IRA’s Easter commemoration, Belfast, 25th April 1943

On Easter Sunday, 25th April 1943, the IRA’s Chief of Staff and Adjutant-General led a public Easter commemoration at the Broadway cinema in Belfast. The resonances with 1916 were obvious: visible armed resistance in wartime, in a district saturated with armoured cars and the heavily armed British forces. The previous year’s commemoration had also triggered a calamitous sequence of events that had expended much of the IRA’s remaining capacity and saw Tom Williams hung in Crumlin Road prison. In the circumstances, there was significant pressure on the remaining IRA leadership to give some hope to their supporters and imprisoned comrades.

The 1943 commemoration also intentionally signalled a formal shift in the IRA’s centre from Dublin to Belfast, and in focusing on ending partition rather than challenging the legitimacy of government from Leinster House (a continuous ambition of the Belfast IRA since the 1930s and arguably a continuing complication in republican strategy). Similarly, the venue, built on the site of the Willow Bank huts from where the Belfast Volunteers had mobilised in 1916 also suggested a heavily coded challenge to the various competing groups in Belfast such as the Pre-Truce IRA organisation claiming primacy as the authentic inheritors of the Republic declared in 1916 (ownership of the Easter Rising commemorations were to see similar political battles in the 1950s when formal parades were permitted). Few enough may have understood the reference to 1916 and the ‘Old’ IRA association, although those that did were the intended audience. Symbolically, Easter 1943 marks the formal shift in the emphasis of IRA strategy to the north.

The IRA Chief of Staff, Hugh McAteer, writing in 1951 in the Sunday Independent, clearly saw the parallels between 1916 and 1943. By mid-April 1943, he writes that he was acknowledging internally that the possibility of the IRA succeeding was out of the question for the moment. Recognising the propaganda value of his own escape in January that year and the mass Derry escape in March, the IRA leadership realised that the pattern of their work was clear. Their immediate object was now to ‘preserve the spirit of the movement’ and that was to guide how they would plan and execute their next actions.

In 1943 then, the commemoration was to be particularly significant. The leadership of Hugh McAteer and Jimmy Steele (who had taken over as Adjutant-General on Liam Burke’s capture earlier that April) developed the idea of staging a public Easter Rising commemoration. Harry White (in his biography, Harry, written with Uinseann MacEoin) recounts how the idea evolved from a throwaway suggestion from two young IRA Volunteers to an operation involving sixteen Volunteers taking over the Broadway cinema to stage a commemoration. According to Harry White, it was Joe Doyle and Dan Diffin who came up with the idea of using armed volunteers to take over either a cinema or a dance hall and then staging a public Easter commemoration. The idea was dismissed as impractical on security grounds.

In reality, McAteer and Steele were very enthusiastic about the idea and only dismissed it to Doyle and Diffin as they wanted to maintain as much secrecy as possible. Initially, according to White, the plan had been to simply flash up a slide on screen that said “Join The IRA”, but the concept expanded until it became a full dress commemoration. White had been staying at the house of a projectionist in the Broadway Cinema on the Falls Road, Willie Mohan, whose brother Jerry was an internée. Mohan’s uncle, Frank, was also the manager of the cinema. Typically, the projection box was kept locked, but normally the projectionist went for a smoke between films which gave the IRA a short window in which to go and take control of it.
The plan that developed was relatively simple but was loaded with symbolism. The parallels of a public reading of the 1916 proclamation in 1943 in Belfast during a general world war and the reading of the original proclamation in Dublin in 1916, during an earlier war, were no doubt clear. McAteer and Steele had huge sums on their heads following their escape in January 1943 and a public appearance and obvious support would signal the loyalty of their supporters to the unionist government (i.e. that they weren’t going to be paid to betray their leaders).
The RUC were expecting some form of commemoration to take place over the Easter weekend. According to the Irish News, they had turned the Falls Road into an armed camp with hundreds of uniformed and plain clothes police, with armoured cars, whippet cars, patrol cars and cage cars patrolling the district. Still, sixteen armed IRA volunteers accompanied McAteer and Steele to Broadway cinema where they staged the commemoration. Three volunteers went into the projector box and handed over a slide which was flashed up on screen.
Jimmy Steele, in full dress uniform, appeared on stage and was introduced by McAteer. Steele read the 1916 Proclamation of the Irish Republic, then McAteer read a statement from Army Council on IRA policy, the resonances with 1916 are clear. While the “cause had not yet triumphed” he told them, “Ireland is being held within the Empire by sheer force and by force alone can she free herself. Now with Britain engaged in a struggle for her very existence, we are presented with a glorious opportunity.” McAteer finished to applause (according to Fr Kevin McMullan, who was only seven at the time but had by chance been at that screening of Don Bosco, the response was positive and enthusiastic). McAteer then called for two minutes’ silence to commemorate those who had died for Ireland.
In Dublin, The Irish Times even reported that no commemoration took place. In Belfast, though, The Irish News enthusiastically reported on proceedings which were recounted in news bulletins as far away as Germany. The northern government’s Prime Minister, J.M. Andrews, who was already under pressure and perceived as a moderate, resigned on the Friday after Easter.

