View Full Version : The Ulster Covenant -- History and Database of Signatories

Sunday, December 4th, 2005, 04:57 PM
The following is from the Public Records Office of Northern Ireland (http://www.proni.gov.uk/) and is presented here free of charge to those who have expressed interest in them for non-profit research and educational purposes in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. section 107:


The archive of the Ulster Unionist Council, held by the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI), contains just under half a million original signatures and addresses of the men who, on 28 September 1912, signed the Ulster Covenant, and of the women who signed the parallel Declaration. In total, the Covenant was signed by 237,368 men, and the Declaration by 234,046 women.

Photograph of Carson signing the Covenant.
(PRONI INF/7A/2/48)

Previously the Covenant was difficult and very time-consuming to access and, consequently, it was under-used. PRONI has now improved access by digitising all the signatures, in recognition that the on-line database should make a significant contribution to both genealogical research and cultural tourism.

Crowd scene outside Belfast City Hall on 'Ulster Day'.
(PRONI INF/7A/2/40)

Sunday, December 4th, 2005, 05:00 PM

The Ulster Covenant was part of a response by Ulster Unionists to the efforts of successive Westminster governments to settle the running sore of the 'Irish Question' by giving Ireland a limited measure of local autonomy known as 'Home Rule'. The first two Home Rule Bills, in 1886 and 1893, had been rejected by Parliament, following concerted pressure from Unionists in Great Britain and Ireland.

In June 1892 a massive popular demonstration in Belfast, the Ulster Convention, attracted some 20,000 opponents of Home Rule from throughout Ulster, and was chaired by the Duke of Abercorn. In April 1912 Asquith introduced the Third Home Rule Bill, in which the authority of the United Kingdom Government "over all persons, matters and things in Ireland" was clearly acknowledged.

On the eve of the Bill's introduction, 9 April, another mass demonstration was held at Balmoral, Belfast, attended by about 200,000 Unionists, including contingents from the Orange Order and Unionists Clubs which marched from the city centre. The demonstration was addressed by, among others, Sir Edward Carson, leader of the Irish Unionist Party, and was supported by the presence of a large number of English and Scottish Conservative MPs, and by their new leader Andrew Bonar Law, who assured his listeners that they were not alone as their cause was also that of the Empire.

The Duke of Abercorn.
(PRONI D/1507/A/3/14)

Back at Westminster, Unionists put up fierce opposition to each stage of the Home Rule Bill, and the third reading was not carried until January 1913, after which the Bill received its expected defeat in the House of Lords. The outbreak of World War I then halted further progress.

Unionist Clubs in Donegall Square North marching to demonstration at Balmoral, 9 April 1912.
(PRONI INF/7A/2/8)


Sunday, December 4th, 2005, 05:03 PM

While the Home Rule Bill dragged its way through the Commons, the Ulster Unionists continued making their preparations for active resistance. In January 1912 they had begun to raise and train openly a military force which became known as the Ulster Volunteers. Carson and James Craig (the Unionist MP for East Down) appreciated the importance of maintaining discipline among their followers, partly for propaganda value — to convince public opinion at home and abroad of the solidarity, determination and self-control of Unionists — and tightened up their organisation accordingly.

A solemn and binding oath to resist Home Rule was one means by which Carson and Craig believed they could maintain both cohesion and discipline in their organisation. After much consideration as to wording, it was suggested that a model might be the Scottish National Covenant of 1638 which was a protest against the King's right to determine how the Scottish Church should be governed. A special commission was deputed to adapt the wording to suit Ulster's circumstances, and it was then realised that a shorter and plainer-English version would be more suitable.

This was drafted by Thomas Sinclair, a Belfast merchant and leader of the Ulster Liberal Unionism that had broken with the Liberal party on the Home Rule issue. When it was submitted to the Protestant Churches a crucial change and note of caution was introduced: the Presbyterians advised that the obligations on signatories should be confined to the present crisis as no one could predict what circumstances might arise in the future.

