In 1886 the muster roll of an Orange anti- Home Rule Army was released to newspapers across the British Isles and Empire. The exercise was largely a paper one with the purpose no doubt primarily to pressurise the Government, but the roll was still impressive. Based on forms issued to Orange lodges across Ireland, the army was divided into Divisions, Brigades, Regiments and Companies. What is most notable from the roll however was its 4th Division. Within it three Dublin Battalions were listed, along with Regiments and cavalry troops from Wicklow, Cork, Sligo and Kings County; totalling almost 4,000 men. From the first mention of Home Rule there was a significant Unionist presence in the South of Ireland willing to go further than politics.
The events of the Third Home Rule Crisis are now largely in the public domain. With the proceedings in Ulster largely taking precedence in terms of the news sheets, challenged only by the emergence of the Irish Volunteers on the rest of the island, one of the most often ignored parties to the dispute are the Southern Irish Unionists. That is, the men and women of the Provinces of Connacht, Munster and Leinster who despite being in an infinitesimal minority in many areas, still were raising their head above the parapets to argue (and indeed preparing to fight) for the cause and case for union. Primarily Protestant, although not exclusively, this minority was the victim of relentless attack through the largely Irish Nationalist Southern media. What is notable however is that despite these attacks, and the real physical threats apparent, there were still those willing to speak out.
The Unionist Club movement started in 1893 by Lord Templeton was mostly inactive by 1910, but found a new lease of life with the advent of the Third Home Rule Bill. From 1910 to 1914 Clubs formed continually, eventually reaching a peak of over 330. These were not just an Ulster centred phenomena. Almost every part of Ireland from the still significantly Protestant areas of South Dublin and Cork, to the always Protestant ‘starved’ counties of Connacht, could boast a Unionist movement to greater or lesser degrees.
Like their Ulster counterparts, the southern women Unionists were arguably more active than their male counterparts. A meeting of the South Kildare Branch of the Women’s Unionist Association on Friday the 2nd February 1912 took place at Barretstown Castle under the charge of its President Lady Borrowes. There they were told of the importance of reaching out to English and Scottish voters to tell them of the ‘truths’ behind Home Rule’. Just a month later, a new female branch of the Irish Unionist Alliance was formed in Limerick.
The men too were working away. Also in February 1912 the Greville Arms Hotel in Mullingar West Meath hosted a meeting for the purpose of forming a Unionist Club. In a letter of apology of non attendance, Lord Longford, already a patron of the Southern Unionist Clubs, told those present that the movement ‘enabled the scattered Unionists of the Southern Provinces to hold together, to express their opinions, and to carry on their lawful business without molestation’. Those attending passed a resolution to form a Club on the night. In April Munster Unionists met in Cork under the auspices of the County and City of Cork Unionist Association. Lord Bandon told those assembled that this was now the third anti-Home Rule meeting he has presided over since 1886 and that opposition was till the same. Viscount Midleton took it a step further stating that ‘the minority of Munster was determined, whatever came, not to acquiesce in the inequality, the injustice, the degradation which the measure sought to impose on them’.
In terms of Southern Unionists mimicking the progress of the Ulster Volunteer Force, the most documented area where activity took place was Dublin. There the Loyal Dublin Volunteers were formed essentially as a U.V.F. reserve force, had 2000 men, and had both uniforms and a significant quantity of arms. Probably the most unlikely centre of militant Unionist activity was within the Province of Connacht. Despite being the least Protestant Province, in 1914 only 4% were of a Protestant identity, Connacht like elsewhere still had several areas where the population was concentrated, namely Sligo Town and South Leitrim. At almost 15% Protestant in Sligo Borough (10% Sligo County) Sligo Town Unionism was relatively populous in relation to the rest of the Province. Both male and female branches of the Irish Unionist Alliance were in place by 1912, with the male branch boasting an impressive 331 members under the president-ship of P. Percival of Hazelwood. There also was a very active Orange Lodge in the town in the shape of Star of Connacht LOL 464. In 1913 Sligo could also boast another Connacht rarity, namely a Unionist Councillor in the form of Robert Smyllie. Several prominent Southern Unionists hailed from the greater Sligo area, namely Major Bryan Cooper and Colonel William George Wood-Martin, with Cooper in particular a regular speaker on the anti- Home Rule meeting circuit in Ireland.
First signs of Unionist militancy in Sligo and a willingness to express it came in 1912. Around 100 Sligo Unionists travelled to the mass Easter Tuesday demonstration at Balmoral, making their way to the rally via Portadown where they spent the Monday night as the guests of Portadown Unionists. Led by the Sligo United YMCA Brass and Reed Band and under the leadership of Colonel Wood-Martin, the group walked in Balmoral in military fashion with a banner at the front proclaiming ‘The West’s Awake- The Sligo contingent’. A six verse poem commemorating the Sligo men’s trip later appeared in both local Sligo newspapers, with the title ‘Ulster’s Call. Sligo’s Reply’. The Sligo Champion of 11th May 1912 featured an article headed ‘Gideon’s Litte Band’, the Sligo Orangemen:-
Ulster’s Call. Sligo’s Reply.
When Ulster sent her war cry forth we heard it in the West
And then the gallant Colonel put our heroes to the test.
“Fall in”, he cried “And follow me, for the Union and the Crown”,
And he led the Sligo Orangemen that day to Portadown.
The welcome that they there received shall never be forgot,
The Colonel smiled and proudly said “Ye’re heroes, all the lot”
They struck up “The Boyne Water” with “No Surrender” last—
“Present Arms” was the order and the Connaughtmen marched past.
