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Carrickfergus and Belgium

Presentation by Ron Bishop

I'm not an experienced historian and I do not see the big picture. Instead, I will tell you about two little things which link the town I live in with Belgium.

Carrickfergus is an Anglo-Norman town, first settled in 1180 as the English pushed north from Dublin. The castle was built to project English power into the north of Ireland, and it did so, mostly successfully, for the next 600 years or more. Not surprisingly, it is a very Protestant town. Most of the inhabitants still claim to be very loyal (getrouw) to the English Crown - though not necessarily to the English government!

Carrickfergus Castle

Carrickfergus and Castle, built by John De Courcy

The two things I will tell you about are both military. One involves a single person who went from Carrickfergus to Belgium, and the other a whole army which came from Belgium to Carrickfergus.

1. Richard Kane

Richard Kane was born in Ulster in 1662 as Richard O'Cahan. The O'Cahans were a large Gaelic and Catholic family clan who would have opposed English rule in Ireland (Eddie and Bridgeen are both O'Cahans!). But Thomas O'Cahan, Richard's father, was a prosperous landowner in the mainly Protestant town of Carrickfergus, and was a Freeman or Burgess of the town. His mother Margaret was from an English family, the Dobbins, who had settled in Carrickfergus in the mid 1500s, and she was a Presbyterian (the main Protestant sect in Northern Ireland). So, despite its Gaelic name, it is safe to assume that his branch of the family had become "legal Protestants", although other branches were still mostly Catholic and presumably opposed to English rule.

Richard was certainly brought up as a Presbyterian and probably worked for the town corporation, where he was encouraged to change his name from the 'Irish' O'Cahan to the 'anglicised' form of Kane, which was safer and made him appear more reliable politically. At the very young age of 24 he was elected Sheriff, responsible for the good order of the town. His future as a prominent citizen seemed assured.

But the following year (1685) saw the death of the Protestant King of England, Charles II. His brother became King James II of England, but he was a Catholic and clearly intended to return England to Roman Catholicism. I won't go into the politics because you can read about it in any history book. But this was a fundamental threat not just to England but also to English rule in Ireland. So Richard Kane, like many Ulster Protestants, joined the army to defend against this Catholic threat. He was commissioned as an Ensign in a volunteer Irish Regiment loyal to the Protestant cause. William of Orange had been invited by the English nobles to take the throne in place of his father-in-law James and began a military campaign against him. This campaign moved to Ireland, and Kane served as a junior officer in two of its most celebrated actions - the Siege of Derry in 1689 and the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. After James's defeat in these, the Protestant throne of England was secure and William, now King William III, moved to counter the Catholic Louis XIV's attempts to take over much of Europe, opening up a military campaign against Louis XIV in Flanders. This is the Belgian connection, because Kane served here for over ten years. Now promoted to Captain, his 18th Regiment made the decisive attack in the 1695 siege of Namur, the key fortress in Flanders, and turned what was nearly a major defeat into a famous victory against Louis XIV (and, Rudi suggests, possibly stopped Flanders from becoming a French-speaking area!). Kane was injured during the battle, as he was again in the famous battle at Blenheim in 1704. He was promoted to command the regiment in 1709 and fought in at least two more major battles before the end of the War of the Spanish Succession here in the region.

An interesting event occurred at the Battle of Ramillies, a little east of Leuven, in 1706. Kane's cousin Charles O'Kean, who had been serving with the French army and quartered with 60,000 other French troops here in Leuven, was killed. It is said that Richard Kane marched behind enemy lines to recover Charles's body and bury it. It was not unusual for members of the same Irish family to serve on different sides like this and indeed Kane had another cousin in the Spanish Army supporting Louis XIV though fortunately they didn't clash in battle.

Kane fought in some 20 engagements in his military career but what was unusual was that he analysed them carefully and produced a tactics manual which was widely adopted in the British Army.

So far, so Protestant, despite the Catholic family background. In fact, Richard Kane faithfully served the English Crown throughout his life.

But his biggest challenge was still to come. In 1708, the British had captured the island of Menorca, and it was a place of great strategic importance. There were two particular threats to British interests in the western Mediterranean: corsairs (pirates) attacking British merchant shipping, and the French fleet in Toulon. At Mahon, Menorca had the only really good deep-water port in the western Mediterranean that could be used all year round. This allowed the Royal Navy to keep ships there to protect Britain's merchant ships against the corsairs and to keep the French fleet bottled up in Toulon. But the island needed a Governor who was a military man, born in 'Britain', a Protestant and a patriot. Queen Ann, who was now on the throne, picked Richard Kane.

Kane was always going to be a good Governor from the British point of view. But he could have been a disaster for the islanders. After all, the islanders were Catholic and effectively ruled by the Spanish church, to whom their priests were responsible. Spain was allied to the enemy, Louis XIV. Kane could have persecuted them just for being Catholic, as many Protestants of the time would have done. Even if he had not persecuted them, he could simply have exploited them to supply the British military presence, leaving the islanders with very little because their agriculture was poor and inefficient. But he took his orders literally: to turn Menorcans into a rich and flourishing people. For 25 years he worked tirelessly to improve the lot of the Menorcan people, against continual interference by the Catholic Church at all levels. He reformed the coinage; moved the capital from Cuitadella in the west to the new port city of Mahon; defended the islanders' practice of Roman Catholicism even though he disagreed with it profoundly himself; completely reformed the Menorcan legal system, and was strict in requiring his own military to observe the law as well as the local citizens; completely modernised their agriculture with new plant varieties and animal husbandry practices, often against their own opposition ("God knows how the plants grow," they told him); and built a road all the way across the island to open up trade - surfaced in stone and exactly 20 feet (6m) wide all the way along. An eighteenth century motorway!!

