Cumann na mBan documentary

While you are waiting for voting to end and counting to start in the election, here’s a Cumann na mBan documentary to watch.
The documentary can be viewed here with some background. It was made by Bob White, author of Ruairí Ó Brádaigh: The Life and Politics of an Irish Revolutionary (2006), Provisional Irish Republicans: An Oral and Interpretive History (1993), and co-editor of Self, Identity, and Social Movements (2000).
Bob is Professor and Chair of the Department of Sociology at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) and previously produced the documentary, Unfinished Business: The Politics of ‘Dissident’ Irish Republicans (2012) which can also be viewed here.

Bob also published ‘Out of the Ashes: An Oral History of the Provisional Irish Republican Movement‘ in 2017 with Merrion Press (you can check it out by clicking here).


Albert Coyle and Evidence on Conditions in Ireland

A little bit more on Albert Coyle, of Evidence on Conditions in Ireland fame.

Coyle, a Stanford and Yale graduate, compiled and edited testimony given to hearings in Washington DC in 1921 about events in Ireland over the previous couple of years. Over 1,100 pages were published by Coyle as ‘Evidence on Conditions in Ireland’ in 1922 (this is now reprinted – see here). Coyle ended up in the post due to the influence of a former mentor, Stanford President David Starr Jordan and possibly due to his Irish-American heritage.

Coyle’s incredible life story includes being involved in the first world war including being captured by Bolshevik troops and held prisoner for several months in Russia in 1919, adding Russian to his existing language skills (German, French, Latin and Ancient Greek – he later learned Spanish too). He became a noted labour and left-wing activist and lawyer, to the extent that individuals being questioned at UnAmerican Activities hearings in the 1930s were asked if they knew him. Coyle met Stalin, ex-Kaiser Wilhelm II and other prominent domestic and international figures of the 1920s and 1930s and took part in high profile delegations to the Soviet Union (before the US granted diplomatic recognition) and also organised travel between the US and Soviet Union. He later lobbied for that recognition and to be made US Ambassador to the Soviet Union.

His language skills, European knowledge and contacts, including lawyers, some Communists and some Jewish, got him involved in trying to get various individuals out from imprisonment by the Nazis and away from Germany. In court in 1942, Coyle was said to have “gotten more unfortunates out of German concentration camps than any other living American.” Yet his name is largely unknown in research into Jewish immigration into the United States in the 1930s and 1940s. It is possible that Coyle was more focused on left wing prisoners of the Nazis, but it should equally be noted that in the 1930s and 1940s official policy sought to severely restrict immigration in the US and elsewhere, in particular Jewish immigration and that many of those working to find ways to circumvent regulations had to go underground to do so. If you need a reminder of one of the (unintended) consequences of those policies – and as it’s the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz – here’s Claude Lanzmann’s ground breaking documentary Shoah (part one and part two).

I’ve written a little more about Albert Coyle, here on Irish Central in the hope to see if I find anyone who knows a bit more about him.

The Ulster Special Constabulary on @theirishstory

A point that became clear during the recent controversy over an RIC commemoration in Dublin Castle was the various blindspots in general knowledge of the RIC. One clear gap was in awareness and knowledge of the Special Constabulary (from later became the B-Specials or B-men). The Irish Story has just published an overview I’ve written on the Ulster Special Constabulary which you can read it here.

While the Special Constabulary was created under existing legislation (from 1832) it was largely identical to a scheme for arming unionists to oppose Home Rule that had been put forward in 1911-12. Proposed by Sir James Craig to the British cabinet in the summer of 1920, it came in the immediate wake of revivals of the UVF in a number of locations earlier in 1920. At the Twelfth of July demonstrations that summer, Sir Edward Carson had announced that if the British government didn’t accept the assistance of a reorganised UVF, they would ‘take matters into their own hands’. The next day the London Times was scathing:

If indeed that organisation was revived as a defensive police force for Ulster the most serious consequences would almost certainly ensue. Upon Sir Edward Carson lies largely the blame for having sown the dragon’s teeth in Ireland.

For more, check out the Irish Story article….


Cartoon criticising Carson when unionists were pushing for a Special Constables scheme - note the tag on the rifle saying ‘made in Germany - Dublin Evening Telegraph, 14 September 1920

Cartoon lampooning Edward Carson when Special Constabulary scheme was being put in place (note the ‘made in Germany’ tag on his rifle). From  Dublin Evening Telegraph, 14/9/1920.