Steele and McAteer’s wanted poster

Barney Watt: propaganda and obstructing justice in February 1971

And then, from Aidan Hennigan in London:

Fian Sean Doyle, died 10th April 1944

April 5th, 1942: Tom Williams and ‘legacy issues’

Diagram showing positions of IRA unit, Kashmir Road diversionary attack, 5th April 1942. In possession of IRA Adjutant General Jimmy Steele when he was captured in May 1943 (now in PRONI).


On Easter Sunday, 5th April, 1942, a unit from the Belfast Battalion’s C Company was to carry out a diversionary attack on the RUC on the Kashmir Road. The unit involved were to fire shots at one of the armoured cars that the RUC used to patrol nationalist districts, withdraw to a pre-arranged safe house, dump their arms, then disperse. If the RUC reacted as usual, it would isolate the district, flood it with reinforcements then carry out raids. Meanwhile, with the RUC busy in Kashmir Road, the IRA would hold its Easter Rising commemorations elsewhere, unimpeded.

Part of the IRA’s own report into what happened next is summarised by a map captured in May 1943 (now in the public records office). Since the streetscape has almost changed beyond recognition, I’ve added a map of the area, as it was in the 1940s, below. The captured diagram shows the positions taken up by the unit O/C, Tom Williams, and the other volunteers, Dixie Cordner, Jimmy Perry, Joe Cahill and John Oliver. Williams and Cordner were on the footpath behind the last air raid shelter before the junction between Kashmir Road and Clonard Gardens, Cahill and Perry between the last two shelters and Oliver between the second and third shelters. After firing shots they were to head back into Cawnpore Street where a sixth IRA volunteer, Pat Simpson, was waiting for them, then dump their arms and disperse. The arms would be concealed and returned to IRA arms dumps by Cumann na mBan. You can get an idea of the size of the air raid shelters in the photo below (you can also check them out in the film Odd Man Out).

Kashmir Road as it was in the 1940s.

Air raid shelters on the side of the road at the corner of Donegall Street and York Street.

What happened next is relatively well documented. The IRA unit fired shots over a passing armoured car, from which the RUC dismounted and then attempted to pursue the IRA unit into Cawnpore Street. In this case, the RUC men involved, including Patrick Murphy, had been involved in previous armed confrontations with IRA units and had attempted to storm houses at gun point in pursuit of IRA volunteers. By mid-1942, though, the IRA’s Chief of Staff, Eoin McNamee, had decreed that armed IRA volunteers who were at risk of arrest, were to use force if they had a chance of escape. So on 5th April, 1942, the C Company unit followed current IRA policy and exchanged fire with the RUC in Cawnpore Street and Murphy was killed, and, Williams wounded. Having been convinced by the authorities that his wounds were fatal, Williams took responsibility for Murphy’s death in the hope that it would shield the rest of his unit from retribution. Instead, when he had recovered, he was hung as a reprisal in September 1942 (even though he had clearly not fired the shots that killed Murphy), while the others barely escaped execution. You can read one account of their reprieve here in the Connolly Association’s paper, Irish Freedom, from September 1942.

And in case anyone is labouring under the mistaken impression that deliberate delays and obfuscations are a recent tactic of the authorities when attempting to resolve ‘legacy issues’: it was to be 58 years after his execution before Tom Williams was handed over to his family and friends and was able to receive a proper burial.

