Lisburn’s fight against Home Rule

Another well turned out event looking at the Ulster Volunteers took place on 11th April 2013, this time at the Laganview Centre Lisburn. Over 60 people were in attendance to learn about the Ulster Volunteers and specifically the 1st Battalion South Antrim Regiment ‘Lisburn’. Knowing the history of our community and our ancestors is a neccesity to fully understand the context of our Country and where it is in 2013. The following is the full text of the portion of the evening devoted to the Lisburn area……


Known as Lisnagarvy until the late 1600’s, the City of Lisburn has a rich and colourful history. Its largely planter population was able to repel the attacks of the Gaelic Irish during the 1641 Rebellion, and during the next 300 years it would become synonymous with both Irish Unionism and Protestantism. After the Act of Union 1801 the population very rapidly came to embrace its new relationship with England, its location in the Lagan Valley ensuring that it was able to capitalise on rapidly growing industrialisation. Its success as the origin and centre of the Irish Linen industry further cemented the local relationship between religion and union, given that it was the French Huguenot Protestant refugees to the area who were instrumental in establishing the trade.

For these reasons by the onset of the First Home Rule Bill in 1886 the population of Lisburn was firmly entrenched in the Unionist camp, indeed Irish Unionist William McCartney ran unopposed in the South Antrim Constituency Parliamentary election of that year and the subsequent two elections. In 1893 after the Second Home Rule Bill wide scale mobilisation took place with the formation of Unionist Clubs, and also the first mass Unionist movement, the Ulster Defence Union. Within the U.D.U. 600 man central assembly where several very prominent Lisburn Town Unionists. Among their number were George H. Clarke J.P. Rosevale, George Wilson Railway Street and Rev Pounden Castle Street; all three of whom would find themselves embroiled in another anti Home Rule organisation some 20 years later.

Evidence on whether the opposition to Home Rule in 1886 and 1893 ran as far as wide scale drilling or procurement of arms is almost non existent, however it is highly likely that both took place in Lisburn. It is notable that upon joining the Ulster Volunteers in 1913, older men where specifically asked if they knew where rifles from the past where kept. By the onset of the Ulster Crisis in 1912 things are much easier to trace. Organisation and drilling had began across Ulster as early as 1910, when Orange Lodges were encouraging members to ‘volunteer their services’ (albeit what the services would be were left ambiguous) and the Unionist Clubs were reformed (having been suspended in 1896). By August 1912 there were over 300 such clubs, with nearly all involved in some sort of drilling. In Lisburn the Lisburn, Lambeg, Ballymacash and Derriaghy Clubs were all active and they were no exceptions. With little regard to legal consequences, the Lisburn Club was placing notices in the Lisburn Standard Newspaper advertising a route march to Sprucefield as early as 10th August. That day also saw the first meeting of a newly formed rifle club in the town, the St George Rifle Club. The following week the Unionist Club advertised what it billed as a Sports Meeting and Drill Competition at Low Road, with a range of races and tug of war listed along side squad drill. The paper later reported that 14 Squads took part in the drill; including 4 from Lisburn, 3 from Holywood and squads from  Lambeg, Crescent, Lurgan, West Belfast, Windsor and Stranmillis, Queens Island and Willowfield; and that they each presented a smart soldier like appearance. English newspapers were present and took a large number of photographs of the men, a propaganda element of the anti Home Rule movement that would raise its head in the area many times in the coming months. West Belfast and a Holywood squad were declared joint winners on the day.

By the end of the month the prime focus had switched to the Ulster Covenant campaign that was to lead up to Ulster Day, specifically the visit of Edward Carson to Lisburn on Thursday 19 September. The rally itself on the Thursday evening drew a crowd of 20,000, with Carson met and dined prior to the event by former U.D.U. assembly member and now Lisburn Unionist Club President George Clarke J.P. The gathering took place in the Grain Market (a venue that would host many future functions), with Carson’s carriage drawn to the location via relays of 20 men at a time, and guarded at all stages by 120 men hand picked from the local Unionist movement. A series of emotive and stirring speeches included Carson who received loud cheers after stating that “on reflecting as I drove through your town this evening surrounded by that splendid body of my fellow country men, whom I am proud to lead, I could not help thinking I did not envy the men or body of men or Government who tried to enforce Home Rule on the citizens of Lisburn”.

Ulster Day itself came with massive fanfare, with a united inter denomination service taking place in the Grain Market it was said attracting over 10,000 people and noted as easily being the largest congregation ever seen in Lisburn. Over 3000 people signed the Covenant and Declaration at this venue alone. In its immediate aftermath Unionism continued to organise large public rally’s, with 12 October seeing a mass Unionist Club gathering once again in the Towns Grain Market. Three train loads of men travelled from Belfast in association with Queens Island, West Belfast and Duncairn Clubs; while Dunmurray, Lambeg, Derriaghy and Lisburn each turned out in large numbers as well. A procession of the men was headed by Lisburn Conservative Fife and Drum Band, accompanying each Club President, and more tellingly for the first time also accompanied by what where described as Commanders in the form of George Clarke, A. P. Jenkins and A. W. Woods.