Are people being hasty in opposing remembering the R.I.C.?

The proposed inclusion of the Royal Irish Constabulary in commemorations of the War of Independence has provoked a bit of storm. The War of Independence still resonates in Ireland as the intersection of an array of themes that remain provocative and contested. Outrage over remembering the R.I.C.,  the police force of the British administration in Ireland, alongside those who fought for independence has seen people calling for the idea to be dropped immediately with talk of boycotts and the opening of petitions. Yet, as the history of the period begins to be revisited and explored over the next couple of years, people may be premature in their reaction to proposals around the R.I.C.. In fact, they may be missing the opportunity to make those advocating for inclusion of the R.I.C. take ownership of the actions and legacy of the R.I.C. as people begin to explore the events and history of the 1919-1922 period.

And don’t get me wrong – the history and legacy of the Royal Irish Constabulary is grim. To illustrate that I’m just going to recount one example, below. It’s an extreme case but it’s not an isolated example (you can check out contemporary publications like Facts and Figures of the Belfast Pogrom, Who Burnt Cork City? and the work of the Irish White Cross among others – and that’s just for starters).

In November 1920 recruitment began for Special Constables to serve on either a full-time or part-time basis with the R.I.C., in the first instance to serve in Belfast and in Tyrone. Special Constables only served in Ulster (hence they became known as the Ulster Special Constabulary). A Reserve created for the R.I.C. in 1920 became known as the Black and Tans and its’ members too were posted to R.I.C. barracks. A third branch of the R.I.C. was also created for counter-insurgency operations and, as it’s members weren’t attached to a particular R.I.C. division (as the police districts were known), it became known as the ‘Auxiliary’ Division. I’m going to focus here on an episode involving the R.I.C. in Belfast in mid-February 1922.

The 13th February 1922 had already been a bloody day in Belfast city where the July 1921 truce had been largely ignored and the signing of the treaty had merely prompted further violence. Catherine McNeill lived at number 6 Weaver Street in the shadow of the Jennymount Mill and bracketed by York Road and the railway line on the northern foreshore of Belfast Lough (see map below). Weaver Street sat within one of the main ‘storm centres’ of violence in Belfast (the city had borne about 20-25% of the War of Independence fatalities since 1919). A large proportion of the residents in Weaver Street were Catholics, similar to some of the adjoining streets but unlike the streets beyond that.

Around 8:30 pm two R.I.C. Special Constables chased children from the Milewater Street corner of Weaver Street down to the other end of Weaver Street (Milewater Street is the unnamed street at the southern end of Weaver Street and Shore Street on the map below). One Special Constable was brandishing a revolver and the two reportedly told the children to go and ‘play with their own’. The children moved around the corner and up towards the North Derby Street end of Weaver Street. Around twenty children were in the street, the girls mostly jumping with a skipping rope (which was tied to a lamp-post) and the boys playing marbles on the footpath beside them. Prior to the intervention of the R.I.C. Special Constables, the children had been scattered across the two streets. They were now gathered in two groups in front of 20 and 22 Weaver Street.

Weaver St map

Map showing location of Weaver Street. The R.I.C. barracks is the building marked in black beside the letters T.B. on York Road.

A few minutes later, Agnes O’Neill left her house on Weaver Street to look for her younger children. She saw three uniformed R.I.C. men coming down North Derby Street from the direction of York Road where there was an R.I.C. barracks. At a small gateway on the right hand side of North Derby Street, the three R.I.C. men met two men in civilian clothing. They stood and talked for some minutes. Mrs McCaffrey, from Shore Street, was out at the corner of Shore Street and talking to two young men who were neighbours. The young men had been watching the two men who they thought were very suspicious looking. So when they saw the three R.I.C. men approach the two men they hoped they would stop and question them. Instead all five appeared to have a conversation. The R.I.C. had their backs to Mrs McCaffrey. When they left they went towards the Black Path at the other end of North Derby Street and they walked so fast Mrs McCaffrey didn’t get a good view of them. She thought nothing of seeing R.I.C. men walking around as there was the R.I.C. barracks on York Road. Despite the fact that there had been significant violence across Belfast already that day, it was later claimed that the local R.I.C. were confined to their barracks that evening.

