A hundred years of questions
News of controversy surrounding a parade planned in Belfast to mark the 100th Anniversary of the foundation of the Ulster Volunteer Force recalled a conversation during our daughter’s schooldays; an attempt to describe, if not to explain what it had been like for those who had joined.
The junior certificate history course had reached 1914 and the gun-running, rifles for Loyalists arriving in Larne, those for nationalists arriving in Howth.
‘Davey got his gun from Larne’, I said.
Miriam looked at me, how could anyone I knew have possibly been involved in getting a gun from Larne?
‘It wasn’t a rifle, either. It was a German revolver. Local members of the Ulster Volunteer Force were told to go to a particular crossroads at a particular time. The guns were handed out and they were told to go home and hide them’.
‘How can you hide a rifle when you are riding along on a bicycle?’ Miriam asked.
I hadn’t thought about it. Davey would have just pushed his revolver inside his coat. Where would you have tied a rifle to conceal it from passing strangers while you rode along on a bicycle? Policemen must have turned blind eyes.
Davey had been a member of a volunteer battalion that drilled in the grounds of Ballykilbeg House. The drilling was something very public, to the extent that photographs were taken of the battalion standing in front of the fine Georgian building.
Reminiscing one day a couple of years after Davey’s death in 1990, his wife Mary took out a photograph of the battalion. While Mary made the customary cup of tea and tray of sandwiches, I scanned the faces in the photograph. Rows of serious young men, unaware of the shadow that overhung the lives of everyone in Europe.
In the back row, at one point, the photographer had attempted to brush a figure out of the picture. His attempts had not been very successful, for a clergyman in a broad-brimmed black hat was clearly visible.
Mary came back in with the tea. ‘Who is the clergyman in the back row?’ I asked.
Mary took the photograph and held it up to the light. ‘Oh dear’, she said, ‘that was Canon Pooler. He shouldn’t have been there’. Eighty years later and Mary felt the need to apologize that a local clergyman had been in the company of the Ulster Volunteer Force.
I wondered about her reaction. Two years later these young men would volunteer in their thousands to fight for the country that was legislating to be rid of them. In July 1916, thousands of them would be cut down at the Somme. No-one would have questioned it if Canon Pooler had been standing with them in France. Because a Government that cared little for them had declared war on a country about which they knew little, they were seen as different people.
Questions lingered. Did the presence in the trenches of many of the volunteers retrospectively justify their pre-war activity? And why had they joined the UVF, anyway, why did so many working class Protestants feel alienated by political moves in pre-1914 Ireland? A hundred years later, and questions still remain. Why do working class Protestants still feel the need to cling on to flags, marching bands and political militancy?
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