Revolution and change

The years 2016 to 2022 are the 100-year anniversaries of a period of revolutionary change in Ireland covering the Easter Rising to Irish Independence and partition, the establishment of Northern Ireland. In these stories I have tried to imagine how this often-violent time influenced the lives of my grandparent’s generation, the Davis and Gillmor families in north Co Leitrim; firstly, to look back a few generations.

Sash believed to have been worn by Thomas Davis.

In 1782 and 1798 John Davis from Glenboy and Robert Davis from Lurganboy were signatories on two letters to Lord Clements, the local landlord.  The first requested help to alleviate the declining fortunes of Manorhamilton including the rights to re-establish distilleries, the need for an annual and quarterly court sittings and support for the linen and yarn trade.

The second letter asked Lord Clements to influence the government to build a proper barracks for troops in Manorhamilton citing “the frequent robberies and murders committed in these and adjoining parts by people called Defenders and other daring violators of law and peace”.  It was in this year that the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland was launched to govern the growing numbers of Loyal Orange Institutions set up to counter the perceived threat from the Defenders and others.

As tenant farmers the Davis’s sympathies lay with the Protestant Ascendancy and a continuing link with England, not surprising given they were part of a minority Protestant community, close to Ulster, with roots in the 17-century plantation.

At the height of the Famine, Thomas Davis, born in Glenboy in 1827 joined the Dublin Metropolitan Police leaving the farm he shared with his brother. Thomas was a member of a Cavan Orange Lodge LOL 177, previously the Cavan Militia. In 1861 he emigrated to Canada leaving his pregnant wife Frances and their three young children at Boggaun, circumstances which suggest some haste. Frances and her children made the arduous journey on their own the following year.

In Canada, Thomas claimed a settler’s plot north of Toronto. He Joined the local Orange Order and his obituary tells that “Bro Davis … was connected with the 36th Battalion and served his country during the Fenian raid in 1866.” This is likely to have been at the Battle of Ridgeway, a skirmish in Southern Ontario.

The Famine fuelled the drive for land reform and a vigorous political campaign for Home Rule begun late 1800’s. This was met with general hostility from the Protestant community, opposition focused by Unionist and Orange groups. Significant Protestant emigration out of Leitrim and Ireland began during this time.

In North Leitrim there were 6 orange lodges: Glenboy, Manorhamilton, Bohey, Kinlough, Gortinar, Tullyskearney, Bohey being the largest, reflecting a concentration of Protestant small farmers. Protest meetings against Home Rule were organised throughout the country. In June 1912 a large meeting of farmers in Manorhamilton, which was addressed by the Unionist, Major Crofton, spilled out of the market-house onto the street.  It is most likely that the Davis and Gillmor families were represented.

At the height of opposition in 1914 there were four Ulster Volunteer branches in Co Leitrim, the only ones outside Ulster. The Volunteers were a unionist militia founded to block Home Rule.  The strength of Protestant dissent varied from area to area depending on the makeup of the community and the presence of radical leaders or firebrands.

Part of report on Glenboy Soiree 1890. (Full transcript here)

Alick (Alexander) Davis farmed at Glenboy and in 1890 he was Worshipful Master (Chairman) of the local Glenboy Orange branch.  His wife, Sarah’s family, the Mealys (O’Malley) were similarly active in the nearby Tullyskearney lodge. In 1894 the annual Soiree of the Glenboy Lodge was held in Alick’s house and a report of the meeting outlines the tea and cakes, recitations, and opposition to Home Rule. The Parish clergyman Rev Isaac Coulter present at Alick’s house that evening counselled restraint saying that they disapproved to a break with England and not with our Catholic neighbours or their religion, a message he repeated elsewhere.

With the outbreak of WWI in July 1914 all Protestant opposition to Home Rule in the North West ended. Despite many local Unionists travelling by train to Edward Carson’s Ulster Day rally in Enniskillen, few Leitrim Protestants heeded his subsequent call to join Kitchener’s WW1 Army. Meanwhile, Protestant emigration continued but had not yet peaked.

During the War of Independence (1919 – 21) there was sporadic low-level intimidation of Protestants in Leitrim. While the IRA’s target was the British Army and RIC there was no systematic campaign against Protestants. Those with ardent Unionist views or who were suspected as being British spies or informers, drew attention to themselves, and some were shot. In May 1922 seven Protestant farmers at Carrigeencor, near Bohey were put out of their homes to accommodate refugees from Belfast, where open warfare during March, April and May that year had claimed 170 lives, with many more casualties and displaced families. The Carrigeencor families were back in their homes a few days later following political representations, some getting compensation. (One of these farms, at Rockmount was purchased by my brother Nigel in the late 1970s.)

As Independence and partition became a reality in 1921 there was no visible Protestant resistance. A local Methodist minister Revd Walmsley remembered, perhaps with some exaggeration, that ‘Round Manorhamilton there was a regular stampede of Protestants’ – leaving. By then, perhaps there was a sense of the inevitable, that all had been lost; those who felt most aggrieved sold up and left, while those who remained kept their heads down and got on with their lives.

Irish Guards at the Third Battle of Ypres in 1917 (Wikepedia)

My Grandfather Richard’s older siblings had grown up in pre-revolutionary Ireland. His brother James joined the Army and died in Ireland aged twenty-seven, possibly having seen action in an African Colonial war; Robert, at eighteen, joined the Royal Artillery at Ebrington Barracks in Derry in 1886, and on completing his twelve years’ service he joined the RIC, retiring to live with his wife in Co Sligo. William emigrated about 1900 to South Africa to join the South African Constabulary, policing captured Boer republics.

