The Co Down Army base with a se­cret fam­ily tragedy in its 130-year his­tory

For­mer se­nior civil ser­vant Robin Mase­field set out to dis­cover the back­ground to the 131-year-old land­mark ... and un­earthed a fam­ily story of un­be­liev­able tragedy

Belfast Telegraph - - FRONT PAGE - Ivan Lit­tle

THE name of Palace Bar­racks in Holy­wood — just yards from Rory McIl­roy’s child­hood home — has long been syn­ony­mous with the North­ern Ire­land Trou­bles and with the Army’s role in the con­flict.

Thou­sands of sol­diers and their fam­i­lies lived in the sprawl­ing Holy­wood base, which was a prime ter­ror­ist tar­get, but which was em­broiled in bit­ter con­tro­ver­sies, too.

Claims of tor­ture there in the early 1970s are still the sub­ject of on­go­ing le­gal bat­tles in late 2017 and, for repub­li­cans, Palace Bar­racks will al­ways be as­so­ci­ated with the dark deeds they say took place be­hind the se­cu­rity fences that ringed the base.

But the story of Palace Bar­racks goes back a long time be­fore the Trou­bles.

There’ve been colour­ful char­ac­ters aplenty in the gar­ri­son town and tragedies like the deaths of five chil­dren in an ac­ci­dent at their home in the mar­ried quar­ters.

Yet, amaz­ingly, the story of the richly his­toric Palace Bar­racks has only been told fleet­ingly down the years — un­til now that is.

For a new book, which records the bar­racks’ story, has fi­nally been writ­ten — by an English­man who, apart from over­seas sec­ond­ments to the likes of Hong Kong, has lived here since 1973.

For­mer civil ser­vant Robin Mase­field, who was at one time the head of the North­ern Ire­land Prison Ser­vice, is the au­thor of the 250-page book — the third tome the Ox­ford man has penned on lo­cal his­tory af­ter vol­umes on the Holy­wood-to-Ban­gor rail­way line and He­len’s Bay and Craw­fords­burn.

Robin, who’s also writ­ten about polic­ing in the wake of the Pat­ten re­forms, which he helped to im­ple­ment, has al­ways been fas­ci­nated by Palace Bar­racks.

Un­like many Army bases, which closed af­ter the cease­fires, Palace Bar­racks is still op­er­a­tional and is reg­i­men­tal head­quar­ters of the Royal Ir­ish Reg­i­ment and home to MI5.

But Robin’s quest to estab­lish the base’s fas­ci­nat­ing past needed a vir­tual mil­i­tary-style mis­sion and lim­it­less sup­plies of pa­tience.

For Robin says Army records weren’t as read­ily avail­able as might have been imag­ined.

“That’s es­pe­cially true from the time of the two world wars, when sol­diers were more con­cerned with fight­ing rather than writ­ing for their reg­i­men­tal jour­nals,” says Robin, whose ex­haus­tive re­search took him across the wa­ter to the mu­se­ums of Army reg­i­ments who had been sta­tioned in Holy­wood, and he also col­lected per­sonal rem­i­nisces from a range of peo­ple in Co Down.

But one of the most pro­duc­tive sources of in­for­ma­tion about the Army was in Dublin at the Na­tional Ar­chives.

“You sud­denly find all this won­der­ful cop­per-plated hand­writ­ing by English civil ser­vants from years ago record­ing ev­ery­thing that was hap­pen­ing in Ire­land,” says Robin, who was also able to har­vest cru­cial ma­te­rial from the records and mag­a­zines of the wel­fare or­gan­i­sa­tion that ran the San­des homes, which were set up to help needy sol­diers by Ir­ish­woman Elise San­des.

Piec­ing to­gether the vi­tal clues, Robin says he was able to come up with a wealth of in­for­ma­tion about the bar­racks, but there are still unan­swered ques­tions which may never be re­solved.

What is known is that the base dates back to 1886, when the War Of­fice bought a Bishop’s palace — hence the name — from the Church of Ire­land for £1,000.

Ard­tul­lagh was for­merly the of­fi­cial and op­u­lent res­i­dence of the Bishop of Down, Con­nor and Dro­more, but it be­came va­cant when a new Bishop, Wil­liam Reeves, de­cided to down­size to Dun­murry.

The Army had al­ready been us­ing land at nearby Kin­negar for mus­ketry/ ri­fle prac­tice for reg­i­ments based in Belfast.

But Robin says he has been un­able to find out pre­cisely why mil­i­tary of­fi­cials de­cided they needed a new Army base, or why they chose Holy­wood for its lo­ca­tion.

One fac­tor may have been the se­ri­ous sec­tar­ian vi­o­lence which erupted in Belfast in 1886 in the wake of the Home Rule Bill, un­rest that re­quired more and more po­lice and mil­i­tary re­sources to con­tain it.

The trans­for­ma­tion of the old bishop’s com­plex into an Army base was car­ried out be­tween 1893 and 1898, dur­ing which time the palace it­self was de­mol­ished.

Ini­tially, there was ac­com­mo­da­tion for 400 sol­diers with ex­ten­sive recre­ational fa­cil­i­ties.

