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From Churchill's Belfast visit in 1912 to warships off the Co Down coast - unseen film of Northern Ireland history

As part of a new online project, the public can now view never before seen film clips of life here before the Troubles

By Ivan Little

Published 08/07/2015

Reel relics: a fresh-faced Winston Churchill in Northern Ireland in 1912
Reel relics: a fresh-faced Winston Churchill in Northern Ireland in 1912
The Royal Navy, off the coast of Ireland, were deployed to stem the militarisation of unionists during the Home Rule crisis
Staff working at the Royal Victoria Hospital in 1938

Remarkable unseen footage of a number of the most controversial episodes in Northern Ireland's history, including a visit to Belfast by Winston Churchill over 100 years ago when he spoke in favour of Home Rule, have been made available for the first time on the internet.

The eagerly anticipated Britain on Film project brings together thousands of never before seen films about life here and throughout the UK and which are now just a click of a mouse away, giving people the chance to watch footage of forgotten sporting events and royal visits dating back to the turn of the last century.

The release of the film clips by the British Film Industry gives people here and across the world the chance to re-live ground-breaking eras that they have only previously read or heard about, ranging from Sir Edward Carson drilling UVF soldiers at Larne to racing legend Stirling Moss in action in the Fifties.

Northern Ireland has a starring role in Britain on Film, a new Lottery-funded project from the BFI National Archive and the nine screen archives in the UK's nations and regions, including Northern Ireland Screen.

The BFI says: "Britain on Film will unlock the UK's film and TV history and make it accessible to the public on an unprecedented scale. From now, via BFI Player, everybody in the UK can watch thousands of newly digitised film and TV titles (1895-present day) about where they live, grew up, went to school, their family members and friends."

By 2017, it's anticipated that 10,000 film and TV titles will be digitised. A BFI Facebook campaign was also launched yesterday in which 60 new films will be released over 60 days.

The chief executive of Northern Ireland Screen, Richard Williams, says there is something for everyone in the footage, adding: "Our Digital Film Archive team has worked closely with partners including National Museums Northern Ireland to make accessible for the first time in a long time so much illuminating archive material. Thanks to the advances in technology, archive material can now by enjoyed by everyone, and there is no shortage of footage from Northern Ireland spanning politics, sport, industry, tourism, royal visits, and people at play."

One of the most fascinating film clips is of the contentious visit to Belfast of Winston Churchill in 1912 when he was the First Lord of the Admiralty in Herbert Asquith's Liberal Government.

Unionists, furious at his plans to speak at a Home Rule meeting in the Ulster Hall, locked the doors of the venue where Churchill's father Randolph had, 26 years earlier, rallied to the unionist cause telling supporters that, "Ulster will fight and Ulster will be right." In 1912, his son's rally was hurriedly switched to Celtic Park, the home of Belfast Celtic Football Club on the Donegall Road.

The authorities in Dublin feared there would be riots and sent five infantry battalions, two companies of cavalry and what was called a "significant" number of police to Belfast.

And indeed there were hostile demonstrations by shipyard workers who surrounded a hotel where Churchill was having lunch in Belfast, but stopped short of overturning his car after hearing that his wife was inside.

Footage from two years later in 1914 shows Sir Edward Carson (left) watching a machine-gun drill and presenting colours at Drumalis, Larne.

It's understood that the film may have been connected with gun-running operations which saw rifles and ammunition being smuggled from the German Empire to Larne, Donaghadee and Bangor.

In footage from the same era just before the start of the First World War, warships are seen off Bangor as a naval rating on a harbour wall signals by semaphore to a flotilla of eight destroyers.

There's extensive film coverage of several royal visits including Edward VII's trip to Belfast in 1903 and the Queen's first official visit to Northern Ireland following her coronation as the cameras follow her and husband Prince Philip to Carrickfergus and Bangor.

The Queen Mother is also featured during visits to hospitals, Stormont and Queen's University while Princess Margaret is another VIP filmed on a trip to Belfast.

King Leopold of Belgium, who was Colonel-in-Chief of the 5th Royal Inniskilling Dragoon Guards, is also recorded getting the freedom of Enniskillen on behalf of his regiment in 1956.

Another important visitor to Northern Ireland who's seen in the released footage is General Dwight Eisenhower, the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe during the Second World War and who later became the 34th President of the US.


The archive footage gives a glimpse, possibly the earliest ever, of the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast as it was in 1938.

Included are shots of the casualty department in which a young woman is getting a massage, apparently to ease the tensions caused by her workplace.

A young man is also seen in the operating theatre and a narrator describes the care he receives from surgeons and nurses.

Fun on film

The Britain on Film archive material includes a wealth of shots by the Northern Ireland Tourist Board including travelogues and rushes — that is, raw footage before it has gone through the editing process — ranging from scenic tourist attractions across the province to the more eccentric sides of life here.

Much of the footage from the Fifties to the early Seventies was designed to sell Northern Ireland to Britain and America before the Troubles decimated the tourist industry.

Among the quirkier events which are featured are square dancing at Bangor around the harbour and Pickie Pool, ice-skating at the King’s Hall in Belfast, the 1962 Kilkeel Prawn Festival, the 1959 World Ploughing Championship in Armoy, and the re-enactment of a Viking invasion by costumed role-players in Co Down in 1963.

And there’s also footage of Lord Mayor’s shows in Belfast in 1960 and 1962, Queen’s University graduation ceremonies and rag days, pony trekking in Rostrevor, yachting in Kircubbin and Portrush in the Fifties, and the Oul Lammas Fair in Ballycastle.


Film of the lost heritage of Northern Ireland’s linen industry will strike a chord with many people.

The footage of now-closed spinning mills is included alongside film which shows work being carried out on the construction of the M1 motorway at Stockman’s Lane in Belfast.

The fondly remembered Kennedy’s Bakery in the Beechmount area of west Belfast is also seen as builders toil on an extension to the premises.


Northern Ireland wouldn’t be Northern Ireland, of course, without agriculture getting its place as one of the major players in the archive.

What’s called Land of Ulster covers all aspects of farming including the story of a child growing up on a farm.

There’s also film exploring the importance of Northern Ireland produce to the local economy, plus the introduction of the Marketing of Eggs Act in 1924 followed by potatoes four years later, pigs in 1932 and milk in 1934.


The rich tradition of sport in Northern Ireland isn’t forgotten. There’s rare footage from a motor race in 1903 and a thrilling epic around the Ards TT circuit in 1930 when Alfa Romeos took all three top spots.

From 1957 there are thrills and spills from the North West 200 and film from the UIster Grand Prix at Dundrod. And the Carrowdore 100 is also there for good measure.

Cycling’s Tour of the North from 1957 is also featured. And racing on four legs is also well represented with film of meetings at the Maze and the Tynan and Armagh point to point steeplechase races.

The Twelfth

The Twelfth of July has a prominent place in the archive footage with film of celebrations between the 1950s and 1980s in Belfast, Londonderry, Portrush and Benburb, and the annual Sham Fight at Scarva is also featured.

Many of the demonstrations were from a time before the Troubles started and were not accompanied by the high levels of security which became part and parcel of the Twelfth during the years of conflict.


Last but not least, there is colour footage from the archives of the annual prayer pilgrimage from Saul to Down Cathedral, the inauguration ceremony of a Bishop in the Newry and Mourne area, and black and white footage of a communion ceremony from a Presbyterian church showing the breaking of bread and drinking of wine.

The best way to see the archive footage is to go to

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