Videos and Books: Library now online

You can now watch various videos as well as read books on the Library pages on

These are organised under the Library tab (at the top of the page). With separate pages for videos (Video) and books and articles (Reading). Keep an eye on the pages as they will be periodically updated with additional material. For now, here is a link to the latest video update – I was going to give a talk on the background to the Odd Man Out film sometime this month as it is 75 years since the novel was published. Given the current circumstances it obviously wasn’t going to happen, so I’ve uploaded it as a talk instead. Briefly it covers the background to the novel/film regarding the IRA in Belfast in the 1940s and also has a look at audience reactions, particularly to the film, as the RUC had to guard the Classic cinema showing the film, at least one arrest during a showing, political criticisms, leafleting outside cinemas and more.

You can watch the talk below. There is a link to the film (on YouTube) at this post here and there is some more on the film here on Irish Central here.

Library update: IRA Constitution

The blog now has a Library page where I’ve gathered together various documents and books that have been posted up over the last few years.

The most recent is a copy of the IRA’s Constitution (in this case the edition issued in 1934). You can access it below.

It’s full title is actually “Constitution and Governmental Programme for The Republic of Ireland and Constitution of Oglaigh na h-Eireann.” Fourth edition (1934). Published by Republican Press Limited, 12 St. Andrew Street, Dublin. It’s not particularly long but it includes the internal processes the IRA used to maintain its structure (as mentioned in here).

The other books in the Library include National Graves Association, Belfast publications from the 1960s, Torture (published by Association for Legal Justice in 1971), Hugh McAteers memoirs and more. I intend posting up some of the republican ephemera I’ve collected including the issues of An Síol from the 1930s, Belfast editions of Republican News from the 1940s and the (I think only) edition of An tÓglach published in 1943. But that’ll be in the near future.

from the 1930s, Belfast editions of from the There are extracts and excerpts from other books up there too. If anyone has any pre-1970 publications (particularly issues of Belfast publications like An Síol, Republican News, Resurgent Ulster, An Glór, Tírghrá etc) that they’d be happy to have posted, please do drop me at a mail (to

A forgotten child death of the conflict, Joseph Walsh

In 1935, fourteen month old Joseph Walsh died as a result of injuries he received when his family were burnt out of their home in Academy Street. Oddly, histories of the period overlook his death.

During 1935 Belfast saw significant violence, which saw a number of people killed over the period from the 12th July until the end of September. Conventionally, ten fatalities are identified with the conflict that occurred that summer. However, a reading of the press coverage of the period clearly identifies at least two further deaths which should be included in accounts of that summer, that of Joseph Walsh and another, a fifteen year old named Bertie Magowan.

At the end of September, the last major outbreak of the 1935 violence happened over the weekend of the 20th/21st September. On the Friday, two teenage apprenticeships, Bertie Magowan and Bertie Montgomery, were trying to fit an illegally held Webley revolver into a holster while at work in Harland and Wolff. Revolvers had been repeatedly used in street violence throughout that summer. Montgomery discharged the revolver, shooting Magowan in the stomach. He died from the wounds the next day and Montgomery, from Earl Street, was charged with murder. That charge was dropped but Montgomery was still prosecuted for possessing the revolver with ‘the intent to endanger life’ (ie for use during street violence). For that he was fined £5 and bound over to keep the peace. The same day as he shot Magowan, George Clyde was shot dead in trouble in Greencastle and the next day (when Magowan died), in Earl Street a Catholic publican, John McTiernan, was also shot dead in the evening.

Robert (Bertie) Magowan’s death is not typically associated with the conflict in 1935 yet it clearly happened within the context of the violence of that summer.

The story of the second death, of fourteen month old Joseph Walsh, was told by his mother, Rose Ann Walsh, in Belfast Recorders Court at the end of October:

Further stories of mob violence in Belfast during the riots were related to the Deputy Recorder, Mr. ]. D. Begley, K.C., yesterday, when more claims for compensation were heard.

Mrs. Rose Ann Walsh claimed compensation for herself and her infant daughter as the result of a disturbance in Academy Street on I6th July. Mrs. Walsh resided at No. 19, Academy Street along with another lodger, Mrs. Margaret Partington, who also claimed compensation.

Mr. P. A. Marrinan (instructed by Mr. Brian Cosgrove) appeared for the applicant.

Mr. Marrinan said that of all the things that occurred in Belfast the facts connected with the present case were probably the worst. The climax of the attack in Academy Street led to a most terrible tragedy, one of Mrs. Walsh’s three children, who was aged two, dying as a result, he submitted, of the knocking about and trouble that the family sustained. It appeared that the funeral of one of the victims of the riots was in progress along York Street, and was entering the junction of Royal Avenue and Donegall Street when there was a panic among the crowd, following the firing of a shot. The crowd broke into Academy Street, which was off Donegall Street. They entered the house of Mrs. Walsh who had had a baby only two days before, and of Mrs. Partington, who had children, aged three and five years.


The crowd appeared to have armed themselves with fire-raising material, for they throw paraffin about and set fire to the house. The applicants, with their children, ran upstairs. Mrs. Walsh returned downstairs on realising the danger 6hc was in from fire, and the crowd set upon her and threw her into the street. She- was only 6aved by the arrival of police and soldiers. Mrs. Partington endeavoured to escape by the back of the house from an upstairs window by lowering her children out and jumping herself. Mrs. Walsh” had to so to the Union, and Mrs. Partington, who was the wife, of an English ex-Serviceman, after treatment went to Dublin, where she was attended at St. Stephen’s Hospital. Mrs. Walsh later got shelter in an old empty house, and there her child of two years died from the shock. The other child suffered from debility and inflammation from the suffering which the mother endured. Mrs. Walsh herself was still in a dangerous state of health. Mrs. Walsh being called stating her age was 22, Mr. J. Craig (for the Belfast Corporation) said counsel’s story was substantially correct, and the evidence could be confined to the question of damage. Mrs. Walsh, said she had three children at the time of the occurrence, Catherine being only two days old, Catherine was still in bad health, as the result of witness’s condition. Joseph, her second boy, died mainly from the knocking about that he received. Mrs. Partington said she was lodging with her husband in Academy Street. When the fire was started in the kitchen she ran upstairs. She lowered the children from a window three storeys high on to a scullery roof, and jumped out herself. They went to the Mater Hospital, and later to Dublin. She had not yet recovered her usual health.

After medical evidence-—including that of Colonel Mitchell, who said that while Mrs. Walsh bore no marks, she had evidently come through a very tragic time—judgment was reserved.

[Belfast Newsletter, 1st November 1935]


Academy Street
Irish Press, 17th July 1935

The Recorder subsequently award £60 to Rose Ann Walsh, £10 to Catherine Walsh and £40 to Margaret Partington. Walsh and her husband, Francis, had lived at 19 Academy Street for a number years in the house where Francis had grown up. His father had worked as a bill poster, and Francis followed him into the same trade. Rose Ann, whose maiden name was Boland, had grown up in Ballymacarrett, later moving to the Market district. After being burned out of Academy Street the empty house they moved into was a former hostel at 42 Frederick Street. It was there that Joseph died on the 5th September, six weeks after the attack on their house. His official cause of death was given as gastro-enteritis but the Recorder’s Court didn’t challenge the statement that his death was a direct result of injuries received during the attack on the house. The Walsh family subsequently moved to Ormond Place (off Raglan Street) in the Falls Road.

For some context on the deaths, below is the recent talk I gave in St Josephs, Sailortown, on the 1935 violence as part of the launch of the new Belfast Battalion book about the Belfast IRA from 1922 to 1969 (which you can order here).

This post was original published in 2018

An Indian hunger striker in 1940

Parallels were often drawn between the Irish and Indian experiences of colonialism and imperialism in the early twentieth century. The Irish drive for independence was seen as a source of inspiration by many India nationalists. It may even have provided a significant influence on Udham Singh, one of the iconic figures of India’s anti-colonial struggles. Singh was reputedly in touch with the IRA in England in the early 1930s and was also believed to have been influenced by the IRA’s sabotage campaign in England in 1939. Ultimately, though, Singh’s formative political experience was the massacre at Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar [1].

Udham Singh in 1937 film Elephant Boy
Udham Singh (as a film extra in ‘Elephant Boy).

