‘Across the hawthorn hedge the noise of bugles’

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, 20th-century / Contemporary History, Features, Issue 1 (Jan/Feb 2009), Volume 17

Carrickfergus was home to the locally raised Antrim Artillery, seen here forming up along the seafront in the early 1900s.

Carrickfergus was home to the locally raised Antrim Artillery, seen here forming up along the seafront in the early 1900s.

The maritime town of Carrickfergus, Co. Antrim, has experienced several eras of military history since its foundation in medieval times. By the mid-Victorian period it was a significant barracks town, hosting the Antrim Artillery, a locally raised unit that provided coastal defence for this part of Ireland as well as sending artillerymen overseas to assist with Britain’s imperial wars. By 1900, a thousand men were enrolled in the Antrim Artillery. The presence of a substantial body of troops in a town of only 4,500 inhabitants was a significant feature of civic life in Carrickfergus in the years leading up to 1914. Soldiers were stationed in the castle and in the ‘old courthouse’ in the centre of the town. Reveille and the Last Post were sounded every day by a bugler who stood at the courthouse gates. Next to the ‘old courthouse’, a military depot contained ordnance for garrison troops in the Belfast area. Fresh supplies arrived regularly at the harbour and were moved under armed guard to the stores. In 1910 local people were also aware of the construction of a new artillery battery, a couple of miles along the coast at Kilroot, where two Mark VII guns, manned by artillerymen, guarded the approaches to Belfast Lough, in response to the growing might of the German navy.

Threat of civil conflict receded

A few months before the outbreak of war in 1914, local political tensions also led to an increased militarisation of the Carrickfergus area, as a company of the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry was moved from Dublin to the Sunnylands camp in the town, boosting the garrison presence in Ulster at a time when the anti-Home Rule movement seemed ready to seize the reins of power. By August, however, the Great War began and the threat of civil conflict receded. The Yorkshire troops moved to France to face the Germans. At Sunnylands, a reserve battalion of the Royal Irish Fusiliers was soon in residence. The band of the Fusiliers marched through the streets and gave regular concerts in the ‘garden battery’, in the shadow of the castle walls. The officers’ horses were regularly ridden through the streets by their stable boys.
At a school in Scotch Quarter recruitment had begun in September 1914 for the new Ulster Division of Kitchener’s Army, and the railway station was crowded with local people, including excitable groups of ‘mill-girls’ and barefoot children from the Irish Quarter, bidding farewell to local volunteers who departed for training at Clandeboye, Co. Down. Invariably, singing broke out, including a predictable rendition of It’s a Long Way to Tipperary. The Ulster Division soon departed for further training in England, then crossed the Channel to serve on the Western Front, but not before a 1,000-strong battalion descended on the town during a long training-march through the County Antrim countryside. Many of its soldiers were billeted in the town for the weekend, alongside hundreds of the usual resident troops. Scarcely a house in Carrickfergus was without several military ‘guests’ over that busy weekend.

Social life profoundly affected

The presence of so many military personnel profoundly affected social life in the area. YMCA facilities and church halls were filled with young men playing cards or attending concerts. Off-duty troops gathered at the harbour to bathe in the summer months. Others sought out local pubs. The battalion of Irish Fusiliers contained many men from Cavan, known to Carrickfergus residents as ‘the bhoys’, who collected their local newspapers in the newsagents’ shops, having had them sent north by train. Mount St Nicholas’s Catholic Church opened its doors to these men, furnishing them with food and entertainment. Father Henry, who acted as Catholic chaplain to the Sunnylands-based troops, married wartime couples composed of Cavan men and Carrickfergus girls.
As war went on and training of the reserve infantry intensified, locals became familiar with the sounds of drill on the parade-ground, or the cries of men bayoneting sandbags filled with straw. From the Orlands estate emanated the sound of explosions, as grenade practice was undertaken. At night, flares lit up the sky as military manoeuvres simulated the conditions on the Western Front. Everywhere there were guards: the railway line from Belfast to the cross-channel port of Larne ran along the coast and was watched for German sabotage raids, especially at the Whitehead tunnel. Kilroot battery was surrounded by trenches and barbed wire fencing, supplemented by two lookout posts at the water’s edge, bristling with machine-guns, in anticipation of an enemy approach from the sea.
Locals watched as troopships took soldiers to and from Belfast along the busy lough. They heard the boom of guns at Kilroot as artillerymen practised their fire each week. Meanwhile, boating at the Carrickfergus yacht club was prohibited and then, after an easing of restrictions, confined to inshore waters. All lights along the shore, domestic or otherwise, were covered in cowls to prevent enemy boats from taking their bearings or selecting targets. The North Channel telegraph cable, which ran from Whitehead to the Scottish coast, was guarded by Royal Engineers.
As news of casualties at the front arrived home, local people gathered at Bell’s shop window to read the latest war-reports posted on the glass. Men gathered around the ‘big lamp’ in Victoria Square to discuss the news. Church services were held almost every month in memory of individuals who had died at the front. Letters from the men in the trenches to their families were published in the local paper. At Sunnylands camp, injured men convalesced and were seen making their way through the town on crutches or in wheelchairs. At nearby Whitehead, which had flourished as a Victorian seaside resort, hotels became convalescent homes, while at the nearby golf club men were offered an opportunity to relax or play at games of putting.