 

You can read more about Tom Williams and the events surrounding his execution in Jim McVeigh’s book or at some of the links below.

https://treasonfelony.wordpress.com/2015/09/02/two-poems-dedicated-to-ira-lieut-tom-williams-hung-2nd-sept-1942/

https://treasonfelony.wordpress.com/2016/06/30/ira-special-manifesto-august-29th-1942-and-the-northern-campaign/

https://treasonfelony.wordpress.com/2016/09/01/reprieve-petition-refusal-the-irish-press-2nd-sept-1942/

https://treasonfelony.wordpress.com/2016/10/12/the-falls-curfew-1942/

 

You can also watch a great documentary at the link below (if it is still available).

https://treasonfelony.wordpress.com/2016/09/02/oglach-tom-williams-an-turas-deireanach-documentary/

 

Belfast O/Cs: a bit of tidying up

Having published a revised list of Belfast IRA O/Cs from 1924 to 1969, I’ve had a chance to look at one of the gaps, in the mid-1940s thanks to prompts from a number of people such as Niall Ó Murchú.

The period when information becomes unclear coincides (unsurprisingly) from when Harry White, O/C of the IRA’s Northern Command, took over as Belfast O/C after Seamus Burns‘ death. White was on the run continuously and was to become the last member of IRA’s GHQ at liberty. He seems to have taken on the role of O/C Belfast for much of the time and, in the memoir, Harry, he published with Uinseann MacEoin he seems to indicate that he also delegated the role (fairly casually) to Harry O’Rawe in particular.

By the end of 1944, White was Chief of Staff of the IRA and started spending some of his time living under an assumed name (Harry McHugh) in Altaghoney on the Tyrone/Derry border. He had first gone to Altaghoney for a few weeks in March 1944 after Burns’ death. White then returned to Belfast briefly but went back to Altaghoney from around April to August 1944 when he once again returned to Belfast. The rough dates for White’s stays in Altaghoney were given during the trial of his hosts, the O’Kanes, in 1946. An IRA hunger strike in Crumlin Road prison had ended on 6th April, seemingly on instructions from the IRA leadership on the outside (presumably White). His memoir Harry seems to imply that he had O’Rawe act as Belfast O/C in his absence, and this may have started when he left for Altaghoney, which must have been after the ending of the hunger strike on 6th April 1944.

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Harry White

Harry White

So based on Harry White’s known movements and his own memoir, it seems likely that White took on the role as Belfast O/C in February 1944 following Burns’ death, with O’Rawe taking over in April. He  (O’Rawe) may have taken over the role from then until his arrest on March 6th 1945. A combination of O’Rawe’s arrest and Paddy Fleming taking over as Chief of Staff in Dublin in March 1945, appear to have motivated White to move to Altaghoney and go into semi-permanent hiding (although still as O/C Northern Command). While Albert Price remained free until his arrest at the end of September 1945, there are no references to him acting as O/C Belfast in the interim period.

White had returned to Belfast in August 1944 after Charlie Kerins’ arrest in June left him as the only member of IRA GHQ at large (this also now left him as Acting Chief of Staff). As it became more obvious that De Valera was going to have Kerins executed, White moved to resupply his own staff by directing individuals, such as Johnny Murphy to sign out of Crumlin Road. Murphy and the likes of John Bradley and Barney Boswell are also believed to have served on the Belfast Battalion staff at this time, from 1945 to 1947 and Murphy is believed to have also acted as O/C Belfast. The sequencing of this isn’t entirely clear but it may be that Murphy took over as O/C Belfast after O’Rawe’s arrest.

Seamus Twomey (in 1972)

There are other suggestions that might fill some gaps here for the years around 1945-47. A profile of Seamus Twomey (in The Irish Press on 15th July 1972) states that he was O/C Belfast in 1945. As he was only released from internment in the summer of that year, if this is true, it would have to be in the latter half of the year. Since arrests tended to be the catalyst that lead to a changes in O/C, it may be more likely that Twomey took over in October 1946 and Murphy replaced White as O/C Northern Command.

White’s cover had been blown in October 1946 and, after being questioned in Derry and briefly held in Crumlin Road he was driven straight to the border and handed over to the Free State government who (it was assumed) would quickly try him in a military court and execute him. White barely avoided execution and was sent to Portaoise for a number of years.

May 1943 to Feb 1944 Rocky Burns

Feb 1944 to March 1944 Harry White

March 1944 to March 1945 Harry O’Rawe

March 1945 to October 1946 Johnny Murphy

October 1946 to ?? Seamus Twomey

?? to early 1949 Seamus McCollum 

So roughly, I’d now guess this is the sequence of Belfast O/Cs from Rocky Burns death until Seamus McCollum who is named by Dessie O’Hagan as O/C in 1949. But there is still some uncertainty as to the overall accuracy of this and the period before just Seamus McCollum took over. That this is all still a little vague is kind of appropriate since it is the period that overlaps with the novel and film versions of Odd Man Out.

