IRA Vol. John Collins: from the Bone, to Artane Industrial School to Kilmeena, Co. Mayo?

During an IRA ambush at Kilmeena, County Mayo in May 1921 a Belfast man in the flying column of the IRA’s 3rd Battalion, West Mayo Brigade, John Collins, was fatally wounded. He was buried in the republican plot in Castlebar, but who was John Collins?

On 18th May 1921, a flying column of the 3rd Battalion of the IRA’s West Mayo Brigade opened fire on the RIC in Newport hoping to draw them out into an ambush. An IRA sniper killed RIC Sergeant Francis Butler during the attack. Commanded by Michael Kilroy, but minus some of its Westport contingent (and many of its rifles), the forty-one men of the flying column had then set themselves up in an ambush position along the main Newport-Westport road the next morning at Kilmeena to await any reinforcements from either the RIC itself or from its Special Reserve (known as the Black and Tans). The ambush anticipated Crossley Tenders appearing from the Westport direction. According to one account the first Crossley Tender that appeared was driving quite close to a carload of nuns and had almost passed the position before the IRA could open fire. A second had been maintaining a gap of about a quarter mile and so was in a position to observe the initial ambush and halt. I’ve included a map from The Flame and The Candle below, you also view where the ambush unfolded here. The Military Archives have digitised a map showing the positions taken during the ambush (see here) and are in the process of releasing more details through its Brigade Activity series (keep an eye on http://www.militaryarchives.ie for more information).

the-flame-and-the-candle.jpg

Kilroy had positioned flank guards several hundred meters out on either side but the main body of the flying column was brought under fire by the RIC on both lorries, effectively pinning them to their position on the eastern side of the road. While the RIC were able to bring a Lewis gun into action, there was sufficient cover on the southern (Westport) side that the main threat was from the RIC to the north. That detachment managed to work itself and its Lewis gun into a position where it could enfilade the front line of Kilroy’s flying column forcing to fall back to the cover of the field behind inflicting at least one fatal casualty on the flying column.

The IRA unit was pinned down here for an hour when John Collins was shot in the chest. Paddy O’Malley did his best to help him but as the RIC began to fire rifle grenades into their flanks and main position, Kilroy had his men retreat back field by field until they were able to make good their escape before the whole position was outflanked (Paddy O’Malley was wounded during the retreat and also had to stay behind to be captured). When a local priest, who lived nearby, arrived at the scene to attend the wounded, he found Seamus McEvilly already dead and John Collins and two others (Pat Staunton and Thomas O’Donnell) with what he called only ‘a flicker of life’. All three quickly succumbed to their wounds. A fifth IRA volunteer, Paddy Jordan, died from his wounds ten days later. One RIC man was killed and another badly wounded during the ambush.

All of the accounts of the Kilmeena ambush note that John Collins was from Belfast. The Irish Independent published his photo on 25th May 1921, noting he was an old Artane boy while the Connaught Telegraph on 28th May stated that he was “…a native of Belfast (one of the expelled Catholic workers) and had been working for some time in Westport, being noted for his industry, piety and uprightness.” It also described how he had been buried in the Republican Plot in Castlebar two days after the Kilmeena Ambush. Wreaths at the funeral read “To Jonie from his fond companions, RIP” and “In loving remembrance of dear Jonie, from his Westport friends – RIP.” The press (eg Irish Independent 24th May 1921) reported that his friends had wanted to bury him in Westport but as only half an hour was allowed by the authorities for the burial, which was also restricted to 12 mourners, he had to be buried in Castlebar.

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Photo John Collins from Irish Independent, 25/5/1921

Collins reportedly worked as a tailor for Kerrigan’s of Fair Green in Westport. Another IRA man present at Kilmeena, John Pierce, was from Dublin and had also been in Artane. He had come to Westport to learn his trade as a tailor in January 1919. Since Collins was likely expelled from his work place in Belfast after the many sectarian attacks on workers at the end of the summer of 1920, that connection might have brought Collins to Mayo although it could also be coincidental. There is some controversy over Pierce’s role at Kilmeena after he was arrested as he was seen being driven around by the RIC and then he apparently disappeared. A review of evidence provided by various eye-witnesses in the Connaught Telegraph on 23rd May 1984 concluded that he was not a spy. Dominic Price reproduces a lengthy statement he gave to the RIC after his arrest in The Flame and The Candle. His evidence led to a number of raids and arrests in the immediate aftermath of the ambush. Afterwards, Pierce was held in Galway Prison until December when he was transferred to Liverpool Prison before being released in the general amnesty that followed the signing of the treaty. He joined the newly-founded National Army and in November 1922 he was a Sergeant in the tailor’s department of the Quartermaster General’s Staff.

Pierce’s statement (as quoted by Price) mentions that he and Collins had been out for a walk at Corrig, just outside Westport, and happened upon an IRA unit on 17th April 1921 and asked to join. They had then become part of the 3rd Battalion flying column although Pierce states that Collins had asked a priest about shooting at police as he was uneasy about it. At Kilmeena, he was beside Collins when Collins was mortally wounded. As he was only 18, he simply appears to have broken under the stress of the gun battle and Collins’ death at Kilmeena rather than being either an informer or a spy.

