Lying on the River Bann, the town of Banbridge is one of the largest in County Down, taking its name from the bridge built in 1712. Its position in staunchly Unionist West County Down made it inevitable that it would play a strong role in the campaign against Home Rule.
Banbridge owed its growth to the linen trade. Aided by its prime position between Dublin and Belfast, it became one of the main stopping points for travellers and traders alike. It was in fact for a time the primary linen production area in all of Ireland, in 1772 boasting 26 bleach greens, large stretches of grass alongside the Bann River where linen was laid to bleach it in the sun Its distinctive and unique ‘cut’, officially known as Downshire Bridge, an underpass through the town centre, was designed by famous Irish Engineer William Dargan. Built in 1834, the cut was deemed necessary because horse and cart found it difficult to traverse the towns steep hill.
With its largely Presbyterian and Church of Ireland population, it comes as no suprise that over the century’s the district provided several prominent Unionists. In turn its men where involved in each of the movements that mark landmark times in Irish history. In 1780 a corps of Irish Volunteers was raised under Captain James Law, while a Yeomanry Cavalry unit was formed in 1796 under Captain Richard Magenis. Banbridge was well represented in the famous South Down Militia, while during the 1800’s a recruiting station for the regular ’44th’ Regiment was based in the town.
This sound volunteering and military tradition ensured that upon the formation of the Ulster Volunteers, local men, and indeed women, joined in the movement against Home Rule in great numbers. In the initial stages of the Force’s organisation, the local representative on the County Down Ulster Volunteer Force County Committee was James McIlroy. A merchant in Rathfriland Street, primarily a baker, McIlroy was prominent in both local Unionism and the Orange Order.
At a very early point County Down was organised into four distinct Regiment’s of Volunteers, North, South, East and West. Its letter of designation ‘G’, it would eventually become the largest ‘County’ Division in the Ulster Volunteers outside Belfast, with over 11,000 men. West Down area initially was deemed to cover the districts of Waringstown, Gilford, Banbridge, Loughbrickland, Dromore, Hillsborough, Maralin and Moira; and in official returns on 7th October 1913 numbers 1995 Volunteers. Dromore and Hillsborough however were later placed into the East Down Regiment.
The finalised West Down Regiment consisted of two Battalions under the supreme command of Captain Holt Waring D.L., with the men of Banbridge and district forming its 1st Battalion The Battalion commander was Samuel Fenton MBE, JP. Originally born in Cornwall, although with staunch Ulster ancestry, Fenton was a relatively recent addition to the local community. Despite only moving into Seapatrick House in 1896, he quickly became a central figure in the West Down Unionist Association, of which he was treasurer, and the local Church of Ireland. He would eventually go on to become Worshipful Master of Banbridge District Orange Order and a leading organiser of the local Ulster Special Constabulary.
Fenton was in command of a Battalion consisting of seven Company’s, with designation’s A through to G. A, B and C Company’s were each raised in and in the vicinity of Banbridge Town itself. A Coy (based at Belmont) was under the leadership of William Kennedy, B Coy D. Smyth and C Coy N. Ferguson, President of Banbridge Unionist Club. Milltown and Seapatrick was D Company, under A. C. Davies. E Coy took in the areas of Drumnavaddy, Ballymoney, Magherally, Corbet and Ballynafern, also being under the Command of Battalion Commander Fenton. Loughbrickland and Glaskermore was F Company under S.C. Cupples, while G Coy was Donaghmore and Killysavin, its commander being A. Innes. The Battalion nursing Corps was within the charge of Mrs H. Ferguson, Mrs R. Usher Greer, Mrs W. Boyd and Miss Davies, its Ambulance Corp led by J. E. Finlay. The Signalling and Dispatch Corps in connection with the entire Regiment was in the control of Banbridge man J. Floyd, while the UVF Postal Office was based in Edenderry Cottage, Church Street under Post Mistress Mrs Norman Ferguson, wife of C Coy commander.
The Battalion was very active from early on in the formation of the UVF, and was notably fully equipped before many other parts of the Province. Its staple activities consisted of Church parades and services, drills, fundraising events and inspections. Arguably its finest moment was at one such inspection, when in September 1913 Edward Carson visited the Town. The town centre was thronged with thousands of people as the local UVF units paraded under the watch of Carson, along with contingents of the Orange Order. The ‘cut’ was bedecked with a large sign stating ‘No compromise, no surrender’. The Banbridge Orange was particularly central in the local UVF, and indeed Carson took the opportunity in his address that day to the crowds to mention the Order stating ‘No body of men has been more misrepresented in the past’, and that ‘ Nothing was more untrue than the statement, constantly made, that the Orange Order was kept alive for the purpose of propagating bigotry and resentment from those who differed from Orangemen in religion’. Carson also emphasised to the Banbridge Volunteers that they should begin to prepare and make sacrifices, as a very difficult period for all was approaching.