 

‘The boy who rules Free Derry’ (a profile of Martin McGuinness from 1972)

Below is the earliest (and perhaps the most illuminating) profile of Martin McGuinness, written by Nell McCafferty and published in The Irish Times on 19th April 1972, within weeks of Bloody Sunday. Entitled, ‘Martin McGuinness: Profile of a Provo‘. Given all that is being said following his recent death, it is fascinating to read as it gives a sense of what is missing in the overall commentary, namely, what motivated him to join the IRA.

Firstly, though, an earlier mention of Martin McGuinness in the press. Back in October 1969, he was arrested and brought to court following a confrontation with British soldiers in Derry. The Irish Times reported: “Martin McGuinness (19), of Elmwood street, Derry, was fined £50 for disorderly behaviour on last Saturday at Strand road. Head Constable Campbell said the troops had moved a crowd of about 200 along Strand road. A sergeant had noticed four or five youths, including defendant, shouting, abusive remarks. The troops were ordered over the barrier and the sergeant caught McGuinness.”

McG 1969

He first spoke in public as a republican leader in April 1972, which is what prompted Nell McCafferty’s profile of him, which I have reproduced below. If you are unfamiliar with the chronology of events, a useful resource, the Conflict Archive, is here.

Martin McGuinness: Profile of a Provo by Nell McCafferty

You know how much life has changed when you’re having a Republicans tea – a bottle of orange and a bap – in the back of a car, just a few minutes from your own home.” Martin McGuinness, the 21-year-old O.C. of the Derry Provisional I.R.A., may have changed his life-style, but he is acutely embarrassed at popular press descriptions of him as ‘the boy who rules Free Derry’. He was catapulted into the limelight at a press conference in the Creggan estate last week, and since then the English papers have had a hey day writing about his ‘good looks, youth and shy charm.’ An American TV man spent a wistful hour planning the scenario for a colour-film spectacular about him. “Jeez,” he said, “that boy would be hot on the coast. Can you see him, six feet tall in a dinner jacket, raising funds.” His wish will presumably not be granted. The English journalist who romanticised Mr. McGuinness was ordered out of town. He left immediately.

[Elsewhere Nell names that American TV man as New York columnist, Jimmy Breslin – he died two days before Martin, on 19th March 2017]

I don’t feel like a big-shot, travelling around the area in a stolen Ford Avenger,” said Martin. “I have to do what the people want. They don’t treat me like I was something different. In fact one wee woman couldn’t understand why I couldn’t go down the barracks to bail out her son who’d been arrested. I had to take her up to headquarters and arrange for someone else to do it.

He joined the I.R.A. after the Battle of Bogside, 1969. Initially he was with the Official wing. “There was not a Provo unit in Derry then. The Officials approached me and for three months we attended policy and training lectures in a house in the Bogside. But they wouldn’t give us any action. All this time, there was fighting in the streets and things were getting worse in Belfast. You could see the soldiers just settling into Derry, not being too worried about the stone-throwing. Occasionally, the Officials gave out Molotov cocktails, which wouldn’t even go off, and I knew that after 50 years we were more of an occupied country than we ever were.

It seemed to me that behind all the politics and marching, it was plain as daylight that there was an army in our town, in our country and that they weren’t there to give out flowers. Armies should be fought by armies. So one night I piled into a black Austin, me and five mates and we went to see a Provo across the Border. We told him our position and there were several meetings after that. Then we joined. Nothing really happened until Seamus Cusack was killed, and internment came soon after. Then the Provos in Derry were ordered into full-time military action. I gave up my job working in the butcher’s shop.

His mother was panic-stricken, he said, when she found out he was in the IRA. “A few months after I’d joined, she found a belt and beret in my bedroom and there was a big row. She and my father told me to get out of it, and for the sake of peace I said I would and they calmed down. But now they have to accept it. They’ve seen the British Army in action and they know I’d no choice.” His mother, though, had started smoking again, which she hadn’t done in years. “I know her health has failed, and she’s always worrying about me. If I’m not  around to tell her myself, I send her words that I’m alright. I don’t discuss my business with her, and she doesn’t ask.

Martin’s mother was angry at the press reports of him. “You’d think he was running around the area with a gun, telling people what they could and could not do. The only time I saw guns in this house was when the British Army raided it.” She worries about him even more since Joseph McCann was shot in Belfast. “Since Martin’s picture appeared in the papers, every soldier in Derry knows what he looks like.” And when it’s all over – should it ever end – she worries about his job. “His trade’s been interrupted. His father is a welder, his brothers are at the bricklaying and carpentering, but what will become of Martin? That’s why they’ll have to get an amnesty, so’s he can get back to work, and not be always on the run.