On 17 August newspapers announced that Saturday, 28 September, was to be 'Ulster Day', when Unionists would dedicate themselves to the Covenant. James Craig masterminded a Covenant campaign of 11 meetings held over 10 days in September 1912, beginning in west Ulster and sweeping towards a crescendo in Belfast. Carson was the principal speaker at these rallies to explain the purpose of the Covenant and the responsibilities involved in signing.

Front cover of programme for Ulster Unionist demonstration at Balmoral.
(PRONI D/1507/A/3/14)

The first meeting was held on 18 September at Enniskillen, where Carson was met at the station by two squadrons of mounted volunteers from the Fermanagh gentry and farmers. From there he was escorted to Portora Hill, where 40,000 members of Unionist clubs marched past him. Next day the text of the Covenant was made available to the press. Those who signed would pledge "to stand by one another in defending for ourselves and our children our cherished position of equal citizenship in the United Kingdom and in using all means which may be found necessary to defeat the present conspiracy to set up a Home Rule parliament in Dublin".

The wording of the Declaration which women would sign differed from that of the Covenant. It allowed women, "to associate with the men of Ulster in their uncompromising opposition to the Home Rule Bill now before Parliament". That evening's meeting was at Lisburn, County Antrim, where a large number of men paraded carrying dummy wooden rifles, accompanied by bands with torches, fifes and drums. This was the scene at the meetings in various towns over the next week, where the slogan "We will not have Home Rule" was adopted and then abbreviated to “We won't have it".

Interior of Ulster Hall during eve of Covenant rally.
(Ulster Museum)

Scene outside Ulster Hall on eve of Covenant Day.
(Ulster Museum)

The Covenant campaign culminated in an eve-of-Covenant rally in Belfast's Ulster Hall, where Col. R H Wallace, Provincial Grand Secretary of the Ulster area of the Orange Institution, presented Carson with an ancient-looking yellow silk banner, claimed to have been carried by King William’s troops at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. This symbolism evoked deep emotion in Carson who exclaimed: "May this flag ever float over a people that can boast of civil and religious liberty!" Craig then gave Carson a silver key symbolising Ulster as the key to the political situation, and a silver pen with which to sign the Covenant.

Carson signing the Covenant. Beside him stands Craig and behind him is the banner claimed to have been carried at the Boyne.
(PRONI INF/7A/2/47)


Sunday, December 4th, 2005, 05:05 PM

On 23 September 1912 the Ulster Unionist Council (UUC) passed a resolution pledging itself to the Covenant and set out a case for doing so. During its meeting one of the largest Union Flags ever made - measuring 48 by 25 feet - was hung as a backdrop.

A central Ulster Day Committee was appointed to handle preparations for obtaining as many signatures as possible at various centres throughout Ulster. The Committee was headed by Dawson Bates, Secretary of the UUC, Col. TVP McCammon of the Orange Order and Captain Frank Hall representing the Unionist Clubs.

Circulars were distributed to local Ulster Day Committees which arranged for Unionists to have the opportunity to sign the Covenant in their own districts, and to make sure that over 500 halls and other suitable premises were made available.

On Wednesday, 25 September, 700 large cardboard boxes containing copies of the Covenant and the Declaration printed on cardboard in large bold type for display in halls, and forms for signing, were sent out from Belfast's Old Town Hall for distribution in the city and in rural areas. The forms were foolscap-sized sheets, with spaces for ten signatures, made up into blocks of ten sheets per folder, and headed by the text of the Covenant together with the parliamentary division, district and place of signing. Underneath were lines ruled for names and addresses of signatories.

Preparations for dispatching boxes of Covenant forms.
(PRONI D/3275/2)

Additional information on the folder cover was the agent's name. Also sent were what would become souvenirs for signatories, individual parchment copies of their signatures in old English type and headed with the Red Hand of Ulster.


Sunday, December 4th, 2005, 05:06 PM
Souvenir copy of Women’s Declaration.
(PRONI D/1327/3/27)


Sunday, December 4th, 2005, 05:07 PM
Carson's souvenir parchment Covenant.
(PRONI D/1496/3)


Sunday, December 4th, 2005, 05:12 PM

The signing of the Covenant was conducted in an atmosphere of near religious fervour, appearing to many like a crusade, with comparisons being drawn between the Ulster Covenant and the Old Testament Covenant of the Israelites.

