The assassination of King George V, Belfast, 22nd June, 1921

Today, 22nd June 2021 is the centenary of King George V of England opening the northern parliament in Belfast, one of the occasions taken to mark the beginning of partition. This particular centenary and Anglo-Irish relations may have been significantly different, though, as on 22nd June 1921 the IRA, or at least Belfast IRA members, set out to assassinate King George V.

During research for the Belfast Battalion book (on the post-1922 history of the IRA in Belfast) as you’d expect when trying to piece together the history of a clandestine or underground organisation, many of the stories survive in the archival margins. Documents seized by the authorities. Testimony given in court and reported via an unsympathetic press. Later memoirs. Songs. Stories. All offered something useful – either documenting the past or giving insights into how it was being chosen to be presented or remembered.

Some of the material was acquired from relatives around Belfast making the sources a little easier to assess. So in the case of the attempt to assassinate George V, the story was told by my grandfather’s brother (Bill Steele) to some of his children. As he wasn’t noted for talking about events in the 1920s, it seems to lend some credibility to it. The story was pretty simple. When George V was in Belfast on 22 June 1921 local IRA members set out to assassinate him but they couldn’t get close enough to him to do so.

The next day’s newspaper reports of George V’s time in Belfast, such as in the Freeman’s Journal, claim there were 11,000 troops and policemen on duty for the visit, along with 300 Scotland Yard detectives (and the Irish Independent noted the fear that something untoward would happen). The visit itself only lasted for four hours and thirty-five minutes.

The landing stage, at Donegall Quay, was guarded by detachments of cavalry and infantry, both with fixed bayonets. Between the quay, on the fifteen minute journey along High Street, Castle Place and Donegall Square, a crowd of 20,000 loyalists eagerly cheered the Kings arrival to City Hall where the northern parliament was to sit. Outside, rows of troops with fixed bayonets controlled access and, inside, the Irish Guards provided security. After lunch in the City Hall, the King travelled across to the Ulster Hall to deliver a second speech, again amid high security. The whole party returned by the same route to the quays for departure at 4.05 pm, having arrived at 11.30 am.

Bill Steele was a member of the 2nd Battalion’s D Company, based in North Queen Street. When membership rolls for D Company were collected by Dublin-based officials in the 1930s (as a part of Military Pension scheme), few members of D Company appear to have engaged with the Free State government officials. Hence, information about the Company’s activities is relatively poor (check out www.militaryarchives.ie). So it is not clear if what was planned was an operation sanctioned by the IRA (at any level).

There is a hint of what the plan may have been. During an RUC search of the yard behind a shop on the New Lodge Road in September 1923, a barrel containing a small arms dump was found. It held a Webley revolver and over 100 rounds of assorted ammunition, cleaning rods and other items (see RUC record of the search below). It also included a pair of old policeman’s trousers. The yard was behind the shop belonging to Mary Steele, Bill’s grandmother.

The dump had been put there by Bill. As he wasn’t there, the RUC arrested two of his brothers (Charlie and Jimmy) instead. Neither was charged with the possession of the dump and both were set free within three weeks (Charlie was home from New York and swiftly left again and wanted Bill and Jimmy to join him). The old policeman’s trousers may be the hint to the IRA’s plan – to have attempted to get close to George V disguised as RIC men.

The assassination attempt is not listed among the Belfast Brigade operations when they were documented during the 1930s although it may be that, somewhere in a pension file or elsewhere, some reference to the attempted assassination may be found. The various personal memoirs in the Military Archives (especially the Bureau of Military History witness statements) document operations in Belfast which no-one was willing to undertake, such as throwing bombs onto trams. Ironically, the volume of information available now means that, of all the main groups that participated during the war of independence, the IRA is perhaps the easiest to research thanks to the information collected in the 1930s. At the same time, there are other operations which no-one in the 1930s later cared to remember, such as the five coopers shot dead in Little Patrick Street (likely by 2nd Battalions D Company) or the Altnaveigh massacre of 1922.

Thanks to Seamus Steele for passing me on the story.


  

The prehistory of James Connolly

One of the most fascinating figures involved in the 1916 rebellion in Ireland is James Connolly. Born in Edinburgh of Irish parents, Connolly was hugely influential as a socialist commentator, writer and practitioner, both in Ireland and further afield. Ironically, or perhaps paradoxically, despite his significance Connolly’s early life and formative influences are largely unknown and obscure. Oddly neither the historical nor physical world of those years of Connolly’s were seemingly a major focus of research as part of the ‘decades of centenaries’. This post is a (very) long read but it gathers together various stories of Connolly’s early life based on research previously posted on the TF blog. They include formative episodes like the lamplighters strike of 1872 and Connolly’s career as a British soldier.

The 1872 Lamplighter Strike

In August 1872 the Edinburgh lamplighters went on strike over pay and conditions. Lamplighters were the men (invariably) who lit and extinguished the street lights, among other duties – they were sometimes called ‘Leeries’. Almost immediately after the strike began, a Peter McBride and three other lamplighters were made an example of by the town council, seemingly as ringleaders. In the end, the four were fined for breach of contract but within a week or so the strikers demands were met (the account below is mainly taken from The Scotsman during August 1872, except where indicated).

To start with, the lamplighters worked seven days a week on a ‘beat’ where they had to light and extinguish all the lamps as well as some other tasks. The lights sometimes had to be extinguished as early as 3:40 am after extinguishing others at midnight. A worker also had to issue a four week notice to leave their post or miss a day, while they could simply be let go. And typically many of Edinburgh’s thirty lamplighters were let go in May each year and some rehired each September although the Inspector of Lighting and Cleaning in 1872, Mr Patterson, claimed they were issued with four weeks’ notice if being let go in May (these details came out in McBride’s trial, see press on 17 August 1872). The terms and conditions of their employment appeared to be completely weighted in favour of the Lighting and Cleaning Committee of the town council.

There were also tensions over lamplighters being obliged to train new ‘hands’ with the trainers potentially being laid off in May and then replaced with the trainées in September. Lamplighters had to sign a contract confirming their working conditions. Peter McBride had done so in September 1866. However, as he pointed out in court, McBride and others hadn’t been asked to sign up to those conditions since 1866 or each year after regular breaks in their employment and there was no copy posted up anywhere that the lamplighters could read.

Not that the lamplighters’ pay demands appeared out of the blue. In mid-July 1872, immediately before the lamplighters’ strike, the one hundred and forty Council ‘scavengers’ in Edinburgh had gone on strike (‘scavangers’ was the term used for dustmen and street cleaners). After around a week the scavengers strike committee met with the Council and their requested pay increase of 2s was met. A number had initially been prosecuted for going on strike and given two days to return to work before being penalised. But the agreement with the Council specifically included protection for those prosecuted or dismissed during the strike. The agreement that concluded the strike was made on 20 July 1872 (see North Briton, 24/7/1872). The lamplighters seem to have originally have submitted a collective request for improved pay and conditions of 2s per week in a petition to the Council as early as mid-July 1872, possibly in tandem with the scavengers. Lamplighters had been typically paid 3-4s more per week than the scavengers. The lamplighters’ request was referred to Patterson and his Committee who dismissed it as ‘informal’ despite being in line with the similar to requests for pay raises that were being met by council.

An Edinburgh lamplighter at work (1928, photographer unknown)

As a group, the lamplighters then ‘formally’ wrote to the Inspector of Lighting and Cleaning on 5 August with their request for improved pay and conditions and threatened to go on strike on 13 August. They quickly withdrew the strike threat after being advised that the Lighting and Cleaning Committee would discuss their request. But by Friday 9 August, though, an issue had arisen over a lamplighter, George Leslie, refusing to train new ‘hands’. That day the lamplighters re-instated the threat to strike on the morning of the Tuesday (13 August) if their request for improved conditions was not met or if any of them were punished over the threatened strike action. The timing of the strike threat was not incidental. Queen Victoria was to be in Edinburgh during the threatened strike. According to the Glasgow Herald (14/8/1872), it was difficult to say whether the royal visit or the lamplighters strike was exciting the most interest among the public.

The Lighting and Cleaning Committee then met twice on the Monday (12 August) but refused to even consider the pay demands only considering the terms on which lamplighters could resign. Instead some of those involved were dismissed and a policeman sent to their house to instruct them not to extinguish the lamps on the Tuesday morning and to return their tools to the Committee. Those dismissed included Peter McBride and at least three others, Charley Riley, John Fegan and George Leslie (these were the four charged and brought to court on the Friday, 16 August). The lamplighters then posted placards around Edinburgh advising the public of the strikes and their petition to the Council for an increase in wages. A reference to the placard in The Scotsman on the Wednesday implies that the strike was being directed by a committee (possibly made up of the four dismissed lamplighters).

In response to the dismissals, strike action then began on the Tuesday morning and, without lamplighters, the Council had to suffer the embarrassment of leaving the lamps burning all day while Queen Victoria was in town. The lamplighters’ petition was discussed by the Council that day. Before dismissing it, the Council debate was interrupted by at least one member of the public, an old woman dressed in mourning clothes who demanded the right to address the council (what she said wasn’t reported). The police also had to prevent ‘public-spirited citizens’ from extinguishing the lamps on the Tuesday. With a strike taking place, there would be no lamplighters to put a flame to them again that evening and the town streets would be left in darkness. But on Wednesday, the Inspector of Lighting and Cleaning, Mr Patterson, advised the council that he had hired new ‘hands’ to cover every ‘beat’ of those on strike. He had also instructed the Sherriff to issue the warrants against McBride and the others for ‘desertion of service’ under the Master and Servant Act.

Attempts to simply replace the lamplighters were resisted. On the Tuesday evening, Patterson had already dispatched some new lamplighters to try and re-light some of the lamps leading to confrontations and violence. Presumably these were lamps that had been extinguished that morning, either by the ‘public-spirited citizens’ or lamplighters who hadn’t gone out on strike (as yet). A carter named George Thomson received ten days in prison for trying to prevent a lamp being lit on the Tuesday evening in Cockburn Street while Alexander Clunas was fined 5s for intimidating a lamplighter on High Street. In both cases the lamplighters were new ‘hands’ and Thomson and Clunas had tried to dissuade them from breaking the strike.

Previous lamplighter strikes had taken place in Glasgow (1855), Blackburn (1867), Limerick (1870) and Brussels (1871) and strike action in general was not uncommon in August 1872. On 14 August, for instance, The Scotsman and other papers reported strikes in Glasgow (miners), Dundee (shoemakers) and Hawick (spinners), while compositors were also out on strike. The Scotsman even sued a London compositor that it had hired as a strike-breaker for breach of contract when he refused to break the strike (eg Shepton Mallet Journal, 6/9/1872). It is also notable that new lamps had just been tested in Glasgow in July-August 1872 which took less time to light the globe. Trials suggested an eighty-five minute route could now be completed in fifty-five minutes. It was being proposed that the cost of introducing the new globes would be offset by reducing the number of lamplighters by a quarter. The report was submitted to the Council in Glasgow just after the strike but the trials must have taken place before the strike began and knowledge of the results may well have spread to the lamplighters in Edinburgh (eg see Glasgow Herald, 27/8/1872). Notably a lamplighter strike also followed in London later in 1872.