On 13 April 1919, British troops had opened fire there on Indian civilians, killing maybe 400 people and injuring 1,000 more. Michael O’Dwyer, the Lieutenant-Governor of Punjab at the time of the massacre, was held by many to be ultimately responsible (you can read a more detailed post on O’Dwyer by Sean Gannon here). The President of the Indian National Congress, Lala Lajpat Rai, condemned O’Dwyer saying “No man in the whole history of British rule in India has done such great disservice to the British Empire and has brought such disgrace on the good name of the British nation.” Udham Singh was deeply scarred by the massacre, where his brother and sister were among the dead. In 1940 he shot O’Dwyer dead at a public meeting of the East India Association and Royal Central Asian Society in Caxton Hall, London.

Michael O'Dwyer ILNews 23.3.40
Michael O’Dwyer, Illustrated London News 23/3/1940

Some of the Indian press, such as the Lahore Tribune (16/3/1940), believed that Singh was attempting to instigate a campaign similar to the IRA’s sabotage campaign of 1939. The New Statesman also noted the parallels between the execution of IRA activists and Singh’s likely fate and the impact that would have on anti-colonial sentiment.[2]

Different writers have presented contrasting versions of the subsequent events. Sikander Singh claims that the experience of political prisoner trials in India meant that it was likely both that Udham Singh would use court proceedings as a platform for anti-colonial political messages [3]. While the officials debated how to conduct his trial and how to limit publicity, on 2 April the Director of Intelligence Bureau of India warned the authorities that censorship was needed as Singh would seek to present himself as a martyr in the cause of Indian Freedom. On being held on remand in Brixton, Udham Singh made various attempts to link up with his contacts on the outside and arrange for a revolver or hacksaw blades to be smuggled in to him for an escape attempt.

Singh after his arrest ILNews 23.3.40
Singh after his arrest in 1940, Illustrated London News, 23.3.1940

Sikander Singh’s sympathetic biography of Udham Singh explores this prison experience in some detail, drawing heavily on contemporary sources. The most recent biographical treatment of Singh, Anita Anand’s The Patient Assassin: A True Tale of Massacre, Revenge and the Raj, though, barely explores that prison experience and seems to assume Singh wanted a hacksaw blade to cut his wrists rather than for an escape.

By the time Udham Singh was brought to trial on 4 June 1940 he was reported to have been on hunger strike for 42 days (the authorities also documented his weight loss over this period). His hunger strike began on 26 April 1940. Hunger strikes as a political weapon in India had often taken their cue from examples in Ireland, particularly that of Terence MacSwiney in 1920, which received global press coverage. In the week before Udham Singh began his hunger strike, two members of the IRA, Tony D’Arcy and Jack McNeela, had died on a hunger strike in Dublin. In the days before Udham Singh embarked on his hunger strike, their deaths were widely reported in the press in Britain including the verdict of the inquest jury that criminal status should not be accorded to political prisoners.

The prison authorities, as was standard in the case of hunger strikes in prisons in Britain, ordered that Singh be force-fed. Anand portrays this as an attempt by the Prison Medical Officer, Dr Grierson, to keep him alive as long as his hanging but the same policy was applied to Irish republican prisoners on hunger strike in England (and also to David Fleming in Crumlin Road in 1946). Singh was force-fed ninety-three times. The process for force-feeding, involving restraints, a clamp for the mouth and feeding-tube was gruesome. Anand present’s Singh’s hunger strike only as an attempt “…to starve himself to death” rather than a political act.

Representation of force-feeding (Republican News)


Singh’s apparent revenge for Jallianwala Bagh and subsequent execution on 31 July 1940 transformed him from a relatively unknown figure in Indian politics into a legend. In the years after Jallianwala Bagh Singh had travelled widely through Britain and the United States where he came in contact with the left wing Indian nationalist Ghadar Party. Singh returned to India in 1927 but was arrested for gun smuggling and spent five years in prison. On his release he returned to England.

According to Alfred Draper, on arriving in England, Singh was in contact with the IRA and stayed with one of its leaders in the Isle of Wight [4]. While Singh meeting an IRA figure in England might seem implausible, in the early 1930s Indian nationalist leaders like Krishna Deonarine had been feted by senior Irish republicans like Peadar O’Donnell and Sean McBride at various events in Ireland. Public messages of solidarity and support had been sent by Irish republicans to the Indian anti-colonial movements. In that regard, Singh connecting with contacts from the IRA is entirely plausible although the IRA, in the early 1930s, was struggling to decide on its own purpose and was not in position to provide much in the way of help to Singh.

If Singh was influenced by the actions of Irish republicans it doesn’t appear to have been reciprocated. The surviving republican newspapers from that time and likes of Irish Freedom and Irish Workers Weekly did not make any mention of Singh’s arrest, trial, imprisonment or death. Oddly, though, all clearly identify with India’s struggles against British colonialism. India even features in articles while Singh was imprisoned but without reference to Singh. Further research might shed more light on the level of awareness of Singh’s case amongst Irish republicans.

After being hung in Pentonville Prison, Udham Singh was also buried there. In 1974, his body was repatriated to India and cremated in his home village of Sunam.


[1] There are various legends around Singh’s early life so it is hard to now which is true. One story (in Kulwant Singh Kooner and Gurpreet Singh Sindhra’s 2013 book Some Hidden Facts: Martyrdom of Shaheed Bhagat) claims Singh had been installing a water tap for protestors to drink from at Jallianwala Bagh on the suggestion of a British agent who was trying to get militants to assemble so they could be shot down.

[2] Peter Barnes and James McCormack had been hung in Winston Green prison on 7 February 1940 for an IRA bombing that had killed five people in Coventry the previous year.

[3] Sikander Singh, A Great Patriot and Martyr Udham Singh.

[4] In his book Amritsar: The Massacre That Ended the Raj.

Odd Man Out, 80 years on…

Many people are familiar with Carol Reed’s ‘Odd Man Out’, an Oscar-nominated film noir starring James Mason set in Belfast. The film was adapted from a novel of the same name, written by Laurie Green and adapted by him for Reed’s film. Green’s novel was first published in March 1945, seventy-five years ago this month. One of the film’s Irish stars, legendary actor Cyril Cusack, dismissed Green’s novel as “…a bad book made into a very good film”. Yet there is much more to Green’s novel than meets the eye.

SPOILER ALERT: If you haven’t even watched the film, never mind read the novel, skip to the end of this post where there is a link to the film on YouTube.

James Mason, as IRA leader Johnny, in Odd Man Out.


The book (and subsequent film) tell the story of an IRA leader in Belfast who is wounded in a botched robbery and is then hunted through the city’s streets. With ground-breaking direction and cinematography, Reed’s film was, and continues, to receive critical acclaim, infamously being cited by Roman Polanski as his favourite film and influencing later work like ‘Taxi Driver’ and much of more recent film-making about ‘the troubles’. It was even remade in 1969 (as ‘The Lost Man’) with Sidney Poitier, then at the height of his fame, as a black militant on the run in New York.

The film’s opening titles tell viewers that “This story is told against a background of political unrest in a city of Northern Ireland. It is not concerned with the struggle between the law and an illegal organisation, but only with the conflict in the hearts of the people when they become unexpectedly involved.” Similarly, the novel never mentions either the IRA (calling it ‘the Organisation’) or Belfast by name. However, the novel repeatedly name checks locations in Belfast and Mason’s journey takes him from an IRA safehouse somewhere off the Falls Road across the city to Sailortown. While The Crown Bar, which inspired the set used to film a famous scene set in a pub in the film, the bar in the novel is clearly located in Sailortown in the Belfast docks area.

And further, despite the initial denial, much of the description of the IRA in Green’s novel also accurately mirrors historical events from 1943-44 when he was writing the book. More intriguingly, subtle shifts in the IRA’s structure and circumstances between 1944 and 1946 are again reflected in changes in detail between the novel and the film. All of this suggests that Green was, in fact, very much concerned with the historical accuracy of his depiction of the IRA.

Green wrote the novel between October 1943 when he finished his previous novel ‘On the Edge of the Sea’ and August 1944, when he produced the first full typescript of ‘Odd Man Out’. In the novel, the IRA’s Chief of Staff (Johnny Murtah) is hiding out in Belfast. It can’t be a coincidence that the only time an IRA Chief of Staff was ordinarily resident in Belfast was 1942-43 (and again, briefly in 1944-5). This was not necessarily public knowledge.

