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Was the Ulster Covenant an empty threat?


JCSkinner

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I was doing a bit of research into family history recently, what with the 1911 census going online, and ended up cross-checking relatives against the list of signatories to Carson's Ulster Covenant of 1912, which the Public Records Office in the North also offer online.
I very quickly established that a number of my relatives who were definitely kids at the time had signed the Covenant.
So my query is this: out of the half million or so signatures on the Covenant, how many were duplicates, or signed by children?
Did Carson really have a half million people behind him? How heavily were the figures massaged upwards?
 

Greenandred

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I was doing a bit of research into family history recently, what with the 1911 census going online, and ended up cross-checking relatives against the list of signatories to Carson's Ulster Covenant of 1912, which the Public Records Office in the North also offer online.
I very quickly established that a number of my relatives who were definitely kids at the time had signed the Covenant.
So my query is this: out of the half million or so signatures on the Covenant, how many were duplicates, or signed by children?
Did Carson really have a half million people behind him? How heavily were the figures massaged upwards?
It's certainly possible that the figures were manipulated to look more formidable than they actually were. But given subsequent events such as the Curragh Mutiny and Larne Gun Running, there's little doubt that unionists were determined to resist Home Rule in large numbers, and that the Crown was determined not to confront them.
 

JCSkinner

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Out of the relatives I checked who had signed the Covenant, half were women and of the males, half were underage.
That severely erodes the manpower Carson had to hand, if replicated throughout the Covenant. And of course many signatories were nowhere near Ireland, as signing books were opened in places like Canada and Doncaster and on ships at sea and so on.
I accept there is a wider realpolitik at play, in terms of the gunrunning and the London response.
But just in relation to the Covenant, I wonder just how strong support for it was. Plenty of my presbyterian relatives, some of them also in the Orange, didn't bother signing it at all.
 

caulfield

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I would have thought that the size of the UVF would be a better indicator of support rather than the covenant. Clearly they wouldn't have stopped the British army but they were relatively well armed and organised.
 

Tiernanator

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My g-grandfather and my partner's grandfather were both signatories and both signed the covenant and strangely enough their names are shown one beneath the other. How is that for kismet. It is also interesting my mother never told me that I had a turncoat (protestant) g-grandfather. Interesting also that no other members of his family were anything but Catholic. My grandfather his son was Catholic as was all his other children. A researcher friend of mine told me that often one or two members of a family would become protestant to ensure property or employment. Don't know how true this is but it would explain why one person would jump ship so to speak. He, my g-grandfather did end up with a rather cushy job working for the Anglican bishop of Derry so I suppose his ploy worked.
 

JCSkinner

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The UVF were also relatively small.
The thing that has struck me from doing this family research is on the one hand the lack of support among people who would have been staunch unionists, and on the other the fact that some people were trying to inflate the numbers by allowing kids to sign.
There's no doubt the UVF at the time were a genuine threat, just as the Provos were in the Seventies and Eighties.
But just like the Provos, I'm beginning to wonder to what extent the position espoused by the UVF in 1912 enjoyed popular support.
Normally, people point to Carson's Covenant as evidence of that support. But those half million signatures are beginning to look a bit suspect to me now.
 

JCSkinner

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My g-grandfather and my partner's grandfather were both signatories and both signed the covenant and strangely enough their names are shown one beneath the other. How is that for kismet. It is also interesting my mother never told me that I had a turncoat (protestant) g-grandfather. Interesting also that no other members of his family were anything but Catholic. My grandfather his son was Catholic as was all his other children. A researcher friend of mine told me that often one or two members of a family would become protestant to ensure property or employment. Don't know how true this is but it would explain why one person would jump ship so to speak. He, my g-grandfather did end up with a rather cushy job working for the Anglican bishop of Derry so I suppose his ploy worked.
Doing this family research has helped remind me just how much fence-jumping has occurred down the years.
There's one line of my family that went from staunch presbyterian to having the home searched for IRA guns in a generation. There's another where a member of the OO required the bona fides of a Catholic priest to gain entry from Canada to America in the Thirties.
Even as I looked for specific names (fore and surname), I was finding the same names across the religious divide, then as now.
Whatever one may feel about the national question, or indeed the somewhat fraught issue of 'Ulster-Scots' as a separate people or culture, it seems to me that genetics and historical documents indicate that the people of the North of Ireland are one people and always have been.
 

