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Visit the Down Museum Exhibition on Politics and Protest: 1900-1920’s
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DOWN County Museum has just launched an exciting new exhibition called “Transformations: Politics and Protest 1900-1920’s”.

South Down MP Margaret Ritchie was on hand at the launch to look over the wide range of exhibits. The EU Peace III funded exhibition also involves a tour in the museum with the presentation. There are many documents, photographs, postcards and items used from the Museum’s comprehensive collection on display offering a key insight into a formative period in the birth of Northern Ireland.

The exhibition offers too  a look at Northern Ireland as a region within the UK at the time of the partition of Ireland from the Home Rule movement, the establishment of the Ulster Volunteer Force, the Irish Volunteers, the impact of World War I up to the Irish conflict through 1918-1921.

It is a comprehensive exhibition covering a complex part of our history and it will run until May 2013.

At the launch of the ‘Transformations: Politics and Protest in County Down 1900-1920’ exhibition were South Down MP Margaret Ritchie, Down County Museum Curator Mike King and Linda Mckenna, Museum Education Officer.

Also being launched was the fascinating, very readable, FREE 64-page booklet written by Philip Orr, “Ballykinler Camp: The First Seven Decades from 1900-1969” which has an excellent range of of photographs covering the camp’s colourful century.

Orr says that in July 2007, Operation Banner, the British army’s longest and most continuous deployment in a single field of operations came to an end. It began with the start of the Troubles in 1969. There has been some speculation about the future of the camp. but its key role in Northern Ireland and indeed Irish history cannot be overlooked.

The Ballykinler camp location emerged in the early months of the twentieth century when soldiers training for the Boer War sharpened up their rifle skills at the new firing range with the beautiful Mountains of Mourne as a backdrop. The Royal Irish Regiment 5th Battalion from South Down has its HQ at the present Down County Museum in the Mall in Downpatrick and marched their men to Ballykinler for weapon practice.  Historically this regiment traces back to the South Down Militia that figured strongly in suppressing the 1798 rebellion by the United Irishmen in Down.

Soon 3000 soldiers would be training at Ballykinler in the summer months. And they received some comfort from their harsh conditions by the Sands House that had been build there by a charitable Christian foundation. The house was blown up by the IRA in 1974 with two soldiers being killed. But against a wider political backcloth, Nationalists were not happy that local land had be acquiesced by the Crown government for military purposes. The deep divisions in Irish society came to the fore in Down and Orr refers to ‘pro-Boer rowdyism’ breaking out in Downpatrick.

As the First World War loomed, Ballykilnler continued to operate as an army training centre, and tension were growing politically in Ulster. In 1912 PM Lord Asquith introduced a Home Rule Bill to Westminster which was to set up a Dublin Parliament in Ireland. Immediately Unionists and Protestants reacted as they feared being subsumed in a greater Irish state. But war broke out, and the Ulster Volunteer Force of  100,000 men opposing Home Rule formed into the 36th (Ulster) Division.

Many recruits marched through Belfast and ended up in Ballykinler with Carson’s 197th Brigade. The soldiers at Ballykinler now swelled to 4000 and they would be broken into a fighting machine for the killing fields of Europe. Many were from the hard, working classes areas of Belfast. Some travelled to Newcastle on leave and caused fights and disorder. On 8 May 1915, the Division marched through Belfast in full military splendour before their move to the Somme in France… there they were slaughtered by machine guns and mortar fire in the space of a couple of days.

With the Rising in Dublin in 1916, political tensions in Down escalated. And later with the 1920 Government of Ireland Act effectively dividing Ireland and setting up the Northern Ireland state-let, nationalist unrest increased again.

Ballykinler ended up as an internment camp in 1920 when Sinn Féin activists and sympathisers were rounded up. In South Down, Castlewellan and Portaferry were notably strongly nationalist and saw many arrests. There had been growing violence and the army from Ballykinler had been called in to back up the Ulster Special Constabulary.

Interestingly, Downpatrick Rural Council then had pledged itself to the new Free State and was anti-treaty. This of course displeased local unionist politicians and deepened community divisions. These polarised positions were to surface decades later.

Orr captures life well in the internment camp in Ballykinler. He cited one internee falsely imprisoned, a Louis Walsh, who later wrote an account of his experiences there. The large contingent of hundreds of internees were soon organised into a culture of a new Ireland by sacrifice, discipline, Irish language classes, a camp ‘government’, a police force and courts, and they even had their own post office and currency. Conditions is the Ballykinler interment camp were harsh and spartan, but prisoners engaged in political discussions and listened to the stories of those who had been engaged in military action. On one occasion, the internees celebrated the anniversary of the death Irish patriot Robert Emmet’s death on the eve of  St Patrick’s Day by marching round the prison yard and saluting the Irish flag in open defiance.

As the Second World War approached, Orr explained that  a small village had grown up around the Ballykinlar camp and the camp itself had provided employment for local people. Previously it has been an undeveloped rural area.

Ballykinler was again a training centre for regiments going to war and in 1939, the Northamptonshire  regiment went off to join the Expeditionary force and was severely depleted in the face of a superior German army and their survivors retreated to Dunkirk for evacuation. Against this background of turmoil, the Ballykinler armory was raided in 1940 by the IRA who took 100 rifles, but failed to get ammunition. It was a symbolic incident, signifying they had not gone away. A stricter security regime was set up and new recruits were drafted into the USC to further secure Ballykinler.

Then in 1942, when the Americans entered the World War II, they were billeted at Ballykinler and around towns in Down. The 1st Armoured Divison stayed at Ballykinler but soon moved off to North Africa. And the Red Devils, the 5th Infantry Division also spent time at Ballykinler prior to D-Day. Before 6 June, Allied Commander General Eisenhower stopped of at Clough and Dundrum and was briefed on how training was going at Ballykinler.

IN 1956, the IRA mounted another brief campaign, but it was the invasion of Hungry by the Soviet Union that saw many Hungarian’s arrive in Ballykinler as refugees, many recounting the horrors of the invading Soviet tanks and armies.

Orr interestingly refers to the English soccer team practising on the Ballykinler pitch prior to Home International matches against Northern Ireland which the famous Stanley Matthews said was one of the best in the country. But the quiet spell in the Sixties was to erupt into a period of serious political unrest in 1969 with the death of over 3000 people in the following three decades of civil strife as the old wounds of Irish politics opened up.

There may be some angst now about the future of Ballykinler as a military camp as Britain changes its military role in the world. (The residents of Ballykinler and the civilian employees there will be only too heedful of how the MOD pulled out of  RAF Bishopscourt in a matter of days with long-term consequences for the area.)

Orr’s book supported by the Down County Museum through the EU Peace III Programme, will go a long way to presenting an account of Ballykinler that has responded to global and local circumstances for over a hundred years, these themes often interwoven. He says, his account is for the first seventy years of the life of Ballykinler, a foundation for a new study yet to be completed, of the modern era.