So what else do we know of John Collins and his Belfast origins? Very little, so far. His age was recorded as 19 when he died, which would be consistent with being at Artane as the time as John Pierce. He is described in various sources as an ‘orphan’ (notably, so was John Pierce although Pierce’s 1922 army census record shows that his mother was still alive in Dublin – this may have been based on an assumption about why they had been sent to Artane). The 1911 census has two John Collins from Belfast at Artane, one aged 11 and other aged 14. Comparing the other ‘John Collins’ in the 1911 census and the birth/death records doesn’t identify a candidate who fits both the age and was an orphan several years prior to 1921 (presuming that is why he was sent to Artane). The closest I can find is a John Collins who was slightly older than 19 in 1921, at 21 years of ago. That John Collins was born in Jordan Street on the edge of the Bone in 1899. His mother, a mill worker named Catherine Collins, didn’t include his father’s name on his birth certificate (and was herself born in Louth). She shared the Jordan Street house with another mill worker, Mary Whiteside, and Mary’s daughter (also called Mary). Catherine died in 1902 of TB while Mary died two years later. Mary’s daughter was put into an orphanage in Belfast. John Collins presumably ended up in Artane, and I assume this is the 11 year old John Collins in Artane in the 1911 census (although he obviously returned to work there before 1921). Whether it is the same John Collins isn’t clear – yet.

We’ll find out in a couple of months as a new book including information about John Collins is being published in April. You can keep an eye on that here at the Tiernaur Oral History Page.

[Thanks to Martin Molloy for bringing John Collins to my attention]

Anti-Partition meeting, New York, 1947

Anti Partition

An Anti-Partition meeting in New York on 4th June 1947. Hosted by Mayo-born Mayor of New York William O’Dwyer, seen here speaking from the podium at the meeting itself in the Manhattan Centre which was calling for the termination by England of the partition of Ireland.

The others sitting on the platform are (left to right): George J. Regan, Chairman of the United Irish of New York; James Comerford, President of the United Irish Counties Association of New York, Rev. Sean Reid; Capt Denis Ireland, President Ulster Union Club; and, Rt. Rev. Monsignor Patrick J. O’Donnell of St. Jerome Church in the Bronx (the picture was published in the Irish Press, 10/6/1947)

Denis Ireland’s Ulster Union Club had been mainly frequented by Protestants but was also a source of recruits to the Belfast IRA. Most famous of those was John Graham, a former divinity student who was a senior member of the IRA at the time of his arrest in 1942 and later went on to become a professional golfer. Denis Ireland was also a sometime associate of Laurie Green who wrote Odd Man Out – I assume Ireland is the source of Green’s apparent familiarity with the Belfast IRA at the time of both the Odd Man Out novel and film.

In the background to these meetings others were agitating for a military camp to end partition citing the emerging successes of anti-colonial insurgency campaigns (themselves often modelled on the IRA campaign of 1919-22). This included Brendan O’Boyle, whose Laochra Uladh group mounted a low key campaign in Belfast in the early 1950s. You can read more about O’Boyle, John Graham and Denis Ireland in Belfast Battalion (which you can buy here).

The banner above the platform reads:

“A Nation mutilated,

A Peoples will defied,

A Puppet State created

A Democracy denied!”

REM 1690, NO POPE HERE: Weaver Street, 13/2/1922

An event I’ve posted about a few times occured today in 1922, the bombing of Weaver Street, in which a grenade was thrown into a group of children playing in Weaver Street after they were deliberately moved there so they could be targeted. The grenade killed four children and two adults and wounded many more. The attackers even opened fire on those coming to their aid. You can read more about it here.

Afterwards Weaver Street was slowly eradicated from the map of Belfast. The residents of February 1922 were mostly burned out or fled in May that year. One grainey image of their flight survives (below).

While another survives from several years later shows the street as it was in 1922 with the residents who subsequently moved in. What appears to be a lamp post in the left foreground would correspond to where the 13th February 1922 bomb exploded.

As Weaver Street and adjoining streets were absorbed into the Thomsons factory, a recent history of the company, Gentle Giant, includes a couple of interesting photos.

The first gives an overview of the handful of little streets in which the 13th February 1922 bombing (and a previous, but less bloody, bombing in Milewater Street) took place. The red dot approximates where the bomb was thrown from, the ‘W’ of Weaver Street roughly where it exploded.

The second shows Shore Street being demolished in the late 1950s, some thirty years after the bombing. Several doors up North Derby Street from the immediate scene of the bombing you can just make out graffitti on the wall above the hoarding: ‘REM 1690’ and ‘NO POPE HERE’.

You can read more about the Weaver Street bombing here.

Who’s That Knocking on My Door: 75th anniversary of the death of Rocky Burns.

Today marks the 75th anniversary of the death of Seamus ‘Rocky’ Burns, the only O/C of the Belfast IRA to be shot dead while he was in the role.
Rocky Burns

Seamus ‘Rocky’ Burns in his coffin, from Resurgence, September 1946.

