The mid-Ulster town of Cookstown boasts the longest main street in Ireland, coming in at 1.25 miles. What is less well known is that its entire length was traversed many dozens of times by hundreds of men during what has now came to be known as the Home Rule Crisis. For more than two years the local units of the Ulster Volunteer Force carried out extensive drills and route marches along is length.
At the East Belfast Craigavon demonstration in September 1911, long before the Ulster Covenant had been formulated, it was remarked that the majority of men held themselves in a manner suggesting they had been undergoing training in drill. It was specifically noted by Inspector Edward Pearson of the Crime Special Branch, that those groups of Orangemen and Unionist Club members from County Tyrone displayed particularly good skills. Right across County Tyrone Unionists and loyalists were a step further ahead than many of their Country men elsewhere. A report in February 1912 entitled ‘Confidential-Drilling in Ulster’ from the Deputy Inspector General of the Royal Irish Constabulary, stated that they believed that in County Tyrone 1,399 men were drilling in 29 different locations. They were already preparing for a physical force action as an answer to the imposition of Home Rule. Cookstown was at the centre of the preparations.
On the 28th September 1912 the First Presbyterian Church in the town heard the Reverend Maybin speak on the 2nd Corinthians text stating ‘God, who delivered us’. Covenant Day services across the district were packed to capacity, and by the close of proceedings almost 2,200 locals had signed the famous Covenant and Declaration documents. The Ulster Volunteer movement by then was already in its early stages, from this date on however it’s development picked up remarkable pace and extraordinary growth.
The Ulster Volunteer Force Organising County Committee for Tyrone as registered on 20th December 1912 consisted of 25 men at the pinnacle of local commerce, the legal profession and the landed gentry. Their number included J.B. Gunning Moore D.L. from Coolnafranky Cookstown, and most noticeably Thomas MacGregor Greer J.P. , a man who would eventually come to take charge of the entire 9,000 men strong Tyrone Regiment of the Ulster Volunteers, while also being Commanding Officer of his local Battalion, Cookstown.
MacGregor Greer was not a Cookstown native. Born in 1869, he only moved to the area in 1892 from his family homestead near Carrickfergus, but he very quickly made it his adopted home and more importantly, locals quickly took to him and accepted him as one of their own. With an Eton and Cambridge education, MacGregor Greer was an intelligent man, one with remarkable abilities to motivate and inspire individuals, and also one able to ‘think around the box’ and embrace new ideas and concepts . Among his claims to fame in later life would be his backing of Harry Ferguson of tractor renown, who spent much time at the Greer home at Tullylagan. He became one of Ferguson’s major financial backers to set him on his way, and also became the first person to own the Ferguson tractor and plough in 1937. It is perhaps this foresight that ensured MacGregor Greer would make the Volunteers of Cookstown one of the most well organised and efficient in the entire Force.
By August 1913 the County was organised into four Divisions; South, East, Mid and North, with a membership of 4,762. Cookstown area was incorporated into the East Division, along with the Dungannon area, and lists 641 returned within units across the Cookstown and Stewartstown areas. In September 1913 however the Chief Secretary Office of the Judicial Division Intelligence estimated the Cookstown area as boasting 1,345 Volunteers. It was these units that were reviewed by Edward Carson himself on the 1st October 1913.
Massive crowds turned out for Carson’s appearance in Cookstown, all the more impressive given that it was a Wednesday morning. The schedule included squad drill competitions at 10.30am with 19 squads participating, before Carson and his accompanying party made their way through Cookstown at 11.45am, arriving in Killymoon at 1pm. There a full inspection of the men took place, the public were not admitted because it was ‘a military review’, and presentation of medals to the winning squads before the main addresses began. Carson began his speech to the Cookstown men with the words ‘Men of the Ulster Volunteers’, going on to explain that he had done so because he had ‘given up on addressing political audiences, and wanted to speak only to those who were prepared to fight’. The time had come, he said, when the men upon whom must be relied upon were not those who cheered but those who drilled. His address included very clearly saying that there would be no conferences, or conciliation or meetings regarding the nonsense that was Home Rule.