He died on the island in 1736 at the age of 76, and was buried there (though his grave was destroyed by the Spanish in 1782). To this day he is celebrated by the islanders as the father of the island. The family land to the west of Carrickfergus is known as 'Minorca', though not all its inhabitants really know why. The council did erect a little memorial in the town centre a few years ago but unfortunately it is being dug up again as part of an improvement scheme. But I'm proud that someone from the town who was so staunchly Protestant and loyal to the Crown should have spent so much of his life improving the lives of a Catholic people without fear or favour.

Laurie, Bruce: The Life of Richard Kane. Associated University Presses 1994
Sloss, Janet: Richard Kane, Governor of Minorca. Bonaventura Press 1995

2. The Belgian Army in Carrickfergus, 1945

The Nazi occupation of Belgium ended in late 1944 and the Government started to re-form the country's Army. Many young Belgian men had avoided the German draft by going into hiding or joining the Secret Army (the Resistance) and badly wanted to fight the Germans. But there were other tasks for the new army. In particular, a secret agreement on 1 January 1942 by the Government-in-Exile had committed 20,000 men to fight the Japanese in Burma. Five Brigades of infantry were raised. After initial training in Flanders, they were sent to Northern Ireland for further training early in 1945. At first the troops did not know the real purpose of their training - their government was worried that the men would not volunteer for such service if they knew. But, in August 1945, atomic bombs were dropped on Japan and the war in the Far East ended before Belgian forces could be sent there. Instead, they returned home in September 1945 and then served with the British in occupied Germany for the next year or so.

The five Infantry Brigades were spread across Ulster, and No 3 Brigade 'Rumbeke' was based on the coast of East Antrim, in and around my town of Carrickfergus, so I will concentrate on them.

The Brigade Headquarters was in Whiteabbey, down the road towards Belfast in a large house called Dalriada House (Dalriada was an old Gaelic kingdom encompassing NE Ulster and W Scotland). The 40 hectares of fields behind it have since become a campus of the University of Ulster - I worked there for forty years and had no idea of its wartime significance! The Music Department was in the house and I would enjoy their lunchtime concerts completely unaware of what had been going on in those same rooms in 1945.

Dalriada House

Dalriada House

But there are still people in Carrickfergus who remember the presence of the Belgians in 1945, and I have just begun a project to collect their memories, and the memories of some of the army veterans still alive here in Belgium. I hope to put this information in our town museum archive and perhaps to publish a summary of their memories in a local historical journal. But I'll just tell you the basics what I already know.

The 3rd Brigade trained initially in various places in Flanders. They had no uniform, only old clothes and shoes. The Germans had taken all the good clothing. It is said that some of the men even had to wear women's clothing - there was nothing else. They sailed from Ostend to Tilbury near London, travelled by train to Scotland, stayed in a transit camp near Glasgow for one night and then sailed in the Dutch packet boat 'Johan Dewit' overnight to Belfast, arriving on April 1st. They had almost no food. There was a big storm and many of the 3000 troops on board were seasick. They were taken in cars and coal lorries to their billets. They lived in 'tubes' - their nickname for Nissen huts. They were given second-hand British Army uniforms from dead and wounded soldiers - sometimes with bullet holes still in them. They had to swap parts of their uniforms around - one man might have trousers too long, another a jacket that was too short, and so on.

Their day was always the same. 7am - gymnastics outside in shorts, rain or no rain. Bread and jam for breakfast, one egg a week. 8.30am - salute the Belgian flag. Training all day with just one hour's rest. Dinner - fatty mutton (schapevlees) soup, then fatty mutton meat. No vegetables or fruit. Potatoes "after two weeks". Local people would give them extra things to eat. I talked to a lady who lived as a child in the gatehouse at Dalriada - every day her mother provided tea and home-made cakes for the soldiers who had become friends, and an 'Ulster Fry' for the sentries (schildwachter) at the gate. Social life was limited - a few dances and visits to the picture-houses. On Sundays they were free and walked in the town and sat on the sea wall and talked.

Local people liked the Belgians. Before them, the same camps had been occupied for a year by American troops training for D-Day. Americans had money and nylon stockings and many other good things but they sometimes caused trouble. At first, they were also suspicious of the Belgians - the Protestants because they were Catholic and the Catholics because they were too allied with the English! But soon they realised the Belgians were nice boys - they had nothing, but they were polite and friendly and people liked them. They were mild-mannered and more famous for their chocolates than their aggression. Many friendships were made.

On 3rd September they left by boat for England. All along the shore local people made bonfires and waved goodbye to the soldiers. The soldiers sang on the decks of the ships and could be heard on the shore. Many years later, in 2006, a monument was erected at the entrance to one of their camps in Carrickfergus - the entrance arch to the estate has been preserved, the Belgian flag is flown every day and a sculpture of a large pair of boots has been placed there - what better symbol to represent an army, especially one that came to Ireland without any!

Refs: Belgian Army Infantry Brigades Trained in Northern Ireland 1945-46 (Jean-Marie van Wijnsberghe)
Personal Communications

5 May 2012