On a glorious sunny afternoon, I set off, on a road-trip through Tyrone and Armagh until I finally reached the Cahans Presbyterian Church on the outskirts of Monaghan, on the road to Cootehill. The Church was closed a number of years ago and as a consequence, it deteriorated quite severely. Now works are underway trying to bring the building back into use as a community facility. It was here that the Clogher Historical Society organised their meeting, and on arrival, the first item of interest that I spotted was the blue plaque in memory of Major David Nelson. V.C. David was a local boy, born at Darraghlan, Stranooden, Co Monaghan and with his family he attended the Cahans Presbyterian Church. He joined the Royal Field Artillery as a private in 1904, and later transferred to the Royal Horse Artillery. When War started in 1914, he was one of the many Irish soldiers who served in the British Expeditionary Force was promoted to Sergeant of L Battery on the day after War was declared. On the 1st September 1914 whilst serving at Nery in France his battery of six guns came under sustained German attack. Five of the guns were destroyed but Sergeant Nelson and his three men crew kept firing and the accuracy of this remaining gun was such that the Germans suffered serious losses and were forced to retreat. During the battle Sergeant Nelson received a serious shrapnel wound on his right hand side and a less serious wound on the thigh.
Most people have never heard of the village of Nery, but this was one of the many bloody battles that made up the story of “The Retreat from Mons” when the British Army suffered a serious defeat at the hands of vastly superior forces. And as the story of L Battery clearly shows, the Germans did not have it all their own way. Sergeant Nelson was invited to Buckingham Palace where he was presented with his Victoria Cross by King George V himself. He returned to the front and fought on, through most of the major battles of the War. He was steadily promoted, reaching the rank of Major and his final posting to France in 1918 was on an eight week reconnaissance mission. Sadly his Battery Mess was hit by a shell and Major Nelson was seriously wounded. He died the following day from his injuries and his remains were buried at Lillers Communal Cemetery, Pas de Calais in France. Its sad to think that here was a man who served right through the horrors of the First World War winning the supreme award for gallantry and then gets killed in the last year of the war. This is the story of a very brave Monaghan Man, whose memorial plaque sits quietly on the wall of an old Church, on a back road to Ballybay.
However, on this particular evening there was a crowded car-park, overflowing into the adjacent road and a good turn-out of locals to hear Wor Bro Gerald Reilly speak on the topic entitled – A Strange Confluence – Bleachers, Presbyterians and Freemasons in Rebellion 1764 – 1797. Our hosts The Clogher Historical Society had laid their arrangements very well, and as we arrived we had the option to peruse their extensive collection of books etc that were available for purchase, and then we could also enjoy a cup of tea and a bun, until the presentation finally begun.
As a boy in the year 1948 Gerald Reilly first arrived at Lakeview, Lower Main Street, Ballybay to spend the summer with relatives. This started his interest in the district, which has now culminated in his appearance at the Cahans Church tonight. For the next hour he would regale us with the story of the various Linen families in the area,the Breakey’s, the Jackson’s, the Cunningham’s and particularly the Brunkers of Cootehill who were not only important Bleatchers in the district with several bleach greens, but who were the first to develop the use of diluted sulphuric acid in the bleaching process, and in effect converting a natural process into an industrial process. Most of the Linen Families in the area were Presbyterian and the male members of these families nearly all joined the local Masonic Lodge – number 419 Ballybay. Interestingly, their membership in the local Lodge gave these men the opportunity to relax together, get to know each other and discuss their various business interests in a private and confidential manner. In many ways, the Lodge-room, in Gerald’s view came to act as the local Chamber of Commerce in the Ballybay area.
He then went on to address the birth and growth of the Volunteer movement in Monaghan, with particular focus on the Ballybay district. It was once claimed that each Company of Volunteers should be made up of local Freemasons and that each Masonic Lodge should have its own Volunteer Battalion. Certainly it is correct to claim that there was widespread joint membership between both bodies in the latter half of the 18th century.
It is of course important to say, that the Volunteer Movement was of course legal at the time, and arose as the result of the American War of Independance, when large numbers of British Troops were sent out of Ireland to fight in the States. This left the coasts of Ireland virtually undefended, and as a result local Volunteer companies were formed to assist in the defence of the Realm. However, one unexpected result of this development was the politicalisation of the movement to reduce the punitive English tax system on exports from Ireland and to give the ordinary people of Ireland a voice, in a way that they had not previously enjoyed. Indeed, there were some in Ireland, who watched with interest the Revolutions in France and America, and seeing these international events as a possible catalist for similar developments in Ireland. The Volunteers became less influential after the end of the war in America in 1783, and rapidly declined except in Ulster. Whilst volunteering remained of interest in counties Antrim and Down, in other places such as neighbouring County Armagh, interest was in serious decline as was membership. Internal politics too played a role in the Volunteers demise with sharp divisions of opinion regarding political affairs, possibly including “disapproval of the revolutionary and republican sentiments then being so freely expressed”, especially amongst northern circles.
The ultimate demise of the Volunteers occurred during 1793 with the passing of the Gunpowder Act and Convention Act, both of which “effectively killed off Volunteering”, whilst the creation of a militia, followed by the yeomanry, served to deprive the Volunteers of their justification of being a voluntary defence force. The more radical Volunteers went on to join the United Irishmen movement whilst the majority were inclined towards the new Yeomanry movement, which was used to help put down the United Irishmen’s rebellion in 1798. Interestingly some of these United Irishmen and Yeomen had received their military training in the same Volunteer company; for example, the Ballymoney company’s Alexander Gamble became a United Irishman, whilst George Hutcinson, a captain in the company, joined the Yeomanry.
I found Gerald’s presentation to be very interesting in relation to the work he has done in naming names and telling the story of relationships in the Ballybay area. There may need to be more work done to clarify who all took the step from Volunteer to United Irishman, but that will be work for another day. The talk was well received by all present, and I was please to see a goodly number of local Masons out in support of the evening’s activities.