By now the Tyrone Regiment was beginning to take what would be its final form under Commander MacGregor Greer. A full County Regiment divided into 5 distinctive Battalions was established, and the County organisation letter as appearing on lapel badges and other official communications was L. The Cookstown contingent of Volunteers composed the 5th Battalion.
At its peak the 5th Tyrone Battalion is recorded as having 1693 Volunteers, making it the fourth largest Battalion in the County Regiment. Along with MacGregor Greer, other prominent officers included 2nd in Command J. S. Crothers, Chief Instructor Lt Col Mayhew, Transport Officer Thomas Crawford and Medical Officer the ominously named Dr Graves. It consisted of 11 Companies, with designations running from A coy through to N Coy, Company titles I, J and K appearing to have been abandoned as organisational changes were made and the Battalion structure evolved. High standards of administration within the Battalion have helped to ensure a wide range of surviving records, and full Battalion configuration can be pieced together with reasonable accuracy. A Coy, the Cookstown town Company, was the largest in the Battalion, with 472 men broken up into seven sections under the charge of prominent Cookstown Unionist John Byres. Byres was also Battalion Adjutant and considered third in command of the entire Battalion. Half company Commander was W.J. Lowry from Oldtown. Tullylagan was B Company and was under the leadership of Thomas Hagan of Tullyard House, a total of 163 men being under his command. The Drumnaglough contingent was C Company with O.C. William Leeper. Three sections were centred in Drumnaglough totalling 92 men, with a further two sections centred on Montober under the leadership of brother’s John and Ernest Henry and having 55 men. Stewartstown Company was D Coy, with highly distinguished leadership in the form of Viscount Charlemont. E Company was Tamlaghtmore, sometimes referred to as the Ardboe Company. Battalion 5th in command Thomas Greer was commander of its four sections and 126 men. Lissan Company was designated F Coy, the commander being Reverend Millington of Lissan Church of Ireland, who was 4th in command of the Battalion. Its four sections included 97 men based out of Lissan Rectory, and a further 38 men based at Ballybriest. Tullyhogue Company was formed into three sections. G Company as it was known had 101 volunteers under the command of William Weir and his vice Alvin Mullen, both with addresses at Tullyhogue itself. H Company was Coagh with 146 men under Hugh Duff, with L Coy Drumnacross and Magheraglass with 122 men under Richard Cluff of Kildress House. The smallest Company in the Battalion was M Coy Sherrygroom noted as having only 33 men, split into three sections including one based in Agharan. Finally N Company was Kingsmills, with drill centres at Kingsmills and Ardtrea, and a total of 126 men under the command of William Gardiner of Drumard. Gardiner had the distinction of being designated 13th and lowest in command of the entire Battalion in the event that all 12 of those adjudged his superior were unavailable. The Battalion Ulster Signalling and Dispatch Riding Corps are noted as having 39 members within the command of Hugh Ashcroft of Tullylagan. Robert Irwin of Tullylagan was O.C. of the Signallers and John McQueen O.C. of the Dispatch Riders. Scout leader J. Louis H. Adair address was given as the HMS Mesopotamia. The battalion had one post house in connection with the Ulster Signalling and Dispatch Riding Corps, based in 15 Union Street and under the charge of post mistress Miss Johnston.
In addition to its infantry Companies, the Battalion also had a 28 man and mount unit of Mounted Infantry based in Killymoon Castle under Mervyn Moutray.
By late 1913 the 5th Battalion was highly active, and boasted 5 instructors for its ranks who each had substantial ‘regular’ army experience. Route marches were the most common form of activity, however it is a mark of the military goals of the Battalion that by December several Companies were taking park in mock warfare. On Boxing Day 1913 an elaborate exercise involved several companies defending Augher Castle with a further five attempting to ‘take’ it. Much larger mobilisation’s also took place, including several large camps of instruction at Baronscourt, while one specific event on Wednesday 29th July 1914 is worthy of note. On this day the ’emergency corps’ of the 5th, 4th and 3rd Tyrone Battalions gathered at short notice at Parkanur, including several hundred from Cookstown. All those in attendance were fully equipped, including rifle, ammunition and rations.