The next 5 months saw a very notable scaling back of all publicly advertised and reported Unionist activity in the area. Given future reporting and events it could be concluded that this was a direct result of the plan to form a Volunteer Force for Ulster. A form of ‘radio silence’ of the day being implemented while local leaders where assessing the situation and organising. Bar a mass meeting in the Orange Hall at the end of February, the next public pronouncements regarding local drilling did not come until 15 March. In that days paper for the first time Lisburn Unionist Forces were referred to, with over 800 men taking part in a route march. By July 1913 these Forces were openly being called the Lisburn Battalion of the Ulster Volunteer Force.

The entire Force was very much in a transition and development mode across Ulster in 1913, indeed many areas where still changing until April 1914, with full structures and organisation continually evolving. It is clear though that the Lisburn area was very quick to establish military formation and structure, as was the entire South Antrim Constituency, no doubt owing to its already very proactive Unionist Clubs. In the August 1913 U.V.F. returns to Headquarters, County Antrim was divided into four parts, South, East, Mid- Antrim and North. Among the figures for the Southern area Lisburn was listed as having 962 men divided between the localities of Lambeg, Ballymacash, Rushyhuill, Lisburn, Broomhedge, Knockmore, Stoneyford and Hilden.  Its clear though that even at this stage the area was subsumed under the banner of the South Antrim Regiment, consisting of three Battalions. The 2nd Battalion effectively covered the area stretching from Dunmurray to Glenavy including Ballinderry and the Lisburn rural districts, the 3rd Battalion stretched from Crumlin through Antrim to Randalstown; and the 1st was the Lisburn Battalion, which took in the urban districts of Lisburn, Ravarnette and Hilden.

Commander of the Battalion was A.P. Jenkins, a Linen manufacturer in the Town, and a man who would later become a Major in the 36th Ulster Division. He had been elected the new President of the Lisburn Unionist Club in January 1913. His second in command was E.A. Sinton (another Linen manufacturer), with the adjutant T. M. Harvey. They were the principle officers over a Battalion that consisted of 9 Companies with designations A to I. Commanders of the Companies were A Coy Edward Clarke, B Coy Colour Sergeant Taylor, C Coy J. H. Davies, D Coy William Gordon, E Coy Joseph Lockhart, F Coy J. A. Woods, G Coy Edward Smyth, H Coy George Duncan and I Coy James Lowry. The Battalions transportation was under the charge of former Ulster Defence Union delegate George Wilson, the Medical detachment under Hugh Mulholland, the Signalling detachment under Robert Gilmour, Despatch Riders under Norman Harding and Nursing Staff under Mrs E. A. Sinton. The Battalion also had its own cadet corps under Rupert Harding.

Its very apparent in all material surrounding the Lisburn Battalion of the Ulster Volunteer Force that in its early stages there was a level of professional and military bearing that preceded many of its contemporary units across Ulster. This military approach and bearing is underlined by the fact that the Battalion was among the first in the entire Force to be ceremonially presented with colours. On Tuesday 22nd of July 1913 Edward Carson once again visited the town to take part in a colour presentation ceremony, with the colour itself presented to the Battalion by the wife of local M.P. C.C. Craig. In his address Carson still referred to the men as the ‘club’ as opposed to the U.V.F., and warned the Government about the consequences of their current actions by drawing parallels between the Home Rule Crisis and the War of Independence in America. Carson stated to the men ‘If they look back in history they will see that it was Ulster men, under bad trade laws, who were driven out of Ulster who went to the United States; and who when they were unfairly treated there were the very men who drafted and drew up the Declaration of Independence; and when the Crown and Constitution of England would not listen to their case they determined to rely upon themselves. And you will rely upon yourselves’. By the Ulster Day Anniversary in 1913 the Battalion was noted as being complete in every detail. The extent of anti Home Rule activism after the anniversary of Ulster Day 1913 was immediately apparent in other ways as well. The subsequent Thursday the Lisburn Branch of the South Antrim Women’s Unionist Association held a meeting in the Cathedral Schoolhouse, with the building filled to capacity. During the course of the gathering it was mentioned with much fanfare that the Branch membership had increased from 360 just 12 months previously, to the now incredible figure of 1200.