Religious services to invoke divine aid and to encourage signatures were held throughout in Protestant churches with the favoured hymn being 'O God, our help in ages past'. Charles Frederick D'Arcy, later Archbishop of Armagh, stated his Church’s reason for supporting the Covenant: "We hold that no power, not even the British Parliament, has the right to deprive us of our heritage of British citizenship".

Factories and the shipyard in Belfast were idle and silent, allowing their workers the opportunity to attend church and then to congregate at the City Hall. The church services ended about noon. Carson and other Unionist leaders left the Ulster Hall and walked the short distance along Bedford Street to the City Hall, preceded by the Boyne Standard and with a guard of men wearing bowler hats and carrying sticks. A body of 2,500 men drawn from Orange lodges and Unionist Clubs marshalled the crowds outside the City Hall throughout the day.

Lord Charles Beresford, FE Smith, Craig, Carson and other leaders arriving at Belfast City Hall.
(PRONI INF/7A/2/36)

Crowd scene outside Belfast City Hall on 'Ulster Day'.
(PRONI INF/7A/2/41)

At the City Hall entrance Carson was welcomed by the Lord Mayor and Corporation, the Poor Law Guardians, the Water Board and the Harbour Commissioners. Inside, a circular table draped with the Union Flag was placed in the entrance hall. On it was set the Covenant together with a silver inkstand and Carson’s silver pen. Carson signed first, followed by Lord Londonderry and by representatives of the Protestant Churches, and then by James Craig.

The Unionist Club marshals admitted the general public in batches of four or five hundred at a time until 11pm. Lines of specially made temporary desks set out along the corridors allowed 540 signatures to be taken at a time. Elsewhere there were similar scenes of people enthusiastic to sign. At the Ulster Hall women signed the Declaration. The Duke of Abercorn, in failing health, signed under an oak tree on his estate at Baronscourt. Lord Templetown signed at Castle Upton on an old drum of the Templepatrick Infantry.

At Belfast City Hall 2,500 members of Unionist Clubs of Ireland guarded the grounds. They were organised in sections of 500, all under the command of Major (later Colonel) Fred H Crawford, organiser of the 1914 gun-running. The photograph shows a section of these guards, with staves, taking up position. The inscription on the red, white and blue armbands is 'City Hall guard'.
(PRONI INF/7A/2/32)

Viscount Templetown.
(PRONI D/1507/A/3/14)

Martin Ross (of Somerville & Ross) wrote:

"Four at a time the men stooped and and fixed their signatures and were quickly replaced by the next batch. Down the street in a market house the women were signing, women who had come in flagged motors, and on bicycles and on foot... In the City Hall of Belfast the people were signing at the rate of about a hundred and fifty a minute; here there was no hypnotic force of dense masses, no whirlwind of emotion, only the unadorned and individual action of those who had left their fields and taken their lives and liberties in their hands laying them forth in the open sunshine as the measure of their resolve".

Contrary to popular belief, only one signature is believed to have been in blood, that of Frederick Hugh Crawford, who was to become the Ulster Volunteers’ Director of Ordnance.

Pen used by Col F.H. Crawford to sign the Covenant.
(Ulster Museum)

In Dublin the Covenant was signed by 2,000 men who could prove that they were born in Ulster. It was also signed in major cities in England and Scotland, and in places further afield including aboard the SS Lake Champlain. From this vessel a letter was received attaching the signatures of 12 second-class passengers, four men and eight women. Among the third-class passengers, 34 had also got the Covenant text, stuck it to a piece of paper and signed.