As with the posting of handbills to explain the strike action, the lamplighters were also ready for the court action against McBride, Riley, Fegan and Leslie on the Friday. That day, a letter was published by The Scotsman, from ‘a lamplighter’. It was entitled ‘Duties of Lamplighters’ and read:

Sir, as the public generally imagine that the duties of a lamplighter only consist of cleaning, lighting and extinguishing a certain number of lamps, would be so kind as to give space to the following correct statement of the duties which a lamplighter is compelled to perform? 1st. In addition to cleaning, lighting and extinguishing our lamps, which is considered sufficient work for any man when it is borne in mind that, for eight months in the year, we have to turn out at 12 o’clock each night to extinguish half the lamps, we are compelled to water the streets in dry weather, which every one is eye-witness to. 2nd. To work with the blacksmith, tinsmith and joiner; and, in fact, any other work that our inspector may send us to.

I am, etc Lamplighter.

In court on Friday 16 August, Peter McBride was found guilty for his role in the strike and fined £5 plus a guinea costs (his weekly wage was 19s) or, in default, ten days in prison. The others received similar sentences. The Council though, by the next Wednesday, was reported to have revisited the petition the previous day and authorised that the pay and conditions requested by the lamplighters be accepted.

Peter McBride, who seemed to be regarded as the ringleader of the strike, lived in Carrubers Close. McBride was also a Sergeant in the Army Reserve, having joined the 26th Foot, the Cameronians in 1855. He and his wife were later recorded running a coffee stand in 1881 when both their birthplaces are recorded as County Monaghan. McBride had spent nearly four years in Bermuda while in the British army, leaving full-time service in 1865 shortly before he began working as a lamplighter in Edinburgh in 1866. The address he lists as his intended residence is Corrybreany, Ballybay, presumably Corrybranan on the southern side of Ballybay in County Monaghan. His sons, Robert, Thomas and John, were likely playmates of James Connolly’s older brothers John and Thomas as they were around the same ages. The Connollys lived next door to the McBrides in Carruthers Close in 1871 and John Connolly, James’ father, was himself a lamplighter. John must have been on strike with the lamplighters too (this may well be the strike that various James Connolly biographers mention). Legend has it that Connolly and McBride both lost their jobs soon after the strike, which is consistent with later census records.

What is more, several biographers mention Connolly’s ‘uncle’, giving the names variously as ‘Peter’ and ‘McBride’. He is claimed to have walked many paths along which his nephew James followed: this ‘uncle’ was a socialist and (reputedly) a Fenian who had joined the military under a false name. Some remembered an older uncle who was a socialist and Fenian who seemingly introduced Connolly to left wing activism in Edinburgh from 1890. James Connolly’s daughter Ina also mentions (in a witness statement to the Bureau of Military History) an ‘uncle’ Peter in Edinburgh, his father’s brother, who came over to Belfast and tried to get James to come to Monaghan to sign over a family farm to him, an event she dates to 1912.

Peter McBride’s marriage record names his parents as Robert McBride and Margaret McBride, née Connolly. His military records provide no next of kin information but he gives his address as Corrybranan, Ballybay, Co. Monaghan. The dates of his military service are consistent with dates for other ex-servicemen who joined the Fenians (and Edinburgh had ‘green scares’ in the 1870s over a mobilized ‘Irish’ vote and ‘Fenianism’). His socialist and syndicalist credentials are shown by the 1872 strike. He is very much the almost mythological figure conjured up by James Connolly’s biographers. Was he just a neighbour of John Connolly’s? A fellow lamplighter? Another Monaghan lad he met in Edinburgh?

McBride enlisted in Edinburgh in 1855, roughly when Connolly first arrived in the city. John Connolly’s mother was named Mary and his father John (or Owen). Perhaps Peters mother was John Connolly’s mother’s sister (‘uncle’ being meant as an older male relative rather than, strictly, as a brother of your mother or father). Maybe McBride’s ancestry was entirely fictional and he was indeed John Connolly’s brother (there is a lesson there I’ll come back to in a future post). Ina Connolly also gives her father Ballybay roots – but Corrybranan has no obvious candidates to match McBrides father or mothers name in Griffiths Valuation or the Tithe Applotment Books, so that is yet to be confirmed.

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter as it is now clear that the socialist ‘uncle’ Peter, possibly a Fenian too, was a very real figure rather than a romantic device concocted by Connolly’s later biographers to explain his political formation. McBride’s (and John Connolly’s) involvement in the strike was surely retold down the years and it may have been a family story regularly heard by James Connolly, who was only 4 in 1872, as a template for successful industrial action. However, both Peter McBride and John Connolly rapidly lost their jobs as lamplighters after the strike, so they may well have borne the real cost of a successful action for workers.

The Other J. Connolly: James’ brother John.

James Connolly was one of five children. The oldest, Margaret, was born in January 1859 but died as an infant in 1861. The next, John, was born in January 1862, followed by a second girl, Mary who was born in July 1864 but died of rubeola and bronchitis before she was a year old. The two youngest were boys, Thomas born in Campbell’s Close off Cowgate in April 1866 and James born in June 1868 when the family’s address is given as 107 Cowgate, which is where Campbell’s Close is located (the details of each is taken from Paul Gorry’s 2016 book Seven Signatories). Thomas, an apprentice print compositor in the 1881 census (supposedly with the Edinburgh Evening News) rapidly disappears from sight in the 1880s, reputedly having emigrated. No clear candidate for Thomas has yet been found in conventional emigration databases or the likes of United States census returns. John, who joined the British Army around 1878, is the only one of Connolly’s surviving siblings that seems to feature in his later life.

Antique print of Campbell’s Close. where James Connolly was born (the street is now gone). The poverty of the Close is clearly hinted at by the figures at the entrance and contrasted by the grandeur of the architecture.

I originally looked at John Connolly while trying to disentangle some more clarity on James Connolly’s reputed British Army career. Some biographers have James Connolly joining the same regiment as John, who had enlisted underage using a false name, in 1878. John’s regiment is (variously) given as the Royal Scots or the King’s Liverpool Regiment and the suggested false name is usually ‘John Reid’ (much of this is teased out in Donal Nevin’s James Connolly: a full life and I’ve discussed it previously, here). John Connolly re-enlisted in the 2nd Battalion, Royal Scots (see WO/363, service number 20308), during World War 1. John was discharged due to ill health in February 1916. The reason given was Bright’s Disease, brought on through exposure to bad weather while guarding German prisoners at Stobs Camp in the Scottish Borders in 1915.

The ‘John Reid’ pseudonym assigned by some biographers to James Connolly is possibly a garbled version of Connolly’s older brother’s military career as John had enlisted using the name James Reid. Peter McBride was still in the army reserve in the 1870s when active during the lamplighters strike in 1872. Some sources claim he had enlisted under a false name. That could be taken to mean, as his daughter Ina later refers to James Connolly’s father’s brother Peter, his real surname was actually Connolly – which he listed as his mother’s name as Connolly on his marriage record. False names for enlistment were obviously common – if Peter did it, so too did John and James Connolly. Peter also included a (potentially) fictional parentage on his army records.

John Connolly had served, as James Reid, in the Border Regiment according to the documentation when he re-enlisted in the Royal Scots in the first world war, although his medal and decorations are not entirely consistent with those awarded to the Border Regiment. Either way, confusing James and his brother John seems to be the origin of the ‘John Reid’ claim for Connolly and the association with the ‘Royal Scots’ regiment. A John Connolly, a private in the 1st Royal Scots assaulted a policeman in Candlemakers Row in Edinburgh in July 1878 but there is nothing to suggest that this is the same John Connolly (it is plausible as he possibly had to use his real name as he was known in Edinburgh). The name ‘John Connolly’ later occurs with alarming frequency in newspaper reports of incidents in and around where the Connollys lived in Edinburgh often involving alcohol and violence. Greaves, Connolly’s biographer, suggests John was ‘flamboyant’ without explaining what he means (is that a euphemism for having alcohol problems)?

Carrubers Close where the Connolly’s and McBrides lived in the 1870s.

John’s ill-health and role guarding prisoners in 1915-16 may, in part, explain why James Connolly’s last statement (smuggled out of his cell by his daughter Nora) begins, “I do not wish to make any defence, except against the charge of wanton cruelty to prisoners.” Given that he followed John into the army and then to Dundee, it would seem that he was close to his older brother. Concern at his brother’s reaction may even have influenced how James framed his own last words. John never recovered his health. He died on 22nd June 1916 and is buried in Edinburgh’s North Merchiston Cemetery.

There is a ‘James Reid’ listed in the Border regiment in WO/121, service number 1524, who joined on 9th July 1878 and was discharged in Dublin (due to ill health) on 9th March 1886. This fits Johns details. The dates match up so this may mark his departure from full-time service into the reserves. Like his false name, John’s age was consistently recorded as two years younger than it was, due to his enlistment underage as James Reid. He does correctly list his wife’s surname as Connolly in his later army documents, though. John had medals for his service in Afghanistan and Egypt (1882). His military file also included documents from when he re-entered the Royal Reserves in Edinburgh for a year up to April 1901 (service number 1597). This adds a new layer of complexity to the John Connolly story, though. The James Reid in those documents was married to a Sarah Jane Reid who lived at 122 Sycamore Street in Newcastle (one of the Border Regiment depots). He appears to have left the Border Regiment in 1894 after a period in the serves (possibly from 1886 onwards), with Sarah Jane Reid also listed for this latter period. This would be consistent with John Connolly’s service dates. However, John Connolly is documented as having married Elizabeth Atchieson in Edinburgh in 1891 with his brother James as one of the witnesses. It’s not clear what is going on here with Sarah Jane and Elizabeth but this may also be the ‘flamboyance’ Greaves noted.

The period when John was in the reserve and was based in Edinburgh was when James returned to the town. A lot has been made about James Connolly’s time in Dundee early in 1889. There is very little detail available but Connolly makes his appearance there when John Leslie, an Edinburgh-based socialist, has been summoned to support a free speech demonstration and protests. Leslie brought some additional support from Edinburgh, which could well have included James Connolly. This would mean Connolly was already active as a socialist and really only in Edinburgh in passing (I’ve found some writings from 1891 that suggest he was already articulating socialist views). James publicly features in Edinburgh socialist activity by at least that year (1891) and possibly earlier.

John was also an active socialist (not unusual for ex-servicemen) and was central to a dispute over his dismissal by the Council’s Cleansing Department for socialist activity (the same Department which Peter McBride and his father had battled in 1872). But during the hearings it was also alleged that John had been dismissed previously. Unfortunately the name John Connolly is too common in Edinburgh to identify if he is in the individual involved in any of the many other recorded incidents involving a ‘John Connolly’. These include a twelve year old John Connolly being stabbed in the shoulder in October 1872 in Cowgate (which the Connollys surely heard of whether it involved John or not). A man of that name features in a series of public order offences, assaults on women and thefts in Edinburgh. There is a John Connolly involved in other socialist activity up to around 1897-1898 when he seems to slowly withdraw from politics. This would seem consistent with his return to the service during the Boer War (which seems unlikely for a committed socialist).

Obviously there could be an error here and the 1901 re-enlistment includes a file belonging to a different James Reid as the alternative is that John Connolly may have had more than one wife at the same time. And while at least one Greaves suggests that his brother may have been a little flamboyant, ordinarily it would be assumed that the military records are in error here apart from one odd little detail. In the aftermath of the Easter Rising, Connolly, as the most high profile leader, features in mini-biographies across a range of newspapers. The level of accurate detail is dreadful, some due to misleading information Connolly himself propagated. This is most obvious in the fact that in early May he is simultaneously reported as being from Cork, Belfast, Liverpool and Monaghan. The most accurate summary of Connolly’s life with some quite telling errors was published in the Newcastle Daily Journal on May 2 1916. The text is below:

Newcastle Daily Journal, May 2 1916.

