The Ulster Volunteers
In many ways, the Ulster Volunteers were not as revolutionary an organisation as they might appear on first assessment. After all, Ireland had seen the formation of just such bodies of men in the 18th century, the Irish Volunteers. Those earlier volunteers however were not originally envisioned as a force opposed to government policy even if, over time, they developed in that direction, achieved some success and were eventually disbanded. The Ulster Volunteers were formed in 1912 by Edward Carson and James Craig (later first Prime Minister of Northern Ireland) with the explicit intent of bringing pressure on the British government. Its purpose was policy change, and that policy was Irish Home Rule, to which the Volunteers and its founders were vigourously opposed.
They were not alone in forming a militia in those strange decades of the early 20th Century in Ireland. The labour movement created the Irish Citizens Army in response to their own crisis, the Lockout of 1913. In response to the formation of the Ulster Volunteers, Nationalists formed the Irish Volunteers which would morph later in the Irish Republican Army.
The key difference between the Nationalist motivated forces and the Unionist one, was that to some degree, the activities of the Unionists were, if not approved of by the government and establishment, then allowed to go ahead without impediment. This was clear when the Ulster Volunteers imported massive amounts of arms and ammunition intro Larne in 1914. The scheme succeeded in landing some 25,000 rifles and up to 4 million rounds of ammunition.
When their Nationalist counterparts attempted a much less ambitious importation at Howth, the result was much less impressive. 1,000 rifles. What is more, the Dublin Metropolitan Police and a unit from the King's Own Scottish Borderers ended the day by shooting into an angry crowd and killing 3 or 4 civilians depending on the report, and wounding several others.
However, like the bulk of the Irish Volunteers, the concerns of the Ulster Volunteers changed dramatically on the outbreak of war in August 1914. They suffered terribly and much like their fellow islanders died in huge numbers on beaches and in trenches on battlefields from Gallipoli to the Somme.
The war essentially brought the movement to an end, but some of the members partook in the years of strife and violence that followed the wars and others were incorporated into the Ulster Special Constabulary who became, for the Catholic population in those difficult years and beyond, figures of hate and fear.
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