On the 10th February 1944, he and another member of the IRA left the Continental Café on Chapel Lane (now St. Mary’s Repository and the Holy Shop beside the Hercules Bar) and walked along Chapel Lane where they were stopped by two plain clothes RUC men and asked to produce their identification. Burns had previously evaded arrest when he had faulty identification by asking the RUC Sergeant who had challenged him for advice and then sitting through a lecture on how to go about getting the correct identification. On this occasion, Burns and his companion were turned around and told they were being brought back along Chapel Lane to Queen Street RUC Barracks. As they were walking crossing into Queen Street, a uniformed RUC Constable, John Trainor, from the Waterside in Derry, was on the other side of the road. In a later compensation hearing it was stated that Trainor had recognised Burns and was intending to join the others at Queen Street Barracks. Trainor was an ex-British soldier and former Army light heavyweight boxing champion.
After his death, the RUC stated that they had wanted Burns in relation to an attempt to shoot a prison warder, Nathaniel Robinson, on 25th January 1944 (just over two weeks previously). Relations between the republican prisoners in Crumlin Road, Derry and Armagh and the prison staff had rapidly deteriorated following the escapes of January and March 1943. This had culminated in the sentenced prisoners holding a strip strike in the middle of 1943 followed by a hunger strike by women prisoners in Armagh in the winter of that year. Since internment had recommenced in 1938, confrontations between the IRA and prison staff had oscillated wildly between a modus vivendi and a number of violent episodes in which warders had been attacked outside the prison, killing at least one, Thomas Walker, in February 1942. Since 1940, a significant number of republican prisoners had either died in the various prisons or been released when terminally ill only to die at home shortly later (eg see the account of the Al Rawdah here). Indeed, while he had been interned himself, Burns had been vociferous in calls for the Belfast Battalion of the IRA to carry retaliation against prison staff on the outside.
In 1939, Burns, then only 18, was in Derry Gaol when the republican internees took over a wing on Christmas Day. Like the rest, Rocky was subject to indiscriminate beatings by the Specials, RUC and British soldiers when the internees lost control of the wing again. When the B Specials, RUC and fire brigade were trying to break into the wing, they used a battering ram on the barricaded steel door, accompanied by Rocky singing ‘Who’s That Knocking At My Door?’ (click the link below to hear a popular version of the song from the 1930s).
On the 25th January, two men had confronted Robinson as we walked down Alliance Avenue on his way into Crumlin Road prison. One shot was fired at him. While the bullet did hit his hand, Robinson’s belt buckle deflected it, preventing a more serious injury. When he was brought hospital it was widely reported that he had identified one of those involved, following Burns death the press identified one of his attackers as Burns. This may be an incident referred to by Harry White in his own biography (Harry) in which he was involved in an IRA operation against a prison officer and in which he too was identified. In Harry, White doesn’t identify the second man with Burns on February 10th although it doesn’t appear to be White himself.
Whether Trainor had been deliberately positioned to cover Burns or not, according to the statement made at the inquest on 21st February, as the party crossed Castle Street onto Queen Street Burns pulled his revolver and tried to make a run for it. The official account claimed he had shot one of the RUC men then ran along Queen Street for twenty yards and then collapsed.
The reports from the subsequent inquest (on 21st February) are slightly unclear. Burns was shot through the liver and received three other bullet wounds. Bullets hit the window frame of the radio shop, two doors down from Queen Street RUC Barracks, while Burns gun had discharged five rounds, with one remaining in the chamber. The initial RUC statement on the incident, reproduced in the Northern Whig on 11th February, stated that Trainor had already joined the two plain clothes RUC men while they were escorting Burns and his companion to Queen Street Barracks. However, the exact sequence of events is unclear.
Trainor was hit by a single bullet that hit him in the arm, passing through his shoulder and neck which suggested that he had his arm raised and was firing his revolver. Whether he had approached Burns and the others as they walked on to Queen Street and told the others who Burns was, or had pulled his gun to cover Burns on realising who he was, he was the only RUC officer wounded in the exchange. Harry White seems to have believed that all Burns wounds came from one of the plain clothes officers. Burns companion managed to escape in the confusion.
Queen Street

The scene of the fatal shooting today. The spot where Burns tried to break away is the foreground of the image, he collapsed roughly just before where the bus is pulled in. 

Dr Eddie McEntee, who had his practice in King Street, was brought around to attend to the wounded. McEntee was himself a former member of the Belfast IRA and brother of Sean McEntee, then a minister in the Free State government. Burns was brought to the Royal Victoria Hospital where his condition never improved and he died on the morning of Saturday 12th February 1944. Trainor was later discharged from the RUC due to his wound (in September 1944 he was awarded £1,250 compensation).
Burns had first been imprisoned as a seventeen year old Fianna member in April 1938, for possession of a banned publication.  Released that September he joined the IRA, only to get picked up in the September 1939 internment sweep that coincided with the outbreak of World War 2. Interned in Crumlin Road, then Derry Jail, he was one of those who escaped and was recaptured in March 1943, spending time in the Curragh before making a pre-arranged resignation from the IRA, signing out of prison, then returning to Belfast where he took over as Belfast O/C following the arrest of Jimmy Steele in May 1943.
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Burns and other recaptured escapers on a lorry in March 1943.

Burns was such a larger than life figure that his death was keenly felt (you can read more about him here). He is also one of those who Laurie Green based his main character on in the novel and film, Odd Man Out.
Seamus ‘Rocky’ Burns is buried in the Harbinson plot in Milltown cemetery.

 

 

Sir James Craig’s 1922 border propaganda

Border propaganda isn’t exactly new in Ireland. Here’s some century old invective from the Illustrated London News. The Unionist government was suffering considerable bad publicity from the violence being inflicted on nationalists in Belfast in particular in early 1922. The Weaver Street bombing in February 1922 had drawn Churchill’s ire and the McMahon murders in March had drawn universal condemnation. Moreover, the atmosphere was poisoned by the inherent contradiction in Unionists simultaneously demanding that they be exempt from home rule in Ireland, while insisting that areas which had explicitly supported independence be refused the same. This was in forefront of Churchill’s mind when he made his ‘dreary steeples’ comment in the House of Commons in February 1922 in the aftermath of the Weaver Street bomb. Oddly the ‘dreary steeples’ quote has become a cliché for a sort of generalised ‘sectarianism’ when Churchill was specifically addressing what he saw as the flawed logic being used by Unionists. Amidst the usual parliamentary flourishes, Churchill actually states that “…Fermanagh and Tyrone… may be districts in which—I am not pre-judging—the majority of the inhabitants will prefer to join the Irish Free State” (Hansard, 16th February 1922). Perhaps it is time people actually engaged with the context of that quote.

In this light, the Unionists mobilised friends among the Conservatives and hosted the Punch cartoonist Leonard Raven Hill around the 20th-22nd March 1922. Raven Hill was an overt supporter of the Conservatives and British imperialism. He drew sketches and produced notes that were published in London Illustrated News on 1st April 1922. His article had added importance for the Unionists in the wave of revulsion that followed the McMahon murders on 24th March and the subsequent allegations of official involvement in the killings.

