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Kildare says “No” – loyalist women sign Declaration of 1912

The Lambeg drums will be out in force in later this month as Ulster Unionists mark the centenary of the signing of the Ulster Covenant by almost half a million men and women of loyalist persuasion.


In September 1912 as the prospect of Home Rule for edged nearer to becoming a reality in the Westminster parliament the unionist leadership organised an effective and cohesive campaign which galvanized opposition to the measure long desired by Irish nationalists.


It was a time of great tension in as the prize of an Irish parliament seemed to be within grasp. The Irish Parliamentary Party under the leadership of John Redmond had with great political skill managed to leverage a commitment from the Liberal Government that a Home Rule Bill would be brought through Westminster which would establish a parliament for . This would be the first time since Grattan’s parliament of the late 1700s that a parliament voted on by Irish people would have a role in the administration of the island of Ireland .  The country would remain within the with the King as head of state but key functions relating to local administration of Irish issues would be in the hands of the parliament of . This might not be the complete independence that Irish republicans had fought for in the unsuccessful rebellions in 1798, 1848 and 1867. However it would represent a huge advance in terms of the Irish people having a say in how the country was run. Dublin rather than Westminster would be nexus of political power in the island.

However the Ulster Unionists were having none of it. In their view an Irish parliament in Dublin would be a disaster for the Protestant community and culture in the northern counties. “Home Rule means Rome Rule” was one of the slogans which highlighted the Unionist opposition to the measure.  To them Home Rule would mean the obliteration of their culture and of the prosperous society that had worked for in Northern Ireland underpinned, in their view, by distinctively protestant values of sobriety and industry.  A parliament dominated by southern Irish Catholics would be feckless and incompetent and would be marred by the jobbery and stroke-pulling which characterised politics in the southern economy which in contrast to the industrial north, was based on little more than small farms and cattle trading.  


The leaders of the Unionist movement including Edward Carson, a Dublin-born barrister, and James Craig, a Unionist MP for East Antrim, set about mobilising opposition in a way that would be quantifiable and cohesive. They decided to draft a document, to be known as the Ulster Covenant, which would leave nobody in any doubt as to the Unionist determination to resist Home Rule. There was a version for women known as “the Declaration” which effectively proclaimed the same resistance albeit in association with the menfolk. The genius of their campaign was the unity of purpose which the mass signing of a common declaration would bring among the Unionist community in . No stone was left unturned in maximising the numbers of Ulster Unionists, men and women, who would be presented with forms for signing the Covenant and Declaration.    


From early September 1912 Unionist activists fanned out from Belfast organising monster rallies at which the Covenant and Declaration would be signed by Unionists throughout . The rallies were surrounded by all the trappings of  loyalism with meeting halls bedecked with bunting while the inevitable fife-and-drum bands whipped up the fervour. As well as the rallies in the northern counties copies of the Covenant and Declaration were sent to loyalist sympathisers of origin throughout the world. Signatures were obtained from Unionists in the and throughout the British Empire wherever men and women of birth were engaged in imperial service. While there were some Unionists living in the southern counties of their numbers were very small and apart from a few hundred in Dublin there were only a handful of signatories across the other counties of the south of . 


However analysis of the thousands of copies of the Covenant documents held in the Public Record Office in  Belfast reveals that there were two residents of County Kildare who signed the declaration to register their opposition to Home Rule.  The two ladies in question were Marie Gordon and Helen Gordon who were resident at Knocknagarm House on the fringe of the Curragh.  Matching their names up with the Census of the previous year  we can learn something more of Kildare’s two Unionist women. Marie (47) and Helen (19) were described as the wife and daughter respectively of Gisborne Gordon who was a horse-breeder and trainer on the Curragh. Being of roots was a qualification for signing the declaration and the census form of 1911 indicates that both women were born in  Co. Down and thus fulfilled the criteria. They had put their names to a Declaration which left no doubt as regards their loyalty to Ulster: “We, women of Ulster, being firmly persuaded that Home Rule would be disastrous to our Country, desire to associate ourselves with the men of Ulster in their uncompromising opposition to the Home Rule Bill now before Parliament … Praying that from this calamity God will save Ireland, we hereto subscribe our names – Marie L Gordon, Helen O’Gordon.” One hundred years ago this month their signatures joined those of 234,000 women which in turn were added to the Covenants signed by 237,000 men to make it abundantly clear to the Parliament in  Westminster that as far as Home Rule was concerned (and a little bit of Co. Kildare) said “NO”.  Series no: 297.



In September 1912 men and woman of Ulster signed a pledge against Home Rule. Two signatures were from women resident in Co. Kildare. Our thanks to Liam Kenny

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