On the evening of Ulster Day Carson left the Ulster Club in Belfast to travel by wagonette the short distance to the docks, where he boarded the steamer for Liverpool. A journey that should have taken a few minutes took an hour, as around 70,000 people crammed Castle Place beseeching Carson not to leave. As the steamer slowly made its way up Belfast Lough the vast crowd stood singing "Rule Britannia" and "God Save the King". When Carson went ashore at Liverpool next morning a 150,000-strong crowd greeted him with "O God our help in ages past" and conducted him in procession.


Sunday, December 4th, 2005, 05:15 PM

One of the most striking features of the Covenant campaign and of its signing was the breadth of support given to it across all classes of Unionism, including labourers, professionals, gentry, aristocracy and clergy. Another feature was the high turn-out of women to sign the Declaration - 228,991 women signed in Ulster compared to 218,206 men, and 5,055 women signed elsewhere as against 19,162 men, making a grand total of 471,414.

It is not clear what effect the Ulster Covenant campaign had on the Home Rule Bill's parliamentary progress. When Parliament reconvened for its autumn session, Asquith tried to force the Bill through the Commons by ruthless use of the guillotine, but on 11 November it was narrowly defeated by 228 votes to 206. Uproar and acrimony ensued in the Commons. By early 1913 things had quietened down again in the House. The Home Rule Bill continued to be debated hotly, and finally passed the Commons only to be thrown out by the Lords at the end of January, by 326 votes to 69. A period of time had then to elapse before the Bill could become law (the Lords had only a power to delay). By then it was 1914, War had broken out, and a compromise was agreed that the Bill would pass into law accompanied by a suspending Act, effectively postponing Home Rule until peacetime.

First ten signatures of the Covenant.
(PRONI INF/7A/2/51)

Ulster Covenant commemorative medal.
(Ulster Museum)

Back in Ulster the Covenant organisers had demonstrated their ability to mobilise huge numbers of people for their cause. In January 1913 this was carried a stage further when the Ulster Unionist Council decided that the Volunteers should become the Ulster Volunteer Force and should be given training in the use of firearms. Recruitment was to be limited to 100,000 men between the ages of 17 and 65 who had signed the Covenant. Thus the stage was set for the next phase of resistance to Home Rule.

View of Belfast City Hall grounds and crowds
(PRONI INF/7A/2/44)


Sunday, December 4th, 2005, 05:15 PM
Click here (http://www.proni.gov.uk/ulstercovenantsearch/) to search the database of signatories.

Click here (http://www.proni.gov.uk/ulstercovenant/searchtips/index.html) for search tips and hints.

Sunday, December 4th, 2005, 07:43 PM
"Ulster," by Rudyard Kipling

The dark eleventh hour
Draws on and sees us sold
To every evil power
We fought against of old.
Rebellion, rapine hate
Oppression, wrong and greed
Are loosed to rule our fate,
By England's act and deed.

The Faith in which we stand,
The laws we made and guard,
Our honour, lives, and land
Are given for reward
To Murder done by night,
To Treason taught by day,
To folly, sloth, and spite,
And we are thrust away.

The blood our fathers spilt,
Our love, our toils, our pains,
Are counted us for guilt,
And only bind our chains.
Before an Empire's eyes
The traitor claims his price.
What need of further lies?
We are the sacrifice.

We asked no more than leave
To reap where we had sown,
Through good and ill to cleave
To our own flag and throne.
Now England's shot and steel
Beneath that flag must show
How loyal hearts should kneel
To England's oldest foe.

We know the war prepared
On every peaceful home,
We know the hells declared
For such as serve not Rome --
The terror, threats, and dread
In market, hearth, and field --
We know, when all is said,
We perish if we yield.

Believe, we dare not boast,
Believe, we do not fear --
We stand to pay the cost
In all that men hold dear.
What answer from the North?
One Law, one Land, one Throne.
If England drive us forth
We shall not fall alone!

Saturday, September 27th, 2008, 02:11 AM
The Ulster Covenant was a defining moment in the history of both Ulster, and Britain as a whole.

It alluded to a shared belief in a way of life - that could be said to include Reformed Christianity, a British identity, a staunch work-ethic and belief in personal responsibility and duty - not only free from the coercion of a government, but in fact in open defiance of a government which wished to silence them.