The three R.I.C. men continued down the right hand side of North Derby Street to the end of the road and seemed to continue on towards the Black Path (which ran alongside the railway line, parallel to the back of the Weaver Street houses). Eyewitnesses reported that the two men in civilian clothes crossed over then continued down the left hand side of the road, passed the end of Weaver Street and went as far as Jennymount Mill (at the end of North Derby Street), turned and came back to the Weaver Street corner). John Pimley, who had been out in Weaver Street since 6 pm, also saw the movements of the five men. He said that two of the constables had long coats and capes, while the third had only a long coat. The tallest was about 5 foot 8 inches in height. Pimley saw the men walk up and down past the corner of Weaver Street.

Patrick Kennedy, who lived at 25 Weaver Street, had noticed the two men walking up and down past the end of Weaver Street. He thought they were acting suspiciously and so went in to tell Joseph Maguire. They both went to the door to observe the two men.

All this time, the large group of children were playing in two groups about 25 metres up from the North Derby Street end of Weaver Street, in front of numbers 20 and 22. Ellen Rafferty, who also lived in Weaver Street, saw one of the two men crouch down and throw something towards the group of children. Patrick Kennedy didn’t see the bomb being thrown but saw one of the men put his hand to his hip pocket. On hearing a huge explosion, he slammed the front door. The windows and furniture in Weaver Street shook with the force of the blast, as it did in many of the surrounding streets off the York Road. The sound of the bomb exploding was heard all across Belfast.

The bomb had landed in the middle of the group of girls playing with the skipping rope. The explosion threw out shrapnel in every direction. The girls took the main force of the blast, and almost all were wounded by shrapnel and flying metal. Many of the boys were injured too as were a number of adults who happened to be standing in doorways nearby. Immediately after the bomb exploded, heavy gunfire from revolvers was directed down Weaver Street from North Derby Street, pinning down the injured and preventing residents coming to the aid of those wounded by the blast. When the gunfire finally stopped, people rushed from their houses. Some residents claimed that at least two of the three R.I.C. men that had re-appeared and joined in opening fire with their revolvers down Weaver Street.

Patrick Kennedy’s sister Catherine had been hit in the head and body by large pieces of shrapnel. She was covered in blood and unconscious. She was carried into 22 Weaver Street. Their mother Mary Jane had gone out onto the street after the shooting stopped. Another one of her children, 13 year old Barney, had been wounded in the arm. She was then told Catherine was injured and was brought to her. Catherine was only 15 and worked in the nearby mill. Like the Kennedy’s, Jennie Johnston lived on the other side of Weaver Street to the blast. When the gunfire stopped she ran out onto the street and found her 11 year old sister Ellen lying on the footpath. A boy helped her carry Ellen into a house. She had also received horrific head, torso and limb injuries in the blast. Catherine McNeill had also rushed out onto the street after the firing stopped only to find her daughter Rose Ann lying in the middle of the street. Francis Pimley carried Rose Ann into his house (20 Weaver Street). Elizabeth O’Hanlon had been thrown across the street by the blast and was badly injured in the blast (as were two of her brothers, John and Murtie). She was carried into 21 Weaver Street, where her mother found her.
Annie Pimley, Mary Clinton, Mary Kerr, Suzanne Lavery and Kate O’Neill had been around the skipping rope with Catherine Kennedy, Rose Ann McNeill, Ellen Johnston and Elizabeth O’Hanlon. All were injured in the blast. The two O’Hanlon boys and Barney Kennedy had been playing with Willie John Dempsey, John McCluskey, George O’Connor, Joseph Conway, Patrick Maguire, Robert McBirney and William Connolly. They also received injuries in the blast. Three women who happened to be out on the street at the time were also critically injured, Grace Kelly, Mary Owens and Maggie Smith.

Two R.I.C. men from the York Road barracks, Sergeant Beattie and Constable Boyd, later stated that they came out onto the road after hearing the explosion and gunfire. After the gunfire ended they went down into Weaver Street and ambulances were called. When two ambulances arrived as many of the children as possible were squeezed in and rushed to the Mater Hospital. After the day’s violence elsewhere in Belfast, the hospital was already at full stretch as, in great distress, critically wounded children began to arrive on stretchers and in their parents’ arms. The ambulance men carried Catherine Kennedy straight into theatre and told the doctor and nurse in charge that they would need everyone. Quickly Dr Wright, Dr Morris, Dr Robinson, Dr Cavanagh and the nursing staff got to work. The hospital was so crowded that most of the nineteen children who were hospitalised by their injuries had to be put two to a bed (there were also the three women injured). Fr Clenaghan, President of St Malachy’s College, and Fr Black, from St Patricks, both arrived and gave last rites to those that were most seriously injured and tried to comfort the parents.