The London Illustrated News article tries to counter Churchill’s dreary steeples argument by depicting the six county boundary as the dividing line between Unionists and Irish nationalist and presenting nationalist interest in the north as being imposed by Irish nationalists in the twenty-six area. This includes a signed sketch from James Craig (the Northern Ireland Prime Minister), helpfully annotated to show the areas ‘claimed by the South’ (below). This is part of the process by which it was intended to counter Churchill’s criticism by trying to get the public to solely associate ‘Ulster’ with ‘Protestantism’ and ‘Unionism’ and present Irish nationalism as somehow alien. Obviously identity politics is not a recent phenomenon.

Craig sketch

The rest of the article, ‘Our Special Artist in Ulster‘, tries to counter the increasingly bad publicity (presumably the McMahon murders happened as the article was being prepared for the press). It pushes a number of key messages. Presumably intending to echo Great War propaganda, Raven Hill (he quotes one as saying “The women of England never had to go through what we are going through…”) and presents a number of stereotypes which, to some extent, persisted into later and contemporary unionist political mythology.

Raven Hill paints a scene populated with what are now familiar political stereotypes from the last one hundred years.

There is the female refugee from the South.

refugee from south

The brave wife of an embattled Ulster farmer.

Farmers wife

By ‘Ulster’, of course, we are supposed to understand ‘Protestant’ and ‘Unionist’ and to solely associate ‘Ulster’ with these terms. These figures are accompanied by the ‘loyalist’ farmer.

Ulster farmer

They live in a lonely cottage which is constantly under fire from raiders who cross from the ‘South’ into ‘Ulster’.

lonely cottage

And there is also a ‘fine type’ of Ulster farmer, an over sixty who uses his spare time to guard bridges. This is presumably intended as an archetype to represent a Special Constable. An Ulster Special Constabulary was set up in the north to perform the same reprisal and counter-insurgency functions as the other Special Constabularies, the Black and Tans and Auxiliaries, carried out elsewhere in Ireland.

fine type

As a contrast, two IRA men are depicted. Notably IRA men are represented as crossing the border, rather than being from within the six county boundary area. As if the caricature wasn’t cartoonish enough, one is described as the son of a Maltese.

IRA men

All of these characters then populate Raven Hill’s main storyline which is an effective justification for cratering and blocking border roads. It begins with an IRA incursion into ‘Ulster’ from the south, allowing raiding parties to fire on the lonely cottages of the doughty farmers and their families as shown above. The County Commandant and Special Constables decide to blow up the local bridge. Raven Hill provides sketches of this being done (see below).

Commandant

Bridge 1

bridge 2

Bridge 3

Bridge 4

Raven Hill also includes a number of images showing different ways that the border roads were closed off or blocked up. This includes:

A simple barbed wire barrier.

barbed wire

A trench dug across to block the road.

trench

A destroyed bridge reduced to a narrow walkway for pedestrians.

walkway

I’ll finish up with this one. What Raven Hill depicts as the ‘last outpost of Ulster on the Dublin Road’ guarded by armed Special Constables who appear to have felled a tree to block the road. I am guessing that, again, the ‘last outpost’ is meant to have deep emotional resonances and be evocative of the great war and, in particular, the western front. These sketches appeared in the Illustrated London News on 1st April in 1922 and, at the time, were largely to counter the increasingly negative publicity the Unionists were attracting for the deployment of violence within the six county area, and, the logical inconsistencies in their rationale for demanding the type of hegemony over districts (the dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone) which they insisted they themselves could not live under. The messaging used by Raven Hill, and some of the stereotypes, have been perpetuated and became almost fixed points in the subsequent political landscape (so much so that they are still used today).

guarded

 

 

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The Al Rawdah prison ship, 1940-41

I’ve not seen a detailed history of the Al Rawdah prison ship written down anywhere, so here is one. While it was in use only briefly (in 1940-41) the Al Rawdah falls within a longer history of the use of prison ships as internment camps in Ireland, including the Postlethwaite in 1798, prison ships transporting convicts overseas, the Argenta in 1922-24 and more recently the Maidstone in 1971-72.

Al Rawdah PS
Photograph of the Al Rawdah in use as a prison ship with appears to be the barbed wire enclosures on deck (from 1985 edition of Belfast Graves).

  • On 2nd September 1940, 140 internees were taken from Derry Gaol at 11 am and split into batches of fourteen. Each fourteen then were handcuffed in pairs and put onto a bus with soldiers and armed RUC men. The buses were driven in a convoy, accompanied by Lancia armoured cars, along roads which were heavily guarded. When the convoy passed through Belfast, the internees reportedly sang loudly. Their destination turned out to be 130 miles away from Derry, at Killyleagh in County Down. Some newspapers reported that as many as 157 internees were brought on the buses from Derry. The transport from Derry left another 80 internees in on-shore prisons, all in the Belfast Prison (Crumlin Road).
  • When the Derry internees arrived in Killyleagh at 3 pm, the pier was cordoned off by the RUC. There was then a roll call of the first batch of men off the buses. They were dressed in everything from labourers clothes to sports jackets and flannels. The men were then transferred in small groups to two waiting boats. When about thirty internees and RUC men were in each boat a motor-boat towed them out to a ship, the Al Rawdah, which was to be used as a prison ship, anchored two miles off-shore. According to the Belfast Telegraph the internees sang the ‘Volga Boatman’s Song’ on the way out. In all it took until 5 pm to transfer all the internees from the buses to the Al Rawdah.

    rowing-out-to-ship.png

    A boat travelling between the shore and the Al Rawdah (the ship shown a couple of miles off-shore in the background). This is identical to the first view the internees got of the Al Rawdah in Killyleagh. This is a still from the 1943 film ‘We Dive at Dawn’ which featured the Al Rawdah.