Political meetings were ongoing, but for the majority the core activity was paramilitary. At the beginning of October the battalion had its first complete muster and review, with an inspection being carried out by General Officer Commanding the Volunteers Sir George Richardson. Just under 1000 men were inspected on a Thursday evening, with acetylene gas tanks used to light the scene giving a low glow to the spectacle and adding to the atmosphere. The Nine Companies were drawn up in quarter column, with Company Commander standing two paces to the right, and half company commanders two paces to the left of the rear of the columns. On the left flank of the Volunteers and in line were the Cycling and Despatch Corps, the Ambulance and Nursing Staff including stretched bearers and Lady Nurses; and then the signallers. At the rear were four large and fully equipped two-horse transport wagons. Shortly after 8pm the men were inspected by  General Richardson, Captain Craig, Lieutenant Colonel McCammon and Lieutenant H. O. Davis. The Lisburn Standard noted the sight was one almost unbelievable in the twentieth century. In November 1913 the Battalion had its first field-day, this time under the watchful eye of Chief of H.Q. staff Colonel Hackett Pain. The operations were designed to teach the men how to properly engage the enemy on the battlefield, taking the form of a sham fight. Three Companies formed the defending party, with the other six companies attacking.

The early months of 1914 were filled with a cycle of church services along with regular individual company drills, while early February saw the South Antrim Regiment Principle Medical Officer launching a campaign to equip a temporary base hospital in Lisburn. An attempt to put a motion to allow the use of the Castle as a hospital in the event it was needed failed to make it in front of the council. There were other Volunteer related events as well. F Company held a social in Mc Cann’s School Dublin Road at the end of February; while the same week there was a visit to the town from men of the Hillsborough Volunteers. Three Companies marched into the town, when after a halt was called at Smithfield Market they were dismissed for an hour or so to stroll around the town. During the first week of March there was another entire Battalion engagement, this time an inspection at the Battalion Headquarters which were said to be Sprucefield.

The PR and propaganda element of the movement that Lisburn had effectively used from the beginning took a new turn from March 1914, when it began to utilise the medium of film. An ad hoc cinema was formed in the Orange Hall showing reels from various Battalion manoeuvres, while the towns main picture hose in Market Street regularly did the same. On 1st April the Market Street venue hosted a continuous run from 6.30pm to 10.30pm showing Volunteers reels plus other reels including images from the American Civil War and the landing of troops into Bangor. The Market Street performance raised an incredible £20 for the Battalion.

By this stage their were nightly drills and engagements at the Sprucefield Headquarters, and another total Battalion field day took place late March, then taking its place in a mass review of the entire South Antrim Regiment at Antrim on Easter Monday, where once again Carson was to inspect the local men.

On the night of April 24 they played their part in one of the most famous events in Irish history, the Gunrunning. In Lisburn all of the factory horns were blown at 7pm, the signal that the Volunteers should assemble, and within one hour the men were drawn up into formation, each fully equipped and with two days rations. Orders where issues at 9pm, with each Company and half Company then making its way to carry out its duties. Some patrolled the streets and roads, others were put onto surveillance of the Royal Irish Constabulary.  The night time duties where covert, but the next day there was no secrecy and arms where moved and operations carried out in broad daylight. Of the entire operation the Lisburn Standard reprinted comments about the Government, the Volunteers and Home Rule that had appeared in the Daily Telegraph saying that the ‘ministers have had another rude awakening’.

The commitment of the leadership of the Battalion to military efficiency was being illustrated as late as June 1914 when they appointed a Chief Instructor and full time field officer. Captain Phillip Blair Oliphant was a 10 years retired officer who had been a adjutant of a ‘crack London Volunteer Corps’ and prior to that a Captain in the Rifle Brigade. Full time offices were established for Captain Oliphant on the second floor of the Lisburn Standard Newspaper building, where his role was to ensure the Battalion was a reliable and trustworthy fighting unit. His ability at his role can perhaps be judged by his performance during the Great War. On the formation of the 11th Royal Irish Rifles he was appointed Major, and was awarded the D.S.O. for gallantry on the 1 July. He would eventually command the 11th Rifles.

In June the Signallers had an operation at Ballyskeagh, while in late July Volunteer Nurses were presented with Proficiency certificates at Ravarnette. Arguably the defining moment in the history of the Volunteers came on Thursday 2 July. On that evening the Lisburn Battalion Ulster Volunteers marched for the first time fully armed to a field at Derryvolgie for Drill. Within four weeks the entire tone of the events in Lisburn would change.

The Great War officially began on 28 July 1914. Within seven days the headlines were saying that the Ulster Volunteers were ready and that Lisburn would play a loyal part in the war. Tension over Home Rule noticeably dropped a level as focus was turned to the good of Empire as a whole. Large U.V.F. gatherings still took place however, as late as the 2nd October the entire South Antrim Regiment once again combined for instruction, 3000 men taking part in Lisburn itself. On14 September hundreds of local men left for Clandeboye Camp. The men of Lisburn would come to form a part of the 11th Battalion Royal Irish Rifles, the South Antrim Volunteers. On 1st July 1916 the Battalion would be decimated.

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


  1. absolutely fabulous account of the urgent need for action to stave off the threat of home rule , when the call was heard , thousands answered.
    God rest the men , and women who answered the call , and paid the ultimate sacrifice. LEST WE FORGET.

  2. Those who attended this event where left in no doubt of the important role that Lisburn played. We are very eager to hear the story of 11th Battalion on that fateful day of July 1st 1916 when they would be decimated. We await with baited breath Q.

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