Catherine Kennedy couldn’t be saved and died from her injuries almost immediately. By 9.40 pm, Eliza O’Hanlon had also died, followed a couple of hours later by Ellen Johnston.
The next day, The Irish News described it as an ‘Awful Bomb Outrage on Belfast Children’ and said ‘…Last night’s shocking affair appears to have been a part of the plan of campaign carried out throughout the city for the extermination of the catholic population.’ James Craig’s gave statement on the bombing during the day saying that “…the indiscriminate throwing of bombs over a wall into Weaver Street, a Sinn Fein area, which resulted in the death of two children and the wounding of fourteen others.’ This was sufficiently vague that some press reported it as an attack on Protestants by the IRA. At 3.45 pm that afternoon, Rose Anne McNeill also died from her injuries.

The inquest, before a jury and the City Coroner, James Graham, was heard on the 3rd March (that inquest and press reports are the basis of this account). District Inspector Lynn observed on behalf of the R.I.C. while a solicitor, Bernard Campbell, represented the families. The two R.I.C. witnesses, Sergeant Beattie and Constable Boyd were also present. R.I.C. Constable Boyd implied that the gunfire after the blast was directed towards the police and came from the North Derby Street corner of Weaver Street. R.I.C. District Inspector Lynn then asked R.I.C. Sergeant Beattie if anyone had told him that there had been shots fired into Weaver Street after the bomb and he said no. Beattie brought along splinters and pieces of the bomb recovered from the scene and empty bullet cartridges from the corner of Weaver Street and North Derby Street. The empty bullet cartridges implied that the R.I.C. had found the position the guns were fired from (but not the bullets which would be found at the target) with the insinuation that it was the residents of Weaver Street who had been doing the shooting.

However, the victim’s solicitor, Bernard Campbell, then produced spent Webley revolver bullets (and more bomb fragments) recovered from the street and houses in Weaver Street, to prove they were the target. Campbell also stated, in response to a question from a juror, that the reason why the R.I.C. had no record of the actions of the three R.I.C. constables in North Derby Street was because they had refused to take statements from a number of the witnesses. The R.I.C. were unable to produce the three R.I.C. Constables never mind have them give evidence. At this point R.I.C. District Inspector Lynn denied that they could have been R.I.C. Constables as he revealed that the R.I.C. in York Road had been confined to barracks that evening. Why they were confined to barracks in proximity to a vulnerable district like Weaver Street during so much violence was not stated.

The jury brought in a verdict that the deaths had been caused by a bomb ‘…wilfully thrown by some person unknown.’ The City Coroner then adjourned the inquest for two weeks and requested that the Minister for Home Affairs in the northern government, Dawson Bates hold an inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the deaths of Catherine Kennedy, Ellen Johnston, Eliza O’Hanlon and Rose Ann McNeill.
The northern government didn’t even discuss it at its next cabinet meeting (although it did discuss the site for a Stormont egg-laying competition). In a telegram to Michael Collins, Churchill (then Colonial Secretary) called it “…the worst thing to have happened in Ireland in the last three years“. Edward Carson (bizarrely) wrote in his diary that there was no evidence the bomb was purposely thrown at the children. But his attitude was clear, as he wrote that even if it was it was only “…one among how many on the other side?“.

The only inquiry Dawson Bates called was into the shooting of a Special Constable by the military. By the next month, the Civil Authorities (Special Powers) Act was passed allowing Dawson Bates almost unlimited powers. Margaret Smith had died from the injuries she sustained in the blast on the 23rd March. On 6th April, the day before Dawson Bates’ Special Powers Act came in to force, Mary Owens also died from her wounds. By the 21st May 1922 the Catholic residents of Weaver Street and the surrounding streets had been forcibly evicted from their homes.


This grainy photo shows residents leaving Weaver Street after being burned out on 21st May 1922.