Robin says some of the orig­i­nal build­ings are still stand­ing, like the of­fi­cers’ mess and the fa­mous clock tower, which was de­signed by ar­chi­tect Vin­cent Craig, whose brother, Lord Craigavon, was the first Prime Min­is­ter of North­ern Ire­land.

The pa­rade ground at the bar­racks is

much smaller than it used to be, says Robin, be­cause “sol­diers spend less time march­ing up and down than in the past”.

Robin says he’s sad that the palace’s iconic guard­house dis­ap­peared in 2011.

Robin’s book has also tried to ex­am­ine the re­la­tion­ship be­tween the bar­racks and the town of Holy­wood.

In the old days, res­i­dents used to head to the swim­ming pool and cinema on the base and thirsty sol­diers made a bee­line in the op­po­site di­rec­tion for Holy­wood’s wa­ter­ing-holes.

The con­vivi­al­ity led to scores of lo­cal girls mar­ry­ing vis­it­ing sol­diers, but the males of the species reg­u­larly clashed — es­pe­cially on boozy week­ends.

One Holy­wood woman told Robin: “Satur­day nights were pow­er­ful. Drunk civil­ians would be fight­ing the sol­diers from Palace Bar­racks. The King’s Own Scot­tish Border­ers were the worst. Mix­ing Scot­tish blood with Ir­ish whiskey made them re­ally wild.”

The big­gest tragedy in the his­tory of Palace Bar­racks came in April 1933, when five young chil­dren died in a gas poi­son­ing ac­ci­dent at their home.

Ten thou­sand peo­ple turned out in Holy­wood for the funeral of L/Cpl Harry Poole’s fam­ily and flow­ers are still left on the graves 84 years later.

While ac­counts of what hap­pened at Palace Bar­racks dur­ing the First World War are sketchy, Robin was able to find a lit­tle more in­for­ma­tion about what went on in Holy­wood dur­ing the Sec­ond World War — es­pe­cially un­der the in­flu­ence of vis­it­ing Amer­i­cans.

He says: “We know there was an Amer­i­can de­ten­tion train­ing cen­tre in Holy­wood. There was also a dis­ci­plinary cen­tre — the ‘jankers’ — for Amer­i­cans who broke dis­ci­pline, or com­mit­ted crimes. And, across the way at Jack­son’s Road, there was a Ger­man POW camp.”

Robin says the Home Guard trained at Palace Bar­racks, which was also used by the Women’s Aux­il­iary Ter­ri­to­rial Ser­vice.

“Dur­ing the war, there were 10 large bar­rack blocks, in which each room held 30 men. A few of these blocks re­main and are clearly vis­i­ble from air­craft us­ing Ge­orge Best Belfast City Air­port.”

Af­ter the war, Palace Bar­racks be­came known as “Lit­tle Sand­hurst”, be­cause of­fi­cers were trained there.

One of them was Henry San­don, who went on to be­come a well-known ex­pert on TV’s An­tiques Road­show.

Robin charts how, dur­ing the Cold War, Holy­wood was used as a heavy ar­tillery anti-air­craft base, but later re­verted to more reg­u­lar in­fantry roles.

He adds: “One of my sources re­ferred to it as an ‘HSF post­ing’ — stand­ing for hunt­ing, shoot­ing and fish­ing.”

But things heated up a lit­tle dur­ing the IRA bor­der cam­paign in the 1950s, when se­cu­rity around the bar­racks was in­creased.

How­ever, it was at the start of the Trou­bles that ev­ery­thing moved to a new level, as the base was turned into an im­por­tant nerve cen­tre in the se­cu­rity forces’ anti-ter­ror strate­gies.

Robin’s book is laced with hu­mor­ous anec­dotes about Palace Bar­racks and other Ul­ster Army bases.

One con­cerned a woman who ran the San­des Sol­diers’ Home at Bal­lykin­ler dur­ing the Sec­ond World War. The woman swam ev­ery day in the sea, in a black cos­tume.

“On one oc­ca­sion, Amer­i­can troops shot at her and later said they mis­took her for a seal,” says Robin.

In an­other in­ci­dent, an in­jured whale was beached at Sea­park, out­side Holy­wood, af­ter it was struck by a ship’s pro­pel­ler on Belfast Lough.

Robin says he was told that the an­swer was to march a de­tach­ment of 24 Sher­wood Forester sol­diers from Palace Bar­racks to the shore where they pro­ceeded to fire 24 shots into the whale and end its life.

The book also re­counts how two Ger­man POWs es­caped from Holy­wood and were found in a barn on a farm in Comber. The farmer’s wife took pity on them and plied them with tea un­til the RUC ar­rived to take the pris­on­ers back to their camp.

Robin’s story ends with the start of the Trou­bles. He says what hap­pened post-1969 is an­other book for an­other writer, ide­ally a mil­i­tary his­to­rian.

Robin hopes his next project will fo­cus in­stead on the Chi­nese Mar­itime Cus­toms Ser­vice and its links to North­ern Ire­land.

The His­tory of Palace Bar­racks (to 1969) and Holy­wood as a Gar­ri­son Town by Robin Mase­field is pub­lished by Bay­burn Historical So­ci­ety and is avail­able from all good book­sell­ers

The colour­ful his­tory of Palace Bar­racks has been charted by Robin Mase­field (in­set above)

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