Today I attended, as High Sheriff of Belfast, the St Patrick’s Sunday Parade of the 1st Belfast branch of the Royal Irish Rangers Old Comrades’ Association. The parade left the Northern Ireland Supporters Club, Shankill Road, for St Matthew’s Parish Church, Shankill Road. It was attended by Councillor Hugh Smyth, Councillor Frank McCoubrey, Chris McGimpsey, the President of the Association and Carol Walker, Director of the Somme Association.
St Matthew’s Church of Ireland was originally built in 1872 and took its name from the original church which was set in the grounds of the Shankill graveyard. It was built in the shape of a shamrock, the national emblem of Ireland, supposedly used by St Patrick to explain the holy family trinity of Father, Son and Holy Ghost.
The first Shankill residents at what is now known as Glencairn, were a small settlement of Cruthin people who inhabited a ring fort built where the Ballygomartin and Forth rivers meet. The name Shankill, Gaelic Seanchill, the old church, is believed to date back to 455 AD and was the site of a medieval Parish Church which served the area in the west bank of the Lagan, now covered by the Belfast Parish of Shankill, being originally Dalaradia.
The Royal Irish Rangers (27th (Inniskilling) 83rd and 87th) came into being on 1st July 1968 with the amalgamation of the three remaining Irish infantry regiments of the British Army – the Royal Inniskilling Fusilliers, the Royal Ulster Rifles and the Royal Irish Fusilliers. This date was traditionally known as Vesting Day and then Rangers Day emphasising that the traditions of the old regiments were being vested in the new large regiment. 1st July 1916 is also Somme Day, as well as the original date of the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. The motto of the Rangers is Faugh-a-Ballagh – “clear the way” – (a) and they march to “Killaloe”.
The first Colonel-in-Chief was Field Marshall His Royal Highness Prince Henry, Duke of Gloucester, Earl of Ulster, until 1974. The position was vacant from 1974 – 1988 when his widow, Her Royal Highness, Princess Alice, Duchess of Gloucester, was named Colonel–in-Chief until amalgamation.The first honorary colonel was Lieutenant General Sir Ian Harris, then The Right Honourable Alan Henry Brooke, Viscount Brookeborough DL. The local commanders were Sir Roger Neil Wheeler, GCB, CBE, former GCS, Brigadier M.C.V. McCourt MC and the O’Morchoe. Princess Alice was the first President of our Somme Association, followed by her son Prince Richard, and Viscount Brookeborough our Vice-President.
We had a long acquaintance with Sir Ian “Tommy” Harris, who liberated Caen on 7th July, 1944, commanding the 2nd Battalion Royal Ulster Rifles. I accompanied him and Lady Harris to France for the 50th Anniversary D-Day celebrations and as Lord Mayor of Belfast in 1996 for the formation of a peace garden in Caen. It therefore gave me great pleasure to attend the service in St Matthew’s where I presented the traditional shamrock to the Old Comrades Association and to the sea cadets and band accompanying them, then, with Carol Walker, to take the salute at the march past outside the church.
(a) see Faugh A Ballagh! – Tuesday, March 8. 2011