Even more revealingly, by the time of the film screenplay in 1946, the main character, now called Johnny McQueen is merely “…the leader of the organisation in this city…” and is clearly no longer the Chief of Staff as he states that “…I’ve got my orders and I’ll see them through.” By this time the IRA’s leadership was once again based in Dublin (all of this is described in more detail in the Belfast Battalion book on the history of the Belfast IRA at that time). The background given for Johnny – as having recently escaped prison – matches the IRA’s leadership at the time, like Hugh McAteer, Jimmy Steele and Seamus ‘Rocky’ Burns.

Laurie Green. (Photo: John J Burns Library, Boston College)

Born in Portsmouth, England in 1902, but with Irish roots in Cork, Frederick Laurence (Laurie) Green had moved to Belfast in 1929 and all fourteen of his novels were published while living in the city. One other novel, ‘Of the Night of the Fire’ was also made into a film. Margaret Edwards, who had married Green, was from a well-known Belfast family (hence his move to the city). Green himself became an integral part of Belfast’s arts and literary community some of whom, like John Hewitt, provided the inspiration for characters that feature in ‘Odd Man Out’. The journey that the IRA leader ‘Johnny’ makes across Belfast in the book takes him further and further from the safety of his hideout in the Falls to the scene of a robbery, onto Belfast’s streets, into a Protestant district and, from there to Sailortown. Green’s Belfast audience would have clearly understood the importance of Sailortown as a location, having been the ‘storm centre’ of violence both in 1935 and 1920-22. He next ends up in the hands of the Belfast arts community with characters lampooning the likes of Hewitt.

This isn’t accidental. In reference to ‘Odd Man Out’, Green reputedly chastised the Belfast arts scene about the lack of political focus in its outputs, saying that “…I’m writing what you and your friends should be writing about, the dramas that are going on here. You people are ignoring what is going on on your own doorstep.” (recorded by W.J. McCormack in his 2015 biography ‘Northman: John Hewitt 1907-1987’).

The Unionist government, though, clearly noted the political undertones in Green’s work and made a point of providing no assistance when the film was being made.

Many episodes in ‘Odd Man Out’ reflect real events that happened during the years just before Green published the novel. The immediate inspiration for the central event was a botched robbery at Clonard Mill in Odessa Street in October 1943 in which an RUC constable (Patrick McCarthy) was shot dead. Teresa O’Brien, who betrays IRA men to the RUC in another key scene, echoes a Teresa Wright, a widow who in 1937 claimed shots were fired at her Quadrant Street home due to ‘ill-feeling against her’ and because “…several people had called me an informer …”.

‘Odd Man Out’ also has a clear sense of internal debates within the IRA (which, again, may not have been widely known). In the film Johnny McQueen says “…we could throw the guns away, make our cause in the parliaments instead of in the back streets…” at the same time as internal IRA memos were discussing how far to get involved in politics. This also foreshadows later disputes within Irish republicanism over abstentionism and political engagement. All this suggests that Green was very well informed about what was going on within the IRA. The likely source for this was Denis Ireland, a prominent figure in Belfast’s literary scene and a leading light in the Ulster Union Club in Belfast which (despite the name) was the main source of Protestant recruits for the IRA. Even Johnny’s brief stay with two Protestant women may be a knowing wink in the direction of safe houses used by the IRA in unionist areas of Belfast like the Shankill Road and the Village.

Taken together the book and movie are filled with cues that would resonate with a wide range of audiences. Green and Reed’s high-brow themes of personal redemption and internal torment chimed with the concerns of many contemporary authors and film-makers. Writers like Ruth Barton (from Trinity College in Dublin) have examined how Reed explores concepts of gender representation, viewing James Mason’s phenomonal performance as Johnny through the prism of (toxic) masculinity in post-war Britain and Kathleen Ryan’s as the antithesis of the quintessential bourgeouis heroine of contemporary British cinema. Green, though, provides rich pickings for a Belfast audience who could knowingly follow and engage with the geography of the book and film in a way that would escape other audiences. As Johnny moves around, they would understand the political and cultural significance of the different parts of the city.

Others too reacted to a perceived realism in ‘Odd Man Out’. Hysterical outrage from Bertie Smylie (using the pseudonym Nichevo), in ‘An Irishman’s Diary’ in The Irish Times has a wonderfully contemporary air: “There is no doubt that it is a really good film. There equally is no doubt that, in essence, it amounts to a glorification of the IRA! If I had been a youth, emerging from the Theatre Royal on Sunday night, and saw on the walls of Trinity College the slogan “Join the IRA”, I have not the least doubt that I should have been sorely tempted to do so! All the romance is on the side of the “the Organisation”. James Mason gives a magnificent performance as Johnny McQueen; and, although the name of the IRA never was mentioned, nobody who knows anything about this country in general, or of Belfast in particular, can have the least doubt concerning the “Organisation’s” identity. So much for that!“

For all the quality of the film, it is the collected work of the novel and film that gives Odd Man Out a historical authenticity that means you need to read the novel to appreciate many aspects of the film.

Laurie Green’s novel was first published by Michael Joseph in March 1945. A collection of Greens personal papers are held by the John J. Burns library in Boston College. You can read the historical background to ‘Odd Man Out’ in ‘Belfast Battalion: a history of the Belfast IRA, 1922-1969’.

So if you haven’t watched the film (never mind read the novel), you can watch the whole thing here on Youtube before reading the rest of this:


The Derry Jail Great Escape, 20th March 1943

On the 20th March 1943 the IRA staged a mass escape through a tunnel from Derry Jail. The escape was one of a series of high profile actions by the IRA in the north in the first half of 1943 (there is more on the context of the escape here). The escape itself is well covered by an episode of the TG4 series, Ealú. This article looks at the wider context of the escape in terms of the 1940s IRA campaign.

Information about the escape was only disclosed to the Chief of Staff McAteer and the Northern Command Adjutant Jimmy Steele at an IRA army convention held in Ballymacarret in February 1943. McAteer and Steele had themselves escaped from Crumlin Road in January 1943. Finance for the Derry escape had already been (unwittingly) procured in a hold-up in Strabane on 2nd February by Jim Toner, O/C Tyrone, and his adjutant, Joe Carlin which netted £1,500[1]. The outside operation  was to be planned by Steele, Liam Burke, Harry White and Louis Duffin. Toner and Jimmy Clarke would help organise back-up. Word was sent in that the escape was to take place on the Saturday morning, 20th March, at 8.30am.

The actual planning of the Derry escape had begun in October 1942 when a tunnel was started in the cell of Harry O’Rawe and Jimmy O’Hagan[2]. The month previously, Tom Williams execution had coincided with an upsurge in activity in the north by the IRA. For the escape a fifteen foot shaft had been sunk and then an eighty foot tunnel burrowed out towards a house in Hardinge Street. All the spoil had been disposed of within the Jail. Communication in and out of the jail was by secret text between the lines of letters to Annie Hamill by her fiancée, Paddy Adams, who was O/C of the prisoners (she was also a sister of another internee, Sean Hamill). The tunnel was now nearing completion having gone through all manner of problems including water-logging, a collapse (nearly killing Billy Graham), and even having to dig under a coffin. The excavated soil from the tunnel even clogged the drains which had to be cleaned out but didn’t arouse suspicion.

Twenty men were to attempt to escape, to be supported by waiting IRA units in Derry and across the border in Donegal. Selection was based on those who would commit to reporting back for duty to the IRA, north of the border, once they had escaped. Once the twenty had passed through the tunnel, any other internée was free to follow them and make their own way to safety. It was hoped as many as eighty might escape.

For use in the Derry escape, Liam Burke had went to Currans to hire a furniture lorry and driver on the 18th March. The cost of the hire was to be £9 (this was paid to the firm after the escape). He and Jimmy Steele were to travel up to Derry in the lorry with the driver, called Davy, who was unaware of their true mission.

The lorry was going to be left at the corner of Abercorn Place, so that the escapers, who were expected to emerge in Harding Street, could run down and jump into the back. The escape was confirmed for 8.30 am on the Saturday morning. There were three flights of steps at the top of Abercorn Place, where it met Harding Street, which prevented the lorry being moved to just outside the house where the tunnel would emerge but also meant that it wasn’t close enough to arouse suspicion. Liam Burke was to position himself at the top of the steps to guide any escapers to the lorry.

The tunnel had been propped with bits of wood salvaged from around the prison plus sandbags made from pillow cases. In total 15 tons of clay had been removed for the tunnel. The sound of digging it up had often been masked by music practice. The tunnel itself had been completed before the IRA had organised the getaway vehicles and so there was a nervous wait inside the prison by the internees who were itching to get out[3]. The exit was in the coal bunker of Joseph Logue’s house in Harding Street.

