‘The North began’ . . . but when The formation of the Ulster Volunteer Force

Published in 1913, 20th-century / Contemporary History, Features, General, Issue 2 (March/April 2013), Revolutionary Period 1912-23, Volume 21, World War I

The Enniskillen Horse—what can now be identified as the first formed UVF regiment—parading through the town on 18 September 1912 to welcome Sir Edward Carson’s visit to launch the Ulster Covenant campaign. (PRONI)

The Enniskillen Horse—what can now be identified as the first formed UVF regiment—parading through the town on 18 September 1912 to welcome Sir Edward Carson’s visit to launch the Ulster Covenant campaign. (PRONI)

On 25 November 1913, at the Rotunda Rink in Dublin, the Irish Volunteers were formed, with 3,000 men enrolling that evening. For the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) there is no such simple foundation story. Ronald McNeill, a Unionist MP who appeared on many platforms with Sir Edward Carson and was the first historian of the UVF, stated:

‘It was never formally established by the act of any recognised authority, but rather grew spontaneously from the zeal of the Unionist Clubs and the Orange Lodges to present an effective and formidable appearance at the demonstrations which marked the progress of the movement after the meeting at Craigavon in 1911’.

Eoin MacNeill was perhaps correct in stating that ‘the North began’ (although it can be argued that the original Irish Volunteers of 1913 owed more to the influence of the Fenian movement than to the inspiration provided by the Ulster Volunteers) but, if so, this was at some point in the seventeenth century, not merely in January 1913. By 1913 there was already a long-standing Protestant ‘volunteering tradition’, which can be traced back to the plantations of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries and later manifested itself in the Laggan Army of the 1640s, the Irish Volunteers (1775–92) and the Irish Yeomanry (1796–1834). A number of the officers and men of the UVF had also served in the militia (1854–1908), a part-time military force created by the British government, and its successor, the Special Reserve, a part-time force whose members had a duty to go on overseas service in wartime.

Limited drilling against the Home Rule bills of 1886 and 1893

At the time of the first two Home Rule bills Ulster unionists had been involved in limited amounts of military activity that set a template for the events of 1913–14. Drilling certainly took place in 1886 at Richill, Co. Armagh, where a local solicitor drilled around 30 men. The government’s failed attempt to prosecute those participating seriously curtailed the Liberal administration’s ability to act against the more widespread drilling of 1913–14. In County Fermanagh in 1893 small groups of men were drilling at Castle Irvine, Ballinamallard, Killadeas, Magheraha and Carrickreagh. Most of this drilling appears to have been organised by Major Gerard Irvine, a major landowner. The RIC believed that around 200 men were being drilled, armed with nothing more than dummy guns. The local district inspector of the RIC felt that the prosecution of Irvine would serve no useful purpose, as it would simply serve to publicise his activities and political views. The year 1893 also saw the formation of the Young Ulster movement, under the leadership of Fred Crawford, who was later to become famous for organising the large-scale UVF gunrunning of 1914. This movement was a small, secret society, whose members had to own a rifle or revolver. It appears that the Young Ulster movement petered out as Crawford became worried that his arrest was increasingly likely and, of course, the Second Home Rule Bill was defeated in parliament.

During the third Home Rule crisis, Ulster unionists were engaged in paramilitary activity long before any parliamentary process opposing Home Rule could be said to have failed. As early as December 1910 the RIC believed that Orange lodges were undertaking military preparations. By the end of 1911, the police had firm evidence that Orange lodges in County Armagh had started to obtain rifles. The Unionist Clubs, which had originally existed between 1893 and 1896, were re-formed in April 1911. By mid-August 1912 there were 306 clubs in the nine counties of Ulster. The Unionist Clubs were set up partly to provide personnel to carry out propaganda work in Britain at the next general election and partly to provide social activities to bring unionists together. Most Unionist Clubs quickly established drill classes, as a cheap and popular recreational activity. It is worth noting that British youth movements, such as the Boys’ Brigade and Church Lads’ Brigade routinely carried out drill, and the Territorial Force, formed in Britain, but not Ireland, in 1908, paraded for weekly drills. It was largely these Unionist Clubs that were to provide the basis of the UVF, most Orange lodges—certainly in rural areas—being much smaller than the Unionist Clubs.

Ad hoc formation

UVF units were formed in an ad hoc manner throughout 1913. The term ‘Ulster Volunteer Force’ appears to have been used publicly for the first time by Colonel Sharman-Crawford when addressing Bangor Unionist Club on 22 December 1912. A.P. Jenkins, the president of Lisburn Unionist Club, started enrolling men for the UVF in January 1913 and had already recruited 270 men by the end of the month. In equally unionist Newtownards, recruitment for the UVF did not begin until the end of February 1913 and until the summer of 1913 recruitment there remained sluggish. Indeed, in June 1913, at the annual meeting of the town’s Unionist Club, it was reported that:

‘Up to the present a fair number of volunteers have been signed on. Of these about half are fairly proficient at drill but a number who signed have not attended drill practices.’

