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Chapter 3 - The Standing Army and The Militias.


Unit history is usually taught to young recruits as a means of fostering pride, enthusiasm and devotion to the unit. The history usually covered such subjects as The Colours, customs, courtesies, and the cap badge. In the UDR that history was taught from 1970 onwards without regard to the preceding 360 years and the great militia tradition generated by the constant insurrections.  This chapter will discuss the history of the Standing Army, Militias, Volunteers and Yeomanry in Ireland with particular attention to County Londonderry from 1613 until the 1880s. The unofficial militias raised my local dignitaries will be referred to as citizens militias and those raised by the government will be referred to as regular militias.


The Irish Establishment


At the start of the Ulster Plantation the English military establishment had two organizations in Ireland, the standing army and the armed settler or citizens’ militias. There were times when the armed settlers had to band together as organised militias for the defence of their local areas. 


The Standing Army Strength


The numerical strength and the garrison locations of the standing army in Ireland fluctuated in response to the Irish insurrections. For example, in the year 1580 the garrison strength in Ireland was 8,892 men. Fifteen years later this figure doubled to approximately 18,000 in order to cope with O’Neill’s last rebellion (1595–1603).

   The figures could never be accurate because the captains responsible for recruiting and training the army always inflated the figures by twenty-five percent and pocketed the funding allocated for their ghost army.

   Ideally the conscripts for the Irish standing army should have been English but there were many Irish volunteers.  During O’Neill’s rebellion, there was only one company who were all English with seven all Irish within the twenty-three cavalry companies garrisoned in Ireland.

   When O’Neill’s rebellion collapsed the garrison strength in Ireland dropped from 18,000 to 1,000 foot and 300 horse. Despite the reduction, this army was capable of dealing with the O’Doherty rebellion in Derry (1608) and the O’Cahan Conspiracy in Coleraine (1615) (Ohlmeyer, p106 in Bartlett & Jeffery 1996).


The Armed Settler and The Militia Tradition


Because the undertakers were responsible for storing and issuing the arms necessary for the defence of their land and parading their tenants every six months, they were in effect employing the citizens’ militia tradition.


‘This was the Militia, the Constitutional Force, which traces its origins back a thousand years and more to the Fyrd of Saxon times and the Norman Posse Comitatus” (R Doherty, 1999)


In many cases the undertakers were negligent in supplying arms and training their tenants (Gillespie, 1987, p15). It was also the duty of the town leaders to raise the unofficial citizens’ militias for the protection of the town when required.

This concept was utilised in various forms for the next 15 centuries, including the raising of the B Specials in 1920 and the UDR in 1970.


   Citizens’ militias were necessary because the British standing army of professional soldiers was not formed until the Earl of Ormonde did not establish the official Militia force in Ireland in 1666.

   The police force was not raised until the nineteenth century. Without these professional bodies to secure the state from internal dissent and external threat, it was the duty of every able-bodied Protestant citizen in England and Ireland between the ages of sixteen and sixty to bear arms and protect the state. Many of those who volunteered in 1666 were ex-Cromwellian.


  In 1672 the regular militias numbered 10,000 horse and 14,000 foot. They were used in 1678 to disarm the Roman Catholics. They were then disarmed themselves after the Monmouth rising in 1685 and replaced by a Catholic militia raised by Talbot. The Protestant militias were reactivated for the Williamites in 1689.

   A Militia Act in 1716 demanded that all Protestant males between the ages of 16 and 60 should muster for four days each year.  The regular militias were mobilised in 1739 – 1740 and again in 1745 (Connolly, 1998, p360).

      Both the regular and citizens’ militias were only raised when the situation demanded their service and immediately disbanded when their services were no longer required.

   Later on it became the duty of the Lord Lieutenant of each county to raise the number of men required to meet the threat.

Political Control


The standing army and the militias usually operated in mutual support of each other. But the standing army was serving the interests of the Crown whereas the militias served the interests of the Protestant settlers and their survival.

Because of this difference in loyalties the militias of Ulster have always been treated as a political threat from 1613 until the present.


The Initial Threat


Rather than leaving the territory they had been expelled from, the dispossessed Irish used the cover of the vast forests close to their origional land for shelter. Irish swordsmen who were normally retained by the Irish lords also joined them. These warriors lived to fight and were averse to labouring for a living. When they felt like it they slaughtered the settlers’ stock for food.

   Over 6,000 swordsmen were transported to the Swedish Army after O’Neill was defeated in the Nine Years War in 1603. While many returned to Ireland on the first available boat, others moved down to Flanders because there was a greater concentration of Roman Catholics in that area (Falls, 1936, p181).

   All these dispossessed groups became known as the woodkerne (Curl, 2000, p45) or the ‘tory’ from the Gaelic toraidh or thief.  They were responsible for the constant harrying of the isolated settler. Their most common practices included holding captured settlers for ransom, the killing and mutilation of farm stock, stripping, raping or killing the settlers and destroying their crops.




During the American Revolution the English regular troops were fully deployed to America and the government could not afford to raise a regular militia. So, from 1778-1779, a part-time military force of volunteers was raised to guard Ireland from invasion and internal dissent. The Volunteers served without pay and supplied their own uniforms and equipment.

    By 1782 there were 60,000 Volunteers in Ireland including three companies in Coleraine. These were The First Company, The Second Company and The Independent Company. Macosquin also formed a Company of Volunteers at that time. These units were raised and stood down several times between 1778 and 1788.