The next day, Friday 19th March, Steele and Burke were picked up by the lorry which then began the drive up to Derry. On the way, the driver Davy wasn’t very talkative. He then stopped off at the main door of an RUC station in Castledawson, parked up the van, and went inside. Steele, sitting in the front seat, and armed with a revolver, had no idea whether the driver had recognised him (his niece worked for the same firm)  or become suspicious and was, at that very moment, giving him away to the RUC. It can’t have been too far from his mind how Hugh McAteer, the previous October, had accepted an invitation to an old school friend’s house only to deliver himself, the Chief of Staff of the IRA, straight into the hands of the waiting RUC without a fight.

To make matters worse, Steele was sitting at eye level right beside a wanted poster that said:

Royal Ulster Constabulary, Reward of £3,000. The above Reward, or proportionate amounts thereof, will be paid to the person or persons furnishing information to the police leading to the arrest of any one or more of the persons whose photographs and descriptions are given hereunder, and who escaped from Belfast Prison on the morning of 15th January, 1943.”

Under the text were pictures and descriptions of himself, Hugh McAteer, Ned Maguire and Pat Donnelly.

The wanted poster.

Jimmy Steele’s disguise at the time of the escape.

Eventually, though, Davy returned to the van, got in and drove off (it turned out he had got lost and went looking for directions).  When they reached Derry, Steele produced his revolver and told Davy that his van was being commandeered by the IRA. Davy looked at the revolver and then told Steele that it wasn’t necessary as he was an IRA supporter. He even pointed out that he could drive the van better than anyone else so it would be better if he stayed with them[4]. Steele explained why the furniture van was being commandeered but Davy agreed to remain with them and help out with the escape. As it was, he was the best placed to act as the getaway driver[5] anyway.

Steele and Burke had arranged to be billeted in a safe house in the city. Other members of the Belfast IRA had arrived separately, in twos and threes, to help in the escape.

On the morning of the escape, the prisoners found that the mouth of the tunnel had been blocked. As time wound down to the escape the idea had begun to take hold that the authorities’ failure to uncover the tunnel was a rouse and the plan was simply to shoot the internees as ‘escapers’ as they emerged from the tunnel. So, on discovering the tunnel blocked, they assumed the escape was over. Outside, Steele and Burke were unaware of any of the dramas inside the prison as the agreed time of 8.30 am approached. By now, the prisoners had realised that the tunnel was blocked by two bags of coal which were then transported back through the tunnel and into the prison clearing the way for the escape.

The prisoners then began to emerge from the tunnel and, much to the Logue family’s shock, ran through the house into the road. Kevin Kelly remembers that Joseph Logue had stood with one leg in his trousers in the parlour as they ran through. When he reached the street he saw Liam Burke and Chips McCusker and, even sixty years later, remembered the feeling of elation and how fresh the air was after being inside (Derry Jail was notoriously dark and damp). Kelly himself says:

You could never describe the feeling.”

Burke then handed Kelly a revolver and directed him towards the van in Abercorn Place where Steele was still sat in the front with the driver.

Back in the Logue’s house, Sean Hamill was keeping watch over the Logues as the other members of the escape team emerged from the tunnel. He remained there until the last man came out, even then delaying to make sure no-one else was going to emerge[6]. Kelly had jumped into the back of the lorry while some others delayed in Abercorn Place. To free up space Steele and Burke were going to stay in the city, rather than leave with the lorry, and Ned Maguire took over in the lorry’s cab with the driver for the next part of the escape bid[7].

A young girl who noticed the escapees in the street went to the prison gates and informed the staff (who were already suspicious that something was going on). By the time the warders discovered the tunnel, 21 men had passed through it and had escaped.

The Republican News in April 1943, names the twenty official escapees as: Paddy Adams, Sean Hamill, Liam Graham, Albert Price, Seamus P. Traynor, Seamus Burns, Alfred White, Brendan O’Boyle, Hubert McInerney, Harry O’Rawe, Cathal McCusker, Liam Perry, Thomas M’Ardle, Seamus O’Hagan, Sean McArdle, Frank McCann, Daniel McAllister, Kevin Kelly, Hugh O’Neill and Seamus McCreevey. As he hadn’t been part of the official escape party, Jimmy O’Rawe’s name was not included on the list, even though he did actually escape through the tunnel. The individual named as Alfred White’s was actually Alphonsus White and was more usually known as Alfie ‘Shuffles’ White.

Fourteen of them climbed onto the lorry. Some, including Harry O’Rawe[8], Hubert McInerney, Brendan O’Boyle, Chips McCusker and Billy Graham didn’t go on the lorry and made their way to Letterkenny on foot[9]. Sean Hamill had remained in the Logues to prevent them raising the alarm. By the time he left the house, the lorry had already driven off. Having previously spent time in the city (he had originally been picked up and interned there), Hamill then decided to stay in Derry on the run, and felt able to make his way across the border. O’Boyle was the last official escapee[10], while Jimmy O’Rawe, the last to escape through the tunnel, was the first non-official member of the escape team to go through the tunnel and the only non-official escaper to get out. He didn’t know Derry well and was picked up during the blackout on Sunday night by the RUC.

Those in the lorry drove off[11], making the four and half mile journey to Carrigans where they were to cross the border with the intention of linking up with the waiting IRA unit on the other side. The journey was pretty uneventful and the apprehension and tension among the escapers in the back exploded in a yell of triumph when they crossed over the border at Carrigans and travelled on to St Johnston where they were supposed to be met by another lorry. Instead, nine ended up surrendering that night to pursuing Free State soldiers and Gardaí. They were re-interned (a certain naivety still existed among northerners about the capacity of Fianna Fáil to support the unionist government), this time in the Curragh. A famous photograph shows eleven men captured by Free State soldiers in the back of a lorry.

Photo showing prisoners re-captured by Free State soldiers in Donegal (published in Tim Pat Coogan's The IRA.
Photo showing prisoners re-captured by Free State soldiers in Donegal (published in Tim Pat Coogan’s The IRA.

Having left the lorry (it was eventually found in Sion Mills), Steele and Burke made an uneventful train journey back to Belfast. Steele was dressed in his Auxiliary Fire Service uniform while Burke was dressed as a priest. After they arrived back in Belfast, the £9 was forwarded to Currans to pay for the hire of the lorry.

Some, like Kevin Kelly, believed the timing of the escape was wrong and they should have gone out in the evening to take advantage of the blackout and then night-time. Within a week only three of the 21 were still at liberty. Lessons from the May 1941  and January 1943 escapes from Crumlin Road had not been learned, like not using getaway cars or trying to co-ordinate with outside help, with obvious consequences (in contrast, it was months before any of the May 1941 or January 1943 escapees were recaptured).

Strategically, the IRA appeared to have an eye, either consciously or subconsciously, on the propaganda value of an escape over the immediate practical contribution freeing 21 experienced volunteers would make to its northern campaign. As the IRA’s centre had shifted to the north in the early 1940s, a growing emphasis was put on positioning the question of Irish unity on the agenda of any expected Versailles-style conference that might happen after the world war. The IRA’s sabotage campaign in Britain had started in January 1939, but by September the start of the world war held out the prospect that a British reverse might be a catalyst to the re-establishment of the Irish republic as declared at Easter 1916 (the IRA’s ultimate objective).

As the possibility of British defeat receded, attitudes changed and, different dynamics emerged, first with the German invasion of Russia[12], and then with US entry into the war. The latter in particular, created the hope of a Versailles-style conference. And this is not as far-fetched as it now sounds. Irish unity had been an active issue in the public discussions of US support for the allies and then participation in the war. And until the Yalta conference in 1945, it was assumed there would be a negotiated end to the war. In Belfast, the IRA, under Hugh McAteer, had issued a number of public statements about the deployments of US troops in the north in 1942 and 1943 hoping to gain some headlines in the US. In his historical novel, An Ulster Idyll, Vincent McDowell (himself a 1940s internee) captures the general thinking among republicans in 1942:

“They could look forward to peace eventually and some kind of normality, but the IRA hoped that they would have a place in the final peace conference, and that the question of Irish unity would be raised, hopefully with the help of the Americans.”