The bombing of Weaver Street on 13th February 1922 marked a particular low in the violence in Belfast in 1920-22. What hasn’t been recognised, though, is the extent to which it resonates deeply with more recent cases. Eyewitness evidence clearly implicates the R.I.C. in colluding with the attackers (some even claim they directly participated in the attack), R.I.C. officers misrepresented forensic evidence at the inquest, the R.I.C. failed to secure key evidence at the scene, the R.I.C. refused to take witness statements, the R.I.C. failing to identify individuals of significance to the investigation (such as the R.I.C. members present before and possibly during the attack) and the R.I.C. gave misleading evidence to the inquest. Needless to say there is no evidence of the R.I.C. carrying out an investigation. The R.U.C. was formed from the R.I.C. later in 1922 but much of the methodology at Weaver Street will be familiar to more recent victims of violence. Nor has the passage of time seen the disclosure of files shedding any further light on what happened.


Having been burned out on 21st May 1922, the residents of Weaver Street, including the survivors and the victim’s families, were never able to return. Weaver Street itself was quietly obliterated from the streetscape of Belfast. The adjoining photo shows the location of where the bomb was thrown (the red dot) with the side of Weaver Street (where the bomb detonated) already demolished. The area was incorporated into a factory with the only remaining echo of Weaver Street itself being that the frontage of one of the buildings was erected over the front of the terrace of houses where the bomb exploded. The R.I.C. barracks on York Road continued in use by the R.U.C. until it was taken over by the P.S.N.I. (who ended operational use and put it up for sale in 2016).

Nowhere is there any form of memorial to the victims of the Weaver Street bombing. The Weaver Street community was scattered to the winds after 21st May 1922 and today there is not even a physical trace of Weaver Street itself. TYl3xFRzHowever, since the current factory building retains the alignment of the original Weaver Street frontage, you can still go and stand at the spot from where someone known to (possibly even a member of) the R.I.C., and with the R.I.C.’s connivance, ordered children into a dense group then threw a bomb into their midst, killing six people and injuring at least sixteen more. The photo to the left is taken from where the bomb was thrown, with the trees approximating where the children were gathered when the bomb detonated.

So, in some ways, passing up the opportunity for a greater spotlight to fall on the R.I.C. may actually be a bad thing. To be honest, though, I suspect all of this is more to do with contemporary politics and less to do with any meaningful interest in history (like the incoherence of much of the official 1916 centenary). The intentions behind calling for commemoration of the R.I.C. is to intentionally generate outrage and to perpetuate an illusion of distance between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil while the party leaders meet to strategise over agreed policies and goals and to work out electoral tactics to try and keep Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil in power.

I’ve reconstructed the bombing from the evidence given to the inquest before the City Coroner held on 3rd March 1922. This was reported in most of the contemporary papers at some level of detail. I’ve supplemented this with reports from the local press in Belfast in the days after the bombing. Where the detail conflicts (particularly in the press of 14th February), I’ve used the version given to the inquest. 

You can read previous posts on Weaver Street here, here and here.

An Irish-American Oskar Schindler

In 1939 some newspapers reported about how an Irish-American lawyer called Albert Coyle managed to secure the escape of more than 500 Jews from Germany to the United States. Coyle, though, rapidly fades from the pages of history and died in relative obscurity in 1956. But are the stories about him really true? And what else do we know of Albert Coyle.

This is how The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser reported the story on 18th May 1939:

“Gestapo not a bad bunch”

Energetic Mr Albert F. Coyle, international lawyer visiting London from New York, prefers to conduct his interviews in the street. “Now we can talk,” he said, beginning to move westwards. By the time Charing Cross was reached Mr Coyle had revealed that he has spent the last three years travelling backs and forwards between New York and Berlin arranging the emigration of Jews from Germany to Cuba and Mexico. He said “I act on behalf of relatives in the United States. They pay me to negotiate with the German authorities and entrust me with the necessary finance.”

Trafalgar Square traffic was bearing down on Mr Coyle as he went on: “Right now I am fixing things for 36 people to quit Germany. I make four or five trips to Europe a year and in the past three years have obtained the freedom of nearly 500 people. Many of them were either in prison or in concentration camps. I rarely see the people themselves but deal direct with the Gestapo, the German secret police. They are not a bad bunch of boys when you handle them the right way.”

