Mourne men’s stand for Union

In 1886 a full muster roll was released to the media detailing the organisation of an Orange Army that would be mobilised in the event that Home Rule was imposed on Ireland. The comprehensive plan outlined a massive corps of men divided into Divisions, Brigades, Regiments and Companies, with its infantry complimented by its own Cavalry, Artillery, Engineer and Rifle sections. Within its number the Second ‘South-East Ulster’ Division, Third Brigade contained the Mourne Regiment of Infantry. An 8 company strong unit with a 410 man ‘Army of action’ and a further 299 man ‘Army of Reserve’. The Orange Army of 1886 never required mobilisation, however the roll illustrated very clearly that from the very outset of the proposal for Home Rule, the Unionists of Mourne were adamant that they would oppose it. And if it was necessary, oppose it by force of arms.

Image10After the advent of the second Home Rule Bill the pattern was replicated. In 1893 the first ever mass anti- Home Rule organisation, the Ulster Defence Union, had four Kilkeel representatives within its 600 man Central Assembly. The Rev. Canon Dudgeon, M.A., Kilhorne Rectory, Kilkeel; John Quin-Henry, J.P., Mourne Abbey, Kilkeel; Alex. Gordon, J.P., Kilkeel; and John Annett, Kilkeel; each ensured that the men from the Kingdom of Mourne’s voices on the Governing of Ireland would be heard. Each helped guarantee that once again Home Rule was crushed.

By the Third Home Rule Bill the strength of feeling in Kilkeel against Home Rule had not subsided. In the run up to the Ulster Covenant campaign, hundreds of Mourne men joined in a pre Covenant Rally at Ballyroney near Rathfriland, a demonstration that was presided over by one of their very own, the Earl of Kilmorey. The mass demonstration was attended by 15 Mourne District Orange Lodges and the Kilkeel Unionist Club.

Image1At this stage military drill was already an integral part of life for the Kilkeel Unionists. The evening prior to the demonstration the Kilkeel Unionist Club had taken part in a route march. Under the charge of Club President Forsyth, the men marched to Mourne Park where they were welcomed by the Earl and then inspected by Colonel Needham, his eldest son and heir. In an address to the men Ronald McNeill M.P. told them very firmly that they were not out for amusement and of his certainly that ‘the men of Mourne would do their duty when the time came’.

Come Ulster Day the Newry Reporter recorded that the ‘ancient and loyal Kingdom of Mourne’ enthusiastically observed the occasion. 1038 men in the Kilkeel District signed the Solemn League and Covenant with 1076 women signing the declaration; the venues included Mourne Lecture Hall, the Parish Church, Ballymageough Orange Hall, Glenloughlan Orange Hall and Ballinran Orange Hall. A day of parades and services came to an end at 7.30pm, with the largest show of the day and one that gave a signal of more that was to come in the near future. 300 men of the Kilkeel Unionist Club formed ranks into three Companies in the square, with No. 1 Coy under W. T. McKnight, No. 2 Coy under President R. Forsyth and No. 3. Coy under Club Secretary W. J. Annett. The entire unit went though various military evolutions before parading though the town headed by the Ballymageough Band.

When in December 1912 the Ulster Volunteer Force was formed and an organising committee appointed, already in Kilkeel the nucleus for a local corps of Volunteers was in existence and at an advanced stage of military training. That training continued in the early months of 1913 under the auspices of the local Unionist Club. At its March AGM Lord Newry stated unambiguously that Kilkeel was looked upon as one of the strongest centres of unionism in Ulster, while reporting on the meeting the Newry Reporter went further in an editorial saying that ‘to say that drilling has been indulged in is a mild statement of fact’.

