Tom Barry’s British Army service records and #Armistice100

On 30th June 1915, Thomas Bernard Barry from Cork (but born in Kerry) joined the British Army at Athlone and enlisted in the Royal Field Artillery,  going on to serve with the 14th Battery in the Mesopotamian Expeditionary Force and Egypt. Barry is better known for his subsequent exploits as Tom Barry, a leading I.R.A. figure and I.R.A. Chief of Staff in the 1930s. Barry didn’t conceal his British Army training and his memoir, Guerrilla Days in Ireland, included details of his military service. His claims to insubordination, including at the time of the Easter Rising, are borne out by his own military service records (as Gunner Thomas Barry, Royal Field Artillery, Service Number 100399).

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Tom Barry’s service records including a list of offences (note ‘Irregular Conduct’ on 27th May 1916, during the Easter Rising).

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Record of Barry’s enlistment.

Military History Sheet

Details of Barry’s military service.

Barry is probably the most prominent of those who fought during the first world war and subsequently fought in the I.R.A., but there were many others including the likes of Emmet Dalton and Erskine Childers and even a Victoria Cross winner, Martin Doyle.

The complex relationship between the Irish and service in the British Army is a recurrent theme in Irish history. In the post-famine era, Irish republicans frequently either specifically joined for, or later utilised, British Army military training for their own purposes. Individuals like William Harbinson, famously (if somewhat obscurely) James Connolly and more recently the likes of the Catholic Ex-Servicemen’s Association in the 1970s have illustrated how Irishmen did what Connolly summarised as “…learn all he can and put his training to the best advantage…“. The contribution of British military training to the capacity of Irish republicans to counter the physical control of Ireland by Britain is one obvious outworking of this relationship.

However, the traditional imperial practice of harvesting soldiers from the impoverished communities under it’s control, both at home and abroad, is indelibly rooted in Irish communities (both Catholic and Protestant) for whom military service and the risk of death were often taken as the last refuge from starvation and utter poverty. In some contemporary politics, what was a crushingly brutal experience for many is once again pressed into service as some sort of parable of lost imperial greatness captured by an obsession with glorifying the brutal slaughter of millions by the European royal families to no apparent purpose between 1914 and 1918.

Given the extent to which poetry is seen as the voice of the first world war, here are a few lines from a poem by an independent Orangeman from Belfast, shipyard worker Thomas Carnduff, from his poem about his own experiences entitled ‘Ypres, September 1917 (A Memory)’:

Light breezes, scented with North Sea spray,
Breathe murmurs of remorse,
And leafless shell-scarred branches sway
Above each mangled corpse.

 

Andersonstown News article on new Belfast IRA book

Here’s an extract from an article by Michael Jackson on the new book in the current edition of the Andersonstown News (you can read the original article in full here).

….you can read the rest of the article here (I’ll post it in full in a week or two).

You can read more about Stephen Hayes here.

You can order the book here!

Belfast Battalion now available…

As of today, you can buy your copy of Belfast Battalion at the following locations:

 

1517928394917_connollybookshop

Dublin

Connolly Books,

Essex Street East, Temple Bar

 
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Belfast

Sinn Féin Book Shop,

55 Falls Road, Belfast

 

 

 

 Glasgowcalton

Calton Books,

159 London Road, Glasgow*

 

 

 

 

*It should be available by Monday or Tuesday next week.

 

You can order the book direct to your front door online here.

There are also a couple of copies in the library of the Museum in Conway Mill if you just want to browse a copy.

And you can download it for Kindle/ebook here (and preview it below).

 

Belfast Battalion currently available…

Litter Press

As of today, you can buy your copy of Belfast Battalion at the following locations:

1517928394917_connollybookshop

Dublin

Connolly Books,

Essex Street East, Temple Bar


IMG_0458-718x539

Belfast

Sinn Féin Book Shop,

55 Falls Road, Belfast


calton

Glasgow

Calton Books,

159 London Road, Glasgow*

*It should be available by Monday or Tuesday next week.

You can order the book direct to your front door online here.

There are also a couple of copies in the library of the Museum in Conway Mill if you just want to browse a copy.

And you can download it for Kindle/ebook here (and preview it below).

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Commemorating a centenary of partition?

The 3rd of May 2021 will see the 100th anniversary of the partition of Ireland. In recent weeks this has come into focus with the DUP taking offence at the Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald stating that the party would not be participating in celebrations of the centenary of partition.

In 2016, the DUP’s Arlene Foster was forthright in her refusals to take part in any commemoration of the 1916 Easter Rising. According to the Irish Times, she had told the BBC: “Easter 1916 was a very violent attack on the state. And it wasn’t just an attack on the state. It was an attack against democracy at that time. Anyone that knows me knows that I believe in democracy and I believe in the democratic will, and therefore I just do not believe that it would be right for me to go and to commemorate such an occasion. When you look at the history of commemorations of Easter 1916 it is only relatively recently that the government of the Republic of Ireland have commemorated that occasion because actually it gave succour to violent republicanism here in Northern Ireland over many years. It would be wrong for me as the leader of Northern Ireland to give any succour to those sorts of people.”

Ironically, as 2021 approaches, there will be an ever increasing engagement with partition, the events that led up to it and all that flowed from it. And not just by unionists. I’d expect that republicans, nationalists, trade unionists, various socialist, communist and anarchist groups, feminists and others will engage with the events around partition. The difference will be that they will critically engage with partition rather than ‘celebrate’ it.

