‘When Ulster’s position was challenged ...’

William Smyth worked to defend the union from the threat of Home Rule – a fact not lost on his adversaries


‘This is to warn you that you have been tried and found guilty of high treason to the Republic and sentenced to death . . . – By order, Provincial Centre, IRB” – Strabane, Co Tyrone, February, 1923.

The note, neatly written in what might be a schoolteacher’s hand, actually quite polite and formal, almost apologetic, was part of a bundle of letters and papers at the back of a drawer. It had lain there, unopened, probably for 80 years, forgotten family history, until the recent occasion of a funeral and its tidying-up aftermath.

And it was certainly news to my father that his own father, William, had received it. He was aware of William Smyth’s involvement in unionist politics but my subsequent researches would prove as much of a surprise to him as to me, although family lore still vaguely recalls a story about gunrunning (a simple teapot, now on my shelf, is said to have been part of a consignment of goods used to conceal a smuggled batch of rifles).

A prominent young Presbyterian miller, businessman and accomplished amateur sportsman, “in the days when Ulster’s position as part of the Empire was challenged by the Home Rule campaign,” a local paper wrote in its obituary of William’s role in 1912, “he directed all his influence to opposing the measure and such was his gift of leadership that he was appointed Commander of the Strabane UVF [Ulster Volunteer Force] Club.”

Papers lodged by his widow in the Northern Ireland Public Records Office record the drilling camps he took part in organising in the great local estate of the Duke of Abercorn, and list the volunteers and their addresses, and the owners of such strategically prized possessions as bicycles.

His father, Robert, who would die in December that year, was also heavily involved. The Derry Standard recorded that: “His last public appearance was on the platform of the great Presbyterian Convention against Home Rule held in Belfast early in the present year . He took the chair at the May Street Church meeting on that occasion and, although looking far from well delivered a speech of power and earnestness.” In September, he and the rest of the family would lead the local signing of the Ulster Covenant.

William went off to war with the North Irish Horse to return in 1919 and resume his political activities. He would become a councillor, was for up to 20 years chairman of the Strabane Unionist Association, and a member of the Ulster Unionist Council, the governing body of Unionism.

He appears to have had a lucky escape in early 1922 when the newly formed Ulster council of the IRA, with the support of Michael Collins, responded to a vigorous campaign of arrests by the Special Constabulary in the North and death sentences against three Derry republicans, by deciding to kidnap some 50 prominent unionists and police officers. On February 8th they successfully captured some 42 of their targets although testimony in the archives of the Bureau of Military History records that they failed to pick up a “William Smyth” who had not been located on the day.

The kidnappings provoked significant sectarian tensions and unionist leader James Craig wanted the British government to send large contingents of Specials in “hot pursuit” south to recover the hostages. Winston Churchill advised against, and Collins succeeded in getting reprieves for the condemned men. The hostages would be freed in return for the releases by Craig of several other IRA men.

In a personal note dated June 2nd, 1922, William describes sending a telegram to the Provisional Government in Dublin on behalf of “all denominations Strabane” asking for assistance in preventing injury to the civil population resulting from “indiscriminate shooting from Free State territory” by republicans.

He describes two apparently unsuccessful meetings with a republican representative, “Commandant O’Donnell” (presumably Peadar, the local IRA commander, trade union organiser and later writer), who promised that republicans will not strike unless sniped at, that they “did not shoot at the train on Friday”, and that they will not recognise any boundary and will shoot at Crown forces as “long as Specials turn back people at the Railway Crossing”.

Eight months later, as the Civil War raged in the South, William received the letter from the Irish Republican Brotherhood:

“Take notice that by your action in signing the declaration of allegiance to the Belfast Government, as a member of Strabane UDC, you have subverted the interests of the Republic to the Government of the usurper established by an act, and maintained by the armed forces of a foreign power. This is to warn you that you have been tried and found guilty of high treason to the Republic and sentenced to death, sentence being deferred in order to give you an opportunity to sever your connection with the UDC as you do not voice the opinions of the people you claim to represent, if failing to comply with this notice, sentence will be carried out.” By order, Provincial Centre, IRB.”

As it happened, my grandfather did not resign, and was never executed, but lived on for 23 years to die in his bed in 1946. He continued his active involvement in unionist politics and in public affairs, notably the Strabane District Hospital and the canal company, both of which he chaired.

And his papers record his impassioned testimony on behalf of his community to the Boundary Commission. Among other arguments, he reports to the commission that he has consulted traders – despite being adversely affected by the border they would prefer to remain in the North as income tax is lower and there is “stable government ”. Farmers in the Free State, he said, have problems borrowing in the North, and the exclusion of Strabane would make this worse.

On his death, in a lengthy tribute to him in the Strabane Presbyterian Church, the Rev EE McLelland is reported to have eulogised, no doubt somewhat over-enthusiastically and colourfully, that “he was not as other men; he was not of the common run of mankind. In the compound of his being there was some choicer, finer dust than was found in most men and they could only explain it as a gift from God. He was a simple man; simple not because of an empty innocence but because he was close to the foundation qualities of life, the things that really mattered. He was straight. His word was his bond.”

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