Image2The transition of military activity taking place within the Kilkeel Unionist Club, to being the sole remit of the Ulster Volunteer Force was slow in South Down, but by September 1913 it appears to have been complete. On September 17th Carson opened a tour of Volunteer inspections with a double header of engagements, the first being Kilkeel. The Volunteers led a procession to Mourne Park, with the Kilkeel men once again under the command of R. Forsyth; other local units were also on show followed closely by both the districts Orangemen and Unionist Club members. All the Volunteers were referenced to being underneath the overall command of Captain Roger Hall of narrow Water Castle. At the park the Volunteers were inspected by Edward Carson. A detailed and picturesque report of the proceedings was painted in the Northern Whig, referring to the rally as being the ‘first shot in South Down’, the opening fire in the war against Home Rule.

The full structure of the local Volunteers was not yet finalised, as shown by the first official returns for the local Ulster Volunteer Force sent to H.Q. in the Old Town Hall Belfast on the 7th October 1913. Underneath the South Division, Kilkeel District was divided into eight separate localities, Kilkeel Town, Ballinran, Derryvogue, Brackney, Cranfield, Maghereagh, Ballymagough and Glenloughan. The district in total returned a total of 352 men.

Image6Within just a few months a full military structure was formalised for County Down, with Regiments constituted for North, West, East and South Down. The South Down Regiment initially consisted of three Battalions. The 1st Battalion covered the Newcastle area (incorporating Annalong and Ballymartin) and the 3rd Battalion the Rathfriland district. Kilkeel and its hinterland were a part of the 2nd Battalion. Under the command of Captain Roger Hall of Narrow Water Castle, the 2nd Battalion also consisted of Companies based in Newry, Altnaveigh, Creeve, Sheepbridge, Mayobridge, Warrenpoint and Rostrevor. Initially the entirety of the Kilkeel Volunteers composed one single Company in the Battalion, I Coy. By April 1914 it had been divided into four different Companies better reflecting its numbers, L, M, N and O Coys.

Nominal commanding officer for this ‘half Battalion’ was unsurprisingly the Viscount Newry and Mourne- the Earl of Kilmorey. By 1914 the Viscount was 72 years of age, and his son the 4th Earl of Kilmorey regularly took on the command and duty of inspecting the various units. The young Earl had risen to the rank of Captain in the 1st Life Guards during a short military career before resigning his commission in 1911. In the most detailed list of the bodies’ officers, as detailed at a parade and service at Mourne Presbyterian Church on June 14th 1914, No. 1 Company Kilkeel O.C. was E. McGringle, with half company commanders Jack Moore and Thomas Graham. Kilkeel No. 2 Company was under the charge of S. Beck and Half Coy Commanders J. Crutchley and T. Beck. Kilkeel No. 3 Company Commander was William J. Hanna and G. Sloan and H. McKee half company commanders. Kilkeel No. 4 Company was a mounted unit under James Beck. Ballinran Company Commander was R. Forysth and Mourne Park Company Commander was William Morrison. The Kilkeel Nursing Corps was under The Countess of Kilmorey, Battalion Surgeon was Dr Evans, and the Signallers under Jack Moore.

Image4The Kilkeel Ulster Signalling and Dispatch Riding Corps are recorded as being one of the most efficient in the entire Force. It was made up of 19 members, which included four riders and fifteen signallers, seven of whom were women. Lily MacIntosh, Carrie Sloan, Sarah Beck, May Coffee, Helen Irvine, Winifred Quinn and Jeannie Grills were all well educated single young women from staunch Kilkeel Unionist families. Jeannie Grills brother George was a dispatch rider, while Lily MacIntosh’s brother Harry was also a signaller. The lady signallers were particularly proficient, practising regularly from the high parts of the Mourne Hills, sending messages by flag, lamp or Morse to the Harbour Road. The unit were the winners of a competition in signalling covering the entirety of South Down.

From December 1913 engagements by the Kilkeel Volunteers were regularly being reported in the pages of the County Down Newspapers. Not surprisingly given the travel distances involved, the Mourne men joined en mass with the rest of the 2nd Battalion on only a few occasions. The largest took place in April 1914, where a field day took place at the Narrow Water Castle home of Captain Roger Hall. On this occasion the Mourne Companies arrived at the ground via the Motor Car Corps of the 2nd Battalion South Down Regiment, and were recorded as being fully equipped with bandoliers, haversacks and belts. Various military drills and manoeuvres were gone through prior to a mock battle exercise based around the premise that an invading army had landed at Greenore. Mourne was recorded as being I Coy for this exercise.

