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INF Hall, Hilltown

By Gerry Curran

The 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:

The 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.

The Beginnings:

Away 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 strength.

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.

The 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.

The 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.

All those who attended were initiated and the following officers were elected:
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

The first Trustees were: Bro. Jack O’Hagan, Bro. Felix O;Hanlon and Bro. Richard O’Hagan.

The New Committee: 

The new committee met every Sunday at 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.

Each 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 Band.

The Early Years:

The 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.

The Branch under the auspices of bro. Matthew Murphy, Chief Ranger, decided to continue their ideals and set about this task.

The New Era: 

The 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.

The 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:

The 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.

Second Era:

In May 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 in entertainment.

With 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.

The Future:

Fifty 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.

The above info is from the "Short History of the INF Hilltown, 1937-1987" printed for the occasion of their Golden Jubilee.

The 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 a field.

On 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 Blue Magic.

This 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.

Seeing Stars:

The following are a few of the well known names that came to the INF Hall.

Alma 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.

Then 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.

I 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.

Local Band:

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’.

The 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 Colm.

During 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.

Ladies and gentlemen this will be the last dance for tonight !!!



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In Loving Memory of Grant Gallagher: Sept. 21, 1990 - Nov. 18, 2006