McAteer, in the Sunday Independent in 1951[13] wrote that by the middle of April 1943 the IRA leadership were openly admitting to each other that the military offensive begun in September 1942 was failing:

“…we acknowledged to each other what we had long felt in our own hearts – that the possibility of our plans in the North succeeding was out of the question for the present. The propaganda value of the Derry escape, as evidenced by the many popular ballads, was tremendous; the practical result very small. The mass of the people were thoroughly disillusioned by the attitude of the 26-County Government towards us in the North; hundreds of our more experienced men were imprisoned or interned. The pattern of our work was thus clear. We had first of all to preserve the spirit of the movement, even if we could achieve nothing more concrete, and, secondly, to keep ourselves out of the jails as long as possible, and even this was becoming more difficult.”

By April 1943 then, the IRA’s northern offensive had largely petered out and by the middle of that year there was a clear shift towards dealing with prison issues. McAteer’s statement about the IRA’s thinking in March and April 1943 may also reflect growing public confidence in the possibility of an outright allied victory following Stalingrad and El Alamein and the realisation that a post-war conference to settle territorial claims and disputes was now looking unlikely.

With the possibility of a Versailles-type settlement gone, as McAteer states, the priority was now “ preserve the spirit of the movement”. That set the stage for next big propaganda coup of the IRA, its 1943 Easter Commemoration in Belfast, which I’ll cover another day.

You can read more about the background to all of this in the Belfast Battalion book.

[1] McEoin (Harry), p133

[2] There are various accounts, including in Harry and The IRA in the Twilight Years, also an episode of the TG4 series, Ealú: To Hell and Back.

[3] Kevin Kelly, interviewed on Ealú.

[4] Hayes, 2004, 69

[5] Hayes 2004, 69

[6] Information as related by Sean to his son Féilim.

[7] Based, in part, on Hugh McAteer’s account (Sunday Independent 13.5.1951)

[8] O’Rawe had stood and watched Eamon Ó Cianáin and others escape over the wall in Crumlin Road in May 1941, only for warders to arrive and end his chances of escape. O’Rawe had helped wrestle the warders away from Gerry Doherty who was the last man over the wall on that occasion.

[9] As Chips McCusker was standing with Liam Burke when Kevin Kelly emerged from Logue’s, those who didn’t go in the lorry appear to have chosen not to do so either to divide the escapers up to evade capture or due to lack of space (McAteer, writing in 1951, implies that they were left behind).

[10] Coogan 1970 The IRA, 185

[11] According to Liam Burke’s account in The IRA in the Twilight Years, the driver and Ned Maguire took the lorry to the border, himself and Jimmy apparently staying the city.

[12] In Ar Thóir mo Shealbha Tarlach Ó hUid describes how a loose collaboration between the broad left in Belfast and the IRA in 1940 came apart over differing opinions over the ending of the German/Soviet pact with the German invasion of Russia. Joe Cahill (in Anderson’s 2002 biography of him A Life in the IRA) also relates that the moods in the prison and relations between warders and prisoners ebbed and flowed with the fortunes of the war and the changing alliances.

[13] Sunday Independent 20th May 1951

List of IRA leaders in Belfast

Every now and again, I’ve posted updates and revisions to the list of commanders of the Belfast Battalion covering the period from 1922 and up to 1969.

Here is the current revision (below). As ever any corrections or suggestions can be added in the comments section. A table outlining the various roles prior to September 1922 is included below. It covers the Belfast Brigade of the IRA’s 3rd Northern Division and it’s previous incarnations from when it was the Belfast Battalion of the Irish Volunteers in 1916. The overall structure of the IRA in Belfast varied as it was organised as Brigade with two battalions from September 1922 onwards. In the later 1920s it was reorganised into a single battalion with a varying number of companies (from two to eight). In the 1940s the IRA created a battalion structure among internees and sentenced prisoners with the battalions reporting to the IRA’s Northern Command. After the second world war, the Belfast Battalion remained small and was generally organised into only one or two companies.

Battalion OCs were normalley elected where the IRA observed its own rules. When circumstances permitted, the I.R.A.’s Companies elected delegates to attend a Battalion Convention as follows: one delegate from the Company staff; one additional delegate if the Company had up to fifteen members, two if it had up to thirty, then an additional delegate for every further ten members (based on the Constitution of Óglaigh na h-Éireann published by the I.R.A. Army Council in March 1933). The Battalion O/C was selected or confirmed by the Convention. If arrested, O/C’s lost their rank and the Battalion staff selected an Acting O/C until a Convention formally ratified a new appointment (given the circumstances that prevailed the IRA often had to suspend its formal processes and appoint provisional O/Cs). If the previously elected O/C was released prior to the Convention the Battalion staff could meet and vote to confirm their return to the post.

Bel Table
Overall organisation and commandants of Belfast republican forces from 1916 to 1923.


1922-23 Hugh Corvin

Former Quartermaster of the I.R.A.’s 3rd Northern Division, he had replaced Pat Thornbury as O/C Belfast which had by then been re-organised as a Brigade in October 1922. Corvin had supported the Executive against G.H.Q. over the Treaty in 1922. Subsequently interned in April 1923, he was elected leader of the I.R.A. prisoners and was involved in various prison protests. Corvin was involved in the Irish Volunteers prior to 1916.

1923-24 Jim O’Donnell

O’Donnell replaced Corvin as O/C while Corvin was interned. When Corvin was released from internment at the end of 1924 O’Donnell appears to have stepped back and Corvin took over again as O/C.

1924-26 Hugh Corvin

When Corvin returned as O/C of the Belfast Brigade it was during the re-organisation that followed after Joe McKelvey’s re-burial in Milltown on 30th October 1924.

1925-1926 Jim Johnston

When the Belfast I.R.A. shot Patrick Woods in November 1925 the R.U.C. arrested one individual for questioning but detained a further fifty men, more than twenty of whom were interned until January 1926 including most of the Battalion staff. This included Hugh Corvin. Barely a week after the arrests the outcome of the Boundary Commission was leaked into the press. Judging by correspondence recovered in his house in February 1926, Johnston seems to have acted as O/C while Corvin was interned. He was to remain active with the Belfast Battalion into the 1930s.

1926 Hugh Corvin

Either before Johnston’s arrest in February 1926 or just after his own release in January, Hugh Corvin returned as O/C Belfast. He only stayed in the position until April 1926 when he resigned citing business reasons (he had set up an accountancy firm). He had been arrested in November 1925 and held until the end of January 1926 along with twenty others following the shooting of an informer.

He was to remain a prominent public figure, through involvement in the G.A.A. and as secretary of the Gaelic League in Belfast. He publicly participated in fund-raising for Fianna Fáil in Belfast in the early 1930s and when he stood as an ‘independent republican’ in West Belfast in February 1943 he was largely portrayed by the I.R.A. as a proxy for Fianna Fáil. His later political activity and the coincidence of the Fianna Fáil split suggest it may have been a motive in his resignation.

1926-8 Dan Turley

In Belfast I.R.B. Circle with 1916 leader Sean McDermott as early as 1907, Turley mobilised at Easter in 1916, was director of elections for Sinn Féin in Belfast at the 1918 elections and was Head of Intelligence in 3rd Northern Division. He was interned on the prison ship Argenta. He took over from Corvin but, apparently clashing with the organiser sent from Dublin (Davy Fitzgerald) and personalities at G.H.Q., he was portrayed as being difficult to get on with and unpopular. He remained active as Belfast Adjutant and in other staff posts, although he was a recurring target in clashes between the Belfast I.R.A. and G.H.Q.. The RUC used this tension to conspire against him and he parted with the I.R.A. in 1933 and then was shot dead in disputed circumstances in 1936. Turley was being held responsible for the loss of arms dumps over 1927-1928 and as Davy Matthews took over as Belfast O/C in 1928, Turley appears to have remained as O/C until some time in 1928.

1928-33 Davy Matthews

From Albert Street. A former O/C of C Company, 1st Battalion in the 1920-23 campaigns, including the Raglan Street ambush, and a former internee on the Argenta. Took over from Dan Turley who remained as part of his staff – according to Matthews pension application file in the Military Archives in Dublin this was in 1928. Instigated re-organisation of the Belfast I.R.A. in 1929, including training camps, Irish language classes and recruitment to Fianna Éireann. Bob Bradshaw quotes a description of him as having a ‘heart of gold and head of ivory’. Also active in Sinn Féin at a time when there were internal divisions within the I.R.A. over whether to co-operate with Sinn Féin, Fianna Fáil or a left-wing political project (or if they were to co-operate with anyone at all). In November 1933, Matthews was arrested in possession of I.R.A. documents and received a short sentence. So many other senior Belfast staff were arrested, including Jimmy Steele, Charlie Leddy, George Nash, Tom O’Malley and Jack Gaffney that a temporary staff was formed, including Jack McNally, Jim Johnston and Sean Carmichael.