    composite with guns
    (Above and below) Close ups of the Al Rawdah from the film ‘We Dive at Dawn’ (1943) showing the gun turrets added with other refurbishments after use as a prison ship.bows.png

    The Al Rawdah was a 3,930 ton vessel built in 1911 and requisitioned by the British Ministry of Shipping from the British-India Steam Company in 1940. The decision to bring a prison ship into service for internees had become public knowledge in late July 1940. By August it’s identity and destination in Strangford Lough were both well known with the Belfast Newsletter and Belfast Telegraph referring to it as the ‘Ulster Prison Ship’ and ominously noting that it’s intended capacity was 700-800 prisoners. Significant public criticism followed, noting the experience of the Argenta prison ship anchored off Larne in 1922-24 (early in August it was rumoured that the new prison ship would also be anchored off Larne). The cramped conditions, lack of exercise spaces and even difficulty in removing sick internees had all contributed to a significant number of Argenta internees developing tuberculosis and other diseases and a number being released early when they had become terminally ill. On top of that, several weeks previously some 800 German and Italian internees had been killed when the SS Arandora Star was sank en route to an internment camp in Canada. A number of local authorities and other bodies south of the border passed motions condemning the use of a prison ship.

    Nationalist politicians protested that internment without trial on a ship was both against international law and presenting a serious danger given the current threat of attack from air or sea. The Unionist Minister of Home Affairs, Dawson Bates, dismissed the claims stating that “Anyone who attacked the Al Rawdah from above or from under the sea would get an unpleasant surprise.” Dawson Bates also repeatedly avoided answering questions about the cost of the Al Rawdah.

    A couple of days later, on 10th September, 72 internees were taken from Crumlin Road prison in Belfast, split into batches of around fifteen and placed on five buses for a similar journey to the Al Rawdah via Killyleagh. The number transferred on 10th September varies in different newspaper reports but a statement in Stormont in mid-October confirms it as 72. This brought the number of internees on the boat to around 212. It was also noted that some internees had previously been interned without trial on the Argenta prison ship during 1922-1924. As far as I can make out Richard Ryan definitely spent time on both the Argenta and Al Rawdah. Jack Gaffney and Thomas O’Malley possibly were on the Argenta but certainly both of them and James Doyle had been imprisoned in 1920-24. Other names that feature on the list of internees on the Argenta and Al Rawdah are James Connolly, Mick Gallagher, John Kearney, Sean Keenan, P.J. O’Hare, Patrick Quinn and James Trainor. Other people may be able to shed more light on whether these are indeed the same individuals.

    This immediately presented a problem to the families of internees since Killyleagh was difficult to access. At Stormont, Labour MPs asked whether the Unionist government was prepared to provide financial assistance to the families of internees. Dawson Bates refused stating that he was unaware of any anxiety on the part of the dependents of those interned. He did note that the authorities “…would not interfere in anyway with the disbursement of funds by any body provided it was within the law.” However, money collected by various groups for the dependents of internees was to be repeatedly seized by the Unionists.

    By the 19th September the Al Rawdah was joined by a Catholic priest from St Paul’s Retreat at Mount Argus, Belfast-born Fr Enda Elliott, who was to become the chaplain. Four non-Catholic internees were to have their spiritual needs met by the Protestant clergy of Killyleagh. On that day the Unionist mounted a public relations offensive, with Dawson Bates and William Lowry bringing the American Consul in Belfast (John Randolph), the chaplain of Belfast Prison (Fr. McGouran), Nationalist MP Richard Byrne and Labour MP Jack Beattie and some Stormont officials out to the Al Rawdah for lunch and to inspect its newly equipped library, indoor games room and medical and dental equipment. While the press noted their meal did have some delicacies and wine added it claimed that, otherwise, it was the standard fare prepared for prisoners by the ships ‘coloured chefs’ (some of the crew were Indians). The non-unionist visitors to the prison ship declined to make any comment to the press, although the government officials advised reporters that if those visitors were to make any comment ‘it would be favourable’.

    By October, there were repeated protests at the inability of families to visit internees on the Al Rawdah (notably media reports were by then using the figure of 180 for the number of internees). Internees were permitted one visit per week from two family members (the Ministry of Home Affairs only allowed visits from two out of a panel of six close relatives which had to be vetted in advance). The authorities only provided facilities and transfers to the Al Rawdah for a limited number of visits per week meaning that after six weeks some prisoners had yet to receive a visit. The remoteness was believed to be a deliberate ploy and it often proved impossible to get internees off the ship for compassionate reasons – when Patrick Doyle’s widower father James was ill in December, although he was an only son, it proved impossible to get home to Colligan Street in time to see him before he died.

    Some internees families remembered the difficulty of getting out for visits including the frightening climb up steps to get to the deck of the Al Rawdah. Even before they got there they had to brave the hostility of the locals in Killyleagh who resented the nearby presence of the Al Rawdah and the on-shore presence of armoured cars and barbed wire in their village (Frank McGlade quoted in John McGuffin’s Internment). Turlach Ó hUid (in his 1985 memoir of internment, Faoi Ghlas) says that, at the quay side, Killyleagh resident shook their fists at families visiting internees as they board the boats to take them out the Al Rawdah, shouting “Scuttle the Fenian gets.

    steps

    Climbing the steps to board the Al Rawdah, from ‘We Dive at Dawn’ (1943).
    Al Rawdah with subs
    This photograph gives a sense of the height of the Al Rawdah (for those having to climb up steps from a boat at sea level), from when it was in service with surrendered German submarines at the end of the second world war (Wikipedia).

