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  • "The Only Thing British That Everybody Likes":Military-Civilian Relations in Late Victorian Ulster
  • Neal Garnham (bio)

Throughout the nineteenth century, Ireland was home to a large proportion of the British army. Although figures fluctuated considerably over time, up to 26,000 soldiers, or around one-seventh of the total strength of the force, were based in Ireland at any one time.1 Academic study of this sizable section of the Irish population has been limited, however.2 For most historians "the army" has simply supplied bit players to fill in the background to the rich tapestry of agrarian protest, political agitation, and sectarian conflict seen to characterize late Victorian Ireland.3 The few specific studies of the military in this period have tended to examine the army primarily in a political context. Virginia Crossman has argued that toward the end of the nineteenth century the army in Ireland was "sucked into the political morass" and became a "combatant as opposed to [a] mere auxiliary" in the conflicts between the majority nationalist [End Page 59] population and the British state.4 Elizabeth Muenger, though more circumspect in her assessment of the role of the military in assisting the civil power, largely agrees, viewing the army in Ireland as a force "needed on a routine basis to aid the police in controlling the country."5 Richard Hawkins noted how the army came to be deployed "in unconventional roles" in Ireland in the 1880s, despite the caution of military commanders; while David Haire suggested that popular protest and agrarian agitation "drew the garrison deeply into Irish problems."6 Beyond general assertions that the officer corps integrated well with the local Protestant gentry, the social position and role of the military in late nineteenth-century Ireland have received comparatively little consideration from modern historians.7

This essay seeks to redress the balance modestly by considering the relationships that existed between the military and the civilian population in south Ulster during the period 1887–90, concentrating on the activities and experiences of the military rank-and-file. It will focus on the activities of one particular unit, namely, the 2nd Battalion of the East Lancashire Regiment, nicknamed "the Lilywhites." First raised in 1755 as the 59th Foot, the regiment had a distinguished if not quite outstanding record of military service.8 In the late 1880s the unit was stationed at Enniskillen in Fermanagh, before transferring to Newry in County Down, with two companies detached from its total of eight and serving variously in Belfast and Londonderry.9 The men of the battalion therefore encountered a [End Page 60] relatively wide cross-section of Ulster society. Belfast was the leading city of the province, with a population in excess of a quarter of a million souls by 1891. It had developed a strong industrial base, notably in linen manufacture and shipbuilding, and had a growing reputation for sectarian conflict and political tension.10 Londonderry, with a population less than an eighth of the size of Belfast, remained "the chief port for the north-west of Ireland" and served as the market center for east Donegal.11 It was recognized as a relatively prosperous corporate city, controlled by its Protestant inhabitants.12 Enniskillen, a town with a long military tradition, was smaller still, both physically and demographically, and largely lacked the industrial development that had occurred in Belfast and Londonderry. Indeed, it had recently "suffered a great decrease" in employment as demand fell for the textiles produced there.13 As the county town of Fermanagh, however, it retained a certain administrative and commercial importance.14 The town of Newry, straddling the border between the counties of Down and Armagh, had a population of approximately 13,000 in 1891. Though eclipsed as a port by Belfast, it too had some linen mills that gave "large employment to girls."15 Unlike the other three centers, however, it enjoyed a Catholic and nationalist majority.16 Thus the men of the Lily-whites [End Page 61] experienced service in a large regional capital, a declining provincial center, a busy port, and a bustling market town. Given these varied circumstances, it is perhaps unsurprising that they were perceived in different ways...


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