“James Connolly, who was previously reported shot, and is now said to have surrendered with other rebel leaders, was born in Edinburgh on 6th June, 1866, in Campbell’s Close in the Cowgate, the house where he was born being no longer in existence. His parents were Irish, and his father worked as a carter in the service of Edinburgh Corporation for 42 years, when he received a pension.

James learned the tile-laying trade, and later entered the Corporation service as a carter, and became prominent in Labour disputes. As a boy he showed a great deal of intelligence, and was marked among his companions for the ready way in which he grasped things. On Sundays and holidays he would go for long rambles into the country, and so great was his power over the other boys of his own age that they would do anything he asked them.

He received his education first at the Catholic School in Lothian Street and later at the school in Market Street. He married a Dublin girl who was in service in Perth and he had six children, five of whom are still alive. The other child was burned to death through her clothing catching fire. Connolly was at that time in America and his wife was preparing to follow him….

Connolly’s brother John, who has been discharged from the National Reserve, resides with his family at 57, Calton Road, Edinburgh. He has served twenty years in the Army, and two of his sons have been killed at the front, while one is a prisoner of war in Germany.”

Notably here, James Connolly’s date and place of birth is almost correct apart from the fact that it is out by two years – but that would match the likely date he would have given if he joined the British Army under-age. Similarly the address is pretty much correct, given the Connollys moved around quite a bit in Edinburgh (as far as it is possible to tell from street directories, Campbell’s Close was actually located at 107 Cowgate and that might also have been used as its address). The Catholic School referred to in Lothian Street was run by the Sisters of Mercy and admitted girls, so it is possible that Connolly attended the infants school there. The later schooling in Market Street is a little confused as Market Street was one of two Catholic run schools that were merged together as St Patricks in Cowgate by the time James would have attended. However, it would still have been a separate school when John Connolly attended. It is tempting then to see John Connolly having sufficient links to Newcastle-Upon-Tyne that it becomes the place where the most accurate details of James Connolly’s life get published in 1916 (at least until another explanation is found).

James Connolly, British Soldier.

It probably still comes as a shock to many people that James Connolly, revolutionary socialist and republican, had served in the British army. That is despite the fact that so many Irish people did join up. Connolly’s military career is shrouded in mystery, though.

James Connolly’s legend has perhaps been the most durable of all the leaders of the Irish Republic in 1916. A reason for that is that his life intersects with so many long-standing themes in Irish public life: immigration, poverty and disadvantage, Irish-British relations, the Irish in Scotland, class politics, gender equality, imperialism, socialism, Irish republicanism and service in the armies of the British empire.

In many ways discussion of the last of those topics has tended to be fairly fraught. The range of motivations which brought individuals into service – patriotism, a sense of duty or adventure, poverties, political affirmations, colonial subjects gambling their lives for some degree of pensionable future financial security – are often woven and interlaced into contemporary debates on politics and identities. And Connolly obviously gained from that experience, despite being born into crushing poverty and with little education, immediately after his military service his early letters are well read, highly literate and educated. Oddly enough, in his case, that military service is one of the least known and most obscure episodes of his life.

While various Connolly biographers like Greaves and Nevin sketch out what they believe to be the details of his military career, practically all of it is based on speculation and supposition. None of the details of his military career are clear, which is not out of keeping with our real knowledge of his early life in general. The actual documentary evidence of his early life is confined to the record of his birth in Edinburgh on 5th June 1868 and an entry in the 1881 census (Connolly’s trade is given as ‘apprentice baker’).  Connolly doesn’t appear again until a letter to Lillie Reynolds on April 7th 1889 (Lillie and Connolly were later to marry). Due to the work of Greaves and the likes of Nevin, it is now commonly accepted that Connolly’s letter to Lillie was written just after he deserted the British Army.

This, at least, appears to be supported by a throwaway reference in which Connolly describes Lillie as ‘the girl he left behind him’. This paraphrases the refrain of ‘The Girl I Left Behind Me’, was considered the parting song of choice for British Army regiments as they marched away for overseas service. This may be the closest thing to a direct reference by Connolly to his British Army career in his own writings (Connolly, even when writing under a pen name, never seems to have directly mentioned his military service).

Connolly’s early letters to Lily have quite an extensive vocabulary (for someone who reputedly left school so early). Clearly Connolly’s military career afforded him an opportunity to improve his literacy significantly. It’s not clear if this should be taken to imply that he was largely in an administrative role or unit.

The Girl I Left Behind Me
Extract from Connolly’s letter to Lillie Reynolds from April 7th, 1889 (original in the National Library).

I’ve laid out the conjecture about Connolly’s military career elsewhere based on the information pieced together by Desmond Greaves and Donal Nevin. The versions given of Connolly’s army career include tantalising possibilities that he was deployed during sectarian violence in Belfast, participated in evictions, served in India and even participated in wargames in Dublin in the 1880s (which may have informed the Irish Republic’s military strategy in 1916). That an unknown portion of their reasoning is flawed is exposed by the details given about Connolly’s elder brother, John, who had also served in the British army. It was claimed that James had followed John into the King’s Liverpool Regiment but John had actually served in the Border Regiment. He had re-enlisted in the Royal Scots during the world war and was guarding prisoners of war at a camp in Scotland in 1916. John, I think, is the intended audience for James’ opening remarks in his last statement before his execution: “I do not wish to make any defence, except against the charge of wanton cruelty to prisoners.” John had Bright’s Disease, acquired while guarding prisoners, and died just over a month after his younger brother.

For my part, I had tried a different route into uncovering the details of James Connolly’s military service. The only fixed point to navigate towards appeared to be Connolly’s desertion in early 1889. While we don’t know the false name he reputedly used as a soldier, deserters get listed in the Police Gazette, so the issues for early 1889 were scoured for likely candidates in the various regiments he is claimed to have seen service with between 1882 and 1889. None of those listed closely matched Connolly’s details (you can see the most likely here).

police gazette.png
Front page of Police Gazette, February 26th, 1889, showing format of deserter lists.

Oddly, the earliest actual source referring to Connolly’s military service is a caustic anti-Larkin newspaper, The Toiler, published in 1913 and 1914. Connolly is repeatedly referred to as an ex-militia man by the paper. Despite the abrasive tone, many of the incidental details about Connolly appear to be accurate. The 4/10/1913 issue states that Connolly was ex-Monaghan militia and had taken the Queen’s bounty more than twenty-odd years ago but later deserted. He is repeatedly described in editions of The Toiler as an ex-militia man. He also gets a more detailed profile elsewhere in the paper. He is stated to have joined the militia ‘early in life’ and, after getting a training, he deserted them, lived as a tramp and then got a job as a carter in Edinburgh (13/6/1914). It reports that while some say he was born in Monaghan or Belfast, the author believed he was born in Scotland, likely Glasgow as he was bow-legged (which it claims is typical of Glasgow due to a lack of lime in the drinking water). Another profile (31/10/1914) says that he was born in Monaghan, joined the militia ‘at an early age’ and then deserted and went to Scotland where he worked as a street sweeper in Edinburgh. While some of these details are correct, others (like being born in Monaghan) are untrue, but as Connolly himself often listed it as his place of birth it may have come from Connolly himself. Oddly, another article in the same issue clearly labels Connolly as a ‘Scotsman’.

Despite it’s hostility to Connolly, the various details in The Toiler suggest access to a source with some knowledge of Connolly’s early life (such as pieced together by Greaves and Nevin). It strongly implies that, despite the various suggestions of Greaves and Nevin, that Connolly had actually been a member of a militia regiment and that identifying his military records may hinge on finding a suitable candidate who deserted from one in early 1889. Records of deserters from 1889 many finally uncover a likely candidate.

Some newly discovered early James Connolly letters.

Connolly may well have deserted the British Army in 1889, returned to Scotland and lived first in Dundee before then returning to Edinburgh and marrying Lily Reynolds by around 1891. The reason why he was living in Dundee is not clear (no offence to Dundee). Despite the imprecise factual basis for the details of his life before 1893, we can at least date his arrival in Dundee through some private correspondence mentioning current events to Lily in April 1889. We also know, from their marriage records on 30 April 1890, that he was living at 22 West Port, Edinburgh.

Typically Connolly’s brother John is said to have already been active in socialist politics when he (James) deserted and that James followed his elder brother’s path into political activism, taking over from him as secretary of the Socialist Democratic Federation in 1893 (this is the general outline often given by biographers).

At this point that narrative appears to be at odds with what can be identified in contemporary newspaper reports. The first clear sight of John Connolly in politics is in 1893 when he was dismissed from his post as a ‘scavenger’ by Edinburgh Council. This followed his involvement in industrial action over working hours. In the subsequent references to it in the press (over May-June 1893), Edinburgh Council report that he had been sacked previously by the head of the Council’s Cleaning Department for some unstated infraction and was re-employed without the head of Department’s knowledge. Seemingly his visibility during the strike brought his re-employment to the head’s attention and he was sacked again. His infraction could, of course, be his socialist activism but John Connolly does not appear to be named as involved in socialist activities in contemporary press reports. A John Connolly was arrested and charged with rioting in Greenock during a railway strike in 1890 but it is unclear if it is the same John Connolly.

The aftermath of that railway strike does give us our first glimpse of James Connolly the political activist, though. At a public meeting of the ward Labour committee in South Bridge in Edinburgh, in February 1891, James Connolly put a resolution to the floor and spoke against his local MP. This seems to be his the earliest public address and writing by him, albeit relatively brief.

This is from The Scotsman, 17 Feb 1891:

Public meeting under auspices of Ward Labour Committee in Labour Hall, South Bridge, Edinburgh to comsidr parliamentary representation. John McKenzie of the Edinburgh Trades Council, was in the chair and noted the poor attendance. James Connolly, carter, moved this resolution:

Resolved that the meeting record its most emphatic conviction that Mr William McEwan, the present member of Parliament for the Central Division of the City of Edinburgh, is no longer, if he ever was, a fit and proper person to represent the working classes of the Division in Parliament ; that it recognise in his letter to the Chairman of the Central Liberal Association a conspicuous absence of any comprehension whatever of what was really involved in the late struggle between the railway companies and their employees ; that the recent railway strike has been productive of at least one unmixed good – viz., the shattering of the superstition that in our present industrial society, based upon monopoly on the one hand, and wage servitude on the other, there is, or ever can be, any true identity of interest between capital and labour ; that recognising this fact, this meeting pledges itself to secure, if possible, the return to Parliament for the Central Division of Edinburgh of a labour candidate at next general election : and that for the candidate it be made an indispensable condition of his candidature that he fully and freely recognises the antagonism of interests between the monopolizers of the means of production and distribution and the wage workers, or, in other words, that he expresses his belief in the existence of the class war.

The report goes on to say that Connolly stated that the resolution expressed the conviction of every honest man in the locality on the matter. Mr John Smith, a mason, seconded the motion. John Leslie, a labourer, also supported the motion and drew attention to how McEwan was also an apologists, if not supporter, for the Plan of Campaign in Ireland which ‘in policy and practice, was illegal.’ The latter point was to highlight McEwan’s inconsistency in opposing industrial action in Scotland on the grounds it was illegal, while supporting ‘illegal’ land agitation in Ireland. This is perhaps a nod towards McEwan trying to build electoral support among Edinburgh’s Irish community. Did Connolly sense the Irish in Edinburgh were being played for their votes? When Connolly himself began to get involved in electoral politics in Edinburgh in 1893-1894 he identifies himself as Irish during hustings, no doubt trying to do the same and elicit support from the Irish community.