    In mid-October it was already rumoured in the press that the Al Rawdah was costing £1 per internee per day (again citing a daily cost of £180). Despite the reputed cost, the food on board was described by internees as abominable. According to Frank McGlade even when braised gosling and dry biscuits were given as a supposed treat, they were so bad even the seagulls wouldn’t eat them. The seagulls did help some internees to occasionally relieve the boredom. Bobby Devlin recounts a story about internees on the Al Rawdah. According to Devlin (in his 1982 memoir An Interlude with Seagulls), “A ploy of some men on the ‘Al Rawdah’ was to tie bits of food scraps onto cord and fling it skywards into a frenzied mass of gulls. A poor gull would grab a mouthful triumphantly then it would have its head nearly jerked off by the rigorous pulling of the men on the ship.” Another story often told about the Al Rawdah was how internees trained a mouse to bring messages between cells (as it knew it would be rewarded with food).

    There was quickly speculation (and clearly briefings from Unionist government figures) that the Al Rawdah was only a temporary facility, that the Ministry of Shipping wanted it put back into service and that the internees would be moved an internment camp with the former RUC depot at Newtownards being suggested as the likely location. It was also suggested that the internees could be relocated to Belfast Prison (Crumlin Road) for a short time while a new internment camp was established.

    The question of whether the Ministry of Shipping knew in advance that the Al Rawdah was to be used for internees under the Civil Authorities (Special Powers) Act was the subject of a heated debate in Stormont on 15th October. It was claimed that the Ministry of Shipping had demanded the return of the Al Rawdah on discovering that it was to be used for internees (the Unionist government’s uses of the Special Powers Act had been the focus of significant criticism in Britain in the 1930s).

    That debate was against the backdrop of internees in Crumlin Road and the Al Rawdah failing to get release after submitting an appeal and sureties to an Advisory Committee that had refused 37 of the 62 applications (applying to the Advisory Committee also caused significant tensions among internees as it was seen as giving in to the Unionist government). Twenty-five had been released. Some of the failed applicants had began a hunger strike by 15th October leading to the release of William Barrett from the Springfield Road in Belfast. He had been interned since May (1940) and his family believed it had seriously damaged his health. He and the other hunger strikers appear to have been in D wing in Crumlin Road rather than on the Al Rawdah.

    During the Stormont debate William Lowry revealed that, on that date, there were 268 internees (with 193 of those on the Al Rawdah). Apparently there were roughly 70 in the Belfast Prison and the remainder on the Al Rawdah, it is implied that those in Belfast Prison were engaging with the Advisory Committee (it is possible some were also in the prison hospital there). It was also insisted that, far from being unaware of the intended use of the Al Rawdah, the British military had offered it specifically for that purpose. Not only that, it was claimed that, on hearing that they were to be moved from the Al Rawdah, William Lowry claimed the internees had unanimously petitioned to be allowed to stay. He also took the opportunity to dismiss criticisms of the use of internment, stating that “There are thankful parents in Belfast and all over the Six Counties tonight because steps were taken at the proper time and a lad was checked on a course that could only have ended in a long term of imprisonment or on the scaffold.” Many of those interned on the Al Rawdah had been arrested in December 1938 and did not get released until the summer of 1945.

    On the 18th October, Nationalist Senator Thomas McLaughlin visited the ship and also declined to make any comment to the press. In Stormont a few days later he challenged the Unionist government to admit that pressure from Washington had forced London to demand the return of the ship. This was put down to a warning about the negative impact on American public opinion if the ship was attacked from the air or sea. The Unionist leader of the Senate, John Robb, instead claimed that the British authorities had asked for the ship to be evacuated once they realised they were being asked to carry the full cost themselves. The debate revealed that there had been disagreement among the Unionist government over whether to use the Al Rawdah. It transpired that the pretext for abandoning Derry Gaol had been instructions from the military to remove any internees from the prison population, meaning citizens of hostile powers (eg Germany and Italy) and prisoners of war. The Unionists had sought to use this directive to have the cost of internment transferred to the military authorities. The only cost to Stormont, as it emerged in October, were the salaries of the prison staff (one of whom, Thomas Walker, was shot dead by the IRA in February 1942 although he was mistaken for another warder).

    McLaughlin also challenged Robb to read out the actual petition received from the internees on the Al Rawdah to show that they had never requested that they remain on board the ship (the internees were obviously irked by the suggestion that, as a body, they were giving in to the Unionist government). Robb first placed the petition on a table in the Senate but eventually had to read out the wording of the petition for the record: “We, the Republican internees, desire to renew our protests against the injustice of the being detained without charge or trial. We learn with resentment that, in addition to the injustice of our detention, we are to be removed from a place where at least we have the status of political prisoners to a civil prison, where there are no conveniences or amenities for political prisoners and where, we feel, the restrictions and regulations governing convicted prisoners might even, in part, apply to us.

    In the Stormont Senate McLaughlin described the circumstances on board for the 183 internees. He said that it did not conform the image of a ‘luxury ship’ given by the likes of Lowry. The only available recreation space was a 160 foot walkway which could only be walked, with care, in single file as there was so much barbed wire sticking out on either side. On the 28th October, the Unionists again announced that arrangements would soon be made to transfer the internees from the Al Rawdah to an on-shore internment camp. However, it was noted that it was unlikely, with winter coming, that any new internment facility would be ready (implying they would likely be moved to a prison instead).

    Despite raising the issues on the Al Rawdah, the internees were often suspicious of the motives of Nationalist politicians. The authorities regularly read the internees mail (and raided their homes to intercept any correspondence sent out illicitly). They intercepted one letter which was read out in Stormont in July 1942 to embarrass some of the Nationalists. It was written by a prominent republican, Joe McGurk, to his wife Sally when he was on the Al Rawdah and very blunt in it’s criticism of the likes of McLaughlin, Campbell and Byrne.

