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An Irish National Foresters uniform and hat on display in Newry and Mourne Museum in 2017. Newry and Mourne Museum Collection

The Irish National Foresters (I.N.F.) grew rapidly and became the largest friendly society in Ireland. It supported Irish Nationalism and called for ‘government for Ireland by the Irish people in accordance with Irish ideas and Irish aspirations.’ By 1914, the I.N.F. had spread to Irish populations around the World and had over a quarter of a million members.

The Irish National Foresters was established in 1877 as a breakaway from the Ancient Order of Foresters which had been set up in England. It traces its origins to medieval serfs coming together to provide mutual support to each other. They had to meet in secret, often in forest locations, hence the name of the organisation. The officeholders were given titles associated with forestry including Chief Ranger, Woodward and Beadle. Like the Ancient Order of Foresters they provided a free doctor and free burial in return for weekly dues.

Membership certificate from the John Mitchel Branch in Newry dating from 1921.

Newry and Mourne Museum Collection

The John Mitchel Branch was established in Newry in October 1885. The Branch originally had their meetings in O’Rourke’s Loft in Collin’s Row in Newry. Growth in membership meant them moving to larger premises in Kean’s Loft on Monaghan Street and then to St. Patrick’s Hall on Merchant’s Quay. A new hall – the Mitchel Memorial Hall - was opened on John Mitchel Place in 1907.  Funding for this purpose-built hall was raised by levying £1, nearly two weeks wages, on each member. An auditorium (later used as a cinema) was added to the building in 1908 and, over the years, accommodation was improved and expanded. Membership continued to grow and, by 1935, when the Branch celebrated its Golden Jubilee, a Boys Brigade for younger members had been formed along with St. Bridget’s Ladies Branch.

Banner on display in Newry and Mourne Museum from the Irish National Foresters branch in Camlough, county Armagh, which is now closed. The branch was named after Alexander Blaine who was an Irish Nationalist politician and M.P. for South Armagh from 1885 until 1892.

Newry and Mourne Museum Collection

The Museum’s collection is home to a I.N.F. uniform dating back to 1900.  Known as the “Emmet Costume” it was adopted by the society in October 1877 and was based on a uniform worn by the United Irishman, Robert Emmet (1778 – 1803), during his failed rising against British rule in July 1803. The distinctive uniform consists of white breeches and a woollen green coat with gold buttons and white facing.  It was worn with riding boots which were made with a buckskin material. A cocked hat with large white feathers completed the uniform.

The introduction of the Welfare State in 1948 resulted in a decline in membership of the I.N.F. However, the John Mitchel Branch continues to thrive as a popular social organisation in Newry. Branches of the Irish National Foresters were also set up in other towns and villages in the Newry and Mourne area including Ballyholland, on the outskirts of Newry, Camlough and Killeavy in south Armagh and Hilltown, Rostrevor and Warrenpoint in south Down. 

A sash, dating from the early 20th century, which would have been worn by members of the John Mitchel Branch during meetings and parades.

Newry and Mourne Museum Collection

In addition to the uniform and hat, Newry and Mourne Museum has many other interesting items from the Irish National Foresters in its Collection, including membership certificates, a banner, sashes and collarettes and event programmes.

Newry and Mourne Museum is temporarily closed.

 

By Noelle Murtagh.

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