Today the 17th Century Springhill House is one of the finest National Trust properties in Northern Ireland. In 1913 however it was the seat for a very different cause and organisation. Springhill was the headquarters for the South Londonderry Regiment of the Ulster Volunteer Force, and the main centre of operations for its second Battalion.
A notable feature of the third Home Rule crisis, and one not always fully appreciated, is that despite continually rising communal tensions, the tens of thousands drilling (in both communities) and the large number of arms available; Ireland was still relatively peaceful. Incidents however did of course occur occasionally, with one in particular shaping the views of many Unionists during the period. On 29 June 1912 a group of Ancient Order of Hibernian members, allegedly drunk after having had their own parade, attacked the members of a Protestant Sunday School in Castledawson returning from its annual excursion. The response saw rioting in Belfast that resulted in hundreds of Catholic shipyard workers drove out of the Workman and Clarke yard. The attack in Castledawson would, not surprisingly, ensure that the Unionists in that part of South Londonderry would be particularly active and vocal in their work to prevent the imposition of Home Rule.
On Ulster Day churches and church halls in Castledawson, Tobermore, Moneymore and Magherafelt were all packed to capacity, with several of the services being cross-denominational. Prior to signing the Covenant men and women listened to stirring and emotional addresses on the inevitable evils that would accompany Home Rule. At each the Sunday school ‘outrage’ in June was raised, and clearly was motivating locals. In Castledawson Colonel Chichester told the watching crowd that they should not take reprisals for that June Day, but also repeated Sir Edward Carson’s call to ‘Be ready’, and that if the situation should arise they must do so to defend their liberties with their lives. The sentiments were echoed in Moneymore, where the Rev Reid urged the watchword of the people to be Psalm 31 verse 24 ‘Be of good courage’.
Across the district Unionists had already been mobilising, with Unionist Clubs well established and drilling regularly. The aftermath of the Covenant saw an upsurge in this activity, and in early 1913 new clubs were established in Castledawson and Magherafelt. The religious tensions locally were very apparent at the inaugural meeting of the Magherafelt Club, where Chair James Brown told members that he did not agree that all Unionists should be permitted membership, stating very clearly that no Roman Catholics would be allowed to attend its meetings. The women of South Derry arguably were more active than their men folk, with the membership of the South Derry Women’s Unionist Association boasting over 1000 members from Magherafelt and Moneymore locales alone.
By September 1913 the reporting of activity of Unionist Clubs in the local press was being replaced by reports on the activity of the Ulster Volunteer Force. The first anniversary of Ulster Day saw parades of Volunteers in Moneymore and Upperlands, whilst in Castledawson it was recorded that four companies paraded to a service in the Presbyterian Church. By December route marches, inspections and other manoeuvres were commonplace. On Boxing Day the Moneymore U.V.F. marched from the Manor House to Springhill, headed by a unit of cavalry, where they were reviewed; while just a few weeks later Tamlaght O’Crilly and Innishrush Companies were reviewed at their own respective headquarters. Each of these companies was to constitute a part of the Second Battalion of the South Londonderry Regiment U.V.F.
Commander of the Second Battalion, and also commander of the South Londonderry Regiment, was Major William Arbuthnot Lenox- Conyngham. Within his role as Battalion Commander, and with his second in command H. J. Clark J.P., he directed the activities of the battalion from his Springhill home near Moneymore. The Battalion was the larger of the two within the South Londonderry Regiment, encompassing the towns and surrounding countryside of Moneymore, Maghera and Magherafelt.
In the Intelligence files of the Chief Officer of the Judicial Division, as of 30th September 1913, the entire region of South Derry had a total of 799 Volunteers. Just a few months later however official returns from the Regiment to Headquarters in Belfast number it as the much more impressive 1459 men. Listed within these early returns Maghera had some 275 men across Maghera, Knockloughrim, Upperlands and Tobermore; Magherafelt 219 in Magherfelt itself and Castledawson; and Moneymore 313 volunteers in Moneymore, Ballyronan, Ballyeglish, Ballinderry, Gortagilly and Lisnamorrow. By the peak of the U.V.F. just after the outbreak of the Great War, these districts had increased by over 50% to 1286 men.
No original records appear to have survived from the Battalion detailing its Company structure, but from newspaper reports it can be surmised that it comprised a very large number of units, a trait common across the Force in rural areas. Active companies included Magherafelt under J. P.Magill, Knockloughrim under John Speers, Ballymoughan commanded by J. Hamer, Megargy under W. McGeehan, and Desertmartin under William Palmer. Maghera was under Hugh MacMillen, Tobermore with O.C. George McDonald and Blackhill under Sandy Hanna. Upperlands was in the command of Boston, Tamlaght under Crockett and Innishrush with O.C. Rev John Donnelly. Moneymore commander was John Forsythe, Brackaghslievegallion under Sergeant Major Averill, and Ballynenagh under Rev W. Hogarth. Gortagilly unit commander was John Scott and Ballindrum commander was Robert Sloan.
Through the summer months of 1914 these units were meeting twice weekly to drill, with further activity coming in the form of Church parades and services, fund raising concerts and shooting competitions. The proudest moment for the Battalion came in April, when Edward Carson reviewed the entire Regiment in Garvagh. Carson had arrived in Castledawson by rail the previous day, with the Mid Ulster Mail reporting that the station was ‘thronged with Loyalists eager to get a glimpse of the great leader’. He spent the night near Moneymore at Springhill, with the house guarded by men from the Coagh Company of the U.V.F., it being decided that it was unfair for the local Volunteers to be engaged all night when they would be reviewed the following day. At the Garvagh inspection over 1000 volunteers were drawn up into columns, inspected and then addressed by Carson. Carson told the men that ‘the Volunteers saved Ireland before, and they are going to save Ireland again’.
As events surrounding the Third Home Rule Bill continued, the Second South Londonderry Battalion was intrinsically involved. All units are referenced as being mobilised for the gunrunning coup of 24th April 1914, with it noted that in Magherafelt locals were ‘astonished to see 30-40 cars passing through the town that afternoon. In Moneymore the men were mustered at the Manor House Yard, where after a call of the roll, orders were issued and they marched off in sections to patrol the local streets and roads all night. Tobermore, Upperlands, Knockloughrim and Maghera Volunteers received their orders at mid-day, each man instructed to join his company, be prepared for night-duty and to carry rations. On the 9th May 1914 the Mid Ulster Mail reported that ‘the South Derry Regiment of U.V.F. is now a fully armed force’.
In late May the Force was still growing and developing. An Ulster Signalling and Despatch Corps unit was establish at the end of the month in Moneymore, with the Wednesday evening signalling class having a large turnout of men and women. By now parades were talking place with the Volunteers openly bearing arms, and kitted out with bandoliers, belts, putties, armbands and slouch hats.
Across Ireland the outbreak of war served as a calming influence in the Home Rule crisis, as a new focus was injected into the population. From the start of August the officers of the Second Battalion were encouraging Volunteers to join the army to fight for God, King, Ulster, Ireland and the Empire. On the 9th of the month meetings were held in Upperlands, Innishrush and Maghera, with Battalion second in command H.J. Clark attending each and explaining to the men that they had received a call to duty and a call to arms. Men volunteered at each meeting, while in Tobermore alone the same night 30 men volunteered for Army service. Most would take a place in the ranks of Kitcheners New Army via the 10th Battalion Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers.