following is a short history of the John O’Neill Branch, No
1118, of the Irish National Foresters, Hilltown, Parish of
Clonduff, County Down, Ireland, and a short history of their
dance hall from 1957.
Growing The Trees:
Irish National Foresters Organisation is an off-shoot of the
parent Order of Foresters which was set up in England by serfs
in the days of the feudal landlords. Because they could not meet
openly, they gathered in dense forest and gave names associated
with forestry to their leaders. The self-help Order of Foresters
gave the title of chief ranger and assistant chief ranger to the
men at the top, and members of the executive of local branches
were called Woodward, Beadle and other names associated with
their secret meeting places. In later years a World Foresters
Organisation was set up and spread like wildfire in the United
states, Canada, Australia and Ireland. The rules of the I.N.F.
were those of the parent body. It is non-sectarian,
non-political and there is no class distinction. It is a mutual
aid society, established to help members in distress and the
relatives of members who have died.
back in 1937 a small group of “men of means” met in the
Parochial Hall as it was then and still, to form the John
O’Neill Branch of the Irish National Foresters. It was a
gathering that went largely unnoticed by outsiders, but from
this acorn a great oak grew and the Branch went from strength to
Undoubtedly, the aims and aspirations of the Irish National
Foresters, then with headquarters in Belfast, were something of
mystery to the uninitiated. Briefly they were to instil a spirit
of brotherhood in working men of the time, to insure the
brethren against illness when the idea of a welfare state wasn’t
even in the pipeline, to provide ‘death grants’ for burial
purposes and generally to improve the lot of those banded
together within the organisation.
spread of interest was gradual over the fifty years and of
course there were setbacks along the way, Despite these, the
branch survived and ranks as one of the best in the surrounding
area. The earliest records of the branch show that Brother Frank
O’Hare, High Chief Ranger of the Irish national Foresters’
Executive Council along with Brother B. Larkin, came to the
Parochial Hall on the 7th March 1937 with a view to
establishing a branch.
following people attended with a similar view: James Fegan,
James Morgan, John Maginn, Thomas Gribben, Barney Morgan, Felix
O’Hanlon, Jack O’Hagan, Richard O’Hagan, Paddy McGaw, Patrick
Matthews, Matt Murphy, Bernard Kelly, Patrick Rooney, Peter
Hamill, Patrick Bradley, Dan Keenan, Patrick Curran, Owen
Keenan, Malachy Hamill.
those who attended were initiated and the following officers
Chief Ranger---Bro. James Fegan
Sub-Chief Ranger---Bro. James Morgan
Secretary---Bro Barney Morgan
Assistant Secretary---Bro. Thomas Gribben
Senior Woodward---Bro Bernard Kelly
Junior Woodward---Bro. Patrick Matthews
Senior Beadle---Bro. Patrick McGaw
Junior Beadle---Bro. Matt Murphy
first Trustees were: Bro. Jack O’Hagan, Bro. Felix O;Hanlon and
Bro. Richard O’Hagan.
The New Committee:
new committee met every Sunday at 2p.m.in the Parochial Hall and
membership grew weekly. The branch collected 6d (two and half
pence in today’s money) from their members each week. The funds
were used to pay sick and funeral benefits in line with ideals
of the Irish national Foresters. Any member who required medical
attention from a doctor could have the service free of charge.
Doctor John Shannon was appointed as Branch Surgeon.
year the parish priest, Rev. father Patrick Kearns. P.P., gave
the branch use of the parochial hall to run a dance to help
their funds. The dances were attended, due to the high standard
of musicians employed. The dance usually took place on a Sunday
night in December and a raffle for a Christmas hamper was held
to coincide with the dance. Music was usually by the Shamrock
The Early Years:
Branch carried the ideals of the Irish National Foresters for
many years, collecting funds and helping members in distress.
The Branch received a severe setback in 1948 due to the
introduction of the Welfare State, whereby working men paid
contributions from their wages to a common fund which entitled
them to claim sickness benefit, unemployment benefit and free
medical services. A system, one could say, the government
adopted from the parent-body of the Foresters, but on a
nationwide scale. For this reason membership declined.
However some of the existing members continued to pay their
contributions and the annual Returns were made each year to the
Executive Council. Meetings during this period wee irregular,
but in August 1953, weekly meeting wee resumed in Bro. Hugh
Clarke’s premises, on Main Street, at the request of the High
Chief ranger Br. Owen Smith. The Branch were advised by the High
Chief Ranger to resume their ideals or to forfeit their
accumulated fund to the Executive Council.
Branch under the auspices of bro. Matthew Murphy, Chief Ranger,
decided to continue their ideals and set about this task.
The New Era:
main aim of the Committee at this stage was to acquire premises
of their own. The first stage was to obtain a plot of land
convenient to the village and they wee fortunate to obtain a
site from the late John Quinn for £300, the existing site. A
sub-committee, Matthew Murphy, Frank Murphy, Ambrose Walls,
Jimmy Doyle, Tommy Gribben and Felix O’Hanlon went to Crossgar
to the Rademon Estate with a view to purchasing an ex war
American Army Hut from Osbourne King. A sale was agreed for £325
and members of the Branch dismantled the hut and a vehicle
belonging to John Maginn took the hut to its new site on the
Rostrevor Road in the townland of Carcullion. The local Brown
Brothers, Contractors erected the hut in 1957.
first dance in their new premises was on the Friday 24th
April 197 dancing to Benny Maguire and his Band from Dundalk.
Approximately 900 people attended the dance. Admission was 5/-
(25p). The Hall was officially opened on Sunday, 5th
May 1957 with a Church parade of over 500 Foresters from the
local and surrounding Branches. It was blessed and opened by
Canon James Murney P.P. Included in the speakers on that day was
Joseph Connellan, M.P., for South Down and High Chief Ranger
Bro. Joe Ellison from Belfast. Dances in their new premises ran
weekly with the leading bands throughout the country performing
and large crowds attended these dances. Admission to the dances
was 3/- (15p) for ladies and 4/- (20p) for men.
Membership of the Branch more than doubled during this period. A
ladies’ sections of the Branch was opened at this time and they
also carried the ideals of the irish national Foresters. Of
particular note is the beautiful green and gold uniforms made by
the ladies themselves, which added colour and appearance to
Church parades. When sufficient funds became available, the Hall
was renovated and extended. The improvements included extended
dancing floor, cloakroom, ladies rooms, mineral bar and
committee rooms. New activities were available to members with
the purchasing of a snooker table and bowls. Members could also
have played darts or cards.
Dancing continued on Sunday nights in the refurbished premises,
along with regular teas and concerts for parish funds and Ceili
nights were held for the well established local G.A.A. club.
A Severe Setback:
Branch received a severe setback when their premises were
destroyed by fire on the 25th May 1975. Practically
everything the Branch acquired over the years was destroyed.
Despite this, the members of the branch were determined to carry
on their ideals. An offer was made to the branch by the local
G.A.A. club to hold their meetings in their clubrooms. The
Branch met weekly in the clubrooms and then transferred to the
old Credit Union Rooms, at Upper Main Street, owned by Bro. Pat
Brown. The main aim of the Branch at this time was the
restoration of their premises at Rostrevor Road in the townland
of Cacullion. Owing to the lack of facilities attendances by
members, other than the management Committee declined, as did
the membership of the branch. Lengthy negotiations with the
Northern Ireland office resulted in compensation being paid to
the branch for the loss of the premises and contents.
1979, after four years hard work, the existing premises were
completed at a cost of £120,000. Dancing resumed on Friday and
Sunday nights in the new Hall with still large crowds attending.
Unfortunately after a few years, dancing declined and the
Management Committee were forced to adapt new ideas on providing
entertainment. Regular teenage discos were introduced, a new era
the increase in popularity of licensed premises the committee
decided that in order to provide their usual standard of
entertainment, a club licence was necessary. Application for
this licence could only be made if extensive internal
renovations wee carried out. A Social club, member’s lounge was
completed in August 1986 and the fully licensed premises were
opened to the members on the 29th August 1986.
years on, and in celebrating their Golden Jubilee the members
are looking forward to the start of another fifty tears while
endeavouring to be ambassadors of Forestry, promoting the aims
and prospects of the order.
above info is from the "Short History of the INF Hilltown,
1937-1987" printed for the occasion of their Golden Jubilee.
INF Hall from 1987 until the present time is going strong and
continues to be an integral part of the Hilltown community. The
Foresters are always very willing to accommodate any group,
organisation or individual who may wish to run a function or
dance in the hall. This willingness is one of their strengths,
and is recognised by many within the local community and further
Friday the 29th April the MS Therapy Centre Newry,
had the use of the hall to run their Annual Charity Dance and a
sum of over £5,000 was raised on the night. The music was by
is just an example of the huge number of organisations that has
benefited from their generosity and no doubt many will in the
years to come. I would wish the present officers and members
(too many to mention by name in case I leave someone out)
continued success for the future.
following are a few of the well known names that came to the INF
Cogan the popular singing star from England appeared in the
hall. She held the record for drawing the largest crowd to the
original hall. Those attending were like sardines in a tin. Alma
Cogan real name Alma Angela Cohen was born in 1932 and she had 18
hits in the charts in the late 1950s.
Dana, from Derry, who won the Eurovision Song Contest came to
the hall on the night that she had earlier unveiled a sign on
some houses in Hilltown that were called ‘Dana Place’. She also
drew a massive crowd to the renovated hall and I was there
myself that night and I’ll never forget the squeeze.
would say there is no doubt who may hold the record for drawing
the least number of patrons to the hall---that must be the
legendary ‘Smokin Joe Fraser ‘the former heavy weight champion
of the world. After he became world champion Joe decided that he
would become a showbiz star and tour the world singing. Joe
believed he was ready for Hilltown but I’m afraid Hilltown or
surrounding areas weren’t ready to pay the entrance fee to see
Joe. Between twenty or thirty people attended and it was a bad
night for the promoter. I had a grandstand view along with a few
mates from the locality. Dan Mussen who lived next door to us
was a lorry driver for a local contractor. Dan parked his lorry
every night at the side of the hall and we were able to stand in
the lorry and watch and listen to Joe singing.
Finally it would be remiss of me not to mention a local band
from the Hilltown area called the Corvettes. They practised for
many nights in the hall and when they decided that they were
ready for the road they made their first public appearance in
the hall in the early 1960s at a ‘Parish Guest Tea’.
original line-up was Brain Gentles, Seamus Fegan, Colm Fegan and
Dermot Mackin---who later became my brother-in-law. Olive-Ann
Gribben would later join them as a female vocalist as would
Roseleen Fegan and then later Eileen Fegan sisters of Seamus and
their time on the road they played in an array of venues
throughout Ireland and are warmly remembered by many, especially
in County Down. As the song lyrics say ‘Memories are made of
this’ and there is no doubt many people will have a lot of
memories dancing the night away to the show bands that played in
the INF Hall Hilltown.
and gentlemen this will be the last dance for tonight !!!