Martin himself doesn’t worry too much about what will come after. His aims are devastatingly simple. “I want a United Ireland where everyone has a good job and enough to live on.” He had read a little, he said, since becoming a Republican, and supported Socialist views, “but the Officials are all views and no support. I wish we were getting more press coverage in Derry for our political beliefs but we don’t have the talkers in our ranks. Still, the people support us, and that’s good enough.

He wondered sometimes, he said, if Socialism would ever work out. “I have a lot of respect for Bernadette Devlin, but I think maybe people are too greedy. I’d be willing to sweep the roads in my world and it wouldn’t seem like a bad job if they got the same wages as everybody else, but do you not think now that people are just too greedy. Somebody always wants to make a million. Anyway, before you can try, you have to get this country united.

We’d make sure that Protestants are fairly treated. I don’t accept that we are sectarian. But you have to face facts that it’s the Catholics who’ve been discriminated against. The Officials go on about us all the time, but was them that blew up the Protestant mayor’s house in Derry and shot Barnhill and John Taylor. Mind you, I’ve nothing against the rank-and-file officials. They’re soldiers, just like me, with a job do. That job, as far as I am concerned, is to fight the British Army.

The Provisionals took care, he said, not to harm innocent civilians. “But sometimes mistakes are made. There was an explosion in Derry some time ago and I read afterwards that a man had been trapped in the basement. He lost a part of his leg. Then you read that he’s a cyclist and you feel sad. The worst I ever felt was Bloody Sunday. I wandered about stunned, with people crying and looking for their relatives, and I thought of all that about honour between soldiers. The British Army knew right well we wouldn’t fight them with all those thousands of people there, so they came in and murdered the innocent.

I used to worry about being killed before that day, but now I don’t think about death at all.

If there’s a riot on, he sometimes goes and throws stones. “It relieves the pressure, and it’s a way of being with my mates, the ones who have not joined the movement, and I feel just ordinary again.

I suppose,” he added, “you think us Provos have no feelings at all, just because we have no time to talk about it.

Last week he talked publicly, for the first time. His speech, to a wildly cheering crowd in the Brandywell, was very short and to the point. “If Gerry Fitt and John Hume think they are going to sell the people out,” he said, “they’ve got another thing coming. It’s just not on.” He looked very young as he spoke. He was probably not what Austin Currie had in mind, last autumn, when he warned the people that the possible imprisonment of MPs would create a need for a ‘second-tier leadership’. But the influential, middle-aged, middle-of-the-road Derry Centre Citizens Council took sufficient cognisance of this leadership to go and have a talk with him about his ideas. Afterwards they rejected the Provisionals proposals for elections in the city. Martin didn’t mind too much.

“I know they’re wrong,” he said. “I know it and I feel it when I go round the barricades and see the boys they called hooligans and the men they called wasters, and the fellows that used only to drink, doing things now they really believe in. Protecting the area, and freeing Ireland and freeing themselves.

 

The Great Escape: Derry, 1943

On the 20th March 1943 the IRA staged a mass escape through a tunnel from Derry Jail. The escape was one of a series of high profile actions by the IRA in the north in the first half of 1943.

The escape itself is well covered by an episode of the TG4 series, Ealú: To Hell and Back (currently not available online but worth a look if you can find it). There is a longer account of the escape on the blog here, so this article looks more at the wider context of the escape in terms of the IRA in 1943.

Planning for the Derry escape had begun in October 1942 when a tunnel was started in the cell of Harry O’Rawe and Jimmy O’Hagan (there are also accounts of the escape in Uinseann McEoin’s Harry and The IRA in the Twilight Years). The prospects for the IRA at the time looked bleak. After IRA Chief of Staff Sean Russell’s sabotage campaign in Britain failed to put much pressure on the government in London, the IRA had not articulated a clear change in strategy. The outbreak of the world war in September 1939 had also dramatically altered the wider political context. Northern irritation at the IRA’s Dublin-centric leadership had culminated in the removal of Stephen Hayes as Acting Chief of Staff (deputising for Russell), ostensibly for betraying the IRA. Hayes, like Russell, actually appeared to be intent on recalibrating IRA actions to coalesce with the political ambitions of Fianna Fail, as it had done up to at least 1932. Sean McCaughey, the IRA Adjutant General who led the investigation of Hayes, suspected that this was somehow being facilitated by a resuscitated IRB.