Wartime Underworld

In a militarised town such as Carrickfergus, a wartime underworld developed. One man in the vicinity of Sunnylands barracks was convicted for running a shebeen, in which porter was sold to soldiers who had absented themselves from church parade. No doubt brothels flourished but their existence is less easy to trace. As the price of fuel grew, those who could manage to do so switched from coal to turf. Youngsters from the impoverished Irish Quarter were regularly caught pilfering coal from the harbour stores. They stole food and equipment from Sunnylands, having made their way through holes in the perimeter fence. Chased by the guards, they threw stones and shouted abuse. When government policy dictated that areas should be set aside for allotments to supplement Britain’s food resources during the fierce U-boat war, parkland was tilled at Joymount, in the town centre. There was a problem with illegal harvesting by poorer citizens of the town, however. The sense of economic stringency grew greater for some local citizens when the Whitehead golf club was asked to set aside a space on its greens for tillage.
Meanwhile, the moral pressure to help out with the war effort was ever-present. Men with practical ability were asked to go at night to the technical college to make splints, bed-rests and crutches, which were needed in military hospitals. Women were asked to go to a house in Scotch Quarter where bandages were made, containing spaghnum moss gathered from the Antrim Hills, which was known to have soothing, antiseptic qualities. Charity days were a regular feature of civic life, as volunteers sold flags for causes connected to the war or offered souvenirs made from pieces of downed German Zeppelins.
As the war went on and calamitous battles such as the Somme created huge casualty lists, enlistment figures plummeted and the drive to recruit Irishmen to the army took on an ever more urgent, if hopeless, energy. Band parades on the Whitehead esplanade were accompanied by emotive speeches from recruitment officers. At Carrickfergus’s annual hiring fair, young men from country districts, who had come to the town in search of work, were targeted. By 1916 there was much talk of conscription being introduced, as it was in England.

War taking place offshoreFor a coastal location such as south-eastern County Antrim, there was also a sense of war taking place offshore. Numerous men from this part of Ireland had always gone to sea as a means of earning a living. Now their lives were at risk in both the Merchant and Royal Navies. The mouth of Belfast Lough was partly protected by a boom, and the North Channel had an anti-submarine net

War taking place offshore
For a coastal location such as south-eastern County Antrim, there was also a sense of war taking place offshore. Numerous men from this part of Ireland had always gone to sea as a means of earning a living. Now their lives were at risk in both the Merchant and Royal Navies. The mouth of Belfast Lough was partly protected by a boom, and the North Channel had an anti-submarine net