1933-34 Jack McNally

From the Bone. Another 1920-23 campaign veteran. Appears to have taken over as O/C while Davy Matthews served a short sentence in 1933-34 (this is implied but not explicitly stated in his memoir Morally Good, Politically Bad). While he was in prison Matthews decided to sign an undertaking that he would cease his I.R.A. membership if he was released just before Christmas. So too did another veteran, George Nash. Whether Matthews intended to honour the commitment or not, he was court-martialled in January 1934 and dismissed from the I.R.A.. McNally only stayed as O/C for a number of months but remained active on the I.R.A.’s G.H.Q. staff until his arrest at Crown Entry in 1936. He was interned in December 1938 and was to later be active in the Anti-Partition League and became an abstentionist Senator in the Northern Ireland Senate at Stormont.

1934-36 Tony Lavery

From Balkan Street, a Fianna Éireann veteran of the 1920s, Lavery took over role as O/C Belfast (at the time designated Ulster Area No 1). Despite an order from Army Council not to, he instructed those charged by the northern government over the Campbell College raid to be defended in court. After they were acquitted, the Army Council charged Lavery with disobeying a direct order and he was to be court-martialled in Crown Entry on 25th April 1936 (although it was expected, unlike Matthews, he would merely get a slap on the wrists). Crown Entry was raided just as the court martial was to take place and all those present were arrested including the I.R.A.’s Adjutant-General, Jim Killeen, G.H.Q. staff and senior members of the northern and Belfast leadership of the I.R.A. including Lavery’s Adjutant, Jimmy Steele, and other staff members like Liam Mulholland and Mick Traynor.

1936-37 Sean McArdle

McArdle took on role of O/C Belfast after the loss of Lavery and other Belfast staff members at Crown Entry. In October 1937, the R.U.C. raided what appears to have been a battalion staff meeting in Pearse Hall in King Street. McArdle was arrested and sentenced to six months in Crumlin Road for having I.R.A. documents in his possession.

1937-38 Chris McLoughlin (?)

While McArdle was in prison for three or four months, Chris McLoughlin may have acted in the role as O/C Belfast (he seems to have attended at least one I.R.A. convention in that capacity).

1938 Sean McArdle

On his release, McArdle returned as O/C Belfast until he was interned in December 1938.

1938-39 Charlie McGlade

Arrested in Crown Entry, Charlie McGlade was not long out of Crumlin Road when he was sent as an organiser to England as part of the S-Plan campaign. He took over as O/C Belfast from Sean McArdle following McArdle’s internment in December 1938. Apparently influenced by Jim Killeen, McGlade was responsible for developing the Northern Command concept that was put in place in late 1939, with McGlade as Northern Command Adjutant and Sean McCaughey as O/C. He edited the Belfast edition of War News and remained as O/C Belfast until 1940.

1940 Jimmy Steele

A Fianna and IRA veteran of 1920-23, Steele had been imprisoned since the Crown Entry raid, only being released in May 1940. For some time there had been unease at reports that were coming in to the IRA prisoners in Crumlin Road about disciplinary procedures being applied by the Belfast IRA staff. On his release, Steele was appointed to the I.R.A.’s Northern Command staff as Director of Training. Later that year, with McGlade and Northern Command O/C Sean McCaughey busy in Dublin, Steele took over the role as O/C Belfast until his arrest in December 1940.

1941 Liam Rice

Bowyer Bell (in The Secret Army) implies Liam Rice was O/C Belfast in May 1941, when he then left for Dublin to assist in the investigation into Stephen Hayes. Rice had been arrested in Crown Entry and also spent time in prison in the south. He was wounded and arrested in Dublin and spent time on the blanket in Portlaoise during the 1940s. It seems likely that Rice took over from Steele as O/C directly after Steele’s arrest in December 1940.

1941 Pearse Kelly

When Rice left for Dublin, Bowyer Bell states that Pearse Kelly took over as O/C Belfast in May. Kelly too left for Dublin in July to take part in the investigations into Chief of Staff Stephen Hayes. Kelly was eventually to become Chief of Staff himself and ended up in the Curragh. Afterwards he went on to a senior role in RTE as Head of News.

1941-42 Hugh Matthews

During 1941 Hugh Matthews, brother of Davy Matthews and another 1920-23 veteran, took over as O/C in Belfast, and was O/C during the Army Conference in Belfast in February 1942 (according to Bowyer Bell in The Secret Army). Ray Quinn (in A Rebel Voice) says he took over from Jimmy Steele but dates it to a later Army Convention in Belfast in February 1943. It is not particularly clear from surviving accounts, but Matthews appears to have been O/C as further disputes arose about disciplinary practices of his Belfast staff members (but not direct criticism of Matthews himself).

1942 John Graham

Prior to 1942, Graham had been O/C of an independent unit, mostly made up of Protestant IRA men. Graham took on the role of Director of Intelligence for the Northern Command and (according to Joe Cahill), was also O/C Belfast. He presumably took on the role after Hugh Matthews some time after February 1942 although the timing is unclear. He was arrested along with David Fleming in the Belfast HQ on Crumlin Road on 3rd October 1942, where printing presses and radio broadcasting equipment were also recovered. Graham, a divinity student in the 1930s, on his release he was to become a noted professional golfer.

1942-43 Rory Maguire

Maguire was O/C Belfast in the autumn of 1942, apparently following Graham’s capture in October.

1943 Jimmy Steele

Escaping from Crumlin Road prison on 15th January 1943, Steele re-joined the Northern Command staff as Adjutant and took over the role of O/C Belfast from Rory Maguire (Maguire’s brother, Ned, had escaped with Steele). He remained O/C Belfast when he took over as IRA Adjutant General after Liam Burke’s arrest.

1943-44 Seamus Burns

Following Jimmy Steele’s arrest in May, Seamus ‘Rocky’ Burns took over as O/C Belfast. Burns had been imprisoned as a 17 year old in 1938, interned in 1939. He took part in the mutiny in Derry jail and was moved to Crumlin Road prison, only to be returned to Derry from where he escaped with 20 others through a tunnel in March 1943. Recaptured in Donegal, he was interned in the Curragh. Harry White had Burns resign from the I.R.A., sign out of the Curragh, then re-join the I.R.A. and return north (when he took over as O/C Belfast). He was shot trying to escape from RUC officers in Chapel Lane in February 1944 and died the next day.
1944 Harry White?

In February 1944, Harry White apparently took over as O/C Belfast after Burns’ death. He was also on the run continuously. He seems to have taken on the role of O/C Belfast for much of the time and also delegated it to others. At this point the sequence of O/Cs gets a little messy.

1944-45 Harry O’Rawe?

By April 1944, Harry White went underground to Altaghoney in County Derry seemingly leaving O’Rawe as O/C Belfast. In his memoir, Harry, Harry White implies that he casually delegated the role to O’Rawe and they effectively alternated as O/C Belfast.

1945? Johnny Murphy

When Harry O’Rawe was arrested in March 1945, it seems likely Johnny Murphy took over as O/C Belfast. Murphy was one of a number of I.R.A. volunteers that were induced to sign out of internment by Harry White. White himself had resigned from the I.R.A. then signed out of internment in the Curragh and then was reinstated in the I.R.A.. He later got others to do the same to replenish the Belfast Battalion staff. An organiser sent by the I.R.A. in Dublin, Gerry McCarthy, visited Belfast in April 1945 and that may have prompted the reorganisation of the various roles. By this time the IRA’s structure was severely depleted and it is possible that there was, effectively, no Battalion to lead.

1946-? Paddy Meehan

While the identities of the O/C Belfast after Rocky Burns’ death are repeatedly unclear, Paddy Meehan was O/C in 1946-7 as individuals like Billy McKee who reported back to the I.R.A. in that time were referred to Meehan as O/C. One profile of Seamus Twomey (in The Irish Press on 15th July 1972) stated that he was O/C Belfast in 1945 but this seems unlikely cannot be corroborated from other sources. Since arrests tended to be the catalyst that lead to a changes in O/C, it is possible that in October 1946 Murphy replaced White as O/C Northern Command and Meehan took over at that date.

?-1949 Seamus McCallum

Richard English names McCallum as O/C when Des O’Hagan joined the IRA in 1949. Frank McKearney had taken over as O/C when Joe Cahill was released in November 1949, by which date McCallum may have moved to Liverpool (where he became O/C of the local I.R.A. unit). As noted above, it is not always clear who was in charge of what was left of the Belfast IRA between early 1944 and 1949, so the date that McCallum took on the role is unknown.

1949-50 Frank McKearney

By the late 1940s, Frank McKearney had taken over as O/C Belfast before November 1949. He had received a six year term for possession of a revolver in 1939. He appears to have taken over as O/C during 1949, at least until some time after the release of Jimmy Steele in 1950.

1950-56 Jimmy Steele

On release from Crumlin Road in 1950, Jimmy Steele again returned to active service with the IRA and once more took over as O/C Belfast while remaining prominent in other organisations such as the National Graves Association and also Sinn Féin. Stayed as O/C until 1956, when he stepped down (Steele was to remain an active republican until his death in 1970).

1956 Paddy Doyle

Took over as O/C in Belfast in preparation for the coming campaign in December, dubbed Operation Harvest. Doyle was highly thought of at GHQ but, due to suspicions about an informer, did not disclose planned operations in Belfast to his own Belfast staff. Doyle spent his time in Crumlin Road completing his education, later qualifying as an accountant, and didn’t get involved in republican activities again on his release.

1956-57 Joe Cahill

Cahill, who had a death sentence commuted in 1942, had been released in 1949 from Crumlin Road. He took over from Paddy Doyle on his arrest in December 1956 until Cahill himself was interned in July 1957.

1957-60 Tom McGill

There is a gap in available information from mid-1957 until about 1960. Jimmy Steele may have taken over again from Cahill until his own internment that summer although Tom McGill, who was also later interned, was O/C Belfast during this period.

1961-63 Billy McKee

On his release from internment in 1961, Billy McKee took on the role of O/C Belfast re-building the battalion effectively from scratch. He had been imprisoned in the 1930s and 1940s and was to remain active in republican circles ever afterwards. During the Wolfe Tone commemorations of 1963 he got involved in a dispute with Billy McMillen, eventually resigned first as O/C Belfast and then from the I.R.A..

1963-69 Billy McMillen

Following the argument over the Wolfe Tone commemorations in June 1963, McMillen took over as O/C Belfast. Having earlier been associated with unofficial bombings in 1950, McMillen had left the IRA in the mid-1950s following an argument and linked up with Saor Uladh. After his release from internment in 1961, he first went to England then returned to Belfast and rejoined the I.R.A.. He remained O/C through the 1960s and was interned just before the pogrom in mid-August 1969.

1969 Jim Sullivan

When McMillen was interned from mid-August to late September, Sullivan acted as O/C Belfast in his place. He was imprisoned for a number of brief periods, such as 1966, when he was presumably replaced with an acting O/C such as Jim Sullivan, who was his Adjutant. Sullivan filled the role in August-September 1969 when McMillen was interned.
1969 Billy McMillen

As part of the fallout over the failure of the Belfast I.R.A. to adequately prepare to defend areas during the pogrom, on release from internment McMillen called a Battalion staff meeting to seek confirmation that he would continue as O/C. When he was forced to restructure his staff, he was also asked to withdraw supports for Cathal Goulding as Chief of Staff on 22nd September 1969.

Thanks to all those who have supplied further information, photographs etc.

You can read more about the Belfast I.R.A. in the new book.

The Armagh hunger strike

In 1943, the women interned by the northern government in Armagh Prison went on hunger strike over their status and conditions in the jail. The hunger strike lasted for twenty-two days and ended when one woman was close to death (although the northern government did make minor concessions after the protest ended).

With the widespread use of internment after 1938, the northern government used the Belfast Prison on the Crumlin Road, the Al Rawdah prison ship, Derry Gaol and Armagh Gaol. The latter was used to intern women, mainly from 1942. Although the jail in Armagh had first been built in 1780, it was modified and rebuilt on the Pentonville model (similar in style to the Belfast Prison on the Crumlin Road), with two wings extending from a central ‘circle’. It also housed debtors and short-term sentenced prisoners.

The republican prisoners were housed in B wing, on B1, alongside what they initially described as ‘shoplifters, prostitutes and wine-victims’ although the experience gave them a greater insight into the experiences of the other women they met there (see John McGuffin in his 1973 book Internment). A maximum of 18 republican prisoners were held in Armagh, twelve from Belfast and three each from Tyrone and Derry. Most, like Madge Burns, were in their late teens. One, Nora McDowell, had children. Her daughter Una was interned with her in Armagh and she also had a son, Vincent, interned in D wing and another son, Charles, in A wing in the Crumlin Road prison. Others interned in Armagh included the likes of Teresa Donnelly, Bernadette Masterson, Mary McDonald, Nora McKearney, Cassie O’Hara (O/C of the Armagh prisoners) and Nancy Ward. Some, but not all, were members of Cumann na mBan and were highly thought of by their male colleagues in the IRA. For example, Jimmy Steele described Cassie O’Hara as “…one of the best republicans in the country. I wish we had a few leaders like her. She has everything which a Republican should have and I used to love to get the opportunity of dropping in with her for a yarn. She always seemed to keep on the right path and I may tell you candidly that I would rather have discussed a matter with Cassie than with some of my Staff colleagues.

Like other internees, they were at first held for 28 days, then formally presented with internment orders. Conditions were every bit as poor (if not worse) than in Crumlin Road, Derry and even the Al Rawdah. At first, unlike the male internees, the women in Armagh were not accorded internee status and were treated as ordinary prisoners, accumulating privileges over time, such as visits and parcels, rather than being immediately accorded them as an automatic right (as applied to internees). Each was locked into their own, bitterly cold, cell for twenty hours or more a day, with no formal recreation room and a limited range of handicrafts.

Tensions soon developed within the group, although most were very reluctant to discuss what transpired after their release. By September 1943, the internal rows had spilled over, apparently to the extent that some of the republican prisoners wanted to be kept apart from each other. Certainly this was later cited in the brief newspaper reports that mention the prison (eg The Irish Times, 1st December 1943). From September 1943 internal relations had deteriorated to the extent that an argument escalated and prison staff intervened.

A female prisoner, known as Wee Hughie and subject to ‘fits of dementia and temporary insanity’, had been placed into a cell, two cells away from Norah McKearney. While she was there during the day, and for a considerable part of the night, she was shrieking and kicking up a terrific din. After complaints she was taken away but there had been a protest by the internees about the issue where they kicked up a row. When they were all punished for this protest three internees (the two Ashtons and Mary Ward, all from Derry) left the wing and were put in the convicts wing at their own request. Later, in a court hearing, Norah McDowell, said that before this incident she felt had been fairly well treated. When the three Derry internees asked the Governor to separate them from the others, the remaining internees allegedly called them traitors. It was also intimated to the remaining internees that the three Derry internees had given information to the Governor about the protest in order to get preferential treatment. However, collectively the internees seemed to be happy that this was actually the authorities seeking to divide them and afterwards both sets of internees let the issue go and refused to discuss it.

As the dispute with the prison authorities escalated, on August 30th the internees refused to take their evening meal and would not go into their cells when ordered by the governor. The internees continued to insist that they receive the same treatment as the three Derry internees in the convict wing. A few days later they tried to hold a commemoration for Jerry O’Callaghan and Tom Williams who had died in early September the year previously. The Governor, George Brush, again ordered them to get into their cells and they refused. He then said he was sending for the police so the internees armed themselves with jamjars and whatever else they could find. The Governor later said the internees were booing, shouting, hissing and yelling at him so he ordered Joseph Spence to take a power hose out and sent for the RUC.

The internees were now standing in the open space of the wing and were subject to the power hose by Spence (who later pointed out in court that he was merely acting under orders. Brush later claimed in court that he and Spence had been met with a shower of jamjars, tins and hot tea. Spence used the power hose for around five or six minutes and managed to push the internees into a corner at the bottom of the wing. Brush was later cross-examined over the use of the power-hose as it was claimed to be unprecedented and outside the prison code. Then twenty RUC men rushed in and pulled the internees into the cells. Most were pushed into the closest cell rather than their own cell. The power hose had left the internees and the cells soaking wet.

Female prison staff then arrived and ordered the internees to undress. In two cases policemen assisted them. In some cases they undressed voluntarily, but in most they were undressed forcibly by the wardresses. Some had their clothes, including shoes, taken away. All were left in their cells with just wet blankets for the night. The cells were also emptied of their property which was broken up on the landing. All ‘privileges’ were stopped immediately. The northern government ensured there was no publicity and the issue was never discussed in Stormont. While Republican News was, at this time, still being issued erratically by Harry White and Dan Turley Jr but too infrequently to be of any use in raising awareness of the issues the women faced.

The prisoners had then been moved into empty cells with beds hinged to the walls. As a protest against their treatment by the prison authorities, they banged the beds against the cell walls.  There were also constant confrontations between prisoners and prison staff. According to John McGuffin, “…Added to this were the moans and cries of those prisoners who needed psychiatric help but who, instead, were merely locked up in the padded cells where they screamed all night.” In Belfast, the Al Rawdah and Derry, similar psychological impacts were known although the men had been removed to asylums.

The prisoners in Armagh had one further protest left to them. Those John McGuffin interviewed remembered that the food was ‘abominable’, ‘disgusting’ and ‘shocking’ and ‘disgusting’ and one claimed she could “…still remember the endless prunes and beans…”. At the same time, food parcels were rare. In November, the internees decided to undertake a hunger strike. Beginning on 21st November, they refused all food. The physical condition of the prisoners prior to the strike was already poor. Madge Burns and others had to leave the hunger strike as they were simply  in such poor physical shape. Two had already had to drop out by 1st December.

The key to a hunger strike is building the pressure on the authorities to find an accommodation, both through the internal strain on the prison system, and through external agitation to reach a solution. Censorship ensured there was no external agitation. This was brought home when Teresa Donnelly, who had a weak heart, was so bad that she was given the last rites. After twenty-two days,  on 13th December, without the publicity that would help build public pressure and having weighed the risk of a fatality against the likelihood of success, the hunger strike was called off.

The only positive outcome from the strike was that, after an interval, the authorities allowed the women to share cells. The lessons from the hunger strike were not learned by the male prisoners, who embarked on a similarly vain strike in 1944.

After the hunger strike ended in mid-December 1943, the female internees managed to raise some publicity by bringing an action for damages against one of the warders, Joseph Spence. The women were able to use the case to shed more light on their experience. The internees who brought the case were Agnes McDowell, Norah McDowell; Norah McKearney, Mary Dempsey, Margaret Burns, Margaret Agnew and Rosaleen McCotter. They were represented in court by James McSparran who cross-examined Brush about the power-hosing.

Their claim was that the hosing caused great suffering and was unjustifiable and illegal. McSparran told the court that internees were entitled to the best possible treatment as they had never been charged. He also provided further evidence on the background to the dispute, the treatment of ‘wee Hughie’ and the escalation of events in August 1943 (as outlined above). The presiding magistrate, Robb, dismissed their case.

Just as with the male internees, family hardship on the outside led some to eventually sign out of prison. Madge Burns was refused compassionate leave when her brother, Rocky, was shot dead by the RUC in February 1944 (when Rocky had escaped from Derry Gaol in March 1943, the warders feared he would break Madge out too).

The last eight prisoners were only finally released in July 1945.

This is an updated version of a number of previous posts.

The hosing of female internees, Armagh, 1943

The women’s hunger strike, Armagh 1943

A brief history of Cumann na mBan in Belfast from the 1920s to 1960s

See also

“…their own voluntary abstention from food”: the 1943-1944 hunger strikes

The Al Rawdah prison ship, 1940-41

Suffragettes, James Connolly and hunger-striking


James Connolly, the British soldier.

This may come as a shock to many people but James Connolly, the revolutionary socialist and republican, had served in the British army (but then, so many Irish people did join up, it’s hardly a surprise). This post looks at some of what we know about Connolly the British soldier.

James Connolly’s legend appears to becoming easily the most durable of all the leaders of the Irish Republic in 1916. Perhaps a reason for that is that his life provides an intersection 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).

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. I think the trick is still to find more records of deserters from 1889 and take it from there (maybe in regimental administrative archives). The search goes on.

You can read other posts about James Connolly 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

Paddy McGrath: a 1916 veteran executed by De Valera

Paddy McGrath

It is well known that those who saw service during the Easter Rising in 1916 and were executed, were summarily tried by a military tribunal, shot, then buried in unmarked graves. What is less well known is the last such execution of an Easter Rising participant was that of Paddy McGrath, ordered by Eamon De Valera in 1940.

On 16th August 1940, Irish Free State police, led by an ex-IRA member Denny O’Brien, stormed 98a Rathgar Road in Dublin. De Valera’s government had put in place a slush fund from which rewards were paid based on the results of arrests and raids on the IRA (for the slush fund see Bowyer Bell’s The Secret Army). This obviously encouraged competition, a certain amount of recklessness and the inevitable temptations created by a financial inducement. As 98a Rathgar Road was known to be used by the IRA and had been under observation, O’Brien decided to raid the house before someone else beat him to it (and any reward money).

In the ensuing gun battle in Rathgar Road, two branch men were killed, Sergeant McKeown and Detective Hyland, and a third wounded. Evidence presented by the police to the Military Court (eg Irish Independent, 21/8/1940) was that police were stationed at the front and rear of the house. Having been delayed gaining entry to the front door, they were then shot at once they got into the house. The police had also fired shots but whether police had entered from the rear before the front, or the exact sequence events isn’t really clear. Three men managed to escape from the house, although Thomas Harte, from Lurgan, was wounded. He was captured by the police along with a senior IRA officer Paddy McGrath who had broken free but returned to assist Harte. A third man, Tom Hunt, got away.

According to Donnacha Ó Beacháin (in Destiny of the Soldiers), despite comments offered in court on the use of various weapons during the raid there were no autopsies held on either McKeown or Hyland. An internal inquiry into the shooting was reportedly suppressed by Gerry Boland, the then Minister for Justice. Nevertheless, McGrath and Harte were tried by the Military Court. Anyone found guilty by the Military Court received an automatic death penalty with no right of appeal. Without an autopsy or forensic evidence, there was no attempt to establish who had fired shots beyond statements offered by the police involved (and the suppressed internal inquiry was claimed to have identified that McKeown and Hyland were killed by ‘friendly’ fire). Regardless of the lack of due process, McGrath and Harte were condemned to death four days after the shooting, on 20th August. De Valera’s Fianna Fáil cabinet met the next day and confirmed the sentence. It met again on the 23rd August and re-affirmed its decision while postponing the execution for a few days (Harte’s family in Lurgan were never even formally advised of his death sentence). On 4th September, De Valera convened his Fianna Fáil cabinet yet again. Despite the fact that no attempt had been made to identify who had actually shot McKeown or Hyland, and, presumably, through Gerry Boland, aware of what was being suppressed from the internal inquiry, they decided that McGrath and Harte should be executed two days later on 6th September 1940.

Paddy McGrath, a veteran of the Easter Rising, a Frongoch internee, still had a bullet in his chest from a shooting by the British in 1920, was shot along with Thomas Harte, and interred in an unmarked prison grave. Their remains were finally released for formal burial in 1948, the 150th anniversary of the 1798 rebellion. Speaking at McGrath’s burial, Brian Ó Higgins was scathing: “Make believe and insincerity have been loudly vocal on the battlefields of ’98 this summer. Those who condemned to death the IRA of their own generation, have been praising the IRA of 150 years ago…”.

Neither is the case of McGrath and Harte unusual among the executions carried out in the 1940s. No court would realistically uphold almost any of the death sentences imposed by De Valera’s Military Tribunal. Notably, another 1941 execution has recently been revisited and is to be overturned due to prosecution failures (indeed some Fianna Fáil TDs had campaigned for it).

In 1966, on April 10th De Valera laid a wreath in Kilmainham to those executed in 1916 at an event marking the open of the museum there. To coincide with De Valera’s event, Sinn Féin held a commemoration (according to the Irish Independent, accompanied by contingents of Welsh, Scottish and Breton nationalists) at Paddy McGrath’s grave in Glasnevin.

There’s a lot more on the ‘Second Civil War’ (as it was called by Dev’s Justice Minister, Gerry Boland) in the Belfast Battalion book.

You can read more articles and follow the Treason Felony blog here on Facebook.

An earlier version of this post was published in 2016.

Some other popular articles:

List of Belfast IRA O/Cs from 1924 to 1969

The speech that split the IRA, July 1969

Belfast and 1916

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