During the gun running of 24 April 1914 Banbridge played its role, the men of the 1st Battalion mobilising at their various company headquarters at 9pm. On the evening it mustered almost 700 men, each provided with rations for 24 hours, and began route marches and patrols right across the district. The three Banbridge Companies formed up in Church Square in the town at 11.30pm where they were addressed by Regimental Commander Captain Holt Waring. All Volunteers remained on duty until 5.30am, when they were officially dismissed. The men’s role had been to occupy and distract the local R.I.C. whilst the operations in Larne and Donaghadee took place. In all 16 vehicles had travelled from the district to transport arms and ammunition back for the Battalion.
By May 1914 the full strength of the West Down Regiment was recorded by the Chief Secretary Office, Judicial Division (intelligence notes) as numbering an incredible 2,230 Volunteers. Official UVF documents however note it as a more conservative 1415 men.
It was in May that the West Down Regiment had its largest, and last, full mobilisation. On the 23rd of the month both the 1st and 2nd Battalions gathered at Lenaderg, where they were presented with Regimental and Kings Colours. The display was noted as being ‘such that would have done credit to a Regiment of regulars’, and local papers recorded an attendance that consisted of no less than 1600 officers, non-commissioned officers and men of the Ulster Volunteer Force.
The wife of Regimental Commander Holt Waring presented the Colours, with those of the 1st Battalion received by W.H. Smith and T.S. Ferguson. The flags were donated by Mrs Holt Waring and the ‘women of West Down’. The colours were silk, with the regimental colour on ‘royal purple’, and finished with elaborate coloured silk embroidery. Mrs Holt Waring upon presenting the colours stated to the men ‘ On behalf of the ladies of West Down and on my own behalf I present these colours to you. It is a great privilege to take part in this historic ceremony, and I hand these colours to you feelings sure that you will never forget your responsibilities as Ulster Volunteers. I know that you will always guard and cherish your colours as sacred emblems of loyalty to our King and the British Empire.’
Among those in attendance at the ceremony included the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church Rev Macauley and the Archdeacon of Dromore Atkinson. The Ulster Volunteer Force Chief of Staff Lieutenant General Sire George Richardson KCB and Chief Staff Officer Colonel Hacket Pain were both at the proceedings, and received a general salute from the ranks. Sir George Richardson stated to the Volunteers on review that ‘I am confident that the 1st and 2nd West Down Battalions of the West Down Regiment will treasure and cherish their colours and never fail to rally round them on the call of duty’. At the closing of the ceremony the colours were given an armed escort back to their respective Battalions.
Within a few short days of the ceremony the Banbridge Chronicle Newspaper was offering postcards of the Presentation of Colours for sale at its local offices.
As 1914 progressed, tensions were rising in the Banbridge area as they were right across Ireland. Several units of Irish National Volunteers were formed in the district, however it is a mark of the discipline of the both numerically and by armaments superior UVF that no serious incidents occurred. Even as late as August, local Volunteers were still drilling, with the towns three companies taking part in a large parade from Rathfriland Road, along Castlewellan Road and through the town centre before dismissing at Newry Street. The units are said to having being dressed in their caps, puttees, bandoliers and belts, and presenting a smart appearance.
That month the Banbridge Chronicle also recorded the funeral of a local Volunteer, Mr J. Mc Straw. So was the regret expressed at his death that Volunteers from the three local companies gathered at his home on Ferguson’s Row to show their respects. The coffin was draped in Union Jack, with 300 Volunteers formed behind into fours following with a ‘slow measured tread’. At the graveyard the three companies lined up and formed a square around the grave, with all standing to attention as the service was carried through.
Upon the outbreak of the First World War many Volunteers immediately enlisted. Upon the announcement that the Volunteers would be providing a Division, it was awaited locally with interest for the local formation. The 13th (Service) Battalion of the Royal Irish Rifles (1st County Down Volunteers) was formed in September 1914, and became part of the 108th Brigade of the 36th Ulster Division. Banbridge men largely formed the Battalions ‘D’ Company, along with others from the Kilkeel, Newry and Rathfriland areas.
On the 1st July 1916 the 36th Ulster Division lost over 5000 men on the battlefields of the Somme. The largest loss for the entire division was with the 13th Battalion Royal Irish Rifles. On that one fateful day 594 men were reported as casualties.