It is possible that Connolly’s primary motivation in moving the resolution was that the John Connolly arrested over the railway strike was indeed his brother. This could be the origin of the stories about his brother John getting him into politics. Certainly John Leslie, who also spoke on his resolution, was to be a long time collaborator of Connolly’s and was instrumental in getting him into politics. Leslie was Connolly’s predecessor as secretary of the Social Democratic Federation. Notably the SDF openly derided the Liberal’s (McEwan’s party’s) claim to speak for labour interests.

Leslie may be related to the George Leslie who was involved in the 1872 Lamplighters strike. Like John Connolly, he is hazily sketched out in various biographies and is hinted to have been a Ribbon man. It may be that the ‘John’ that biographers feature in some episodes in Connolly’s life in the mid-1890s is occasionally mixes John Leslie and John Connolly up or blends them together. Certainly he was an active socialist by at least 1889 when he first begins to feature in the press as secretary of the Social Democratic Federation. During protests and clashes with the authorities in Dundee over ‘free speech’ Leslie was asked to come from Edinburgh and being some ‘sinews’ to support the protests. Intriguingly this was at the end of March 1889, just as James Connolly arrived. Was Connolly one of Leslie’s ‘sinews’? Leslie’s action in Dundee appeared to be to calm matters down rather than have an outright confrontation with the authorities.

Connolly’s next identifiable writing appeared as a published letter on 8 August 1891 in the Dundee Weekly News. It was followed by further letters in October. The ideological position he gives aligns fairly neatly on that of the SDF.

The next appeared on 24 October 1891 (Dundee Weekly News).

Sir – the meaning of Socialism is not in the least obscure, and it is only the misrepresentations of our enemies which make it so. Common property is the means of production and distribution – i.e. the land and instrument of labour – is Socialism as accepted by all schools of Socialistic thought. The industries of the country to be held and managed by the workers, and production and distribution of all goods to be arranged to supply the wants of all, instead of, as at present, to make a profit for a few – all classes of labour to be equally rewarded. The labour of the architect requires greater skill, but it is also less protracted and disagreeable, and performed amid pleasanter surroundings than the labour of the hod-carrier, and without the labour of the hod-carrier the most sublime conceptions of the architect would remain mere valueless drawings on paper. A colliery manager is absolutely useless without the labour of the colliers, and the labour of the collier is of little use to dwellers in cities without the coal-heavers, who bring the coal to our doors. All are equally necessary; therefore all should be equally rewarded. – I am, etc, JAMES CONNOLLY

With a further letter on 31 October 1891 (Dundee Weekly News).

Sir – Labour is the source of all wealth. Capital itself is produced by labour, and is useless without labour, and capital in private hands is simply the stored up unpaid labour of the workers kept back by a capitalist fraud. Wages are only a part of the fruits of labour, the remainder is retained by the capitalist in the name of profits, and is utilised by him to create fresh capital and enable him to live in clover off the labour of others. The two cases I have quoted are instances of this general rule, which remain unaltered whether the dividend is 20 or 4 per cent. The fact that capitalists often fail does not alter the amount wrongfully taken from the workers. What one loses another gains. If capitalist A fails it is simply because B, C, D, E and F, his rivals in business, have taken his trade from him, and will therefore receive greater profits, because of the ruin of their rival. The matter is of as little interest to the workers, as a class, as the similar question of how thieves divide their plunder can be supposed to be to the unfortunate victims from whom it was stolen – I am, etc, JAMES CONNOLLY

Collectively, the letters show Connolly’s articulate grasp of socialism and confident voice. As far as we know, Connolly left school very young, but the fluent writer visible in his 1889-1890 letters to Lily Reynolds and these early letters suggests an education and reading well beyond ten years of age. Without his actual military records, we must assume some of that education was while serving in the British Army. His socialistic convictions also seem well developed by 1891, suggesting he was no mere arriviste, calling to mind his capacity to advise Kier Hardie on the Irish socialist scene in 1893. As with Peter McBride and John Connolly, John Leslie is a significant figure to help understand Connolly’s political formation.

About which we still appear to know so little!

You can read other posts about James Connolly on the blog here here:

They told me how Connolly was shot in the chair…

Suffragettes, James Connolly and hunger-striking

Learn all he can and put his training to the best advantage: Irish republicans in the British Army

Nora Connolly O’Brien on her father, Belfast and 1916

From Darkness into the Tide

On a Thursday evening at the end of July 1869, Mary Gunning was gathering cockles at a place called Beatty’s Gut in Belfast Lough when she found a coffin buried in the sand and mud, held in place by four wooden stakes. She reported the discovery to the Police Office from where Sub-Inspector French sent out a detachment of police to recover the coffin. When they arrived at Beatty’s Gut, they found that the tide had come in and the coffin was once again under water.

On the Friday morning the police returned and managed to relocate the coffin and retrieve it. The coffin was found to contain human bones. The Belfast Newsletter reported on the Saturday that “The coffin was taken charge of by the constabulary, but as yet no light has been thrown on the mysterious occurrences.” So what were the circumstances in which a coffin was fastened in place between high and low tide on the shore of Belfast Lough?

Over the years there have been numerous reports of discoveries of human remains, both coffined burials and unprotected human remains from the shore of Belfast Lough. Along the lough shore, high tide covered up an extensive shelf of estuarine muds and sand that extended out for a considerable distance. Water courses like the River Milewater continued as channels through the muds and sand to reach the main channel in the centre of the lough. Beatty’s Gut was the tidal creek that ran from the bottom of what is now Skegoneil Avenue (original Buttermilk Loaning) and out to the middle of the lough (after two hundreds years of reclamation the foreshore of the lough is now utterly unrecognisable).

Not all finds of human remains were deliberate burials on the foreshore. On Friday 21st December 1867, two workers dredging the Lagan pulled up remains, identified as William Tohill (49) who had been last seen on 13th October 1866 at his daughters house in Lagan Street. How he ended up in the water is unknown (his grand-daughter Catherine Tohill was my great-grandmother). Other accounts of human bones may relate to other, unknown, tragedies rather than actual burials. Where human remains were found along the shore line in coffins in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, though, clearly the remains had been deliberately deposited at that location.

Just after Mary Gunning’s discovery in Beatty’s Gut, David McCormick, a compositor who lived in Durham Street in Belfast, wrote to the Belfast Newsletter (31/7/1869) to explain: “Sir – Having seen a paragraph in your issue today, regarding the finding of a coffin and human remains on the slob-land of the Shore Road, nearly opposite Boyd’s public-house, I may mention, for the information of those not acquainted with the locality and its antecedents, that in by-gone days – so late as fifty or sixty years ago – the place, called “Green’s Barns” was set apart for the interment of suicidal cases, or, as it was termed in those days, persons who had “put hands on themselves”, and who were interred at high-water mark.”

The Belfast Morning News also reported the next day that “The mystery in which, at a first glance, the discovery is shrouded, is removed by the explanation that formerly it was usual to bury at low water persons who had committed suicide, and, in order to prevent the coffin from being floated away, they were secured in the manner above described.

The tidal mud flats to the north of Belfast town extended from what was known as the Point Fields out along the foreshore of Belfast Lough. The Point Fields extended from roughly Clifton House out as far as Yorkgate station (largely what was later known as Sailortown). The mud flats were often referred to as the slob-land or ‘slobs’ although some early nineteenth century accounts suggest there was some hard sand present on the surface in the mid-eighteenth century when it was possible to walk along it from the Point out to Whitehouse. This sandbank certainly was present closer to Belfast town (and is the ‘Fearsaid’ that gives the town its name). But soil profiles through the mud flats don’t suggest that there is a buried inter-tidal surface of hard sand. So if it formerly existed, it must have washed away. It may even have been eroded by wave action from the ever increasing size of shipping into Belfast.

Map of Belfast Lough, from mid-19th century, showing extent of mud flats (slobs), names and arrows are added based on descriptions. Solid black line is Belfast-Ballymena rail line, just off the shore. Red arrows mark water courses through the mud. Second red arrow (from bottom) shows location of Milewater channel with land to the north known as Thomson’s Bank and former Point Fields to the south. The bottom red arrow is Ritchies Dock, opened in 1790s. This was possibly over the outlet of the Fenian Gut into the Lagan. The Farset (High Street) and Blackstaff (Mays Dock) were similarly the outlets of rivers that became a focus for settlements and industry.

These physical spaces can no longer be recognized from their placenames and only really survive on maps. The ‘Point’ that gave its name to the fields was the corner of land that jutted out towards the navigable channel of the River Lagan. The River Milewater cut through the slobs lands just beyond the Point (this was to act as the boundary of the borough of Belfast). Further east was Ringans (sometimes Ringings) Point. Beatty’s Gut lay in between, where the stream alongside the Buttermilk Loaning (now Skegoneil Avenue) emptied into the lough. The term ‘Gut’ appears to be used for tidal rivers, particularly in mud flats, and is also recorded in similar locations in Cork, Dublin and Wexford. A placename that survived in North Queen Street into the 1960s, the Fenian Gut, appears to refer to a stream shown opposite Henry Street on early nineteenth century maps. The ‘Fenian Gut’ may have been the feature that denoted the town end of the Point Fields.

The area beyond the Point was gradually reclaimed by John Thomson from around 1820 with a large embankment raised on the tidal muds to keep out the tidal waters and a channel left for the Milewater. This became known as Thomson’s Bank. The same method was used to reclaim the area of the Market on the other side of the town. It is possible that the Point Fields or parts of Belfast city centre were originally similarly reclaimed spaces around the river outlets that became High Street and Mays Dock (see map above).

Beatty’s Gut lay just outside the municipal boundary of Belfast in the early 19th century. At the time, and probably since at least the 17th century, superstitions and taboos surrounded the remains of those who had committed suicide. Similarly, the remains of people who had been executed, and even murder victims received different treatment in death than those who died naturally. Famously, unbaptised children were excluded from being buried on unconsecrated ground (largely due to theological ideas propounded at the Council of Trent that ended in 1563). This promulgated the theological underpinning that perpetuated a practice of burying unbaptised children in specific locations or areas of graveyards. This is often presented as a ‘Catholic’ tradition but debates around the Catholic use of established church burial grounds and individual cases in England suggest it was still an issue with the Anglican tradition (if not others) in the 19th century. O’Laverty names at least on such cillín (as they are known) in Belfast and there is current research that is establishing if others were present. There are suggestions from former residents of the Shore Road that the space now known as ‘Ringans Point’ was formerly a cillín (but rather than try and deal with this in detail here, I’ll come back to another day).

The discovery of coffined burials below the high tide line is recorded from various locations along the shore. Each can be tied to an area that clearly lies beyond the shoreline shown on pre-1800 maps (see the general information summarized on the map). Some were brought before the coroner (although no inquests were held), others were reburied. In no case was a cause of death described that might corroborate the assumption that they had not died of natural causes.

Mary Gunning’s gruesome discovery is one of many along the foreshore of Belfast Lough. In a future post I’ll look at some more of these burials and explore a bit more about what they tell us.

By the way – if you are affected by issues in this post there are people willing to listen, such as MindWise (click here).