During the early months of 1914 tensions in the East Tyrone area were rising and threatened to spill over into violence. Great anger was raised in the Unionist community in early April when a young girl was struck on the head with a stone, suffering a fractured skull, while on the way to a ball in an Orange Hall in Coagh. The first Volunteer casualty however came not through ‘party’ conflict or even via the outbreak of War. Easter Monday 1914 was a busy day for the Volunteer movement, with every area instructed to have manoeuvres. In Cookstown more mimic warfare was organised at Tullyard, Lissan, Ardtrea and Drumcairne. During the Tullyard events a young man named John Compston was injured when a rifle carried by his uncle discharged and he was struck by a wad from a blank cartridge. Early reports gave the injury as not being life threatening, however complications arose and he died on Saturday 18th April. John Compston was afforded a UVF funeral escort by his comrades. An inquest jury adjudged it an accidental death and placed no blame on anyone….
IN MEMORY OF JOHN COMPSTON OF THE ULSTER VOLUNTEERS
Snatched away in the morning of life. In thy sixteenth year. Ere thou hads’t share in the stress and the strife, O young Volunteer.
Cold. With the fatal wound at thy breast, Thou liest there. Why did death single thee out from the rest? Could he not spare.
The promise and bloom of thy boyhood to those. Who held thee so dear? Nay, ’tis a riddle too hard to propose; No solving it here.
Sunshine without, and the laughing of spring. And all things rejoice. Here death, the silent all conquering king; and Thou his choice.
Burial meet for our young Volunteer. Our first sacrifice. Courage has shown in his death, and good cheer; Let that suffice.
Tenderly, reverently grant him a place, in his County’s sod. Surely his spirit is now face to face. With the glory of God.
The same period saw the most successful and well organised operation of the Ulster Volunteers namely the Gun running, and the Cookstown Battalion played its part. On the evening of Friday the 24th April, the Cookstown Volunteers were instructed to mobilise by 10pm, and come fully equipped including rations. The men were formed up and given their orders for the evening. The bulk of the Volunteers were engaged in simply patrolling the Town, with various sections reaching out in every direction to meet with the country based units. The men were dismissed at 8am the following morning.
A very committed nursing corps existed in connected with the Battalion, under the charge of Mrs T. MacGregor Greer. In June a major exercise was carried out at Tullylagan, a base hospital location for the district, where field operations in connection with the corps took place. Under the direction of Miss Ruxton, an assistant County Director of the Red Cross; Tullylagan hospital was fully equipped with 8 beds, 12 more being available if required, an operating theatre, isolation ward, kitchen and reception. During the exercise 125 nurses of the Battalions corps attended, as well as a large number of female signallers.
The Cookstown Battalion also had the distinction of being the sole one of the five County Battalions that was presented its own colours. The presentation had been planned for several months, but actually didn’t take place until after the outbreak of War, at Killymoon on Thursday 10th September 1914. The Regimental colour had a design unique across the Force and was made with white silk. Along with Union Flag in top left corner, it also included the red hand, shamrock, thistle and rose. The flag centre piece was a harp and crown, surmounted by the Volunteer motto ‘For God and Ulster’. The colour was eventually laid up in Desertcreat Church of Ireland, of which O.C. Thomas MacGregor Greer was a committed parishioner and held the post of church warden for 25 years.
Upon the outbreak of the Great War, Cookstown men were to take their place within the new army. Several prominent local Volunteers were among those who enlisted including Lord Charlemont. The majority of local men joined the ranks of the 9th Battalion Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers. An incredible 468 casualties are recorded as coming from the wider Cookstown area during the Great War.