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Inside Holywood's Palace Barracks: Bishop's residence, Army base, MI5 nerve centre... Northern Ireland author uncovers hidden history of base

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

By 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

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