Unmarked graves on Peters Hill

This is a quick revisit to a previous post on undocumented burials around Belfast. A while ago I’d looked at reports of human remains uncovered at two locations coinciding with an apparent cemetery and a ‘death pit’ marked on a 1696 map of Belfast. So technically, they aren’t undocumented, but they are forgotten and overlooked.

The Peters Hill burial ground appears to cover the area from the Boyd Street/Peters Hill corner back along Peters Hill and extending down an unknown distance towards Millfield. The locations of key streets etc are shown below including Peters Hill (which becomes the Shankill Road (beyond the right hand side of the picture), Boyd Street is shown, plus Millfield, North Street and Carrickhill. The area with recorded burials is shown as a red box.

Here’s an older map which has been updated to include names of smaller streets around Peters Hill/Boyd Street/Brown Square. The inset shows the area on the 1696 map. Brown Square (and Brown Street) carry the name of John Brown, a former sovereign of Belfast who had his house roughly between Abbey Street and Brown Square on Peters Hill. Change in the area has been constant and rapid. Brown’s house was visible as ‘old house’ in the nineteenth century. While many of the street alignments are clearly still visible, the encroachment of Peters Hill and Millfield on the block formed by those streets and Boyd Street is significant. Ironically it means, today, thousands of people unwittingly drive or walk over a burial ground daily.

The 1900-07 map with the 1696 map inset (in top left) although the 1900-07 map now has north towards the bottom so it is aligned the same as the 1696. Are the two sets of burials the cemetery and Death Pit shown on the 1696 map?

Just to reprise the burial evidence at Peters Hill. In 1859, the Belfast Newsletter reported that human remains were found buried in Boyd Street when gas was being installed into a house there.[1] Ten years later, it was claimed that more human bones and a cannon ball had been found in Boyd Street around 1864.[2] Then, in 1871, Andrew Mairs, a grocer who lived at the corner of Boyd Street and Peters Hill, was renovating his premises. After demolishing an old building on the site, the workmen cleared away debris and discovered “…within a distance of a few yards, and not more than a foot and a half beneath the surface, no less than nine human skulls, and as many bones as would go to make up nine human bodies… the bones lay in a straight line from each skull in the manner in which bodies are interred in graveyards.” These were laid out by a wall that had been apparently re-used as the foundation to the old building.[3]

While there is limited information to go on here, a handful of clues suggest that the Peters Hill area merits much closer attention. The 1696 map clearly labels Peters Hill as ‘St Peters Walk’. One of revised editions of Benn’s History of Belfast notes that the name ‘St Peters Hill’ is also recorded. The same edition also notes that ‘pacings’ and ‘bull-baiting’ were held on Peters Hill. Neither the Peters Hill cemetery nor the Death Pit (marked further up Peters Hill on the 1696 map) were remembered in later memoirs of Belfast.

1696 map showing the junction of Peters Hill, North Street, Old Lodge Road and Millfield. North is to the bottom of the map. The term ‘Black Pit’ is typically used to describe a tanning pit (for curing cow hides to make leather) – an industry known from that area of North Street.

This area lies outside the ramparts erected around Belfast in 1642. Yet, Canon John Grainger, writing about the ramparts in 1861, noted that “A portion of some of the out-works was existing until laterly on the site of Brown’s Square…”. But it is clear from other maps that the town ramparts for Belfast were much further east so whatever was visible in Brown Square wasn’t the 1642 rampart. Clearly Grainger knew of some form of earthworks in Brown Square as late as the nineteenth century but these don’t appear to have been described elsewhere. The burials and the name ‘St Peters’ hint at some type of ecclesiastical site. Despite being a medieval borough, with a castle and churches, Belfast didn’t appear to have any foundations by religious orders – that are recorded. And the main axis of the castle and churches lies along North Street, Peters Hill and the Shankill Road. Burials are also known from elsewhere along this route.

Could Belfast have forgotten a whole burial ground? You bet. Much of the early documentary history of Belfast – official corporation records going back into the seventeenth and sixteenth centuries – are lost. Ironically, for a city often accused of having too long a memory, a lot of the early history of Belfast is still largely unknown.


[1] See Belfast Newsletter 8/1/1859: “Yesterday forenoon, as some workmen were employed in making the necessary preparations for introducing gas into a house in Boyd Street, they discovered the skeletion of a full-sized human being under the window, within a few feet from the house. No person in the locality can give any solution of the mystery which attaches to this discovery.

[2] See Belfast Weekly News 9/10/1869: “…It will be recollected that, about five years ago, a quantity of human remains and a cannon ball were discovered in Boyd Street, continguous to this place…

[3] See Belfast Telegraph 22/5/1871: “Mr. A. Mairs, who for some time past carried on a grocery establishment at the corner of the Peter’s Hill and Boyd Street, has had a number of labourers employed during the past week in taking down the old building that the premises may be reconstructed on an extensive scale. Yesterday morning, about eleven o’clock, some of the workmen, who were making excavations and clearing away debris, prior to putting in new foundations, made an extraordinary discovery of human remains. While they were digging in the rere of the building, the brought up a number of bones, and, on continuing their work, they found, within a distance of a few yards, and not more than a foot and a half beneath the surface, no less than nine human skulls, and as many bones as would go to make up nine human bodies. The place where the remains were discovered would lead to the belief that they must have been interred at some period subsequent to the erection of the old house, as the spot where the excavation were being made was where a doorway existed, leading from one room to another. When the old door-step was removed, the skulls were found resting against the stone work of the foundation, and the bones lay in a straight line from each skull in the manner in which bodies are interred in graveyards. This would lead to the supposition that the wall must have existed against which the bodies were laid. The news of the discovery soon spread, and in a short time thousands of people were attracted by curiosity to the place, and different opinions were formed as to when, and owing to what cause, the remains had been deposited in this place. Some persons who examined the skulls said that at least three of them were those of females. By some they were set down as being the remains of persons who fell during the rebellion of ’98. Others said the house was built upon a prison grave-yard, and that they were the remains of persons who had suffered execution… The matter was reported to the police, and on their making inquiries in the neighbourhood they found that ‘the oldest inhabitant’ remembered a doctor’s shop in existence at this corner at one time. This may account for the bones being found there. When the coroner was informed of the discovery, he ordered the remains to be buried.

[4] See Irish News 23/6/1894

[5] See Irish News 22/6/1897: “Yesterday whilst some workmen were engaged digging through old foundations in Townsend Street, they discovered a human skull and a number of human bones. The remains were collected and taken to the Brown Street Police Barrack, and the City Coroner communicated with. Mr. Finningan, however, did not consider it necessary to hold an inquest, as the remains presented the appearance of being a long time in the ground.”; Belfast Newsletter 22/6/1897: “…at the end of Townsend Street…” and that one of those digging “…, who had been pursuing his operations somewhat deeper into the soil than the others, felt his spade come into contact with a hard substance, which he believed to be a stone. Upon clearing away the earth, however, from around it he found that it was human skull. Beside it were got several human bones.

[6] Belfast Weekly News 16/10/1897: “…a couple of lads who were engaged at some pastimes in the vicinity of Carrick Hill made a very startling discovery. They came across a parcel lying in a lane between Library Street and Kent Street and at the rere of St. Stephens Street. It looked somewhat suspicious in appearance, and on opening it they found that it contained the bones of an infant whose head was separated from the trunk. The remains were wrapped up in a piece of old calico, and bore evidence of having lain there for a long time.

[7] Volume 1 of the Historic Towns Atlas for Belfast contains the early maps (up to 1840).

[8] Grainger, J. 1861 Results of Excavations in High Street, Belfast, Ulster Journal of Archaeology.

[9] The use of Bower and Bowers Hill for the Shankill is discussed in a memoir in the Belfast Telegraph in 1951(7/12/1951).

[10] Reeves, W. 1847 Ecclesiastical Antiquities of Down, Connor and Dromore, consisting of a taxation of those dioceses, compiled in the year 1306, with notes and illustrations, p. 186. Benn, G. 1823 History of the Town of Belfast, p.252. Reeves, in his Eccelesiatsical Antiquities of Down, Connor and Dromore, offers explanations for all six altarages but Benn associates Capella De Killemna with a different site at Suffolk.

[11] Young, R.M. 1892 The Town Book of the Corporation of Belfast, 1613-1813, p.243.

Royal Avenue: the far-famed valley of dry bones

Royal Avenue is another street in Belfast that most people walk along without realising that underneath their feet are human remains. So if you’re superstitious or squeamish it’s probably best not to read on. Sorry.

At the same time, you might also not have heard that the same street lies on the former town defences of Belfast and the reports of bones being found might be telling us quite a lot about the development of the city. Belfast was enclosed by a rampart and fortified gates in 1641-42. Construction of the rampart at North Street may have disturbed the burials which suggests that they are earlier in date. North Street linked the fording point of the Lagan and Farset (that gave Belfast its name) with a principal road out of Belfast and the main church site at Shankill. There are known to have been castles in Belfast from at least 1262 and a borough (i.e. a nucleated settlement) from the fourteenth century. Belfast then became the focus of attempts at establishing a more significant urban settlement from the 1570s onwards.

The street now called Royal Avenue, though, has only really existed in its current form since the 1880s. Two earlier streets, Hercules Street and John Street, were remodelled and then renamed Royal Avenue by 1882. The City Hall end of Royal Avenue had been Hercules Street which ended at North Street, with John Street running from North Street to the Donegall Street/York Street junction. The staggered crossroads formed by Hercules Street, North Street and John Street was also the site of the North Gate in Belfast’s defensive rampart, believed to have been constructed in 1641-2. Some of these are shown on the map below.

Extract from a map in Georgian Belfast, 1750-1850 showing key locations prior to the laying of Royal Avenue including the position of the ramparts and Ritchies Place.

Since the rampart (as it was known) was almost wholly removed by the end of the nineteenth century, its exact route and actual form aren’t entirely clear. The earliest detailed survey maps of Belfast – by Thomas Phillips in 1685 – appear to show a bank of earth with a wall or facing of stone on the outside. The rampart is known to have had a relatively shallow ditch on its outside as this has been found on excavations in the likes of Queen Street. With street widening and re-alignments the position of the rampart on the ground hasn’t been clearly established everywhere. Based on later mapping, John Street was outside the rampart while the North Gate lay somewhere across the junction of Hercules Street and North Street.

Following the demolition of the houses fronting onto the southern side of John Street in May 1882 (as part of the construction of Royal Avenue) workers found a human skull eighteen inches below the ground twenty yards up from North Street, in front of what is now the Cathedral Quarter offices. The early accounts note that the bones were in good condition but had clearly been there for a considerable amount of time.

That is here (if you want to know the exact spot)… https://goo.gl/maps/jEJNd3pQbuWw2HG7A

This was the ‘cut’ for the footpath on that side of Royal Avenue, a strip measuring about six feet wide and four feet deep. The human skull turned out to be from one of two burials uncovered. Within a couple of days more burials had been found beneath the new footpath at the North Street end of Royal Avenue and continuing for about twenty yards along North Street. In some cases the bones had been disturbed previously, with the skulls often move a short distance from the rest of the remains.

The burials lay within the stiff clay under the rear yards and foundations of buildings that had stood in John Street. Within two or three days at least twenty-one burials were identified. While numerous theories were advanced and the discovery attracted widespread attention from the public and antiquarians, there was no firm memory of the spot being used as a cemetery. In July 1882 the Belfast Telegraph referred to the new Royal Avenue as the ‘far-famed valley of dry bones’.