War taking place offshore

For a coastal location such as south-eastern County Antrim, there was also a sense of war taking place offshore. Numerous men from this part of Ireland had always gone to sea as a means of earning a living. Now their lives were at risk in both the Merchant and Royal Navies. The mouth of Belfast Lough was partly protected by a boom, and the North Channel had an anti-submarine net stretched across its swirling waters, with limited effectiveness. Fears grew of sabotage attacks on Belfast docks, where British dreadnoughts were repaired. The ordnance stores in Carrickfergus and the nearby Kilroot battery were also potential targets. There was much nervousness among Carrickfergus citizens: on several occasions citizen’s arrests were made, when lights were seen flashing at night on the shoreline of Belfast Lough. These lights invariably belonged to fishermen, but the assumption was made that something sinister was going on. On one occasion two local men stood accused of signalling to Zeppelin pilots who were supposedly flying towards Belfast to undertake a raid.
Throughout the war, Whitehead continued to entertain holiday-makers who arrived by train from Belfast. In 1915 a troupe of entertainers known as the Poppinjays performed their musical show Stardust in the Esplanade Pavilion. But the holiday crowd who gazed out to sea, as they wandered back to their hotels after the show, would have sensed danger in the dark waters. On one occasion a U-boat shelled a boat making its way past Whitehead from Larne to Belfast, killing a sailor. As the crew got into their lifeboats, the Germans fired on them again. In the last few months of the war, two more vessels perished a short distance off the nearby Blackhead cliffs: the Chirippo was sunk by a mine and the Tiberia by a torpedo. An armed trawler also went down in these waters and a U-boat was sunk.

German U-boats, captured after the war. These submarines were an ever-present threat to shipping in Irish waters, whether merchant or military vessels. (Guy Warner)

German U-boats, captured after the war. These submarines were an ever-present threat to shipping in Irish waters, whether merchant or military vessels. (Guy Warner)

At Bentra, near Whitehead, an airship base had been established. The dirigibles that were located there made daily journeys across the Irish Sea, accompanying the camouflaged steamer Maud as she sailed from Larne to Stranraer. Airships were capable of spotting a periscope in the water and summoning the navy to attack the enemy. The airmen in their leather coats and goggles presented an exotic sight to the people of south-east Antrim. Late in the war, aeroplanes landed regularly at the Bentra aerodrome, to the great interest of spectators.

British military hegemony in Ireland made tangible and vivid

What emerges from this brief survey is that everyday life in and around Carrickfergus was deeply militarised during the war. It would be unwise to extrapolate simplistically from a case-study of Carrickfergus to the rest of Ireland. Many parts of the country remained tranquil and remote from the war. Nonetheless, busy barracks towns and defence installations existed throughout the island, from Lough Swilly to Kinsale and from the Curragh to Galway. Roads, ports and railway lines were busy with troop movements involving many of the Great War’s 200,000 Irish servicemen. Munitions factories were humming with wartime work in which women were playing a key part, recruitment marches entered countless towns and villages, newspapers were full of war news, and coastal areas were often on the alert for the presence of German submarines and sabotage attacks.

‘This profile was taken many years ago, when O’Connell was in his prime. Given to me by Mr Michael Spratt. J. M. Ray 1846.’ Note the military bearing, with the umbrella shouldered like a weapon, in contrast to what O’Connell perceived to be a subservient ‘Catholic’ gait with head down and shoulders hunched. (National Library of Ireland)

‘This profile was taken many years ago, when O’Connell was in his prime. Given to me by Mr Michael Spratt. J. M. Ray 1846.’ Note the military bearing, with the umbrella shouldered like a weapon, in contrast to what O’Connell perceived to be a subservient ‘Catholic’ gait with head down and shoulders hunched. (National Library of Ireland)

The highly visible wartime infrastructure, radical social change and enlarged armed presence probably made British military hegemony in Ireland both tangible and vivid in a way not seen since the suppression of the 1798 Rebellion. The often febrile atmosphere of the pre-war Home Rule crisis now mutated and intensified in many areas of the country from 1914 to 1918, as abundant evidence appeared of Britain’s imperial crisis and of a wider global flux, even before the added tensions brought about by the Easter Rising and its suppression. In a solidly unionist town such as Carrickfergus, war on the home front could offer its citizens an amplified sense of Britishness, albeit of a Britishness in crisis. In nationalist communities, this highly militarised environment must surely have offered fertile conditions for a revolutionary analysis. HI

Philip Orr is a writer and researcher based in Carrickfergus who specialises in Ireland’s experience of the Great War.


Further reading:

J. Horne (ed.), Our war (Dublin, 2008).

K. Jeffery, Ireland and the Great War (Cambridge, 2000).

P. J. O’Donnell, Whitehead—the town with no streets (Belfast, 1998).

G. Warner, Airships over the North Channel (Newtownards, 2005).

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