On Saturday 28 September 1912 the industrial heart of Belfast city was still. The great shipyards were silent; the looms were idle in the linen mills; the rope works and the foundries were deserted.
At eleven o’clock, Religious services to invoke divine aid and to encourage signatures were held throughout in Protestant churches across the province. As was appropriate in a time of national crisis, the favoured hymn being ‘O God, our help in ages past’.
Charles Frederick D’Arcy, later Archbishop of Armagh, stated his Church’s reason for supporting the covenant: “We hold that no power, not even the British Parliament, has the right to deprive us of our heritage of British citizenship”
In the Ulster Hall, in the Assembly Hall, in the Grosvenor Hall, similar services were being held. Carson and the Unionist leadership stood together at the Ulster Hall and, before God and the people, dedicated themselves for the coming struggle.
When at noon the religious services ended, Carson and the Unionist leaders walked the short distance along Bedford Street from the Ulster Hall to the City Hall.
They were preceded by the Boyne Standard, an ancient-looking yellow silk banner carried by an Ensign Watson before William of Orange at the Battle of the Boyne on 1 July 1690, and a smartly turned-out guard of men wearing bowler hats and carrying batons.
A body of 2,500 men drawn from Orange lodges and Unionist Clubs marshalled the crowds outside the City Hall throughout the day.
At the City Hall entrance Carson was welcomed by the Lord Mayor and Corporation, the Poor Law Guardians, the Water Board and the Harbour Commissioners.
They were led across the great marble vestibule in the City Hall to a large round table appropriately draped with a Union Flag. On it was set the covenant together with a silver inkstand and Carson’s silver pen.
As photographic shutters snapped and cinematic handles turned Carson signed first, followed by Lord Londonderry and then by representatives of the Protestant Churches, the Belfast Unionist MPs, members of the local public bodies, and the officers of the Ulster Unionist Council and of the Grand Orange Lodge
‘Gathered around the flag-draped drumhead’ was ‘a body of men who represented a very large part of the capital, the talent, the genius and the energy of the city of Belfast. If the Covenant was treason nearly all that makes for prosperity, enlightenment and progress in this city will have to be impeached’.Northern Whig
At one o’clock the gates of the City Hall were thrown open and the large crowds which had assembled and filled Donegall Place and Donegall Square surged forward eager to append their signatures, to bind their fate to that of their fellow Ulstermen.
The Unionist Club marshals admitted the general public in batches of four or five hundred at a time until 11.00 pm. Lines of specially made temporary desks stretching for a third of a mile along the corridors of the City Hall allowed 540 signatures to be taken simultaneously.
The people were signing at the rate of about a hundred and fifty a minute; here there was no hypnotic force of dense masses, no whirlwind of emotion, only the unadorned and individual action of those who had left their fields and taken their lives and liberties in their hands laying them forth in the open sunshine as the measure of their resolve”.
However impressive the scenes at Belfast City Hall, they should never be allowed to obscure the fact that the Covenant was signed elsewhere: in other venues in Belfast; in the towns and villages of Ulster; from the shores of south Donegal to the Ards peninsula; from the drumlins of Co. Cavan to the rugged coast of north Antrim.
Within Ulster the Covenant was signed at some five hundred centres. The people of rural Ulster were no less enthusiastic than their urban fellow citizens. In the unionist heartland the Covenant was signed almost to a man.
At the Ulster Hall and a number of venues around Ulster, women signed the Declaration. The Duke of Abercorn, in failing health, signed under an oak tree on his estate at Baronscourt. Lord Templetown signed at Castle Upton on an old drum of the Templepatrick Infantry.
Elsewhere the climate was less friendly: defying the threats of their nationalist neighbours, the unionists in Cavan, Monaghan and Donegal signed the Covenant. In its own way the signing of the Covenant in small rural communities was just as impressive as the scenes in Ulster’s capital.
In addition another 19,162 men and 5,055 women born in Ulster, but living elsewhere signed at various locations throughout Ireland and Great Britain and also in the United States, Canada, Australia and South Africa.
In Ulster as a whole, the Covenant was signed by 218,206 men and the Declaration by 228,991 women.
On board SS Lake Champlain a letter was received attaching the signatures of 12 second-class passengers, four men and eight women. Among the third-class passengers, 34 had also got the covenant text, stuck it to a piece of paper and signed.
Some 17,000 people signed in Scotland, including at the iconic Kirkyard of Greyfriars in Edinburgh. Two days after Ulster Day Carson spoke in Glasgow in front of a huge crowd and declared ‘Our people in Ulster are your people’.
- 3565 signed in England
- 768 signed in Dublin
- 56 signed in Canada
- 39 signed in Perth, Western Australia
- 46 signed on board the Canadian Pacific Liner SS Lake Champlain
- 23 signed in Auburn, New York, USA
- 18 signed in Wales
- 14 signed in South Africa
- 9 signed on board HMS Monmouth, at Nanking in China
The Ulster Solemn League and Covenant and the Women’s Declaration were restricted to those who had been born in, or were living in, Ulster. There was widespread support for the Unionist cause in Great Britain, which led to similar movements being established there.
In the two weeks after Ulster Day there were further opportunities to sign the Covenant and Declaration at almost 100 locations across Belfast. Among the venues where men unable to take part in Ulster Day were able to sign the Covenant was the Old Town Hall which was open from 9am to 8pm daily until 14 October (except Sunday).
On 4 October it was reckoned that another 1,300 men had signed on that day alone. By the end of that fortnight around 130,000 men and women had signed the Covenant and Declaration in Belfast.
One of the most striking features of the covenant campaign and of its signing was the breadth of support given to it across all classes of Unionism, including labourers, professionals, gentry, aristocracy and clergy, mill workers and shipyard labourers. Even the Belfast rabbi’s daughter, Jennie Rosenzweig, signed the Declaration.
Some signed in beautiful handwriting, while others simply made their mark. Every signatory was offered a souvenir parchment containing the words of the Covenant of Declaration.
Many of the descendants of these men and women still proudly display these mementos.
Another feature was the high turn-out of women to sign the declaration – 228,991 women signed in Ulster compared to 218,206 men, and 5,055 women signed elsewhere as against 19,162 men, making a grand total of 471,414.
On the evening of Ulster Day, Carson left the Ulster Club in Belfast to travel by wagonette the short distance to the docks, where he boarded the steamer for Liverpool. A journey that should have taken a few minutes took an hour, as around 70,000 people crammed Castle Place beseeching Carson not to leave.
As the steamer slowly made its way up Belfast Lough the vast crowd stood singing “Rule Britannia” and “God Save the King”. When Carson went ashore at Liverpool next morning a 150,000-strong crowd greeted him with “O God our help in ages past” and conducted him in procession.
By the end of the historic Ulster Day, the Unionist population had demonstrated their resolve to the British parliament, to the rest of the British people and to the world.
In 1916 seven men signed the Proclamation of the Republic in Dublin. The American Declaration of Independence of 1776 had fifty-six signatories. However, in 1912 virtually an entire community put their signatures to the Ulster Covenant.
The Times opined that the events of Ulster Day brought to a close ‘a fortnight memorable in the history of Ulster’ and remarked that ‘the impression left on the mind of every competent observer is that of a community absolutely united in its resistance to the act of separation with which it is threatened’.
‘Ulster has delivered an ultimatum to the British Government which was as ‘enthusiastic and unanimous a pronouncement as was ever made by a people placed on their defence against an assault upon their liberties.’
Northern Whig comparing the day’s events with those of the Ulster Unionist Convention of 17 June 1892