In March of 1883 construction work began on some buildings at the North Street/Royal Avenue junction. At least two further burials were found and ‘a few feet from North Street’ they uncovered what was called “…the remains of the wall of the old garrison. The wall, which is five feet thick, appears to have been skillfully constructed, and consists of outer layers of solid masonry, the centre portion being filled up with ‘puddle’ the whole forming a very strong wall.” They also noted the presence of wooden water pipes (these had been installed by Belfast Corporation in 1681). There was also what was described as ‘not less than one thousand cow horns’ which suggested there had previously been a tanyard at the site.

Despite the conjecture nothing else was uncovered at the site where clearly there had been at least twenty-three burials in an area measuring roughly twenty yards by two yards wide. Then, in February 1894, Steel and Sons, just over twenty yards up Royal Avenue, suffered a fire. Subsequent rebuilding works turned up four further skulls and other bones, tenatively identified as an adult male, an adult female and at least one child. One of the skulls evidenced a trauma (this skull was later donated to the Belfast museum by the contractors Fitzpatricks). The burials were again at a depth of three feet but the various accounts note that they were not intact burials but rather appear to be bones that had been uncovered and re-buried. There were some traces of lime (probably lime mortar) in the soils which were described as slightly damp. A fifth child skull was uncovered a day or two later. An ancient brick wall was also noted close to the burials, extending three feet into subsoil and resting directly on Belfast’s estaurine clays (known as ‘sleech’). Some coins were found in Steel & Sons during the works, dating to 1742, but not said to be directly associated with the burials.

In July of that year, electric lighting was being installed along the footpaths in Royal Avenue and further human bones were uncovered, with the location (on this occasion) noted as ‘opposite the Northern Bank’. In 1905, when work was being done at the rear of the Northern Bank premises, five human skulls were found in a wooden box – apparently some of those found in 1883 were simply re-buried on the site. An account of the 1894 discovery in The Irish News had reported that “During yesterday the remains attracted the attention of great crowds of the passers by, who seemed to enjoy the ghastly exhibition very much. The skulls will be buried today, as nothing can be gained by keeping them overground.”

On the other side of North Street in 1879, workers pulling down houses in Ritchies Place had also reportedly found a human skull buried two feet under the ground. Ritchies Place was a laneway parallel to Hercules Street (before it was remodelled as Royal Avenue). It’s location is shown on the map from Georgian Belfast above.

Map of key locations discussed in the text.

The line of the 1640s ramparts, the position of the North Gate and the main area in which human remains were found is shown on the map above (with a burial at Ritchies Place and one below the ‘John’ of John Street). Some of the burials found in Royal Avenue in 1882-3 and 1894 appear to lie within the bastion adjoining the North Gate in a deposit of stiff clay but had suffered some disturbance. The five feet thick section of wall found in 1883 may be the bastion wall itself. The description of the soils containing disturbed human remains at Steel & Sons were notably in a damper soil containing lime. This sounds like the type of soil that would be found in the ditch on the exterior of the rampart, with the lime having washed down from lime mortaring on the stone facing of the rampart or the bastion wall. Steel & Sons was at 113 Royal Avenue, the furthest to the north-east that burials are described. The location of human remains in Ritchies Place and the opposite side of Royal Avenue may be indicating that this is a more extensive burial site that spans North Street and significantly pre-dates the construction of the 1642 rampart. An archaeological excavation at Church Street, to the immediate southwest of the burials described above, did not reportedly find any human bone (see results published by Cormac McSparron and Emily Murray in 2004 Ulster Journal of Archaeology).

1696 map of Belfast (published with Irish Historic Towns Atlas Belfast, Vol. 1). Note the incorrect alignment of Peters Hill and North Street.

There are two areas that appear to be illustrated as burial grounds as well as a ‘death pit’ shown on a map of Belfast from 1696. One burial ground and the ‘death pit’ are in Peters Hill, at the upper end of North Street (I’ve posted about these recently). I’ve included an image of the map above (from the Irish Historic Towns Atlas for Belfast) with the burial grounds shown in red. The perspective on the map is distorted as North Street and Peters Hill are not aligned but it appears to be partly based on Thomas Phillips 1685 map (see below).

1685 map of Belfast by Thomas Phillips (published with Irish Historic Towns Atlas Belfast, Vol. 1).

The Royal Avenue burials are clearly not the second burial ground, though, since it’s position can be calibrated from the 1696 map. That map shows the burial ground in the corner of a large enclosed space diagonally opposite the buildings to the immediate east of the North Gate, which the 1685 map shows to be much longer and narrower than depicted in 1696. These can be identified on another map in the Irish Historic Towns Atlas from 1757, where I’ve highlighted the buildings close to the North Gate in red and the distinction triangular built up area in red. Aligning the position based on features on the map, the second burial ground lies at the junction of Edward Street and Great Patrick Street (ironically there do not appear to be reports of human bone from this area). There are suggestions that an engagement was fought in an area outside the Belfast ramparts in 1644 in Bullers Field (as this space was known). It isn’t clear whether there were many fatalities or if those who were killed were buried somewhere close by but it is one possibility. It is also notable that the extramural communities around Belfast all had burial grounds other than around the Corporation church (St Georges) on High Street.

1757 map of Belfast (published with Irish Historic Towns Atlas Belfast, Vol. 1).

We can add these to a growing list of lost burial grounds in Belfast:

1. (St) Peters Hill

2. The Death Pit (possibly Townsend Street).

3. The Felon’s Plot used for burying some of those executed in Belfast (including in 1798).

4. An unestablished location close to Great Patrick Street/Edward Street (shown on 1696 map).

There are others which I’ll look at in a future post, including Thompsons Embankment an inter-tidal area used for particular burials. In the meantime, hopefully the Ulster Museum can locate the skull donated in 1894 and we’ll see where we go from there.

Thanks to John O’Keeffe for the map from Georgian Belfast.

The Shankill Death Pit

People are often unaware of the history beneath their feet. Sometimes blissfully unaware. In a city like Belfast there are streets that were first established hundreds of years ago. If you stand somewhere like Peters Hill, you can look up towards Divis and down towards the town just like people have down for hundreds of years. This was the main road in and out of Belfast and the graveyard at Shankill is believed to be at the site of the oldest church in Belfast (indeed Shankill, Sean Cill in Irish, means ‘old church’). But it wasn’t the only burying ground in this part of town.

In 1859, the Belfast Newsletter reported that human remains were found buried in Boyd Street when gas was being installed into a house there.[1] Ten years later, it was claimed that more human bones and a cannon ball had been found in Boyd Street around 1864.[2] Then, in 1871, Andrew Mairs, a grocer who lived at the corner of Boyd Street and Peters Hill, was renovating his premises. After demolishing an old building on the site, the workmen cleared away debris and discovered “…within a distance of a few yards, and not more than a foot and a half beneath the surface, no less than nine human skulls, and as many bones as would go to make up nine human bodies… the bones lay in a straight line from each skull in the manner in which bodies are interred in graveyards.” These were laid out by a wall that had been apparently re-used as the foundation to the old building.[3]

So, clearly, there was some sort of cemetery here at the junction of Peters Hill and Boyd Street. The widening of Millfield here and Peters Hill means that this burying ground probably lies beneath the footpath and road. But the finds of human remains don’t stop there.

In 1894, in Carrick Court, on the opposite side of Peters Hill, workmen found “…the bones of a human arm from the shoulder blade to the finger nails were found…” and apparently “…such discoveries have been frequent of late.”[4] Three years later, old foundations were being pulled up at the end of Townsend Street, further up Peters Hill but now back on the same side as Boyd Street. The workmen there also found a skull and bones.[5] Several months later, a grizzly discovery was made in the lane between Library Street and Kent Street, where two young boys found a skeleton of a child.[6] About fifty years ago, a burial was also found in Brennan’s Sheetmetalworks at the top of Kent Street.

So, what is going on?

Viewed on a map the burials lie around the junction of Millfield, Peters Hill, Carrickhill and North Street. While the child’s remains found in 1897 may be unrelated, the other references all appear to be interments of human remains spread across an area measuring 150m across (although the Townsend Street burial lay a further 200m away). None of the accounts mention any objects that could provide a clear date for the burials.

The earliest detailed survey of Belfast (1685) shows most of the area as undeveloped although North Street and parts of Peters Hill were built up.[7] Among the earliest known names and information for Peters Hill are a map from 1696 (which appears to be based on the 1685 map). It shows a rectangular enclosed area with six crosses in the middle that appears to be a cemetery off Peters Hill, apparently close to the later junction with Millfield. Immediately west of the cemetery are features labelled ‘Black Pits’ which usually means tanning pits used to make leather. Further west again is an oval feature on the map labelled ‘Death Pit’. The map labels the bottom of Peters Hill as ‘St Peters Walk’ with the name ‘Shanks Hill’ written further along then ‘Long Walk’. The Old Lodge Road is named as ‘The Rise’. Carrickhill and Millfield are shown as lanes.

1696 map showing the junction of Peters Hill, North Street, Old Lodge Road and Millfield. North is to the bottom of the map.

1900-1907 map (with names of the smaller streets added) showing the locations in which human remains were found. Exact positions are shown as black circles, the rough locations shown as white circles. North is to the top of the map.

The 1900-07 map with the 1696 map inset (in top left) although the 1900-07 map now has north towards the bottom so it is aligned the same as the 1696. Are the two sets of burials the cemetery and Death Pit shown on the 1696 map?

Neither the cemetery nor the Death Pit were remembered in later memoirs of Belfast. This area lies outside the ramparts erected around Belfast in the 1640s. John Grainger, writing about the ramparts in 1861, noted that “A portion of some of the out-works was existing until laterly on the site of Brown’s Square…”. It is clear from other maps that the town ramparts for Belfast were much further east so whatever was visible in Brown Square wasn’t the 1640s rampart. Clearly Grainger knew of some form of earthworks in Brown Square as late as the nineteenth century but these don’t appear to have been described elsewhere.[8] Brown Square and Brown Street were laid out before the 1790s but the space inside the rough area denoted by those two street and Peters Hill and Millfield was developed later. The description of burials being laid close together and apparently associated with the footings of wall at the corner of Boyd Street and Peters Hill also lies within this area.

Other maps show that the area to the south of Peters Hill wan’t developed until the late eighteenth century when the name was applied to the whole junction, with North Street known as Goose Lane. Millfield was known as Georges Lane and the Old Lodge Road was a lane up to a lodge. Carrickhill was originally called Carrickfergus Peters Hill or Carrick Peters Hill (North Queen Street was then Carrickfergus Street). The Shankill Road was the highway to Antrim and sometimes called Bowers Hill. Bower, presumably was original from bóthar in Irish meaning ‘road’ (i.e. that this was the main road out of Belfast).[9]

All of this makes the burials on either side of what is now Peters Hill a bit odd. Do the burials date to before the road or are simply laid either side of it? To date, the identified burials appear to focus on three of the four sides of the Peters Hill, Millfield, Upper Library Street, North Street crossroads. The most detailed account indicates dense burials and a building at the Boyd Street/Peters Hill corner but burials are known from elsewhere in Boyd Street and traces of a burial on the opposite side of Peters Hill and the lower (city centre) side of Upper Library Street. None of the burials produced clear evidence of date. While the burial ground appears to be in the general location of that noted in the 1696 map, the map itself is not, in itself, an accurate survey map. The presence of human remains at the opposite side of Peters Hill, which seems to be a road of significant antiquity, raises questions about the degree of association of all the burials. refers to the Shankill Road as having been known as ‘Bowers Hill’ with ‘Bower’ presumably an anglicisation of bóthar hinting at the Shankill Road as the main road out of Belfast.