Albert Freeman Coyle had been born in California in 1891. His father, Joseph Albert Coyle, had died when Coyle was still young. Joseph was reputedly born in New Orleans in 1852 apparently to Irish immigrants. Joseph had been a notary and worked in real estate and so had the means to send Albert to Stanford, where he obtained a degree in law. While there he obtained a scholarship to complete further studies including a doctorate, in divinity, at Yale. Coyle identified himself as a Methodist and occasionally preached in church. While at Stanford, Coyle had worked for the college President (later Chancellor) David Starr Jordan and had established a reputation for himself as a public speaker, in particular on themes around economic and social justice. Coyle also married a fellow student, Margaret Kennedy.

After failing to gain entry to the military when the US entered the first world war (due to poor eyesight), Coyle enlisted as a YMCA ‘secretary’. The YMCA provided canteen and support services to the US Army both at base camp and at the front. In early 1919 he went to the Arkangelsk front in Russia with the 339th Regiment of the US Expeditionary Force in North Russia. The US Army and British Empire troops were there supporting the Northern Army of the ‘White’ Russians in the civil war against the Bolsheviks under Lenin and Trotsky. When the American detachments were withdrawn in mid-June 1919, local Russian units decided to go over to the Bolsheviks. Coyle and another YMCA secretary called Clinton Arenson had been staffing a facility at Chekuevo on the Onega River and remained at their posts to be captured by the Bolsheviks in July.

The American Expedition had lost numerous men during their deployment on the Arkangelsk front, fighting in freezing conditions in an unforgiving landscape. The ‘Polar Bear Regiment’ (as they were known) wrote their own ‘Roll of Honour’ memorial including this verse:

In Toulgas woods we scattered sleep,
Chekuevo and Kitsa’s tangles creep
Across our lonely graves. At night
The doleful screech owl’s dismal flight
Heart-breaking screams in Russia.

(See Joel R. Moore and Harry H. Mead and Lewis E. Jahns The History of the American Expedition Fighting the Bolsheviki).

YMCA Oberskaya

A YMCA post on Arkangelsk front, from The History of the American Expedition Fighting the Bolsheviki

Coyle was held by the Bolsheviks for almost two months and was one of the last US prisoners of war to be released. By the time he returned to the US via Bergen in Norway he was now competent in Russian as well as German and French with first-hand experience of life under the Soviets. Given his existing record of public speaking on social and economic topics, it is perhaps unsurprising that Coyle drifted into labour and left wing politics, taking up a role with the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers (one of the main railway unions) for much of the next ten years.

In November 1920, seemingly through the offices of his former Stanford mentor David Starr Jordan, Coyle became the official reporter for the inquiry held by the American Commission on Conditions in Ireland in Washington, DC. While Starr Jordan had spent time in Ireland and was a supporter of the Irish Republic, the Irish Republic was also one of the few states to officially recognise the Soviet Union. Coupled with Coyle’s own Irish roots, he was a perfect fit for the role and acted as notary for the hearings through the end of 1920 and into early 1921. When the evidence had been presented, Coyle compiled and published the material to counter British propaganda. This was to some extent the template for both Who Burnt Cork City and Facts and Figures of the Belfast Pogrom.

The rest of the 1920s saw Coyle engage in labour and class-based actions in the United States and Europe. At one point ‘outed’ as a communist, he was under the scrutiny of the authorities at various times through his life. Active in the Sacco and Vanzetti reprieve campaigns, he remained involved in the unions and in 1927 was part of a delegation that travelled to the Soviet Union to report on progress in the ten years since the revolution of 1917. The delegation also went to Britain, Belgium and Germany and Coyle made a number of return trips to Europe in the late 1920s meeting both Stalin and the former Kaiser as well as other luminaries such as Sir Horace Curzon Plunkett.

His union activities, and possibly the investment of union pension funds in risky bonds in projects in the Philippines, Cuba and Bolivia saw him embroiled in a number of scandals with high profile US Senators in the 1930s. Notably these were to be some of the countries that were considered as routes by which European Jews could gain indirect entry to the United States. By the late 1930s, then, Coyle again appears to be a regular traveller to Europe. At that time almost every state operated limited entry visa and immigration policies, with some having even stricter regimes for Jews.

