Friday 18 May 2012

Trapped by the Border: Ulster Protestants in the Free State

In December 1921, Major Somerset Saunderson declared, ‘Now I have no country.’ He echoed the sentiment of many others after the Anglo-Irish Treaty sealed the deal on partition. Like other Ulster Protestants who found themselves marooned on the wrong side, Saunderson was bereft of hope… and he was bitter.
Castle Saunderson now a shell at convergence of Cavan, Fermanagh and Monaghan
He never returned from England after writing that epitaph to Hugh Montgomery of Fivemiletown. Today, Castle Saunderson in Cavan, near its convergence with Fermanagh and Monaghan, is a shell overlooking the River Finn where it flows into the Erne.
Somerset Saunderson’s reaction is particularly noteworthy because his father, Colonel Edward Saunderson, was the first leader of Irish Unionism in the House of Commons. In his 2005 biography of Edward Carson, Geoffrey Lewis calls Saunderson the ‘authentic voice of Ulster Presbyterianism’ (he was Church of Ireland). Elected as a Liberal MP first for Cavan and later as a Conservative for North Armagh, he was ‘an Orangeman, pugilist and boat-builder and a man of narrow piety’. 
Col. Saunderson: Carson's mentor
He was also the mentor and inspiration for Carson and, like his parliamentary protégé, his roots were outside the six counties that would become Northern Ireland, but he was decidedly of Ulster.
The Saundersons were by no means unique in their fervour for Ulster and Unionism. I was struck by this recently at the start of our decade of centenaries amidst all the promised hoopla to mark the momentous year of 1912 when Ulster Unionism struck out on its own. I noted the unmarked passing of the 100th anniversary of Ulster Unionism’s first major rally. It took place in Omagh right at the start of January, long before April’s big gathering at the King’s Hall and Carson’s Trail to the Covenant.
It could be said that Omagh set the scene for 1912 when it drew a remarkable crowd of 30,000. They came from west, mid and south Ulster and many of them came by rail. I had a look at Omagh train arrivals for that day before the rally commenced at 11.35am.
There was the usual scheduled service from Belfast through Portadown and the other from Derry via Strabane. But there were also 18 special trains bringing passengers from Cavan, Bailieboro, Belturbet, Cootehill, Bundoran, Clones, Castleblayney, Smithboro, Monaghan and Glaslough.
Among Omagh’s platform speakers – with Carson and the Marquis of Hamilton –was Lord Dartrey whose ancestor, incidentally, had introduced the Act of Union at Westminster in 1801. The Dartreys or Dawsons from Monaghan, are now gone, like the Saundersons and Farnhams of Cavan; commemorated only in local street names.
Carson inspects UVF bicyle detachment at Raphoe, Co. Donegal
Yet though the big families would fade from view, there was no doubting the continuing commitment of ordinary unionists on the periphery of Ulster. Monaghan, Cavan and Donegal blood flowed among the signatures on that Solemn League and Covenant. Two full battalions of Ulster Volunteers were raised in County Monaghan alone and with others from Cavan and Donegal many of them marched off to fight for King and Country in the 36th Ulster Division.
Over the top at the Battle of the Somme
Yet despite obvious enthusiasm for the cause, they endured a decade of trauma and political uncertainty before they were told in no uncertain terms at the Ulster Unionist convention on 10 March 1920 that they were ‘surplus to requirements’.
In the immediate aftermath of the Ulster Hall shunning, Lord Farnham wrote to Montgomery,  'Apart from breaking the Covenant, what we feel more than anything is that we can no longer call ourselves Ulstermen. We in Cavan were prouder of being Ulstermen than anyone in the whole Province.' Montgomery replied, 'There is no use arguing about the meaning of the word "Ulster". Donegal, Cavan and Monaghan are part of Ulster, but they are not part of the Northern Ireland segregated in the Bill.'
Creating a combined Ulster Protestant identity.
And therein lies the nub. For a decade before partition, Ulster Protestantism had forged its new identity as being different from the rest of Ireland and of being united in Covenant. When the covenant was broken, the Ulster Unionists of Cavan, Monaghan and Donegal were not only denied political redemption; they were robbed of their identity.
Although Monaghan Unionist leaders such as Colonel J. C.W. Madden dismissed this new ‘Belfast-made covenant’ of 1920 and Monaghan County Grand Chaplain remarked that in Belfast they are ‘all Home Rulers now’, that was face-saving rhetoric.
The grave prospect facing the Protestants of Monaghan, Cavan and Donegal was summed up by Monaghan’s Orange Grand Master and erstwhile Ulster Unionist Council member Michael Knight who said they must “no matter what eventually takes place, rely upon ourselves and upon ourselves alone”.