The world war had presented the IRA opportunities on two fronts. Firstly, the Allies desire for the USA to enter the war increased dramatically as the toll of their early setbacks mounted over 1940. Irish-America sensed an opening to leverage Ireland into the debate and countered some Allied propaganda by flagging parallels between the German’s treatment of other European territories with that of the British Empire, particularly Ireland. The presence of Sean Russell in the USA in 1939 had already raised the profile of the Irish issue (and effectively demonstrated that any value the English sabotage campaign, ultimately, had also  lay in exerting pressure on the UK via Irish-America).

The second front was in being able to draw lines between the British Empire and its enemies. Quite a lot has been written about the IRA and Nazi Germany, yet contacts were minimal, extremely erratic and apparently valueless to either side. In Belfast, over the same period, the IRA, was attempting to widen its political base by forming a Republican Club. This coincided with communists and the left pushing for a broad anti-fascist front and provided common ground. The Belfast steering committee included both IRA volunteers like Charlie McGlade, Jack Brady, Ernie Hillen and Tarlach Ó hUid, and, Communists, trade unionists and other interested parties like Malachy Gray, Jimmy Johnston and Jimmy Devlin (Ó hUid names members in his 1960 memoir Ar Thoir Mo Shealbha). Billy McCullough and Betty Sinclair were even to be jailed for publishing an article by the IRA in the left wing newsletter Red Hand. Over the course of 1939, the communist’s public language shifted from a broad ‘antifascist front’ to opposing Britain’s ‘imperialist war’. This initiative fragmented when Germany invaded the Soviet Union. The Communists position shifted dramatically towards supporting the Allies war effort in line with Russian foreign policy.

The subsequent fallout among those involved in the Republican Club was to continue to colour events in Belfast for decades, denouncing republicans within weeks of Tom Williams execution in 1942 and reputedly betraying senior IRA figures and dumps to the RUC (see Swan, Official Irish Republicanism, 1962 to 1972, p93). What this more acute was that, in the wake of the Hayes fiasco, the IRA’s centre had shifted to the north and Belfast. By mid-1942, weapons were being relocated to the northern dumps in preparation for a proposed campaign. After the capture of the main dump in late August 1942, massive RUC raids saw over 200 arrested in the hours after Williams execution at the start of September. The northern campaign never materialised (although the lower Falls was put under curfew until December 1942). With no prospect of success via a military victory, again, whatever strategy was in place relied upon achieving sufficient publicity in the USA that Irish-America might demand an Irish republic be included in any post-war Versailles-type treaty. By the end of 1942 and start of 1943 it was becoming apparent that no negotiated settlement would take place as the Allies demanded unconditional surrender by the Germans.

Subsequent IRA actions in the north in 1943 should then be understood as operations intended to generate as much publicity as possible, with two main audiences. The first was its belaboured supporters in Ireland, under pressure at home, and, interned on both sides of the border, and, both sides of the Irish Sea. The second was, as ever, Irish-America, and whatever future political support it might be able to deliver.

The focus on the newsworthiness of the escape also explains some of the flaws in the IRA’s overall plan for the Derry escape. The success factors in the high profile escape from Crumlin Road prison that January were not replicated in the Derry escape (resulting most of those who escaped being immediately picked up and interned in the south). Despite considerable logistical support on the ground, the main thrust of the escape plan was to get those involved over the border. That was despite the fact that the southern government had been even more bloodthirsty in pursuit of the IRA than even the northern government. Consciously or not, the real value in the escape was in the newsworthiness.

Two quotes shed some light on IRA thinking at the time. In his historical novel, An Ulster Idyll, Vincent McDowell (himself a 1940s internee) captures the general thinking among republicans in 1942: “They could look forward to peace eventually and some kind of normality, but the IRA hoped that they would have a place in the final peace conference, and that the question of Irish unity would be raised, hopefully with the help of the Americans.” Similarly, Hugh McAteer, the IRA Chief of Staff at the time (who himself had escaped in January 1943), wrote in the Sunday Independent in 1951 that by the middle of April 1943 the IRA leadership were openly admitting to each other that the military offensive begun in September 1942 was failing: “…we acknowledged to each other what we had long felt in our own hearts – that the possibility of our plans in the North succeeding was out of the question for the present. The propaganda value of the Derry escape, as evidenced by the many popular ballads, was tremendous; the practical result very small.

history

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