James Craig 1871-1940

History of James Craig

James Craig the 1st Viscount Craigavon was the son of millionaire James and Eleanor (nee Browne) Craig. The family was wealthy, their money coming from the distillation business. Their home, Craigavon, was at Strandtown Estate in Sydenham on the outskirts of Belfast. For all their wealth, the Craigs decided to educate James Junior at a modest establishment, Merchiston Castle School, rather than a more prestigious public school. After school James worked as a stockbroker and was successful enough to be able to open his own business in Belfast.

James Craigs Military Career

At the age of 29, James enlisted in the 3rd Militia Regiment of the Royal Irish Rifles and saw action in South Africa during the Boer War. He was promoted to lieutenant and then captain and seconded to Imperial Yeomanry. He was captured by Boer forces in May 1900 but was quickly released as he had suffered a perforated ear-drum. Upon his release, he was appointed deputy assistant director of Imperial Military Railways. He retired from the army after the Boer War with his rank of captain and returned to Ireland where he threw himself into the Unionist struggle to oppose the 3rd Home Rule bill in 1910.

Support for a Unionist Ireland and founding of the Ulster Volunteer Force

He was a fervent member of the Orange Order and work tirelessly through that organization in promoting the Unionist cause. Craig married his wife Cecil Tupper, an Englishwoman, and the couple went on to have two sons (twins) and a daughter. In 1906 He was elected as Member of Parliament for East Down in 1906 and held that constituency until 1918.

In the years just before the 1st World War Craig helped to found, organize and arm the Ulster Volunteer Force with the threat to opposing Home Rule by force of arms if necessary. In this, he was supported by Sir Edward Carson QC, who, in 1910 was made the leader of the Ulster Unionist Council. The difference between the two men was that Carson wished to maintain the Union of all Ireland with Great Britain whilst Craig’s first and only criteria seem to be the dominance of the Protestant cause within Ulster. The two men were to work together successfully as it later turned out, whatever the difference in their perspectives was. Together in 1914 at the outbreak of the 1st World War they offered unconditionally, the services of 35,000 armed and trained men to the war effort. In response to this the British war leader, Lord Kitchener, allowed the Ulster Volunteer Force to remain together as an Ulster Division.

In the years after the 1916 Easter Rising, Ulster’s Protestants witnessed Republican determination to secure and independent Republic. They were fearful that this Republic would be controlled from Rome and that there would be no place in it for them. Craig, in an effort to excuse UVF attacks upon northern Catholics, was to state in September 1920

“the Rebel plans are definitely directed toward the establishment of a republic hostile to the British Empire, and that they are working in conjunction with Bolshevik elsewhere towards that end”.

First Elections of Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland held its first elections in 1921 and Craig was returned as member for County Down and a fortnight prior to the opening of the first parliament he was appointed Prime Minister by the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. His parliament immediately removed proportional representation for local government and set about suppressing those nationalist councils that were represented in Dáil Éireann. Craig as Prime Minister stood firmly against the Boundary Commission thereby cutting many nationalist areas off from the southern state. He was even prepared to sacrifice the Protestant Unionist populations of Monaghan and east Donegal in order to secure Northern Ireland as it was realizing that if the northern state was to be determined by demographics alone he would lose large tracts of counties Tyrone, Armagh, Down and Derry City. He coined the cry of “not an inch”.

Sectarian Divides in Ulster

In 1927 Craig was created, Viscount Craigavon. The following year he abolished PR from N. Ireland parliamentary elections thereby damaging the chances of all the small political parties. For most of the time, Craig was in power Northern Ireland was suffering from dire poverty. This poverty was exacerbated by the effects of the great depression of 1929. Craigavon and his fellow Unionists response were to drive a wedge between protestant and Catholics. In effect, they retreated into Orange Jingoism and in this they were successful. Once again, after a period of over 10 years, sectarian hatreds came to the surface with assassinations and programs initiated in Belfast.

In 1939 and again in 1940 Craigavon tried to have conscription introduced into Northern Ireland. This was refused by the West Minster government. In 1940 he even tried to persuade Winston Churchill to invade the Irish Free State. By this time many people were recognizing that his mind was starting to slip. On November 1940, James Craig, Viscount Craigavon 1st died peacefully in his armchair. He was mourned deeply by the loyalist population of Northern Ireland, not at all by the nationalist people.

Craigavon’s legacy was a deeply introverted and divided state which he believed belonged solely to those who belonged to the Protestant faith. It was a society in which the Orange Order played a dominant role.


  • A History of Ulster. By Jonathan Bardon. The Blackstaff Press. Belfast. 2001 edition.
  • Modern Ireland 1600-1972. By R.F. Foster. Penguin Books. London 1988.
  • Carson The Statesman. By Ian. D. Colvin. The Macmillan Company. USA. 1935.
  • The Catholics of Ulster. By Marianne Elliott. Penguin Books. London 2001 edition

Last updated March 2, 2020.

About the Author

Pádraig Mac Donnchadha
Pádraig is a fluent Irish speaker with a passion for history, traditional music, and story telling.