Some other large events the local Force participated in where a service at Warrenpoint Presbyterian Church in early May, where other areas represented included Warrenpoint, Rostrevor and Omeath. The Sermon was preached by the Rev Aston Robinson B.A. Kilkeel.

In July the Kilkeel Horse paraded at Mourne Abbey under Commander J. Beck and troop leaders S. L. Gordon and William Edgar. The officers of the corps wore their new uniforms and carried side arms. Just a few weeks later the mounted corps was said to be 53 men and mounts strong.

The military goals of the Ulster Volunteers are often down played by academics, however there is much evidence to show that there was a concerted effort to reach high levels of military expertise in many areas. One such occasion took place in Mourne Park in July 1914. Here elaborate mock warfare was carried out involving all of the Half Battalions different units.

In terms of weaponry there is no doubt that given the amount of fishermen involved in the local Volunteers, and with the proximity of several ports, weapons were indeed smuggled in for the local men during the third Home Rule crisis. Little concrete evidence survives, but there are several documented cases of weapons for Unionists coming into nearby Greenore, where it is also believed a shipment of Maxim guns for the U.V.F. were brought. For the most notable Gun Running, the coup of April 1914, the local men played an integral part. In a report outlining the mobilisation of 2nd Battalion men on the night of the Gun Running operation, 233 men of L, M, N and O companies were inspected at 4.10am on 25th April at Kilkeel and Mourne Park. By mid- July all of the local Companies had been recorded as marching fully armed.

The largest gathering for the Kilkeel Force took place on Monday 3rd August 1914. At Mourne Park a mass rally was held to present the left half of the 2nd Battalion South Down Regiment with a Kings Colour. Captain James Craig M.P was in attendance as was Battalion Commander Roger Hall. The Lord Bishop of Down and Connor dedicated the colours saying ‘I dedicate these colours to the glory of God and for the service of King and Country, in the name of the Fathers, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen’. Lady Kilmorey passed the flag to the Volunteers, with a short address. ‘I am proud to present to you this day this flag, which stands for freedom and loyalty to our king. Into your hands and safe keeping I give it, knowing you are to be trusted. Let the knowledge that you are part of the greatest empire in the world give weight to your right arms and firmness to your hearts’. By now a further infantry Company was in place, No. 4 Kilkeel Coy under the command of William White. The previous No. 4 Coy now just referred to as a ‘Cavalry’ Company. The Mourne Companies Kings Colour was the only flag to be presented to the 2nd Battalion South Down Regiment.


For reasons not altogether clear, on the 15th August 1914 UVF Order 97 assigned the ‘Mourne Half Battalion’ of the 2nd Battalion South Down Regiment U.V.F., as being a stand alone Battalion in its own right. Geographically the formation always made sense, although perhaps had always been postponed because of the relatively low numbers in the area in relation to desired battalion strength. For whatever reason however the 4th Battalion of the South Down Regiment was the last unit of the UVF to be formed. The last official returns for the Volunteers listed the new Battalion as being under the command of the Earl of Kilmorey and of having 484 Volunteers within its ranks.

By this stage the Great War was already underway and thoughts across Ulster were beginning to turn away from the evils of Home Rule toward the evils of Germany and its Allies. Many men from Kilkeel enlisted immediately upon its outbreak, though for the majority of local Volunteers the unit in which they would eventually enlist was D Company of the 13th Battalion Royal Irish Rifles. For many Kilkeel families the horrors experienced on the Somme on 1st July 1916 would be felt at first hand.


Article Copyright Quincey Dougan 2013
Not to be copied or reproduced without permission



  1. Excellent piece – an account that must not be lost and hopefully an encouragement to folk throughout Ulster to research their own forebears activities

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