A similar issue applies to the burials noted further to the west at Townsend Street. None of the intervening streets appear to have produced records of human remains being discovered. Since this superficially matches the positioning of the cemetery and Death Pit on the 1696 map, it is possible that the latter was located closer to Townsend Street and is 200m from the other burials.

The White Church (Shankill) and ‘Chapels of the Ford’ are noted in the Irish Visitation Roll in 1306. A number of churches in the vicinity of Belfast are listed in the 1604 Terrier of the Bishopric of Down and Connor, including Shankill and six altarages some of which are fairly well known (like Friars Bush, Greencastle, Ballyvaston and Tullyrusk) while two others aren’t. These are Capella De Croockmock, recorded elsewhere, variously as ‘Cranoge in the Tuogh Fall’ and ‘Cramagh’. Croockmuck and Cramagh are clearly Cromac but the actual site is less clear. The other is Capella De Killemna (named elsewhere as as Killonynna, Kilmean and Killeanan) is equally uncertain.[10] During 1690, Young reports a ‘great mortality’ in the town from Schomberg’s fever-stricken soldiers with both Shankill and the High Street graveyard crowded but does not suggest the use of any other site for burial.[11] Belfast wasn’t the scene of significant fighting in the 1640s either but it is possible that a ‘Death Pit’ was opened either then or in 1689-91. Is it possible Boyd Street, though, is one of the six altarages and medieval in date? That it was called ‘St Peters’ Walk in 1696 also hints at the former existence of a ‘St Peters’.

At least one thing is certain. There are one or more burial sites at Peters Hill.


[1] See Belfast Newsletter 8/1/1859: “Yesterday forenoon, as some workmen were employed in making the necessary preparations for introducing gas into a house in Boyd Street, they discovered the skeletion of a full-sized human being under the window, within a few feet from the house. No person in the locality can give any solution of the mystery which attaches to this discovery.

[2] See Belfast Weekly News 9/10/1869: “…It will be recollected that, about five years ago, a quantity of human remains and a cannon ball were discovered in Boyd Street, continguous to this place…

[3] See Belfast Telegraph 22/5/1871: “Mr. A. Mairs, who for some time past carried on a grocery establishment at the corner of the Peter’s Hill and Boyd Street, has had a number of labourers employed during the past week in taking down the old building that the premises may be reconstructed on an extensive scale. Yesterday morning, about eleven o’clock, some of the workmen, who were making excavations and clearing away debris, prior to putting in new foundations, made an extraordinary discovery of human remains. While they were digging in the rere of the building, the brought up a number of bones, and, on continuing their work, they found, within a distance of a few yards, and not more than a foot and a half beneath the surface, no less than nine human skulls, and as many bones as would go to make up nine human bodies. The place where the remains were discovered would lead to the belief that they must have been interred at some period subsequent to the erection of the old house, as the spot where the excavation were being made was where a doorway existed, leading from one room to another. When the old door-step was removed, the skulls were found resting against the stone work of the foundation, and the bones lay in a straight line from each skull in the manner in which bodies are interred in graveyards. This would lead to the supposition that the wall must have existed against which the bodies were laid. The news of the discovery soon spread, and in a short time thousands of people were attracted by curiosity to the place, and different opinions were formed as to when, and owing to what cause, the remains had been deposited in this place. Some persons who examined the skulls said that at least three of them were those of females. By some they were set down as being the remains of persons who fell during the rebellion of ’98. Others said the house was built upon a prison grave-yard, and that they were the remains of persons who had suffered execution… The matter was reported to the police, and on their making inquiries in the neighbourhood they found that ‘the oldest inhabitant’ remembered a doctor’s shop in existence at this corner at one time. This may account for the bones being found there. When the coroner was informed of the discovery, he ordered the remains to be buried.

[4] See Irish News 23/6/1894

[5] See Irish News 22/6/1897: “Yesterday whilst some workmen were engaged digging through old foundations in Townsend Street, they discovered a human skull and a number of human bones. The remains were collected and taken to the Brown Street Police Barrack, and the City Coroner communicated with. Mr. Finningan, however, did not consider it necessary to hold an inquest, as the remains presented the appearance of being a long time in the ground.”; Belfast Newsletter 22/6/1897: “…at the end of Townsend Street…” and that one of those digging “…, who had been pursuing his operations somewhat deeper into the soil than the others, felt his spade come into contact with a hard substance, which he believed to be a stone. Upon clearing away the earth, however, from around it he found that it was human skull. Beside it were got several human bones.

[6] Belfast Weekly News 16/10/1897: “…a couple of lads who were engaged at some pastimes in the vicinity of Carrick Hill made a very startling discovery. They came across a parcel lying in a lane between Library Street and Kent Street and at the rere of St. Stephens Street. It looked somewhat suspicious in appearance, and on opening it they found that it contained the bones of an infant whose head was separated from the trunk. The remains were wrapped up in a piece of old calico, and bore evidence of having lain there for a long time.

[7] Volume 1 of the Historic Towns Atlas for Belfast contains the early maps (up to 1840).

[8] Grainger, J. 1861 Results of Excavations in High Street, Belfast, Ulster Journal of Archaeology.

[9] The use of Bower and Bowers Hill for the Shankill is discussed in a memoir in the Belfast Telegraph in 1951(7/12/1951).

[10] Reeves, W. 1847 Ecclesiastical Antiquities of Down, Connor and Dromore, consisting of a taxation of those dioceses, compiled in the year 1306, with notes and illustrations, p. 186. Benn, G. 1823 History of the Town of Belfast, p.252. Reeves, in his Eccelesiatsical Antiquities of Down, Connor and Dromore, offers explanations for all six altarages but Benn associates Capella De Killemna with a different site at Suffolk.

[11] Young, R.M. 1892 The Town Book of the Corporation of Belfast, 1613-1813, p.243.

A lost 1798 burial ground in Belfast

“At this disastrous period, when death and desolation are around us, and the late enthusiasm of the public mind seems sinking into despair, when human sacrifices are become so frequent as scarcely to excite emotion, it would be a folly to expect that the fate of a single individual should excite any interest beyond his own unhappy circle.”

Mary Ann McCracken, 22 August 1798

The letter above from Mary Ann McCracken, is quoted by Madden in his nineteenth century study The United Irishmen. She is discussing what Guy Biener calls ‘social forgetting’ the process by which memories of events like 1798 get obscured and confused. After the events of 1798 in Ireland disturbances continued intermittently for a number of years. As Biener notes, some of those who had been active United Irishmen before 1798 subsequently tried to quietly obscure their former political allegiances, neither openly discussing events nor revealing their former sympathies by publicly marking the passing of those killed during the rebellion.

In 1910, F.J. Bigger noted in the Ulster Journal of Archaeology, that “The late Henry S. Purdon, M.D., records the burial of many ’98 victims in May’s fields, a short distance beyond the termination of May Street. Here was a narrow strip of ground, with a row of graves, known as the croppies’ burial ground.” At the time, Bigger and others were trying to erect memorials and plaques at locations such as graves of those associated with the likes of the United Irishmen that had, up to then, been overlooked, forgotten or simply ignored. A letter by W.S. Corken to the Irish News (2 January 1971) about Henry Joy McCracken also states that “…the burial place of the ’98 men – his companions – was in May’s Market where the spot was known as ‘The Felons Plot’. The whereabouts of this sacred spot is unknown today in the Markets.”

Taking Bigger and Corken’s accounts, ‘The Felons’ Plot’ lies somewhere beyond the eastern end of May Street, in the vicinity of May’s Market. They likely layout around 1798 is shown on the map below which represents Belfast in 1791 (not always accurately, though). Given that a variety of markets were held in the area either side of what is now Oxford Street, beyond the limits of May Street, the specific location is unclear. This is the area also formerly known as Mays’ North Field. An 1848 map of Belfast (included with the Belfast Historic Towns Atlas, Vol. II) labels both sides of Oxford Street as ‘Mays Market’. True to the ‘social forgetting’ Guy Biener has noted for post-1798 Belfast, none of the nineteenth century maps indicate the actual position of a graveyard.[1] Nor may there have been an attempt to formally mark the location as the space isn’t recorded on nineteenth century street directories or valuations. As the first reference to this burial ground appears quite late, it is worth then exploring the likelihood that such a burial ground even existed.

1791 Map of Belfast (from Belfast Historic Towns Atlas Vol. 1), a likely location for a 1798 burial ground is between ‘The Bank’ and ‘Mill Dam’

Belfast in 1798

Belfast was the scene of executions in 1798 and 1799 rather than actual fighting. While it is possible that the dead from violent clashes elsewhere in Antrim or Down were brought to the town, it appears that the most likely candidates for burial there are among those known to have been executed in the town. Executions were mainly by hanging on a temporary scaffold erected at the Market House, in some cases on a nearby lamp-post. A Court Martial often sat in the Donegall Arms in Castle Place while the New Inn was often used to hold prisoners.

In 1798-99, the terms of a death sentence often extended beyond the actual execution as prisoners were regularly de-capitated, with their heads displayed in public. Their remains were also not to be released to their family for burial. According to George Benn’s A History of the Town of Belfast (published in 1823), there were seven executions of United Irishmen in Belfast in 1798-99. Based on contemporary newspaper reports the seven were William Magill, James Dickey, Hugh Grimes, Henry Byers and John Storey in June 1798, Henry Joy McCracken in July 1798 and George Dixon in May 1799.

William Magill, from Loughbrickland, was condemned to death on 9th June 1798 in Belfast. The Belfast Newsletter (11 June 1798) reported that he “…was executed on a lamp-post opposite the Market-house, pursuant to sentence of Court Martial, for swearing soldiers from their allegiance.” There is no mention in the newspaper reports of what happened to Magill’s remains.

After William Magill, four more United Irishmen, James Dickey, Hugh Grimes, Henry Byers and John Storey were all hung on a temporary scaffold that was erected opposite the Market House. That a temporary scaffold was put in place seemed to portend many more executions. After being hung, each of Byers, Dickey, Grimes and Storey was then beheaded and his head placed on a spike at the Market House. Dickey had requested, at the time of execution, that his body be given to his friends but it is not stated whether that happened (Belfast Newsletter 29 June 1798). Press accounts state that their heads were to remain on the spikes at the Market House until 16 August 1798. Even then there is no mention of whether their bodies were given to friends.

What then happened to Henry Joy McCracken was different. It is specifically stated in reports of his execution that his body was handed over to his friends (e.g. see Belfast Newsletter 20 July 1798). His remains were then buried in the old graveyard around St George’s Church (and later claimed to have been reburied in the new burying ground behind the Belfast Charitable Society building). In 1799, George Dickson, the last of the seven, was hung opposite the Market House on 17 May, for treason and rebellion. There is no mention of either the display or disposal of Dickson’s remains.

Other individuals condemned to death in Belfast, like David George Woods, were executed elsewhere (Woods was hung at Doagh). There are also some, like Richard Frazer, who were sentenced to death but the execution was apparently not carried out (in some cases sentences were referred to Dublin Castle for confirmation and later commuted to transportation or military service).

