South Downs’ Hilltop Volunteers… the Rathfriland U.V.F.

Not surprisingly given its Plantation origins, the County Down hill top town and district of Rathfriland has a long association with Irish Unionism, Loyalism and Orangeism. That association did not wane during the Third Home Rule crisis……

One of the most iconic and significant of all Orange events happened in the Rathfriland area in 1849. Before the famous Battle of Dolly’s Brae on 12th July of that year, around 1400 Orangemen gathered near the village to proceed to Tollymore Park. Shots were fired on them by Ribbonmen, and rather than run, the Rathfriland men defended themselves very forthrightly. The strongly held views and principles that made those men stand their ground against gunfire were still very apparent in the area during the Third Home Rule Crisis over fifty years later.

In the run up to Ulster Covenant day, 28th September 1912, a number of demonstrations were held across Ulster. Edward Carson and his entourage visited Enniskillen, Lisburn, Londonderry, Coleraine and Portadown to campaign for the Covenant. The final major demonstration however took place at Ballyroney just a few miles from Rathfriland on Thursday 26th September. The venue was a large field that adjoined Ballyroney Railway Station, locally known as ‘The Fort’, and donated for use by Mr John Dougan. In advance of the proceedings the day was promised to be by far the largest political demonstration ever held in County Down.

Organised by Rathfriland District Orange Worshipful Master and secretary of Rathfriland Unionist Club, Mr. J. J. Hall, the South Down area provided the bulk of the participants, but the entire County was represented. An advance list of those organisations having accepted invitations to participate included all of the Orange Lodges of Rathfriland, Lower Iveagh, Mourne, Banbridge, Newry, Loughbrickland, Castlewellan, Gilford and Carlingford Districts, amounting to some 134 Lodges.

On the day tens of thousands of supporters were present who, in brilliant weather, watched Orangemen and Unionist Clubs in their thousands marching with ‘military precision’. The Earl of Kilmorey opened proceedings in what was a very enthusiastic rally, but unfortunately one of the first notes of business was reading a letter from Edward Carson. Owing to the sheer pressure of the previous rally’s and the on-going campaign he was unable to attend, but sent his apologies and his hope that he would be able to visit Ballyroney at some date in the future. Never the less the meeting was an immense triumph and served to motivate the South Down Unionist community even further in their zeal against Home Rule.

Unsurprisingly, just a few days later Covenant Day in Rathfriland was a tremendous success, with each of the Protestant Churches in the District filled to capacity. The Orangemen formed up at the Orange Hall and marched to each of the different venues in the town, however within just a few short months the majority of marching in the area would take place under a different label. One central Unionist Club was in operation, Rathfriland, and it would be the core for what would come to be known as the 3rd Battalion South Down Regiment of the Ulster Volunteer Force.

The official formalisation of the UVF in January 1913 marked an important turning point in Unionism Province wide, as a previous quasi-military posture in some Orange and Unionist Club’s, suddenly had a less ambiguous approach. It was by no means a quick change however, and the Ulster Volunteer Force would take almost 12 months to form into what would be their final shape. The Rathfriland District Ulster Volunteers did not take part in their first full inspection until 1st December 1913, when each unit was inspected separately. By then it was over 900 men strong and structured into 8 seperate company’s. Officer in Command of the Rathfriland Battalion, the 3rd Battalion of the South Down Regiment, was also overall Regimental Commander, Major Arthur Nugent of Killowen near Rostrevor. The Rev J. A. Richardson was second in Command and Rev Scanlon was Adjutant. Nugent’s son, Charles, was Assistant Adjutant, whilst arguably the most important role in the leadership was taken up by Mr J. J. Hall. Hall, prominent in the Orange Order and the Unionist Club, took on the role of Quartermaster within the Battalion.

A Company Rathfriland, was town based and under the command of Joseph Trimble. B Coy consisted of Ardaragh, Emdale and Grallagh under R. J. Spiers, whilst C Coy was Hinchago and Ballynagapie under H. J. Moffat. Aughnavalley, Tierfergus, Tamery and Lisnamulligan were under James Watson as D Company, with Benraw, Finnis, Legananny and Leitrim E coy under John Bradford. F Company was Moneyslane, also including Ballyward and Ballymacrainey in the charge of Rev G. O. Richardson, and G Company was Closkelt and Katesbridge under Paxton Wallace. Finally H Company was based in Ballyroney and under the leadership of John Dalzell. From December 1913 the Battalion would be active on a weekly basis, eventually peaking at a membership of 1170 men.

A specific type of event that tends to give a mark toward the efficiency and level of organisation of a particular Battalion of the Volunteers during the period was the ‘Camp of Instruction’. They illustrated the depth of commitment and determination of Battalion Commanders to ensure their units were fully prepared if serious military operations were required in the future. There tended to be tremendous financial burdens on the Commander himself from such camps, while individual sacrifice and contributions from each Company were also required. From the 1st to the 6th June 1914 Major Arthur Nugent facilitated such a camp in the expansive grounds of his own home at Killowen near Rostrevor, Ballyedmond Castle. Almost 200 men from the 3rd Battalion attended for the full week, housed in between 40 to 50 tents. The daily regime consisted of morning drill, field operations, skirmishing and company column work. The evening time saw lectures given by the County Chief Instructor Sergeant Major Fredlington, with such subjects as military ethics covered. The Sergeant Major was in fact superintendant of all the military instruction during the week.