    It read: “The common sense of the people outside would’ve told them, at any rate, that, irrespective of our Republican outlook and principle in the matter, it was very unlikely that we would petition this Northern Junta for anything after the persecution which we had to undergo several months ago, and also that we don’t give a damn where we go. We had Senator McLaughlin of Armagh on board on Friday and he was placed in a very embarrassing position, as we would not speak to him about conditions, or much more else for that matter, as he probably would have used his official position to perhaps do himself a lot of good. What takes me to the fair is the concern which T.J. Campbell and Dead-Head Byrne have for our welfare now. The ship is a Godsend for them, from a propaganda viewpoint, to ingratiate themselves with the people. It’s about time that Campbell and Byrne and that Ilk ceased to block the road of the young generation and die a natural death. They did not show much concern when we were interned in Belfast and removed to Derry. We would rather they kept away from us. as we look upon them with contempt.

    The same day, some of the Indians in the crew of the Al Rawdah got into a fight that ended up in court at the Killyleagh Petty Sessions. It was claimed that Mohammed Essack had been drunk and hit Mohammed Esmail on the collar bone with an iron poker. Essack had been drunk and it had occurred during a special holy season (this isn’t specified). It was claimed that subsequently Essack had also produced a knife and told Esmail that “You kill me, or I will kill you.” Reportedly, Essack was fined £1. Court proceedings were translated into Hindi by one of the crew and some of those present were permitted to swear on the Qu’ran rather than the bible.

    It was believed by the internees that the Indians were chosen to staff the ship to minimise communication between them and the internees. But contact was inevitable. Turlach Ó hUid (Faoi Ghlas 1985) records how the internees and Indian crew engaged in good natured banter, with internees typically telling the Hindus among the Indians that “Gandhi man no good. Moslem good.” and telling the Muslims among the crew that “Gandhi man good. Moslems no good.” Overall, despite the confined space, both sides got along well.

    The Indians weren’t the only Al Rawdah crew members to face the courts. On the weekend of 9th-10th November, an Al Rawdah storeman, Sylvester Longstaffe, was arrested and charged with the theft of £3 worth of stores from the ship. It was claimed in court that he had just been dismissed from the ship. Evidence given during his arraignment stated that the financial arrangements under which the ship had been chartered it was still being managed by the British-India Steam Navigation Company. The Al Rawdah’s chief steward, Patrick John Connolly, was also charged with theft from the ship. As it was at an agreed rate per person, the cheaper it was run the more profit there was for the company. According to statements made by Longstaffe’s solicitor, there was a monetary incentive for the company to only provide starvation rations. However the case was never brought to court and the charges were dropped in March 1942.

    Longstaffe was a married father of five from Liverpool who had been at Dunkirk. By 1943 he had been on boats that had been torpedoed three times. The charges over the Al Rawdah appear to have been dropped due to the difficulty in locating the defendants and witnesses. Longstaffe had taken on a post as a steward on ships to South Africa during 1941 and met and – bigamously – married another member of the crew in Durban for which he was prosecuted in 1943. His 4,000 mile dash to be by the bedside of his wife, Patricia, in hospital in 1947 made the newspapers. The newspapers then had to publish a clarification from his wife, Elizabeth, stating that it was not her in the photo. Neither was it Irene who he had married in South Africa. He was to feature in the press one more time, in 1958, when an Australian woman he met while working as a ship’s purser, Jean Cook, became pregnant and then tried to procure an abortion. The procedure led to kidney failure and she died a week later. Longstaffe was named as the father during the trial of two Harley Street doctors for carrying out the abortion. He gave a statement claiming he and Cook had ‘just been friends’.
    Sylvester Longstaffe
    Sylvester Longstaffe in the Liverpool Echo, 22nd September 1947 after his 4,000 mile dash to at the beside of Patricia.

    On Monday 18th November, Jack Gaffney fell from his bunk and apparently injured his head. While the crew had a doctor, Dr John Moody, there was no doctor available for the internees. Moody examined Gaffney and he was left in his bed, then apparently brought to the ship’s hospital. He died the next day having received no treatment beyond a heart stimulant when his condition worsened. The official cause of death was described as a cerebral haemorrhage brought about by high blood pressure. In her book on the Argenta prison ship, Denise Kleinrichert lists the name ‘John Giffney’ as a prisoner on the Argenta, it is possible that this is actually Gaffney and that he spent some time on the Argenta (he was imprisoned from 1921 to 1923). Gaffney’s funeral was well attended in Belfast and included the Catholic Bishop of Down and Connor, Mageean.

    jack-gaffney.png
    I’d not been able to track down a photo of him, but I think this him in a photo of the McKelveys gaelic football team dating to 1931-32 (courtesy of Donal McAnallen).

    Neil Gillespie, O/C of the internees on the Al Rawdah, delivered an oration to the internees at the time of Gaffney’s funeral on 20th November. “One of our number has been released, released with honour, released unconditionally into the hands of God who made him. We mourn his passing with that natural sorrow which strikes to the heart of anyone when someone dear to him, someone with whom he ahs been closely associated is suddenly called away, but we’re proud of Jack Gaffney. He was faithful and true to the end. He died for the cause for which he stood, for which he worked, struggled, planned and fought throughout his life, just as truly as if he had fallen on the hillside. At this moment his remains are being brought to their last resting place in a Belfast Graveyard. We gather with those around the grave, we salute the passing of our comrade as a true soldier of Ireland and all humility we pray that God, in his mercy, may have mercy on his soul.” (Oration as quoted by Ray Quinn in A Rebel Voice, 1998).

