Lord’s Twelfth tribute to lodge’s WWI Flying Corps hero

Lord Laird in the period costume he will wear on the Twelfth
Lord Laird in the period costume he will wear on the Twelfth

A member of the House of Lords is donning a World War One period uniform this Twelfth of July in honour of a popular Orangeman who signed up to fight in the conflict.

Lord Laird, the former chairman of the Ulster-Scots Agency, will be clad in the uniform of the Royal Flying Corps in tribute to James Donnelly, who died on active duty in 1918 at the Somme.

He had been a Second Lieutenant with the corps, which was the forerunner of the RAF.

He was also a lay Chaplain of Royal York LOL145, based by Carlisle Circus in north Belfast – the same lodge to which Lord Laird has belonged for over 50 years.

Lord Laird said in a statement ahead of the event, that “being the hundredth anniversary of the Battle of the Somme, Royal York LOL145 are honouring all the brethren who gave their lives as a result of the First War – James Donnelly is the most prominent of them”.

He described him as “a family man with a secure job in Belfast” who enlisted in 1917, at the fairly advanced age of 42.

Originally from a Ballintoy farming background, he had worked in telecoms before signing up, and when he was posted to the front he worked in ground-based communications rather than being onboard aircraft.

Lord Laird said that on March 29, 1918, Donnelly had been visiting a gun post as part of his task to maintain the telegraphy service.

The gun post was bombarded by the Germans, leaving him wounded.

He was taken to a nearby Canadian Military Hospital where he died on March 31 – and Lord Laird said this made him the last member of the flying corps to be killed in action.

The following day the RAF was officially founded, replacing the corps – which had itself only been created on April 13, 1912.

The news of his death arrived back in Belfast three days later.

While many Belfast Orangemen lost their lives as a result of the carnage of World War One, Lord Laird said his death appears to have been especially keenly felt.

“The lodge were getting messages sort of semi-regularly to say so-and-so died,” he said.

“Whenever the word came through about him, it was reputed to be a very, very sad day.”

He said that by all accounts he had been a “big figure” who was “the life and soul” of gatherings he attended.

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission states that he had been the husband of Sarah Donnelly, and lived on Willowbank Street, near the Waterworks in north Belfast.

He was 44 at the time of his death.

Lord Laird will be wearing the costume as he is chauffeured in an old Model T Ford, kitted out to resemble the kind of vehicle used by the UVF during the second decade of the 20th century.

As well as his chauffeur, he was originally due to have someone accompany him in the guise of a butler, but they are now unlikely to attend.

“You can’t get staff now,” he joked.

The Twelfth procession will take them from the hall by Carlisle Circus to Barnett’s Demesne on the southern edge of the city.

He estimates it will take them up to two-and-a-half hours to travel the route.

“But at least I will have a lift,” the 72-year-old peer added.

Lord Laird – whose wife’s great uncle perished on the first day of the Somme offensive on July 1, 1916 – intends to go to the Somme region of France in September, and lay a wreath at James Donnelly’s grave.