   The cross belt plate of the Macosquin Infantry for that period displays the Maid of Erin harp, similar to the harp used 200 years later by the UDR. Cross plates were worn on the chest, where the belts crossed. They were intended to identify the unit, or to enable soldiers to identify each other in the confusion of battle (Patterson, 2002, p5).


Lord Bristol was active in the volunteer movement and as well as his role as Bishop of Derry he was always ready to inspect the Volunteers. The Bishop’s Gate at Downhill was first known as Volunteer Gate because the Volunteers formed up on a regular basis to be inspected there. (Patterson, 2002, p2)

   After a series of three conventions where the leaders passed resolutions demanding parliamentary reform the government saw the Volunteer movement as a threat so they were disbanded in 1793 and replaced by the Loyal Yeomanry (Patterson, 2007).


Return of the Militias


The Irish Militia was raised in 1793 after the Militia Bill and the Catholic Relief Bill were passed within days of each other. These Bills allowed Roman Catholics to be armed and the Irish regular militia to be raised throughout Ireland. That same year the 83rd, 86th, 87th and 89th Regiments of Foot were also raised. (Doherty, 1999)

   In 1795 English, Scottish and Manx Fencibles and then in 1796 (Miller in Bartlett & Jeffery, 1996, p333) the yeoman cavalry was raised and used to augment the Irish Militias.

   The Yeomanry was a part-time force and the majority were Protestants. They had been raised to counter the French threat, the United Irishmen and the Catholic Defenders.

The regular militia was eventually allowed to serve in Great Britain and the troops were encouraged to transfer to the regular army. By 1908 the Militias had virtually disappeared as the regular army was reformed. In England a regular militia was raised by ballot for the last time on 27 December 1830.

The Territorial Force was not formed in Ireland at this time, the Militias were renamed Special Reserve and then after the Great War they were called the Supplementary Reserve.


The English regular militias were raised again in Great Britain on 27 May 1940 (Corvisier, p518). At that time they were called the Local Defence Volunteers (LDVs). Later on they became known as the Home Guard. Their main role was to provide defence against the expected German airborne invasion.


The Militia battalions of the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, the Royal Ulster Rifles and the Royal Irish Fusiliers remained on the Army List until 1953; they were the reason the TA battalions were 5th Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, the 6th Royal Ulster Rifles and the 5th Royal Irish Fusiliers.

Irish Militia units also served overseas. For example, in South Africa or else relieved units in places like Malta so that they could serve on active operations. (Doherty, 2007)


The Successors of the Irish Militia


‘In fact it would be true to say that the (Royal Irish) Regiments Home Service battalions, with their Ulster Defence Regiment heritage, are the true successors of the Irish Militia. There are two sound reasons for suggesting this: the Militia was raised as a home defence force, with its regiments being based in the counties; and the parallel with the UDR is obvious; the Militia also existed under legislation separate to that which empowered the Army – and such was the case with the Ulster Defence Regiment.

   When the UDR was created, under the Ulster Defence Regiment Act, it was with battalions that were linked directly to each of the counties of Northern Ireland, except for the City and County of Londonderry. (Clearly someone did not realise the error that was made there, although the Militia and previous regiments had always been either Londonderry or Derry with no city or county designator)

   Thus in 1970, only seventeen years after the old Militia finally disappeared from the Army List, the UDR took on the role of the former Militia battalions, the defence of Northern Ireland. Of course, the Militia had defended Ireland, as part of the UK, against external aggression but it had also provided a defence against terrorist attack on the border or internal subversion. The mission statements were almost identical’ (R Doherty, 1999).


The Militia and UDR Equivalents


‘At this point let’s look at the Militia regiments that can be considered predecessors to the battalions of the UDR formed in 1970. Six of these battalions had easily-identified militia precursors: only 7th (City of Belfast) Battalion did not, as there had been no city and county borough of Belfast when the Militia was created in 1793. An argument can be made for linking 7 UDR with one of the Down militia regiments however, although the county-to-county connections are more compelling.


County Antrim – 1 UDR – had the Antrim Regiment of Militia, which became the Antrim (Queens Royal Rifles) Militia, and, in 1881, 4th Royal Irish Rifles (4 RIR).


Armagh – 2 UDR – had the Armagh Regiment of Militia, which became the Armagh Light Infantry and in 1881, 3rd Princess Victoria’s Regiment (Royal Irish Fusiliers) (3 RIrF).


Down – 3 UDR – had two militia regiments, formed from the origional single unit, the Down Regiment of Militia, later Royal North Down Rifles, and, in 1881, 3 RIR, and the Royal South Down LI, later 5 RIR. It is from the Royal North Downs that it is possible to suggest a link with 7 UDR.


Fermanagh – 4 UDR – had the Fermanagh Regiment, which became the Fermanagh LI and, in 1881, 3rd Royal Iniskilling Fusiliers (3 Inniskillings).


Londonderry – 5 UDR – had the Londonderry Regiment, which covered both city and county, and became the Londonderry LI before becoming, in 1881, 4 Inniskillings. However, weeks later, it was transferred to the Royal Artillery as 9th Brigade, North Irish Division, RA.


Tyrone – 6 UDR – had the Tyrone Regiment. This became, first a Royal Regiment and then the Royal Tyrone Fusiliers Militia before becoming, initially, 5 Inniskillings and then 4 Inniskillings.


So the militia regiments with which we are most concerned are: the Fermanagh, Londonderry, Tyrone, North Down, Antrim, South Down and Armagh Regiments – seven regiments of militia, just as there were seven origional battalions of the Ulster Defence Regiment. Each of the militia regiments served in the actions in Ireland in 1798, either against rebels or French invaders, or both’ (R Doherty, 1999).


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