William Falconer, another International Brigade volunteer from Belfast?

I was recently asked to see if I could find anything on William Falconer who, as a 46 year old, had fought with the International Brigade in Spain in support of the Spanish Republic. He was at Jarama and Brunette then, due to ill health, was repatriated from Spain (this, as with the image below, are courtesy of @hullbhoy).

Falconer’s name appears on lists of Irish volunteers in the International Brigade (eg see information compiled by Ciaran Crossey). It was also believed that, although Falconer had left from Hull in England, that he was from Belfast. Electoral records show that William Falconer was already in Hull in early 1920 and was enlisted in the Labour Corps having formerly served, during the first world war, in the East Yorkshire Light Infantry.
Given Falconer’s age, the only real potential match in the census and birth records for Belfast was born on 27th June 1891 to Samuel and Eliza Falconer in Westmoreland Street off the Shankill Road (roughly where Dover Place is today). The family used the spellings Falconer and Faulkner making them difficult to track through various records. Samuel and Eliza Hamilton had been married in Templepatrick in 1888 when he was 30 and she was 23, his family appear to have been from Ballyrobin while the Hamilton’s were from nearby Ballynabarnish. The couple then moved to Belfast where Samuel found work as a carter and they lived in the area to the north of the River Farset. While other carters and general labourers lived in Westmoreland Street there were also skilled workers and oher better off residents. The family then moved across the Shankill Road to Hopeton Street. Samuel and Eliza had a big family with Samuel (1888), William (1891), Mary (1893), Annie (1894), Maggie (1896), Lizzie (1899), James (1900) and Ruby (1905).

Westmoreland Street, Belfast just off the Shankill Road.

No name survives for a ninth child that likely died very young. Child mortality was high in city districts like the Shankill, Millfield and the Dock Ward due to tuberculosis and respiratory diseases. This reflected endemic poverty, poor diets and housing and sanitary conditions. The same tragedically poor life expectancy haunted the Falconers. Their eldest son, Samuel, died in April 1903, aged only 14. His youngest brother, James, died at the age of 3 in 1904. Eliza herself died of tuberculosis in November 1908. After Eliza’s death the family moved to Charleville Street Upper (off Crimea Street).

When William reached the age of 14 he went to work in the Ulster Spinning Company at the corner of North Howard Street and the Falls Road. There he apprenticed as a fitter and was later described by the factory manager, Richard Gribben, as sober and quiet. Then, in July 1908, he left the Ulster Spinning Company and enlisted in the Royal Iniskilling Fusiliers at their depot in Omagh. He was first attached to the Iniskillings 3rd Battalion then, from October 1908, to the 2nd Battalion (his regimental number was 9449). His mother Eliza had already contracted her fatal dose of tuberculosis when he had enlisted.
Despite the setback of his mother’s death, William had progressed himself within the regiment. He had completed second- and third-class army certificates of education. He had passed the third-class certificate at the Iniskillings depot in Omagh in September 1908, before his mother’s death, and the second while posted in Dublin in May 1909. These certificates had been introduced by the army in 1861 (see Skelley’s The Victorian Army At Home: The Recruitment and Terms and Conditions of the British Regular, 1859-1899.). The third-class certificate was required for promotion to the rank of corporal. To be awarded the certificate, a candidate had to read aloud and to write from dictation passages and to demonstrate he could complete examples of the four compound rules of arithmetic and the reduction of money. To be awarded a second-class certificate, a soldier had to complete writing and dictation from a more difficult text (than third-class) and show familiarity with all forms of regimental accounting including proportions, interest, fractions and averages. The second-class certificate was a requirement to progress to the rank of sergeant. Continuing on to completion of a first-class certificate meant the possibility of being commissioned from the ranks.

Evening Telegraph, 10 July 1909

But tragedy was to strike again in the Falconer family as William. His sister Annie had contracted tuberculosis and had been moved to the sanatorium in Whiteabbey, where she died in July 1909 (see death notice above).