Ranks of factory workers (probably at the Sirrocco Works, Belfast) with UVF armbands. (PRONI)

Ranks of factory workers (probably at the Sirrocco Works, Belfast) with UVF armbands. (PRONI)

This was despite strong unionist sympathy in Newtownards, which clearly manifested itself when the Home Rule bill was burned in front of ‘a densely congregated assemblage of people’ in Conway Square on the evening of 15 January 1913 on the occasion of the third reading of the bill in the House of Commons. In strongly unionist Coleraine the UVF was not formed until a meeting, significantly held in the local Orange hall, on 16 April 1913. In Portglenone, Co. Londonderry, the UVF seems only to have been organised from January 1914, and in Portaferry, Co. Down, unionists were complaining in December 1913 that there was no local UVF unit for them to join.

In June and July 1913 a UVF headquarters, headed by a retired Indian army officer, Lieutenant General Sir George Richardson, was established with a remit to organise and unify the various unionist militias (some UVF proper, some Unionist Clubs, some Orange Order and some, notably the Enniskillen Horse, essentially independent) throughout Ulster. Sir Edward Carson’s whirlwind tours of Ulster in July 1913 and then again in late September and early October 1913, to mark the first anniversary of the Covenant, were the first opportunities for many UVF units to appear on parade. Even then the unionist newspaper The Derry Standard seemed confused, however, as to whether Carson was reviewing Ulster Volunteers or simply members of the drill sections of the local Unionist Clubs when he attended the great unionist demonstration at Raphoe on 2 October 1913. It was Carson’s inspection of UVF units at Six Roads Ends in North Down on the evening of 24 July 1913, where the unionist press reported that 2,500 UVF personnel appeared, which seems to have provided the incentive for the Newtownards UVF to recruit and drill in large numbers.

James Craig passes along an early UVF guard of honour on a railway platform. (PRONI)

While most of the UVF arms were brought into Ulster in 1914, most notably during the Larne gunrunning of April, the UVF of 1913 was certainly not an unarmed force. For example, at the Six Roads Ends meeting in County Down, addressed by Carson in July 1913, the Conlig and Newtownards UVF units paraded armed, and Carson was welcomed by a salute of nine guns. Curiously, before 1920 the United Kingdom had very lax firearms legislation; on payment of 10s. for a gun licence anyone was entitled to own a firearm. Indeed, a long-standing legal discussion took place within the Dublin Castle administration throughout 1913 and 1914 as to whether carrying a firearm without owning a licence was an excise matter, to be dealt with by the Customs and Excise, or a criminal matter, to be dealt with by the police. This was only resolved in July 1914, when the English attorney general pointed out that the illegal distillation of spirits was essentially an excise matter but that this had never prevented the RIC from seizing illegally distilled alcohol! Similarly, the importation of arms into Ireland was not illegal until two royal proclamations were issued in December 1913, but even then rifles could still be imported for ‘sporting purposes’. Ulster unionists muddied the legal waters further by getting two local justices of the peace (almost invariably landowners or businessmen with unionist sympathies) to approve drilling by UVF units in their areas, as they were entitled to do under an act of 1819, and threatening RIC officers with legal action for trespass when they took too close an interest in the UVF training that was taking place on landed estates.

As early as September 1911, RIC special branch noted that many unionists owned cheap revolvers and shotguns, and by September 1912 they believed that large numbers of rifles had been hidden away by unionists in Ulster. Fairly large-scale gunrunning was clearly going on in 1913,

A UFV Unit in Manorcunningham, Co. Donegal

A UFV Unit in Manorcunningham, Co. Donegal

and this is evidenced by the fact that the Metropolitan Police, showing rather more initiative than county constabularies in Britain or the RIC, did seize 4,500 Italian rifles destined for the UVF in Hammersmith in June 1913. These rifles were seized using a little-known piece of legislation, the Gun Barrel Proof Act of 1868. Under this act any foreign rifles sold in Britain had to be tested by a licensed gun-dealer, who would then stamp the barrel of the rifle to show that it met stringent quality standards. The UVF could have redeemed these rifles by having them tested, but as this would have cost £2 per rifle and the rifles themselves seem to have been purchased for around a quarter of this price, UVF headquarters decided to write them off. How many rifles the UVF had access to by the end of 1913 is an impossible question to answer. Certainly, UVF units in County Antrim reported that they had only 200 rifles amongst 10,000 men, an insufficient number for drill purposes. It seems quite likely, however, that UVF headquarters, or rather their eccentric ‘director of ordnance’, Major Fred Crawford, had arranged for many rifles to be hidden away rather than distributed to UVF units. Indeed, it was to be summer 1914 before most UVF units carried rifles publicly, demonstrating UVF headquarters’ concern about a local incident escalating out of control.

The UVF was an impressive force by the summer of 1914, at least numerically, and, following the Larne gunrunning of April 1914, it possessed a large number of relatively modern military rifles, certainly compared to the IRA of 1919–21. Nevertheless, the UVF did not simply emerge as a fully fledged armed force in January 1913. Its formation was slow in many parts of Ulster, even in strongly unionist areas, and there was confusion over the role of the Unionist Clubs in its creation.  HI

Timothy Bowman is Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Kent.

Further reading

T. Bowman, Carson’s Army: the Ulster Volunteer Force, 1910–1922 (Manchester, 2007).

R. McNeill, Ulster’s stand for Union (London, 1922).
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