    A Sean Gaffney GAA club was later founded in Belfast in his memory. A 1920-22 IRA veteran, he was well known in GAA circles having played for Kevin Barrys and Morans before joining the Joe McKelvey GAA club in 1927. He played a prominent role in McKelveys’ on field football successes in the late 1920s and early 1930s. The club (which was specifically a club for IRA members) had been highly political in its sponsorship of motions at Antrim and Ulster GAA conventions. Similarly, Sean Gaffneys and other GAA clubs founded by ex-internees and ex-prisoners, like Tom Williams GAC and Seamus Burns GAC promoted political motions, such as in 1947, when they demanded that existing bans by the GAA on ‘foreign games’ and dances be strictly enforced. The years around 1947 were the peak years for Sean Gaffney GAC as it was playing senior football in Antrim. By 1949 the club had been relegated to the Intermediate League and was back playing junior football by 1950.

    After Gaffney’s death republicans described the Al Rawdah as the ‘ship from hell’ mimicking British depictions of the German ship Altmark in contemporary propaganda. The Altmark was a German ship carrying three hundred British prisoners of war that was intercepted and the prisoners freed in February 1940. The hardships the Altmark prisoners endured were popularised during the relative lull in the war in early 1940 and were well known to the public and those on the Al Rawdah. According to Turlach Ó hUid (in Faoi Ghlas), Gaffney’s death was compared to the experience of those on the Altmark and that this, more than the threat of any German torpedo or dive-bomber sealed the fate of the Al Rawdah’s use as a prison ship.

    At the end of December 1940 it was again announced that the internees would be taken off the Al Rawdah, although in this instance it was reported that the destinations would be Derry Gaol and the Belfast Prison (Crumlin Road). However this move still didn’t transpire and at the start of February (1941) there was an attempt to escape from the Al Rawdah. There are stories about internees on the Al Rawdah making keys out of nails when they were doing arts and crafts. However the escape attempt actually involved an escape onto another boat. Three internees managed to slide down a hawser in the dark and get on to the deck of a collier which had drawn alongside and was unloading coal on to the Al Rawdah (some versions state that it was five internees, such as in McGuffin’s Internment). One of the internees that tried to escape was James O’Hagan. They were discovered trying to lower a lifeboat and after first being mistaken for Germans, there was a scuffle and all but one managed to get back to their cells. The sole internee captured by warders was quickly released when the internees advised they would set the ship on fire if he wasn’t. As it was clear that the internees would be leaving soon, Jimmy Drumm (quoted by John McGuffin in Internment) said that the captain, Watt, told the internees would have had to go soon anyway as they nearly had the ship destroyed stripping it for souvenirs.

    As it happened, just over a week later, on Tuesday 11th February 1941, 100 internees were finally transferred out of the Al Rawdah to Belfast and Derry. Motor launches were used to take the men from the ship and then they were escorted in six buses to Crumlin Road by heavily armed RUC men. The remaining 90 internees were transferred to Crumlin Road on the Thursday. Sally McCann, whose husband James was one of the internees, was arrested for waving a handkerchief at a bus transferring internees from the Al Rawdah as it passed on it’s way into Crumlin Road. She was charged with conduct likely to lead to a breach of the peace although it was thrown out of Belfast Custody Court the next day and her arrested was described as “… it savours of nothing if it does not savour of Gestapo methods“.

    The physical toll of internment on the Al Rawdah was never really fully documented. Bobby Devlin’s An Interlude with Seagulls account of internment, like many other similar memoirs, clearly highlight a recurring concern among internees about their mental health. Much of this was a clear result of being interned without trial and without a defined period of incarceration, with no actual release date to look forward to. Many euphemisms were used for depression and apathy, like the big ‘D’, the ‘bonk’ and ‘Bangor Reserves’ as it rhymed with ‘nerves’, with ‘bad with their nerves’ being a typical Belfast term for mental health problems. Apart from psychological scars, the constant stench of stagnant sea water and fumes that rose up through the ship created what many on the Argenta, Al Rawdah and Maidstone recalled as an unhealthy atmosphere to even have to breathe in. Given that the internee population was males, mostly in their late teens, twenties and thirties, post-internment mortality was significantly high. Joseph Rooney died in May 1941, John (Seán) Dolan died on 25th October 1941. Dolan was well known in music and Irish language circles in Derry and had been the secretary of the Derry County Board of the GAA and a playing member of the Patrick Pearses club. When it was clear that he was terminally ill, he was released into a relative’s home in July 1941. Some were interned for several more years only to die from ill-health soon after release including Dickie Dunn, Richard Ryan (who had also been interned on the Argenta), Bernard Curran, James Doyle, Michael McErlean and Henry O’Kane.

    The exact number of internees who spent time on the Al Rawdah isn’t clear but, based on the available names, is at least 207 and maybe at least 217. While only a subgroup of those who experienced internment between 1938 and 1945, the fact that ten internees died due to ill-health out of just over 200 on the Al Rawdah does seem inordinately high. This doesn’t account for non-fatal impacts on physical and mental health. A number of other internees and sentenced prisoners (including those imprisoned in England) are known to have died prematurely due to either tuberculosis of what would appear to be otherwise innocuous complaints after their release.

    A list of recorded Al Rawdah internees is included on the Mapping the Belfast IRA page, in Belfast Lough (for convenience rather than off Killyleagh). As I don’t have addresses for most of them, I’ve not filtered them for Belfast/non-Belfast and so all internees are included. Anyone who knows of other internees not listed here could add the information in the comments section. Of the 217 names, 177 have assigned prisoner numbers. The highest available prisoner number is 207 (the numbers are sequential), this may mean some internees were to be transferred to the Al Rawdah but never made it that far – again some readers might be able to shed some light on this as they might recognise a name on the list as someone who was never on the Al Rawdah.

    Thanks to Brendan Harper, Ciarán Ó Fearghail, Cliodhna Ní Baoghaill, Paul Tinnelly and Cathy Kelly for forwarding various bits of information about the Al Rawdah.

    You can read more about the background to the Al Rawdah in Belfast Battalion.