Two months after Annie’s death, William was promoted to Lance Corporal having already completed the necessary army certificates that would allow him to advance as far as sergeant in the future. Yet William’s own army career was also cut short by illness. After attending an assessment in Dublin on 19th March 1910 he was deemed medically unfit and formally discharged from the army on 11th April 1910. He then moved back to the Falconer family home to Charleville Street Upper.
The army files give no hint as to the reasons but, by the summer of 1911, William himself had been certified with tuberculosis. It was to be the scourge of the Falconer family. William’s younger sister Mary died in March 1912 and Maggie in December 1912. Two years later, in 1914, one of his two remaining sisters, Eliza, also died. His youngest sister, Ruby, only five years old when he was discharged from the army, was also to die from tuberculosis in May 1917 having moved from Belfast to Ballynabarnish near Templepatrick to live with her late mother’s family, the Hamiltons. Her father, Samuel, had remained in Charleville Street Upper. But by 1920 Samuel had been moved to a lodging house, Carrick House, run by Belfast Corporation (on Lower Regent Street). Samuel then was hospitalised in the former union workhouse on the Lisburn Road where he died from heart problems in April 1920.

Samuel Falconer’s mark (X) even though he identified as able to read/write in 1901 and 1911 census (was that a false claim due to shame over illiteracy/poverty).

At 62 years of age he had been predeceased by his wife and all nine of his children, including William, who had succumbed to tuberculosis on 6th April 1912, only weeks after the death of his sister (and Samuel’s daughter) Mary. William had been brought to the Abbey hospital (in Whiteabbey) after being diagnosed in the summer of 1911. Samuel himself was present at his son’s death. Samuel had to mark an ‘x’ rather than sign his name as witness to his son’s death. While this may be age related, Samuel had recorded that he could read and write in the census of 1901 and 1911. But had Samuel did that out of shame to hide his own illiteracy (in the 1901 census less than 10% of carters recorded that they couldn’t read or write). Noticeably, Samuel only used the spelling ‘Falconer’ consistently from when his children were of school age, prior to that and in his last years he used both ‘Faulkner’ and ‘Falkner’. He may even have hidden his own lack of literacy from his children.

Clearly though, this William Falconer wasn’t the William Falconer who lived in Hull and joined the International Brigades in Spain to fight for the Spanish Republic (seems more likely he was from Scotland). But this William Falconer’s own family’s story of poverty and disease was all to familiar to those who travelled from Belfast, including those from the Shankill Road and what the brigadiers witnessed there in their own childhoods undoubtedly inspired many of them to fight in Spain.

 

Some previously unrecognised 1920-1922 IRA fatalities in Belfast (by Kieran Glennon)

Here’s an interesting post from Kieran Glennon (author of From Pogrom to Civil War) on the recent pension files released by the Military Archives. Kieran looks at some previously unrecognised IRA fatalities during the 1920-1922 period and some other points of interest in the files. The newly identified IRA fatalities are John McCartney (killed 25th July 1920) and Henry Mulholland (killed on 10th July 1921) in Bombay Street, he was originally from Tyrone and taken back there to be buried). As with some earlier casualties, both were older men, McCartney (36) and Mulholland (49), which has been noted with some other early fatalities. There is clear gap now between the scale of republican fatalities in Belfast in 1920-1922 and official records, such as those named on the County Antrim memorial in Milltown and various republican publications.

[The parallels between the July and August 1920 violence in the Kashmir Road and Cupar Street and events in August 1969 are uncanny including deployment of heavy machine guns and armoured cars against civilians – at one point a field gun was brought to Divis Street].

Further information also seems to be emerging of the Belfast IRA getting actively involved in the civil war in the key period up to August 1922 (providing the backdrop to the suppression of Facts and Figures of the Belfast Pogrom) and later.