Trinity's R.B. McDowell
So as leaders of the new Northern Ireland administration set about forging a new political identity and styling themselves as ‘Ulster,’ what befell their former fellows in the ‘lost counties’? If we read the late Trinity historian R.B. McDowell’s history of southern unionism, Crisis and Decline, they just ceased to be Ulster unionists and joined the exodus. But while many did migrate across the new frontier, aided in some cases by those intent on shoring up vulnerable Unionist numbers in Fermanagh and Tyrone, many others didn’t give up quite that easily.
Just like nationalists marooned in the six counties, many southern Protestants in the border counties placed their faith in Article 12 of the new treaty – the boundary clause. When the Commission was eventually convened, it received representations from those pockets of Ulster Protestants left behind by the tide. As with most representations, they did not want to remain cut off from co-religionists by the new frontier.
So numbers were bandied back and forth, largely based on electoral registers and the most recent census of 1911. From these, we reckon that a total of 70,000 Protestants were living in the three Ulster counties of Cavan, Monaghan and Donegal at the time of partition. The pattern of population and the ratio differed widely between the counties and, of course, within the counties themselves. So while Donegal’s 35,000 Protestants represented about 18% of that county’s population; Monaghan’s 19,000 notched up at almost 30%. East Donegal’s Laggan Valley was an Ulster Presbyterian stronghold, but north Monaghan’s population was remarkably similar to contiguous districts of Fermanagh, Tyrone and Armagh.
It is worth noting in passing that J.R. Fisher, former editor of the Northern Whig appointed by Westminster as Northern Ireland’s Boundary commissioner, had noted that dispersal of population. He had urged Sir William Craig to consider a new boundary to include all Donegal and North Monaghan with a frontier line from the southern tip of Upper Lough Erne to Bessbrook. This would shorten the border by almost two-thirds and leave out most of South Armagh. That would avoid, said Fisher, 'an Afghanistan on our north-west frontier, while including most of those we want and leaving out those we don’t.'
Boundary Commisioner Eoin MacNeill, left, on the frontier
In the event, the Boundary Commission recommended few changes from the county lines of partition. East Donegal was to transfer to Northern Ireland, part of east Fermanagh around Clones was to go to the Free State and the small district of Mullyash, between Castleblayney and Darkley, was to go north in exchange for Crossmaglen and Forkhill.
Not that any of that mattered because another deal was done and the line stayed where it was. The Protestant minority in Free State southern border counties were, as Michael Knight warned in 1920, on their own. Yet in many respects, they remained different from the Protestant pockets elsewhere in the Free State. Protestant celebrations continued through the 1920s, but ended when a parade of Black men from Monaghan and Cavan was attacked in Cootehill. Henceforth, lodges paraded locally without fanfare and then went north for the big events.
Of course they migrated steadily down the years, drawn to Northern Ireland by family ties, marriage and employment prospects as much as by the desire to recover their Ulster Protestant credentials. The imposition of Irish language requirements for public service jobs in the south alienated many. The overtly Roman Catholic veneer of public life proclaimed in the mammoth Eucharistic Congress of 1932 set the tone, and the 1937 Constitution accorded a ‘special position’ to the Catholic Church only removed in 1972.
A current map illusrates migration patterns along the Border
Protestant sons went north for jobs in the public sector and police, daughters went for nursing, teaching and other careers, as well as for marriage. Yet as late as 1934, East Donegal’s Protestants drew up a petition for transfer north with 7,000 signatures.
Yet it wasn’t all lost. In the years immediately following partition, Monaghan’s Protestant leaders devised a political strategy. While denied their Ulster Unionist credentials, they organised as the Protestant Association and forged an organisation that would maintain their presence, even during the darkest times. For years, they more than held their own in the affairs of Monaghan county council and urban district councils in Monaghan town and Clones. As late as the 1960s, the Clones council chairman Bobby Molloy declared openly that he was 'still an Ulster Unionist'.  A decade later, an elderly neighbour from across The Diamond in Clones, told RTE’s Tommy Gorman that when she died, they could turn her upside down and they would see ‘Ulster Protestant’ stamped on her… well, she did get carried away and I’m sure nobody looked!