caulfield

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The UVF were also relatively small.
The thing that has struck me from doing this family research is on the one hand the lack of support among people who would have been staunch unionists, and on the other the fact that some people were trying to inflate the numbers by allowing kids to sign.
There's no doubt the UVF at the time were a genuine threat, just as the Provos were in the Seventies and Eighties.
But just like the Provos, I'm beginning to wonder to what extent the position espoused by the UVF in 1912 enjoyed popular support.
Normally, people point to Carson's Covenant as evidence of that support. But those half million signatures are beginning to look a bit suspect to me now.
Nearly all my own descendants all signed, as far as I can tell. In fact I've found more on the Covenant than on the national census from 1911 so support must have been fairly wide. The only one who didn't was my grandfather. He was the only one who went on to fight in the war so for some people the covenant and "loyalty" to Britain wasn't worth the paper it was written on!
 

JCSkinner

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Aye, there's a bit of that in my family too.
My own grandfather didn't sign, though he subsequently ended up quite high in the OO and fought in the trenches.
His brother did sign the Covenant, then fecked off abroad when war was declared.
Strangely, I've got one sole Catholic ancestor who appears to have signed the Covenant too. It seems then as now there is a tiny rump of Catholics who prefer British subjugation (ie being British subjects) to self-determination.
Looking at the carnage wreaked on the Republic's economy by Fianna Fail currently, it becomes difficult to question that wisdom in some circumstances.
 

Aindriu

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It seems then as now there is a tiny rump of Catholics who prefer British subjugation (ie being British subjects) to self-determination.
Looking at the carnage wreaked on the Republic's economy by Fianna Fail currently, it becomes difficult to question that wisdom in some circumstances.
Have you seen what Gordo has done in the UK? Not as bad as here I grant you but not brilliant either.

I had two grandfathers who fought in WW1 yet neither could have been considered to be royalist or loyalist. I heard many tales about the Black and Tans from one of my grandmothers as a wain.

I think in some cases it was a case of "better the devil you know". We humans are creatures of habit and very resistant to change.
 

Nem

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Very interesting JC! Intriguing to see that Presbyterians relatives decided not sign it, considering the covenant is based on the 17th Century Scottish documents related to Presbyterianism. Actually, it would be well worth a visit to PRONI I'd say to check the originals. While their search function is fantastic it doesn't really compare to actually holding the documents in your hands or look at them on MF.

There is an interesting, if rather polemic book that compares the Ulster Covenanters to the Afrikaners in South Africa and Jewish settlers in Isreal in a religious context. Not for the faint-hearted by the way and some Bible knowledge required (sadly lacking in my case). Donald Harman Akenson, God's Peoples: covenant and land in South Africa, Israel and Ulster (Cornell 1992)

 

kerdasi amaq

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Looking at the carnage wreaked on the Republic's economy by Fianna Fail currently, it becomes difficult to question that wisdom in some circumstances.
I blame the protestants for that; what Ireland needs is a dose protestant rectitude!:D To keep Fianna Fail honest.
 

mrmicra

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Nearly all my own descendants all signed, as far as I can tell. In fact I've found more on the Covenant than on the national census from 1911 so support must have been fairly wide. The only one who didn't was my grandfather. He was the only one who went on to fight in the war so for some people the covenant and "loyalty" to Britain wasn't worth the paper it was written on!
This was one of CS Lewis's hobby horses.
By the way I'd reccomend A Hidden Ulster by O'Snodaigh for an interesting perspective. My great aunt signed the Covenant, on the 1911 census she gave her religion as Roman Catholic and she signed in the DED where she resided as a 13 year old domestic servant.
 
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Dasayev

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Whatever about the names, the Ulster Covenant was just another example of the Unionists throwing the rattle out of the pram. So I'd say it was just another empty threat.

Jeremiah MacVeagh M.P. in 1911 wrote

The Ulster idea of loyalty is to threaten to rebel against the King every time that Parliament proposes a reform for Ireland. The threat is worn almost threadbare, for it did duty at the time of Catholic Emancipation, of Disestablishment, of Municipal Reform Act, of the Ballot Act, and of the Land Act of 1881....