Here’s Kieran’s post:

The recently released files are of interest for a couple of reasons. We’ve previously discussed a Belfast Roll of Honour here and there are a couple of potential new additions referred to in the latest files. In Davy Matthews’ interview with the Pensions Board, he mentioned “6 were killed at street corner including Giles and McCartney, vols. at time of Cashmere [sic – Kashmir] Road fighting.” Giles is mentioned in “Northern Divisions”, but John McCartney, killed on 25th July 1920, is a new name to emerge. Probably owing to the date of his death, he wasn’t included on the Nominal Rolls (you can view the Nominal Rolls and individual pension files at http://www.militaryarchives.ie)..
Similarly, in Rory Graham’s statement to the Board, when asked “Were any men of your company, time of dealing with the mob, shot by the mob?” he replied “Mulholland, who was sitting playing cards.” On 10th July 1921, a Henry Mulholland was killed in Bombay St. He’s included on the Nominal Roll for B Company, 1st Battalion, but listed as “present address unknown” which is an odd way to refer to a deceased comrade. It is also debateable whether he was actually on active service at the time of his death.
By my tally, including these two would bring the tally of Volunteers killed in Belfast during the pogrom to twenty-three, plus Seán McCartney killed at Lappinduff and Seán O’Carroll killed in Louth. Then in addition to those, you’d have the seven Fianna that were killed.
More importantly, the latest files consolidate a thread that had begun to emerge in earlier MSPC releases regarding the anti-Treaty, or Executive Forces, within the Belfast IRA after the 1922 split. In particular, they add new detail to their participation in the Civil War fighting in the south.
The previous MSPC release included the file of Pat Thornbury, who became O/C of the Executive 3rd Northern Division after Joe McKelvey’s election to the Army Executive. Thornbury talked of bringing thirty Belfast IRA men down to Dublin to join in the fighting around O’Connell St at the outbreak of the Civil War. Similarly, Joseph Billings from Belfast talked of being a Barracks Quartermaster for the anti-Treaty garrison at Barry’s Hotel.
The latest release contains the files of Michael Carolan and his brothers Andrew and Alphonsus. Michael was appointed Adjutant of the Executive 3rd Northern Division after the split, was shot and wounded in Grafton St in Dublin in early July, then made Director of Intelligence for the IRA in the autumn. His two brothers carried despatches for him in Dublin though they don’t appear to have been involved in the actual fighting.
Although his pension claim was unsuccessful, the file on Patrick McWilliams contains two references from former superior officers which indicate that a second column of Belfast men set off for Dublin at the start of July 1922 but could get no further than Dundalk. They remained in Louth and took part in attacks on Free State forces there.
Another member of the Belfast column operating in Louth was Charles McCaull Stewart. A Presbyterian, at the outset of the pogrom he had been an apprentice welder in Harland & Wolff but he joined the IRA in Ardoyne in the spring of 1921. After a brief return to Belfast in July 1922, he made his way to Roscommon where he joined up with the anti-Treaty East Mayo flying column in August. Interestingly, in his statement to the Pension Board, he says “We reported in Ballaghadereen” rather than “I reported”, so there may also have been other Belfast men involved in that unit.
On the other side of the Treaty divide, Daniel McAllister from Cushendall in Antrim had come south to the Curragh for training in late June 1922 along with the remnants of the pro-GHQ 2nd and 3rd Northern Divisions, but he says that he and six others left in mid-August as a refusal to take up arms against republicans in the Civil War.
Given that only 154 members of the Belfast Brigade can be identified as having joined the Free State Army, while the entire membership of over 400 men still active in Belfast on 1st July 1922 are listed as being Executive Forces, and some of those turned up in three different counties during the Civil War fighting, the latest files to be released certainly raise some interesting questions about the direction of the Brigade after the Treaty split.

The Irish White Cross

Here’s an interesting angle to explore the impact of violence during the War of Independence. The Irish in America had responded to the war by founding and supporting the American Committee for Relief in Ireland. It raised funds to mitigate suffering arising from the war which is dispersed through the Irish White Cross which had been set up for that purpose in 1920. In 1922 the Irish White Cross published a report on its activities and expenditure.

The Irish White Cross Report includes accounts of the experiences of those it assisted and testimonies from recipients of the relief. The amount of relief paid is listed by location along with examples of specific relief works (famously including Amcomri Street in Belfast which takes its name from the American Committee for Relief in Ireland). Under the prevailing legislation which held local authorities and rate payers liable for victims, those who lost family members and property could pursue their local authority for compensation if they could demonstrate that the loss was incurred under specific circumstances. I’ve not seen that quantified anywhere (as yet), but it would likely mirror the distribution of relief by the Irish White Cross. Major incidents such as the burning of Cork in 1920 also gave rise to significant compensation and insurance claims. The Irish White Cross used its resources to support people in the short term (as well as in longer term projects) and so the relief figures likely reflect the day-to-day impact of violence. Combining this information and collating figures for the likes of local authority compensation claims would help map out and visualise local impacts of violence during 1919-1923.