McCracken’s treatment seems to have been recorded and reported in the press as it was deviating from established policy. Executions appear to have been the responsibility of the local authorities and carried out in public, and, as noted by Guy Biener, “…As a further humiliation, executed rebels were often denied burial in consecrated ground and their corpses were interred by the gallows, so that they could not be memorialised in accordance with funerary custom.” (Biener 2016, 153).[2] As the gallows in Belfast had been erected at the Market House, burial there was impractical as it was in the middle of the commercial hub of the town. So, presumably, the town council had the remains taken from the Market House out to grounds owned by Belfast Corporation and interred there. The closest suitable location would have been the ground just outside the town in the location suggested by Bigger. Here, maps in the second half of the nineteenth century show it was still the location of Town Council yards on the east side of Oxford Street.

1860s map of Belfast (2nd edition OS Map) showing the markets either side of Oxford Street, the location described by Purdon appears to be within the Horse Market.

So, what can we say about Bigger’s account of a burial ground containing the dead from 1798? Given the lack of fighting in Belfast, those interred there could have included six of those executed in the town (unless the dead from elsewhere were brought to Belfast). Those likely to have been interred in such a plot are William Magill, James Dickey, Hugh Grimes, Henry Byers, John Storey and George Dickson. It is possible some were disinterred and taken elsewhere. Henry Purdon, whom Bigger is quoting, had family connections to Belfast Charitable Society, an organisation in which former United Irishmen like William Drennan and the like of Mary Ann McCracken were active, alongside Purdon’s father. This lends Purdon’s account a reasonable level of plausibility and suggests such a graveyard existed.

The location given, “…in May’s fields, a short distance beyond the termination of May Street.” is not specific enough to identify the exact location. But it does roughly correspond to the area later used by the Town Council as a yard (to the east of Oxford Street). Somewhere on early nineteenth century rental papers and maps, there should be an annotation that identifies what Bigger describes “…a narrow strip of ground, with a row graves”. Once found, this can now be identified as the place called ‘The Felons Plot’ and which held, and possibly still holds the remains of Henry Byers, James Dickey, George Dickson. Hugh Grimes, William Magill and John Storey.

Another United Irishman, James Hope, names some of them in his poem ‘McCracken’s Ghost’:

“While Storey lay martyred and Dickey lay dead,

And the hands of oppressors on spikes placed their heads,

Their spirits in glory triumphed to the skies,

And proclaimed through the air that the Croppies would rise.”

There are some others hints to a possible memory of the location. A John Holness gave a talk in Hewitt Memorial House in January 1930 on “Streets and Placenames in History” with special reference to Belfast. In that he noted that “…Cromac Street had gloomy connections as the name originally meant ‘the way to the gallows’.”(Belfast Telegraph, 25/1/1930). The reason for this association with Cromac Street isn’t clear.

While there are a remarkable number of reported discoveries of burials in and around Belfast city centre, there are none in the most likely areas in which the 1798 graveyard was likely located, despite substantial redevelopment with archaeological testing, excavations and monitoring. I published a paper a few years ago looking at some medieval burials and finds from Belfast city centre (in the Ulster Journal of Archaeology) at High Street, Castle Place and Castle Market. I’ve reviewed the information for finds of human remains around Belfast city centre to produce a Belfast bones map (see below). While there are a handful of known burial grounds around Belfast city centre – St George’s being the obvious one, but also Shankill (the oldest of them), Friars Bush (like the other two clearly medieval in origin) plus there was a paupers burial ground behind Clifton House that predated the ‘new burying ground’ that now lies between Henry Place and the Antrim Road.

There are clearly others, though.

Two long forgotten burial grounds are marked on a 1696 maps in the first volume of the Historic Towns Atlas for Belfast. I’ve managed to relocate these, plus identified discoveries of human remains in other locations that appear to be burials. These include Millfield, at several sites on the north side of Waring Street, a cluster around the Belfast Castle that burned down in 1708 in Castle Place, Castle Market and Cornmarket. A skull found in Castle Market in 1922 was radiocarbon dated and is medieval in date, while the other human remains appear to be formal burials, some clearly indicating former use as a cemetery. None appear to match the location described for a 1798 burial ground (shown on the bones map close to Georges Market). If people are interested I’ll post up information on the other burial sites. Other locations, like Peters Hill, are at least seventeenth century if not earlier. Ironically, newspaper accounts of discoveries of the bones often suggests they date to the 1798 rebellion. But I’ll post more about those another day.

Belfast bones map – discoveries of burials and human remains around Belfast city centre.

Work on the 1798 burial ground was undertaken as part of research for the Market Development Association and the Pangur Bán Literary & Cultural Society as part of a wider heritage project in the area.


[1] It is possible the location is recorded on early rental papers in PRONI (which are not currently accessible).

[2] Biener, G. 2016 Severed Heads and Floggings: The Undermining of Oblivion in Ulster in the Aftermath of 1798. In The Body in Pain in Irish Literature and Culture. pp.77-97. See also his Forgetful Remembrance: Social Forgetting and Vernacular Historiography of a Rebellion in Ulster.

Last day for book orders from Litter Press (for Christmas)

If you’re looking copies of the likes of the Belfast Pogrom or Belfast Battalion books from Litter Press before Christmas, tomorrow’s probably your last chance (but only if you’re in Ireland, as you may be too late already if you live elsewhere, sorry)!

To order click here

Lost Lives 1923-1969 (draft)

Between the end of the Irish Civil War on 1st May 1923 and the upsurge in conflict from 1st August 1969, some 279 deaths occurred relating to the political conflict over sovereignty in Ireland. This post is a brief introduction to the map showing the locations of those fatalities.

The deaths identified to date suggest that the most violent period was 1923-1929 with 118 fatalities, followed by the 1940s (64), then the 1930s (60), then the 1950s (21), with only 13 deaths identified in the 1960s. The most violent locations appear to be Belfast (58 deaths), Dublin (29) and Cork (27).

The deaths recorded here were largely collected as part of the background research for the Belfast Battalion book. The list is very much a draft and is likely to be missing names and events and anyone with suggestion can add them in the comments section and I’ll update the map periodically. The data included in the map is incomplete in any regard as there are individuals where further information is needed as well.

As this is very much a draft, the deaths are grouped by loose themes on the mapping. This include the likes of 1950-60s border campaign, the S-Plan campaign, the mid-1930s pogroms (largely in Belfast) and what the Fianna Fáil Minister for Justice, Gerry Boland, called the ‘Second Civil War’ which was the low intensity conflict between the IRA and both the Dublin and Belfast governments in the late 1930s and 1940s (fatalities where the IRA claimed the individual involved was an ‘informer’ are listed separately here too). Another theme is the violent deaths in period immediately after the Civil War, which are significant in number. Deaths from wounds received before 1st May 1923 is also a notable factor in a number of deaths through the 1920s. Lastly there are fatalities labelled here (for want of a better term) as due to a Left/Right dimension to the political violence including attacks on strikes and strike-breakers and incident involving the Blueshirts and related organisations like the League of Youth – I’ve also included two murders of Jewish men in Dublin the 1920s in this group (it was claimed that the killers were known and actively protected by the Free State government of the day and were later prominent in the Blueshirts).

Defining conflicts solely through fatalities is fraught with problems. The most obvious is the depressing one of defining the parameters of a death due to political violence, which isn’t actually that straightforward. Conventionally it can be taken as a fatality arising from an act of violence with a political motive. Yet this needs further elaboration as it can easily exclude operational losses sustained by state forces where the stresses and pressures of deployment can lead to carelessness and errors with fatal consequences (whereas post-operational reviews will usually include all such fatalities within their own statistically reporting). It also privileges ‘violent’ death over increased mortality where deliberate socio-economic and security policies, generally on the part of the state, can have negative impact on life expectancy and mortality, leading to premature deaths (i.e. due to what is described elsewhere as structural violence). Thus many people who die as a consequence of that type of political action are, almost literally, mere statistics and un-nameable and neither appear nor are remembered as individuals in the historical record. Similarly their collective deaths don’t then contribute to or shape an overarching narrative of the full extent and scope of ‘violence’ (and might better explain why violence occurs and how it is perpetuated).

It is also important to recognise that the ‘political’ policies that promoted the type of conservative, patriarchal society that was perpetuated on both sides of the border in Ireland were responsible for many violent deaths in mother and baby homes and other institutions that do not feature here. Similarly, having reviewed many fatal incidents from 1923 to 1969, the quantum of deaths due to conventional ‘political’ violence is still probably way below those arising from fatal violence against women over the same period (which are surely ‘political’ too as they simply are another manifestation of the misogyny evident in the public sphere).

The data offered here, then, suffers from all these same problems. At least, though, it can address some of them as it includes operational losses on the part of the various security services (north and south of the border) where a death occurred in a setting where security was heightened and could have been a causative factor. Similarly, prison fatalities often arise post-release with the conditions of incarceration leading to a breakdown in health and an early death. In the cases included here the interval between release and death are generally understood to be short, up to twenty-four months. In that sense the numbers of those who died due health issues related to their imprisonment is an underestimation, possibly a significant one. In both of these instances the impact on partners and children is unmeasured – although it is undocumented, we can only presume that security duty and imprisonment (particularly internment as it was open-ended) caused stress and strain on families that might be evident as reduced life expectancies for the partners and children of those involved. Again, none of those deaths would appear here.

There is some information about most deaths (just click the relevant dot on the map). You can also play with the map to show each individual layer (click the icon in the top left of the map and then you can turn on or off each layer). Or you can simply explore the locations and if you know of omissions, please add a comment with further information.

#BloodySunday 1920

Just a quick post on 1920’s Bloody Sunday, with a look at some reporting from the time. These are brief extracts from provincial press in Britain.

This is how the Leeds Mercury reported it the next day, like many papers it is (at best) vague about who actually killed people at Croke Park, while being very precise about the operations carried out by the IRA that morning. Many quote their source as the ‘official report’ on events.

That’s fairly typical, although if you read the account in the Edinburgh Evening News on the next day you wouldn’t actually know that it was Crown forces who killed people in Croke Park and you’d think it was the IRA that did it (that particular propaganda tactic wasn’t somehow invented in the 1970s). That type of misreporting is what prompted the publication of Who Burnt Cork City? after the burning of Cork in December 1920 (one of the next big centenary events).

Here’s reporting from the Edinburgh Evening News:

And to show how relatively instantaneous news reporting could be in 1920, a photo from Daily Mirrors front page the day after Bloody Sunday. Perhaps a reminder that media propaganda is a significant part of the stories around conflict, and always has been.

The Irish Times account of events in Croke Park similar obscures who was responsible for the deaths there (see below). The Irish Independent similarly published the official account along with eye witness accounts that almost invariably describe the shooting but not who was firing the shots although it does describe the military firing shots outside Croke Park, it more typically talks about ‘rifle fire’ without saying who were pulling the triggers on those rifles.

As does the Belfast Newsletter.

The Belfast Telegraph goes beyond the official account and suggests that those who were killed were shot during a gun battle between the IRA and Crown forces.

The Freeman’s Journal, was completely unequivocal, though. It described the day as Dublin’s Bloody Sunday and stated that “Croke Park was turned into Amritzar”.

While the Evening Telegraph, poignantly, included a brief account of the Dublin-Tipperary match itself.

You can now order a couple of new books on the war of independence in Dublin (by James Brady) and the border area (by Gregory Knipe), just check out www.litter.press.

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