Of the two eldest brothers, Thomas had emigrated to Canada in 1886 while John settled in Co Meath in 1912. Alex was at this time in Co Meath. (see earlier story Alex Davis) Richard as the youngest was eventually the only brother left on the farm. One month before Armistice Day in 1918 he married Annie Gillmor. Richard’s only sister Mary Jane continued to live at Boggaun. (See pervious blog Mary Jane Davis.)

Most of my Grandmother Annie’s siblings were young teenagers during this tumultuous period, 1916-1922. Her eldest brother Herbert, however joined the Irish Guards in 1916 at twenty-three and was discharged as “medically unfit” after two years, having suffered nerve gas injuries in the WW1 trenches. A couple of years later emigrated to Alberta in Canada. (See earlier story “Finding Bertie Gillmor”.) Annie’s two sisters married and remained in Ireland; by 1945 all her six brothers had emigrated or moved to Northern Ireland.

In a young Ireland asserting its independence most remaining Protestant families felt it wise to keep quiet, mourning the loss and separation of partition; Orange sashes were hidden or destroyed, family histories censored and suppressed, under a blanket of silence.



Letter 1782 signed by John and Robert Davis is found in the Clements Estate records, Killadoon Papers, National Library of Ireland.

Letter 1798 quoted in A Flame Now Quenched, Rebels and Frenchmen in Leitrim 1793-1798, Liam Kelly, original source National Library of Ireland.

For more details of the Battle of Ridgeway and the Canadian Fenian Wars see

The Protestant experience of revolution in County Leitrim, 1911-1928, Miriam Moffitt, a detailed account of this period.

Thanks to Quincey Dougan for the paper cutting on the Glenboy Orange Lodge Soiree 1890.

Alexander (Alick) Davis, Glenboy 1830-1906, was my Great Granduncle.

Break in. Break out.

“You’re suggesting we break into the school – when we’re about to break out!”

Most of the culprits, but not all, are included in this photograph of Ballymena Academy Prefects 1971. The assembly hall’s large windows are on the right.

We are in the small front room of Joan’s house in Ballymena on a late April evening as the days lengthen. There’s a piano against the wall, we are sitting on the floor around a low table, a record player in the corner plays The Beatles “Let It Be”. The 1971 A-level exams are two months away, the end of classes some weeks before that.  We are planning a stunt at the school, a farewell gesture, but not everyone is sure about it.

A week later and back in Joan’s house, all six of us are now on board with a plan to stage a short performance at morning assembly; the piano is central. We rehearse the piece many times until we are confident we can pull it off. It involves basic physics and electricity. Joan’s mother is never fazed when we regularly take her piano apart.

There is indeed a childish element to the prank, wanting to get our own back in some way. The headmaster of The Academy, Willie Moll, is an uncompromising disciplinarian. He has left a mark on all of us. If we get this right, maybe we can bring a smile to his face.

To set the piece up we must break into the school.  There is a rumour that security dogs patrol nightly after other end-of-school pranks, but a teacher tells us otherwise.

At 2 am one cloudy night in May, with an occasional crescent moon breaking through, five of us gathered in a lane way on the edge of town. We carried the few items we needed over the cross-country track at the boundary, across the pitches and running track, up to the rear of blocky school building, hoping we haven’t been seen.  The night is quiet except for the occasional bark of a distant dog. Climbing in through a changing room window left open earlier, we stepped into the empty school.

Quiet as mice we walked through the dark corridors, familiar yet errie. In the assembly hall we closed the blackout curtains and put on a few lights. We were nervous and a short break for tea and coffee from a vending machine helped settle us to the task.  One of us kept a constant watch on the caretaker’s house some 200 yards away.

Forty-five minutes later we have modified the piano, set up the other equipment and putting everything back in place. We left no trace, no empty coffee cups, no signs of ever being there. Then we went out of the school and across the pitches by the same route, and home.

The Academy had a morning routine of assembly like many schools; a hymn, a prayer and announcements. The teaching staff in their black robes sit in rows behind the headmaster. He stands behind a small lectern out front. To the right of the stage as you looked on is the piano and the pianist. Heavy black curtains frame the stage left and right and students sit facing it.

Assembly should have livened up when the pianist, accompanying the hymn struck Middle C for the first time, but when she did nothing happened. After the hymn she is observed gently nudging the key, aware that something is not right on the piano.

The headmaster finished his announcements, glanced over his shoulder as the staff rise to leave, scanned the assembled pupils, raised himself on his toes and leaned forward to clearly announce “Cla.a..” as the pianist finally liberated Middle C and John Lennon’s guitar intro to “I feel fine” cut through the assembly hall from somewhere above the piano. Teachers still on the stage turned sharply, the pupils about to rise stopped, the headmaster froze.

“Baby’s good to me, you know
She’s happy as can be, you know
She said so
I’m in love with her and I feel fine”

A few seconds after the Beatles launched into “I Feel Fine”, up in the lighting rigging, two small boxes are pulled over by a thread wound around the record player’s spindle. Confetti spilled out in a colourful cloud, falling over the headmaster, over the stage and out onto the students on the floor.

The song played just over 2 minutes by which time the last pieces of confetti have fluttered to the floor. What took place during this time, we can only imagine.

Those of us, including Joan, that planned it and carried it out – and we were never caught – have had to satisfy ourselves with second-hand accounts, and in the story’s regular retelling. What we do know is that assembly that day broke up in a buzz of excitement and noise, never witnessed before.