The two areas which required the highest amount of relief from the Irish White Cross were County Antrim (including all of Belfast) and County Cork. Almost half of the total amount of relief paid went to Belfast, while Cork received around one quarter. A map showing the distribution by area is shown below along with the totals by county (by amount).

The Irish White Cross Report, with extracts from the American Committee for Relief in Ireland’s own reports, has just been reprinted alongside two other contemporary accounts from the war of independence, ‘Facts and Figures of the Belfast Pogroms 1920-1922‘ and ‘Who Burnt Cork City?‘. It is believed that ‘Who Burnt Cork City?’ was largely written by Alfred O’Rahilly, who was intended to be the author of ‘Facts and Figures of the Belfast Pogroms 1920-1922’ (you can read more on that here)..

I’l post some more on the Irish White Cross in the next while (as well as ‘Who Burnt Cork City?’). You can read more about The Irish White Cross Report and order it here.

Relief by county (rounded to nearest £ with modern equivalent in brackets). County Antrim £362,409.00 (£18.12m); County Cork £180,126.00 (£9m); County Dublin £54,990.00 (£2.8m); County Kerry £25,958.00 (£1.3m); County Down £13,303.00 (£665k); County Galway £12,410.00 (£620k); County Tipperary £11,096.00 (£555k); County Limerick £10,061.00 (£504k); County Clare £9,090.00 (£454k); County Mayo £9,048.00 (£452k); County Roscommon £7,223.00 (£361k); County Westmeath £5,336.00 (£267k); County Longford £4,859.00 (£243k); County Donegal £4,831.00 (£242k); County Cavan £4,645.00 (£232k); County Sligo £3,857.00 (£193k); County Waterford £3,519.00 (£176k); County Louth £3,423.00 (£171k); County Wexford £3,316.00 (£166k); County Leitrim £2,895.00 (£145k); County Kildare £2,685.00 (£134k); County Monaghan £2,656.00 (£133k); County Carlow £2,377.00 (£119k); County Armagh £2,205.00 (£110k); County Offaly £1,802.00 (£90k); County Meath £1,713.00 (£86k); County Laois £1,564.00 (£78k); County Wicklow £1,169.00 (£58k); County Tyrone £1,141.00 (£57k); County Derry £754.00 (£38k); County Kilkenny £728.00 (£36.4k); County Fermanagh £316.00 (£15.8k)

 

 

Belfast Pogrom article in the Irish Times

Interesting, if a little flawed, article in the Irish Times this morning: Belfast pogroms: ‘The street was a mass of brain matter and blood’ based on the latest release of pension files on militaryarchives.ie (see here for more on that). Hopefully it is not a foretaste of how the 1920-1922 period in Belfast is going to get covered over the next few years.

The articles opening premise – that the scale of violence in Belfast between 1920 and 1922 will be a revelation to many people – is undoubtedly true. Depsite the fact that around 20-25% of all violent fatalities in the War of Independence occurred in the city yet there are maybe only 4-5 books and a very limited amount of scholarship on Belfast during that period to date.

But the framing of much of the article is at best loose, if not misleading. For a start, while operations by the IRA elsewhere could lead to intense reprisals against Catholics in Belfast it is clear from the pulses of violence in the city that political events and a unionist strategy to try and drive as many Catholics as possible from the city were mainly responsible (you can follow the timings in Kieran Glennon’s From Pogrom to Civil War, p260-265). The modern ‘tit-for-tat’ trope about the conflict here doesn’t really apply when the most violent months coincided with the events like the truce and treaty votes and the assumption of security policy by the unionist government in November 1921. The Irish Times isn’t alone in this regard – few writers make the connection between the tactics of the three constabularies added to the RIC during the War of Independence – the Auxiliary Division, the Special Reserve (the ‘Black and Tans’) and the Ulster Special Constabulary (who ‘Specials’). All three carried out counter-insurgency operations including reprisal attacks, yet only the attacks in north by the Ulster Special Constabulary are classed as ‘sectarian strife’. While the ‘Specials’ found willing helpers among the local population, any distinction between counter-insurgency operations by the Auxies and Black and Tans and those by the Ulster Special Constabulary like the McMahons massacre, Arnon Street and a myriad of killings and abduction is entirely artificial.

The Irish Times also seems to have a worrying lack of appreciation of the origin and nature of the content of the pension files held in the Military Archives. It is asserted that “The rolls list every volunteer in the IRA during the revolutionary period 1916-1923” when they in fact are a list of names gathered in the 1930s and are (by their own admissions) incomplete. The list of fatalities from 1920-1922 in the Belfast files is suggested to be the basis of ‘Facts and Figures of the Belfast Pogrom 1920-1922’ – a book produced in August 1922 (you can read more about that book here and here). Yet the list is clearly compiled from the book (and was prepared in the 1930s as part of the work of the Belfast Brigade committee for the pensions board).

Interestingly, though, the Irish Times doesn’t shy away from use of the term ‘pogrom’ to describe the events in Belfast. But is all of this a foretaste of how the centenary of various events will be covered in the next few years, or, is simply the start of a process of learning about it? Either way  it is obviously worth a read (you can do that here).

[And click here if you want to pick up a physical copy of the ‘Facts and Figures of the Belfast Pogrom 1920-1922’]

…for fear of alienating the Unionist vote… #Brexit

A pivotal moment in the relationship of London and the European community, Unionist votes holding a precarious balance of power, Conservative government policy (including security policy in the north) subject to the need to keep the Unionist votes on side. While no-one seems to have drawn the parallel, we have been here before and the outcome is perhaps worth noting.

Over the course of 1971 and 1972 Edward Heath was trying to push his European Communities Bill through a reluctant House of Commons. The Bill was instrumental in the UK joining the European Economic Community (as the EU was then known). Following the 1970 General Election, Heath had come to power intent on legislating for UK membership of the EEC. With 330 MPs he had a slim majority of 14 and that included the 8 Unionist Party members returned in the north (along with Ian Paisley, Gerry Fitt, Bernadette Devlin and Frank McManus).

Over the summer of 1971, in the lead up to the early stages of the Bill, the press speculated on the extent to which Heath’s reliance on the Unionist votes was a factor in deciding security policy, including in the lead up to the widespread arrest and internment of Catholics in August 1971. At an early stage, in October 1971, most of the Unionist MPs (who were joined in a formal parliamentary grouping with Heath’s Conservatives) voted against the Bill. All of this provides a notable backdrop to the Heath’s perceived need to win Unionists support for his European project for the crucial votes that would happen later in 1971 and early in 1972. Notably, over this period, security policy continued to fall in line with Unionist demands. Political reform was largely ignored (you can see the types of proposals under consideration at the time). And formal scrutiny of recent events was heavily sanitised, such as the Compton report issued in November 1971. During critical events such as the McGurks Bar bombing in December 1971 and Bloody Sunday in January 1972, UK government policy remained favourably aligned on Unionist needs and wants despite significant international opprobrium.

On 17th February 1972, Heath finally got his European vote over the line with a bare majority of eight (the sum total of the Unionist MPs). His biographer, John Campbell, called it ‘Heath’s finest hour’. Within weeks, there was a shift in security policy as first Stormont was prorogued and then the British government began talks with the IRA that appeared to open up all sorts of political possibilities of British withdrawal to the IRA.

This isn’t to suggest that the guiding factor in Heath’s security policy in the north in 1971 and 1972 was predicated upon needing Unionist support to pass the European Communities Bill. But, whatever it’s significance, it was a factor. And once the need for those Unionist votes was passed, the shift in emphasis in political policy against the Unionists was relatively swift.

The following editorial captures all this under the headline “Heath’s Close Call”, it appeared in the Irish Independent on 18th February 1972.