Coyle’s name can be found buried in the correspondence around individual cases. In April 1939, Irene Harand, a prominent anti-semitic campaigner in Austria who had stayed in London after the Anschluss, commissioned Albert Coyle to go to Vienna and intervene on behalf of Moriz Zalman and Hertha Breuer (both prominent Jewish lawyers). Coyle made it clear to the Viennese judge that all efforts were made by Harand and the foreign relatives and friends to save Zalman’s life. The attempts were in vain. Moriz Zalman died in Sachsenhausen in May 1940 while Hertha Breuer died in 1942 at the age of 37 (see Christian Klösch, Kurt Scharr and Erik Weinzierl’s Gegen Rassenhass und Menschennot).


Moriz Zalman, 1882-1940. BildArchivAustria.

Coyle corresponded with prominent individuals in the campaign to open up the United States to Jewish refugees, such as Felix S. Cohen and Joseph Chamberlain. Coyle described to Cohen one of the routes that was used, presumably based on his own experience, as “only one little freight line running every six weeks or so from Genoa to Vera Cruz and accommodating at most eight to ten passengers” (see Dalia Tsuk Mitchell’s biography of Cohen, Architect of Justice).

Albert Coyle appeared to specialise in rescuing Jewish lawyers and jurists. He is known to have tried to obtain a non-quota visa for an international lawyer, Martin Domke, who was imprisoned in a French internment camp in 1940 (see Laurel Leff’s Well Worth Saving: American Universities’ Life-and-Death Decisions on Refugees from Nazi Europe). He also acted for Martin Exiner, a German Jewish lawyer and prominent Zionist who managed to escape to Palestine (see Daniel Wildmann’s Der veränderbare Körper).

So there appears to be plenty of evidence to back up Coyle’s claims in 1939. However, in the early 1940s bypassing regulations to facilitate Jewish immigration wasn’t universally popular in the United States. Coyle, already embroiled in bondholder scandals over the Philippines and Cuba, was prosecuted for failing to have the appropriate license to practise law. Then in 1941-42 he was pursued through the courts over money that had been supplied to him to assist the passage of Jews from Europe. By that time, with war having broken out, routes out of Germany and Austria had become even scarcer and it is unclear whether Coyle was really facing legal action over frustrations at a lack of progress.

Either way, Coyle spent much of the 1940s fighting his way through the courts. In the late 1940s and early 1950s his name pops up as a guest speaker at Rotary Clubs and other venues championing the Soviet Union. Watch this space though, as he merits significantly more attention as it would be worthwhile trying to corroborate his claim to be Irish-America’s own Oskar Schindler.


Albert Freeman Coyle, 1891-1956.

Roy Johnston, 1929-2019

Roy Johnston, who died last Friday, was a fascinating figure who had a central role in republican politics in the 1960s and 1970s. Privately educated at St Columba’s and then Trinity College Dublin, his family had roots in Tyrone although he mainly spent his life in Dublin. Johnston also lived in France in the early 1950s and England in the early 1960s. With a PhD in Astrophysics, a systems analyst role with Aer Lingus and prominence in Science and Technology circles, he seemed an unlikely candidate for a position on the IRA’s Army Council.

By the way, this quick post, focusing on politics, barely reflects the richness of Johnston’s outputs and achievements.

Moving in Marxist circles in Trinity in the late 1940s, Johnston had been active in the the Irish Workers League (IWL) under which a variety of Irish left wing groups coalesced in 1948. The IWL, known as the Irish Workers Party after 1962, was the name under which the Communist Party operated in the Republic of Ireland (the Communist Party of Ireland was reconstituted in 1970 when it merged with the Communist Party of Northern Ireland). Johnston, though, had moved to England in 1960 after his contract in the Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies was not renewed.

There he joined the Connolly Association (CA), having become disenchanted with the IWL. The Connolly Association is often (rightly or wrongly) portrayed, at that time, as largely a creature of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) particularly due to the influence of Desmond Greaves (a member of CPGB since the early 1930s) over the CA and in his role as editor of its paper The Irish Democrat. The CA adopted Greaves’ analysis that Irish republicans should target exposing the iniquities of the Unionist regime to Westminster as a way to force the British government to confront the legacy of partition, hopefully as a prelude to resolving how partition would end. However, internationally, communism was simultaneously associated with dynamic anti-colonial movements in places like Vietnam and Cuba and with Soviet-dominated suppression of nationalist movements in the likes of Hungary and Czechoslovakia. The latter in particular provoked deep ambivalence about the motivations of individuals that were formally or informally aligned with the CPGB. Johnston himself was quite reticent in discussing his membership, formal or otherwise, of any communist groups.