In national terms, a pattern was established of electing a Protestant to Dáil Éireann, first for Monaghan alone and latterly in the combined Cavan-Monaghan constituency where Heather Humphreys recently took over from Seymour Crawford. Protestant politics in the three counties now leans towards Fine Gael but for a period Erskine Childers managed to wrest Monaghan’s Protestant vote away to Fianna Fáil.
But there was sea change with the onset of the Troubles. Already inclined to the reputed posture of Larne Catholics, Protestants in the southern border counties retreated from view. Clones High School, where many pupils came from adjacent areas of Fermanagh, closed some years after the GNR rail connections with Enniskillen and Belfast. So having grown up in a town with a strong Ulster Protestant demeanour in the 1950s and 1960s, I watched from afar as Clones changed, particularly after Bloody Sunday when huge numbers of Protestants left for Canada, Britain and even Bangor.
The grave of Bill Fox
Local Protestant politician Senator Bill Fox was killed in a botched IRA raid, the first member of the Oireachtas shot by the IRA since Kevin O’Higgins in 1927 and now all but forgotten in the fray. Interestingly, Fox had lost his Dáil seat when some Protestant electors became uneasy over his campaigning about border road cratering, which also imposed a huge impediment on Protestant farmers and church congregations.
A fictional voice
Meanwhile, I was researching my Masters thesis on the Boundary Commission, slowly realising that a huge voice from our shared past had gone silent. I later wrote a fictional voice for them, The Sons of Levi. That was after the peace process began and I remember at that time, having many encounters with people who had kept nervously to the shadows. One young man was about the same age as my older son Ross and had grown up in a strong Protestant community near Doohat Orange Hall. He described his schooling and social life, not much different to my son’s. I asked him if he ever went into Clones, a ten-minute car journey. He looked at me in horror: ‘No way, that’s a rebel town!’
Huge efforts by the Clones Community Forum and other peace-funded bodies has restored a more balanced view among all sides since then, not least the trapped minority of Ulster Protestants. The wonderful work of President Mary McAleese in building bridges has restored their place and their pride in who and what they are. The Ulster-Scots Agency, the Border Minorities group and other initiatives have begun to give them back a voice of their own.
Border Counties Band Forum lists traditional Ulster Protestant marching bands
Slowly, the trapped minority of the ‘Lost Counties’ of Ulster is emerging from the shadows. Rossnowlagh’s pre-Twelfth in Donegal and the quaintly named Drum Picnic – a traditional parade of Ulster marching bands in Monaghan – are providing public showcases for their culture.
On both sides of the Border, more and more people are realising that there never was a ‘clean cut’ as Britain’s Prime Minister Lloyd George promised in 1921. So the learning process goes on as we lick at old wounds and expose them to fresh air. We sense now that there was hurt and a deep sense of betrayal on both sides and that this persisted for the past century. With acceptance of our different stories, healing can take place along with the learning. For as I have discovered, we are reflections of each other, no matter on which side of the mirror or the Border we find ourselves by accident of birth.
© Darach MacDonald


  1. Really interesting and stimulating, Darach! And extensive as always.

  2. A nice piece Darrach.
    I happened upon your blog while trying to find answers for questions thrown up by a map of the border in West Co. Monaghan.
    West of this the border bisects Quivvy Lough but instead of following the Finn River, it diverts through two more loughs (Derrykerrib & Castle) before re-aligning with the Finn for a while and then looping South again through Lough Sarah & Lough Garrow. Then it hugs the Finn River again only to suddenly loop Northwards almost to the road joining Clones to Newtownbutler (A34) returning to the Finn River about 100m East of where this huge loop began.
    Do these loops follow the ancient county boundaries?
    What is/was the purpose of these "unnatural" loops?

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  4. They signed a solemn covenant in 1912 and were dumped out of expediency by the Ulster Unionists. In the six counties unionists were in a two thirds majority and that guarantees the continued Unionist majority.

  5. My family in the Donegal were forced to move north to Tyrone in the civil war that followed .

    1. Hi David Nicholl....Are you the David from Londonderry, currently residing in Coleraine?