To Irish people who are used to Dáil cliff hangers coming out in a majority of two or three for the Government, Mr. Heath’s majority of eight in Westminster last night on the crucial E.E.C. Bill will seem small beer. But in a Parliament with over 600 members this vote was proportionately as close as any we have seen in Leinster House in recent times.
Now that Mr. Heath has won his vote, however, it is fair to say that the crisis is over for him on this issue. He can expect a gradual improvement from last night’s lowest ebb. With luck the coal and power crises will be things of the past in a few months’ time; a “handout” budget can be expected in an effort to stimulate the economy and fight unemployment; and Rhodesia has already caused the Westminster Government its fill of embarrassment.
There remains Northern Ireland. Certainly Mr. Heath has personally taken political punishment as a result of his handling of the North. However, last night’s critical vote may now free his hand a bit to make some concessions to the minority viewpoint. Up to this, with this crucial vote pending, Mr. Heath has had to be careful what political initiatives he even hinted at for fear of alienating the Unionist vote for last night’s test. Six of the eight Unionist M.P.s had voted against the principle of the Common Market on October 28th; but last night’s vote had turned into a straight political fight, an issue larger that the E.E.C. question. Three of the six anti-Market Northern Unionists were thus free to support the Government on the basis, presumably, that the E.E.C. with Heath was preferable to Wilson with no E.E.C.
His failure to secure a bloc Unionist vote, however, on an issue which had turned into a vote of confidence in the Government means that Unionist opinion is not solidly behind him. One reason for this could be that some Northern Unionists feel that he is about to “do a deal” with the Northern minority. His hands certainly seem less tied after this vote than before it.

European Union flag

Was a Belfast IRA commander expelled over a pension application?

Was a Belfast IRA commander expelled from the IRA for making a pension application? One of the files included in the latest release of files from the Military Archives is a pension applications made by Davy Mathews starting in 1933 when he was O/C of the Belfast IRA. In January 1934 he was expelled from the IRA. Nominally the reason for his expulsion was that he had allowed prisoners to sign out of Crumlin Road jail for Christmas in 1933 (against IRA standing orders). But now Mathews pension application documents have been published, it looks like the IRA may have had other reasons to expel him too.

Mathews

Davy Mathews (from Jim McDermot’s ‘Northern Divisions’ book)

Mathews formally made his application for a pension on 1st January 1933. In his application letter he recorded that he had joined the Willie Nelson Sluagh of Fianna Éireann in 1914, progressing to join the Irish Volunteers after 1916. He was then a member of the James Connolly Sluagh whose O/C was Joe McKelvey while Mathews himself was First Lieutenant (Fianna officers held dual membership of Fianna Éireann and the IRA). He was arrested and questioned for a day in 1917 after being observed taking charge of Fianna party drilling in the open. Matthews continued active in IRA throughout the War of Independence and was eventually arrested in September 1922 with Belfast Brigade commander, Paddy Nash, and was imprisoned for possession of a revolver. After his release he was pressed to accept a commission in the newly formed (pro-treaty) National Army but instead he agreed to take charge of an (anti-treaty) IRA flying column in Longford. Before he got there, he was arrested at Easter 1923 and spent time on the Argenta prison ship and Larne Camp from where he was sent to Derry Gaol to spend six weeks in isolation before embarking on a hunger strike. A son born while he was imprisoned was a year old before Mathews saw him when he was released in August 1924.

Interned again in 1925 during the collapse of the Boundary Commission, his mother died on Christmas Day but he was refused leave to attend the funeral. The 1925 internees were only released when the Labour government in London put pressure on the Unionists at the end of January 1926.

Mathews remained active in the IRA as well as a prominent member of the Joe McKelvey GAA club. He recorded in 1933 that he had been O/C of an IRA Battalion three times and arrested each time. In September 1933 he submitted a pension application, giving his own rank as O/C Belfast Battalion since 1928 and recording that he had been made O/C Ulster in 1931 on the IRA’s Army Executive. He named some of those who could vouch for his service in his 1933 application including Maurice Twomey (as IRA Chief of Staff) and Joe McGurk, George Nash and Jimmy Steele (as members of the Belfast Battalion staff). Imprisoned in November 1933, he was then dismissed from the IRA in January 1934 for encouraging prisoners to sign guarantees to get early release for Christmas.

Page_7_Image_1

Page from Davy Mathews pension application on 4/9/1933 naming Moss Twomey as IRA Chief of Staff and Joe McGurk, George Nash and Jimmy Steele as members of Belfast Battalion staff (for original see militaryarchives.ie file 1RB1254 David Mathews)

Since the IRA refused to recognise the authority of either administration in Belfast or Dublin in the 1930s, Mathews application for a pension would have been in violation of IRA standing orders at the time. While this may seem a little odd now, even in later decades the IRA, and Cumann na mBan, refused to let member hold service posts in the north (as they had to take an oath of allegiance to the crown) just as members did not recognise the courts, legal systems or electoral assemblies. Not only that, but Mathews names members of his Belfast Battalion staff and the Chief of Staff (Moss Twomey) on his application. While the IRA enjoyed a quasi-legal status in the south at the time, it seems unlikely that either Twomey or others in IRA GHQ would have been happy with Mathews. Mathews was on the IRA’s Army Executive as O/C Ulster from 1931 and so held a very senior post within the organisation. While the pretext given for his expulsion in January 1934 did not mention the pension application it seems unlikely that it would have been approved or gone unnoticed as part of the process was writing out to those named by applicants to get statement corroborating information on the application.

There is much more on Mathews time as Belfast O/C in the Belfast Battalion bookBelfast Battalion book.

The time line of Belfast IRA commanders has also been updated to reflect the dates given by Mathews (I’ll post more on this another day).

New IRA pension files released today

The Military Archives have released their most recent set of pension files today including documents shedding light on the activities of the IRA, Cumann na mBan and Fianna Éireann. While they primarily relate to the years 1916 to 1923, there is a wealth of information buried within them relating to later periods of equally significant historical value. Here is one example to get started with.

One infamous episode in the history of the IRA was the takeover of IRA GHQ by the Belfast Battalion and court-martial of Acting IRA Chief of Staff, Stephen Hayes, in 1941. Hayes wrote a ‘confession’ (under duress) that was transcribed by Pearse Kelly (a future IRA Chief of Staff and later of RTÉ). This was annotated and used in further interrogation of Hayes (before he escaped by jumping out a window). The Kelly transcription survives in the National Library (you can read more about it here). The main accusation made against Hayes was that he was acting in concert with the Fianna Fáil government rather than in line with IRA strategy (there is more detail on this at the link above). I suspect that, if you follow the rationale seemingly applied in Hayes interrogation that the same accusation would likely have been levelled at Sean Russell if he had lived).

The main argument offered in Hayes defence (including by Hayes himself) was that he was subsequently sentenced by the Military Court to a number of years imprisonment. Other republicans, though, have dismissed the import of that insisting that Hayes was effectively kept in prison for his own safety and was comfortably looked after while there.

After his release Hayes made an application for a pension for his prior military service. Buried within his pension file is a seemingly innocuous memo. Under the terms of the various pension acts, those who had remained active in the IRA were forfeit of a certificate of service and pension entitlements. To facilitate an application for Hayes it was proposed to amend the legislation so that Hayes could receive a pension but, rather than make it specific to Hayes, to make it a more general amendment. It is notable, within the other releases (particularly of Belfast republicans), how many of those who had opposed the treaty and remained active in the IRA subsequently struggled to have their pension entitlements granted (in some cases, due to apparent obstruction by former comrades who had supported the treaty). Largely that appeared to be consistent with a policy of not granting pension entitlements to those who continued to dispute the authority or legitimacy of the southern state. That latter point might seem antiquated, yet given contemporary republican attitudes towards engaging with the authorities on either side of the border, it is significant to see the likes of Belfast IRA staff officers signing and submitting statements to support pension applicants in the 1930s.

Hayes legislation

Memo in Stephen Hayes pension file (MSPC, see link below).

Unlike when Hayes’ case arose, there had been no previous attempt to formally restore pension entitlements. So this may add further weight to the claims that Hayes’ real loyalties had lain with the Fianna Fáil government and as such he then received sympathetic treatment by the authorities as a reward.

I’ll post more on some of the new releases in the near future.

You can read more about the Hayes affair in the Belfast Battalion book.

You can search the Military Service Pensions Collection here.

You can see some of the Stephen Hayes files here.