Within a few years Johnston returned to Ireland where he became involved in the Wolfe Tone Societies that emerged during the early 1960s (see more here) and evolved into the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association. He also became directly involved in the IRA under Cathal Goulding, joining the Army Council and acting as Director of Education. Analysis was being given to Goulding by Johnston and Anthony Coughlan (another gifted academic). However, both seemed to find the violent sectarian dynamic in northern politics utterly incomprehensible and so disregarded it entirely. Repeatedly in his later memoirs Johnston continually sought refuge in conspiracy theories to explain why they did not succeed in their proposed tactics around civil rights (you can read more on this in his, and his father’s, joint memoir – Century of Endeavour – accompanied by Johnston’s own notes and commentary here). To be fair to Johnston, embracing conspiracy theories may have been a trait he inherited from his father who had nurtured his own conspiracy theories, such as that the Unionist gun-running at Larne in 1912 was really just a plot to deceive the Germans into thinking the British would not go to war with them.

This disconnect between that analysis being put forward by Johnston and events on the ground provides a significant backdrop to events within the IRA during the summer and latter end of 1969 (see the likes of my own post here or search this blog for any #Revisiting1969 posts). When the Belfast IRA proposed that a number of individuals be removed from their posts over the IRA’s failures during the summer of 1969, Johnston was one of those specifically named. One of those of proposing Johnston’ removal was Billy McKee who died earlier this year. The proposed replacement for Cathal Goulding as Chief of Staff was Sean Garland, who died exactly a year before Johnston.

Having moved in both academic and revolutionary Marxist circles, Johnston appeared to have assimilated the elitism of both groups in disproportionately valuing his own analysis over that of others from outside those circles. A quirk of Johnston’s family’s having Presbyterian small-farming roots in Tyrone may have contributed to a misconception that he somehow genetically ‘understood’ the north while clearly underestimating the capacity both of the Unionist government for violence and the extent to which exposing its iniquities in Westminster might prompt a shocked reaction from the British establishment. The flaws in that latter strategy also continue to be starkly illustrated by British attitudes towards Ireland evident during the Brexit process and London’s long term disregard for basic human and legal rights in the north. As noted above, you can argue that his attitudes are echoed in his father’s recourse to explaining away the 1912 Unionist gun-running.

In Johnston’s favour, though, and perhaps his most notable legacy in Irish republicanism, is that the social justice and economic elements of his politics are seen as essential components of the political platform of most post-1970 Irish republican groups.

Roy Johnston died last Friday, 13th December.

A century of rebel songs: Ceol Chogadh na Saoirse

Looking for something slightly different to binge watch over Christmas? How about a series looking at political songs and music from 1916 onwards? For the last few weeks, TG4 has been showing Ceol Chogadh na Saoirse which explored the music that grew out of the political events from 1916 until more recent decades. It includes film clips and interviews with musicians, their audiences and political activists.

A theme that flows through the whole series is the importance of songs and music in both forming and articulating many people’s political views. The social role music plays and has played in Ireland probably can’t be overstated. In political terms, unlike the press and broadcast media, songs learned at social gatherings or from records are very difficult to censor and control. Performing political songs, or joining in with them may, for many people, be the closest they get to overt political activism. Anyone who has attended a live music event where they have joined in singing the songs will grasp the emotional significance and sense of belonging and identification that comes with it (whether it is political or otherwise).

In that sense, the series gives an important insight into the dynamics of politics here. Funnily, the series shows the fundamental way that music connects with people and provides a stark contrast to the expensive and often brutally unsubtle ways modern politicians try to persuade voters to support them. While the series focuses on republican songs, the same dynamic can also be found in other political traditions in Ireland. Here’s a good example (the Crumlin Hotel) by ‘The Orangemen of Ulster’, a recording which captures how songs were performed most of the time – for a small audience in a house or bar. Songs, poetry and recitations that were written to be performed are a thread that weaves through most political traditions here (and elsewhere – here is Bella Ciao, the Italian anti-fascist anthem, being sung in Milan).

While Ceol Chogadh na Saoirse has just finished on TG4, you can watch the episodes online here. If you don’t speak Irish – some interviews are in English and English language subtitles are available. You can also watch it on the RTE player here. The series includes interviews with a variety of different people and both archive recordings and new recordings of a range of songs.

If you want some tasters (or are just too damn lazy to click the links above) check out the clips below: