaged in gunrunning, the oldest daughter of William Trimble, OC of the Enniskillen Horse, allegedly having brought an amount of ammunition into Ulster via hanging it from her waist under her dress. Women played an important role in the Larne Gun Running as well, with three tasked to provide food and armbands for the men involved on the morning of the exercise.
In all it is estimated that over 5,000 women were actively involved in the Ulster Volunteers Force. The outbreak of the First World War however was to considerably change the focus of women in Ulster, which largely turned to providing ‘comforts’ for soldiers. The Belfast Women’s Unionist Associations formed the Ulster Women’s Gift Fund to provide such items as food, newspapers and tobacco to both the Irish Regiments and many other parts of the Army and Navy. They are recorded as having raised almost £120,000 by 1918. Many of their sisters across Ulster followed suit, providing an invaluable service to the front-line troops.