Post-partition unionist rule will inevitably become bound up in that engagement, particularly the structured and sustained abuse of civil rights and curtailment of any meaningful form of political or social opposition.

Another, and in the light of Arlene Foster’s rejection of involvement in 1916 commemorations, perhaps more pertinent issues will be an increasing exploration of the violence which led to partition. In that regard, the synergy between unionist violence and partition will become a dominant aspect of that centenary, largely because for so long it has remained relatively unexplored.

An example in point, that I’ve looked at previously, is the bombing of Weaver Street in February 1922. Weaver Street and the a cluster of adjoining streets such as Shore Street, Milewater Street, North Derby Street and Jennymount Street, contained a concentration of Catholic families who worked in nearby mills. Enclosed by a district largely inhabited by Protestants all within the docks area of Belfast which was the scene of intense violence in 1920-22.

The elements of the tragedy in Weaver Street are uncomfortably familiar. You can read more here, but, in brief, a police constable moved Catholic children from Milewater Street into Weaver Street where they then congregated around a skipping rope near the end of the street. A number of men, possibly including the same police constables, observed the children then, from short range, threw a grenade into their midst. After the explosion, they opened fire on people trying to leave the houses and assist those injured in the explosion. In the aftermath of the explosion, the Unionist administration attempted to mislead the press into believing it was carried out by the IRA (rather than unionists). Subsequent evidence at the coroners inquiry exposed how the police made no attempt to gather evidence or investigate the incident. Four children and two adults died, with at least a dozen more badly injured.

This grainy image (from Birmingham Daily Gazette) shows Weaver Street residents loading a horse and cart before fleeing in May 1922. This is one of the few images I can find of Weaver Street before May 1922.

The remaining residents of Weaver Street fled their homes in May 1922 never to return (a comparison of street directories shows a near total change in the names of heads of households between 1918 and 1924). In subsequent decades Weaver Street was incorporated into a factory and now has been wiped off the map.

Weaver Street decorated for the Twelfth July 1924 (from Belfast Telegraph). Most of those in the photo presumably moved in after May 1922. The photo looks north towards Jennymount Mill. The site of the February 1922 bombing is on the footpath behind the crowd on the right side of the picture.

Weaver Street might seem like an extreme example, but it stands as a metaphor for the types of history that will be explored by people engaging with the centenary of partition. A centenary that will simply not become the celebration that Unionists might want it to be.

John McQuillan, a forgotten IRA volunteer shot by the RUC in 1942

John McQuillan’s name doesn’t feature in any republican roll of honour yet the eighteen year old appears to have been in the I.R.A. when he was shot dead by the R.U.C. in January 1942.

That month there were significant tensions as the I.R.A. in A wing of Crumlin Road staged a week long mass hunger strike in protest at conditions within the prisons and the refusal to grant them political status. On 27th January, the day after the hunger strike ended, John McQuillan and John Crean entered a shop on the Ravenhill Road and tied up the owner apparently intent on robbing the shop. The R.U.C. (led by District-Inspector Geelan of C.I.D.), though, were lying in wait in a back room of the shop and emerged, killing McQuillan with a single shot to the heart while Crean was arrested. McQuillan was eighteen years old. His older brother, Kevin Barry McQuillan, had been arrested with two automatic pistols the previous year and was in A wing of Crumlin Road with the sentenced I.R.A. prisoners.

John McQuillan is not usually listed anywhere as an I.R.A. volunteer. Nor does his death seem to merit even a footnote in conventional histories of either the I.R.A. or the era.

A memo to the Adjutant of the I.R.A.’s Northern Command from the Army Council on 6th February 1942, clearly on foot of an earlier report to the Army Council, does mention his death though. It states “The McQuillan shooting was very unfortunate. Let me have a report of the court of inquiry later.”

This reference seems to imply that McQuillan was indeed an I.R.A. volunteer although the proposed ‘court of inquiry’ suggests he wasn’t acting in an official capacity. Geelan’s presence also appears to indicate that the R.U.C. believed it to be political. It subsequently transpired that McQuillan had visited the shop the previous night and said he would be back the next night. McQuillan was found to have been carrying a Spanish Webley revolver, a weapon the I.R.A. was known to possess based on later arms finds.

Spanish (Eibar) Webley

At John Crean’s trial at the end of February, the court was told by the R.U.C. that Crean was in the I.R.A. and he didn’t dispute the claim. Crean eventually only received a twelve month sentence for the robbery. The I.R.A. has never officially acknowledged McQuillan as a member.

Crean’s wasn’t the only death. On Friday 6th February, a prison officer, Thomas Walker, was cycling along Durham Street on his way over to work in Crumlin Road. A number of men got out of a waiting car and fired a burst from a Thompson gun at Walker, hitting him twice in the chest. It turned out that the I.R.A. killed Walker in mistake for another warder.

Further reactions to McQuillan’s death can be recognised in susequent I.R.A. actions. In February and March, motions passed by the I.R.A. Belfast Battalion Convention were approved by a Northern Command Convention and Extraordinary Army Convention included: [5] “That the political squad of the C.I.D. be executed”; and [12] “That enemy raiding parties should be attacked”.

Motion 5 looks like a response to John McQuillan’s death in January (indeed within days of the Convention approving the motion the Belfast I.R.A. tried to kill Sergeant William Fannin of C.I.D.). One outcome of motion 12 being passed was to be the confrontation in Cawnpore Street that Easter.

You can read more about all these in the new Belfast Battalion book.