A splendid set of men they were when headed by their band,
The Colonel looked a hero and one born to command;
And the spirit that these heroes showed for ever may it last
“The West’s Awake,” the banner bore when marching through Belfast.
And the sight—it was a splendid one when the Sligo’s they marched by
One hundred strong, determined men Home Rule Bill defy
And if the call should come again the Sligo men will join
To meet John Redmond and his gang across the River Boyne.
Old 464 long may she live, and her memory never fade
For long she kept in slumber and her sons of the Old Brigade
But Wood-Martin, gallant Colonel, when once he took command
He brought us forth and proudly led Gideon’s little band.
So, now, here’s luck to Captain Craig, and likewise Bonar Law,
And we’ll not forget Sir Edward—he’s a credit to them a’;
With the fighting Colonel Wallace our forces we will join,
And hold what’s dear to all of us—the Victory of the Boyne.
Composed by L.O.L., 464.
Little physical evidence remains of Sligo Unionists drilling in 1913 and early 1914, however IRA Volunteer Eugene Gilbride stated in an interview in the 1950’s that there was an ‘Ulster Volunteer Branch in Sligo’ and that the IRA believed they had arms. A report from a special correspondent in the Irish Times stated that there were ‘about 2000’ Unionist Volunteers in Sligo, ‘similar to that in Cavan’. Without doubt the claim was vastly exaggerating, but it does suggest some organisation was in place. There was also documented gun running to Derry City U.V.F. units through Sligo from as early as 1913, an exercise it would be difficult to imagine possible without some local help.
The outbreak of War brought a development that while strange, also suggests concrete Unionist quasi-military organisation was already in place in the area. In late July when John Redmond offered the services of the Irish Volunteers to defend Ireland jointly with the Ulster Volunteers in the event of Warm, Major Bryan Cooper made the startling pronouncement of urging every Unionist to join the Irish Volunteers. Almost immediately the Sligo Independent Newspaper reported that a Corps of Volunteer Unionists was active with 70 members, then in February 1915 reported that it had decided to drill twice a week.
The Sligo Loyal Volunteers as they were called appear to have ceased to exist by May 1915, when the Independent revealed that half of its members had ‘joined the colours’. The existence of a Sligo anti- Home Rule corps was further underlined in December 1921. Work was being carried out to a former Protestant school building that had belonged to St John’s Church of Ireland, when arms and ammunition were discovered by workmen. It was acknowledged that the arms dump had been the property of the Sligo ‘Ulster Volunteers’.
While the existence of a Sligo Unionist Volunteer corps requires an element of conjecture, no such element is needed when referring to the Ulster Volunteer Force of Leitrim. Despite no locally sympathetic press, Cavan Nationalist newspaper the Anglo-Celt does report on the activity of the men on several occasions. In December 1913 a drill took place at Castlehamilton in Cavan involving the Leitrim men, including sections from Killegar and Portlongfield. Both places were then, and still are, the ‘homes’ of Orange lodges. The County Inspector of the Royal Irish Constabulary for Leitrim also mentioned the men in his monthly reports. In January 1914 he noted that four branches of the U.V.F. in Leitrim had been inspected. The Leitrim inspection took place at Killegar House, the seat of Lord Kilbracken near the County Cavan Border. The men were inspected by Lord Farnham with the districts noted on show being those that straddled the Leitrim Cavan Border, including Killegar, Portlongfield, Macken and Derrylane. Other inspections of the Leitrim Volunteers took place at various Orange demonstrations in Cavan right through the Home Rule Crisis.
Another unlikely home for ‘Ulster Volunteers’ during the period was County Louth. There is some circumstantial evidence in the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland that Louth men actually requested to become a part of the County Armagh Regiment of the U.V.F., an appeal turned down by Armagh Commander Stuart Blacker, but other activity undoubtedly existed. Omeath had an active Orange Lodge at the time and local Ulster Volunteers are recorded as attending manoeuvres in South Down across Carlingford Lough several times. Deep in the south of the County, the hamlet of Collon near Drogheda had at least 28 enrolled Ulster Volunteers. An interesting side point on the Collon experience is that the Great War roll of honour of the local Church of Ireland records in its number V.C. winner Collon born Samuel Emerson. Emerson enrolled and served with the 9th Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers (Tyrone Volunteers), accepted as being the home for a large contingent of Southern Unionist Volunteers (particularly from Dublin), and as such it is highly possible he was part of the local UVF Corps.
Strong circumstantial evidence exists to indicate that there were similar corps elsewhere across the Southern Counties as well. Mentions are made in the press of both a Loyal Wicklow Volunteers (Wicklow was 21% Protestants making it the most Protestant County outside Ulster bar Dublin) and a Loyal Cork Volunteers (Cork City was 11.56% Protestant). Cork Orangemen in 1914 stated unambiguously that they were willing to stand beside the Ulster Volunteer ‘Brethren’, and a strong Irish Unionist Alliance input into the formation of a Voluntary Training Corps also suggest an element of cross over from an existing body.
The nature of these militant bodies of units across Ireland in terms of their minority status and fears of boycott and repercussions for their actions, combined with the mass exodus of Protestants from the Free State in the coming decades, has meant that relatively little information remains on their activities in the public domain. What survives however shows the depth of feeling that the maintenance of Union provoked. Southern Protestants and Unionists believed in their cause. A belief that manifested itself in preparation to fight.