Irrespective of the fact that to threaten to rebel against constituted authority is the very negation of loyality, we had one Reverend orator who threatened that if Queen Victoria would give Royal Assent to the Disestablishment Act, "her Crown would be kicked into the Boyne"; another who boasted that his loyality was strictly "conditional"; another, who at the passing of the Irish University Act, charged King Edward with being "in league with the Jesuits"; another who, in the Belfast Orange Hall, declared that they would "make his Throne rock" if he allowed his niece to marry the King of Spain; another, who declared a few weeks ago that if the Home Rule Bill was passed, the "loyalists" would start a movement for an Irish Republic...
Looking at the carnage wreaked on the Republic's economy by Fianna Fail currently, it becomes difficult to question that wisdom in some circumstances.

John Bright MP said:
These Ulstermen have stood in the way of improvement in the Franchise, in the Church, and in the Land question. They have purchased Protestant ascendancy; and the price paid for it is the ruin and degradation of their country.
A Protestant ascendancy or a Fianna Fáil ascendancy have been equally ruinous, it would seem
 

glenceo

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What might have been....

This is one of the most interesting counterfactuals in Irish History.

IMHO - The Ulster Covenant and 1912 UVF was definitely a real threat to Home Rule.

First, size - 240K men signed the covenant and 260K women. The UVF itself numbered 81,000 in 1914 according th ethe RIC. (about 6 times the size of the current Irish Army). An audit in 1914 showed that they had acquired over 50,000 rifles (35,000 from the large gun-running incident alone) and 3 Million rounds of ammunition so they were very well-armed. By comparison, the Irish Volunteers had about 160K volunteers and about 11,000 rifles and not much ammunition.

In places 1919-21, the IRA were still raiding protestant farms in search of these weapons.

They also had a hard-core of former British officers and were conducting exercises at the Battalion and Brigade -unit level. Something that the Irish Army does not do today!!!

They also had widespread co-operation from critical elements of the civilian infrastructure. For example, the train companies, local Royal Mail, major shops and wholesalers and banks.

There were also significant pockets of strengthen - even in nationalist areas (e.g. in Donegal there were 3,000 heavily armed UVF ranged against 2,500 pro-Home Rule volunteers with few weapons).

Nordirland in Geschichte und Gegenwart - Google Books

Ideology, mobilization, and the ... - Google Books

The British Army in 1912 was tiny (250K and stretched accross an Empire). In the desperate first days of WW1 when national survival was at stake, the BEF could only muster 150,000 men to send to France.

Second, the UVF enjoyed some pretty hefty political support at the time. Remember the Curragh Mutiny - a large % of the British officer class would not have attacked the UVF, plus a sizable and influential segment of the English population would have been bitterly opposed to any millitary action. Kinship and sense of common identity - as well as British nationalism were much stronger then. This would have crystalized if British forces or the RIC killed any loyalists.

If anything, the UVF were getting more confidence and growing more aggressive in Summer 1914. Without the intervention of the British Army, nationalists had nothing to stand up to them with - in the short term.

Third, would they have fought? Well they came very close to it on several occasions. In Letterkenny, there were clashes with hostile crowds - and an armed clash was only averted by local clergy. In Milford, in Donegal, the local UVF drill party fired over the heads of a nationalist crowd that had gathered to jeer them.

The closest to an actual war came near Derry when the local UVF commander was only just disuaded from firing on and stopping a train carrying RIC men who had just seized weapons. Local nationalists were also convinced they would have fought - with contemporary sources indicating a lot of tension and fear. Relations

Personally, I'm glad that this never came to pass. Bad as WW1 and 1919-1921were, I think the highly armed communal violence in Ulster (9 counties) would have made 1969-1972 look like a tea party and set back community relations to 1641.

It would have involved neighbours killing neighbours in large pitched battles in the context of long-held prejudices and historical greivances. Unionists and nationalists spoke of taking minorities as hostages. Think Bosnia.
 
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The level of inter-marriage and 'turning' (both ways) that went on in Ulster is interesting, being descended solidly from rural Irish-speaking Catholics myself. I wonder how many posters here have unionist as well as nationalist forebears? I imagine there was even more inter-marriage and turning during the 18th Century. The family-tracing lark is great crack, isn't it?
 

femmefatale

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The level of inter-marriage and 'turning' (both ways) that went on in Ulster is interesting, being descended solidly from rural Irish-speaking Catholics myself. I wonder how many posters here have unionist as well as nationalist forebears? I imagine there was even more inter-marriage and turning during the 18th Century. The family-tracing lark is great crack, isn't it?
You seem to be making some claim to ethnic purity here. I wonder how you can be so sure about your lineage.
 
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