By late June the entire Battalion was regarded as being fully equipped in terms of armbands, caps, belts, haversacks, bandoliers and putties, and there was an expectation that actual proper uniforms were not far away. The same period also had a Nursing Corps, Ambulance Corps, Transport Corps and Signallers with full paraphernalia, while a hospital facility in Rathfriland was recorded as being fully operational in just a few short days. Activity was continuing for the local Volunteers, normal drills and manoeuvres broken up occasionally by more social affairs. The last Wednesday in June saw a variety concert in Rathfriland Presbyterian Church Hall in aid of Battalion funds, with a long programme of performers. Some interesting contributions included ‘Stand to attention Ulster!’ written and performed by Rev Harpur, and a piano duet of ‘The Fairy Queen’ by Miss E and M Nugent, the daughters of the Battalion Commander.

The last significant gathering of the Rathfriland Volunteers took place after 28th July 1914, the outbreak of what would become known as the Great War. The June and July months had seen a significant upsurge in activity and growing professionalism of the Ulster Volunteers, with the sense of impending crisis and almost inevitable civil war, coupled with the rise of the Irish Volunteers, undoubtedly proving the major motivation. One significant feature of this increased militarisation was the numbers of Volunteer units across Ulster assuming the traditional military practise of the adoption of their own colours. The pattern tended to be that colours for a Regiment or Battalion would be donated by the wives of local gentry, then presented and dedicated to the particular unit at an elaborate military style gathering, with large numbers of Volunteers present watched by massive crowds of locals. The colour presentation of the 3rd South Down Battalion would appear to have been an almost rushed affair, a Thursday afternoon being chosen, possibly hastened by the outbreak of war. During the period the use of a normal working day for a gathering of Volunteers in large numbers, or indeed any other type or style of non- work related event, was an immense rarity. On what was an incredibly hot afternoon on the 20th August 1914 however, the 3rd Battalion of the South Down Regiment of the Ulster Volunteer Force were presented with colours. It appears to have been the last occasion of its type in Ulster.

The presentation took place in Rathfriland itself, in a field adjacent to the town on the Banbridge Road, again suggesting hasty arrangement given that major mobilisations of the Battalion had only previously taken place at Ballyroney and to a lesser extent Ballyedmond. The Newry Reporter said of the occasion that ‘the day was observed as a general holiday by the entire country practically, and farming operations were practically suspended’. Even more romantically it went on to paint the picture that ‘From early morning men trooped to drill halls, sturdy sons of the soil, farmers with plenty at stake, not a stripling in the ranks’, and that ‘The rollicking hillocks of County Down spread themselves out for miles from the field, and here and there fields of corn could be seen, their golden glory half shorn, but for that day the reapers stood horseless and motionless, for the workers had turned the plough to the rifle’. The paper records over 600 men of the over 900 strong Battalion in attendance, a small but noteworthy percentage given it was a normal working day for the vast majority. The importance of the entire spectacle was emphasised by the attendance of General Sir George Richardson, general office in command of the U.V.F.

Shortly after the proceedings opened with the singing of the traditional ‘Orange’ hymn, ‘O God our help in ages past’, there closely followed prayer, scripture and prayer delivered from ministers of the different Protestant denominations. A Regimental and a Kings colour were then presented by the Moderator of the Presbyterian Church, Rev Dr Bingham, to two prominent Volunteers who knelt to receive them. On presentation the Rev Bingham placed his hands on the colours and stated ‘We now in the name of Almighty God, Father, Son and Holy Ghost, dedicate these flags to the use of the Ulster Volunteer Force, for the protection of the rights of Ulster, for the maintenance of the integrity and liberty of the British Empire, for the authority of our Sovereign Lord the King, and for the glory of Almighty God.’ The occasion was also used to make a presentation to Battalion Commander Arthur Nugent, who received a sword, equipment and an ‘illuminated’ address, all of which had been paid for via subscription from the Volunteers. In a short address by his second in command Rev Richardson glowing praise was given for Major Nugent in his dedication and contribution to the Battalion. The conclusion of the day was marked by the short parade of troops into Rathfriland town, where after an hour break they then made their way to their local drill centres.

By the start of September focus was already switching primarily to the War effort, and on 8th September the Newry Reporter was stating that it was understood that a large percentage of the Rathfriland Battalion were going to join the new Ulster Division of Kitcheners Army. The officers of the 3rd Battalion were directly involved in recruiting from the Volunteers, with each individual unit visited by Major Nugent and Quartermaster Hall from the 4th to the 10th of the month. On Tuesday the 22nd September a contingent of Volunteers from Rathfriland and Ballyroney made the journey to Belfast to take their medical examinations for enlistment, and that Thursday they left for Clandeboye Camp to begin their training with the 13th Battalion Royal Irish Rifles.

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