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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Irish-American Oskar Schindler

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

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

“Gestapo not a bad bunch”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

YMCA Oberskaya

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zalman

Moriz Zalman, 1882-1940. BildArchivAustria.

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

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

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

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

Coyle

Albert Freeman Coyle, 1891-1956.

Roy Johnston, 1929-2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Roy Johnston died last Friday, 13th December.

A century of rebel songs: Ceol Chogadh na Saoirse

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

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

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

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

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

The Burning of Cork, 1920

On the night of 11-12 December 1920 members of two Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) units, the Special Reserve and Auxiliary Division, shot burned and looted their way through parts of Cork city centre killing and wounding a number of people and causing damage estimated at $194m/€175m (in today’s value). In the immediate aftermath much of the press, particularly the British press, either claimed no-one was able to identify those involved or else attributed to the violence to ‘Sinn Feiners’ (meaning the IRA).

In the days after Cork was burnt by the Black and Tans (as the RIC’s Special Reserve was known) and Auxies (as the Auxiliary Division was known), English newspapers like the The Graphic reported merely that ‘incendiaries’ had set fire to the city. The Illustrated London News claimed it was “impossible to say” which ‘faction’ was responsible but that citizens had requested that General Strickland deploy military patrols to guard the city centre. Within a couple of days, Sir Hamar Greenwood, the British government’s Chief Secretary for Ireland, went even further. He explicitly denied any involvement of the British forces and, instead, unequivocally blamed the burnings on the IRA.

Below, you can see a selection of photographs of the aftermath in Cork as published in contemporary newspapers.

The Graphic, 18 Dec 1920

Another image from The Graphic, 18 Dec 1920

Full page image from The Graphic, 18 Dec 1920

Illustrated London News, 18 Dec 1920

A burned out tramcar, Leeds Mercury 16 Dec 1920

The Sphere, 18 Dec 1920

Sheffield Independent, 15 Dec 1920

Another image of the destruction from Sheffield Independent, 15 Dec 1920

The response was to get Professor Alfred O’Rahilly (of University College Cork) to produce a book containing eye-witness accounts of events over the night of 11-12 December 1920, which were published in January 1921 under the name of the Irish Labour Party and Trade Union Congress. The book was called Who Burnt Cork City? (you can get a copy here). It so successfully counteracted the propaganda put out in the English press that it was to be the model for the Facts and Figures of the Belfast Pogrom which was to appear in August 1922 (also now back in print).

Joe McKelvey GAC: the IRA’s own GAA club

This is the story of Joe McKelvey GAC, a GAA club formed by the IRA in Belfast. Founded in 1924, the Joseph McKelvey Gaelic Athletic Club was named after the executed former commandant of the IRA’s 3rd Northern Division. McKelvey had been a founder member of the O’Donovan Rossa GAA club in Belfast. The choice of the name and the founding of McKelveys GAC followed the return of Lt. Gen. Joe McKelvey’s remains to Belfast from Dublin for burial in October 1924.

McKelveys burial was regarded by many Belfast republicans as the event which prompted the post-Civil War re-organisation of the IRA in Belfast. Clearly many in the Belfast IRA saw echoes (or wanted to see echoes) in the parallels with the funeral of O’Donovan Rossa. That funeral had catalysed republicans prior to the declaration of a republic in April 1916. The Belfast IRA, including McKelvey, had formed the O’Donovan Rossa GAA club in his memory. At the time the symbolism of forming a club in McKelvey’s name was no doubt well understood. In case it wasn’t, McKelveys GAC made it explicit: while Rossa played in white jerseys with a tricolour panel on the front, McKelveys played in a black jersey with a tricolour panel on the front.

Early photo of McKelveys team, dating to around 1926 (published in Ray Quinn's A Rebel View.

Early photo of McKelveys team, dating to around 1926 (published in Ray Quinn’s A Rebel View.)

In 1925 McKelveys fielded a team in the South Antrim Junior Hurling League. A surviving line-up from a hurling league game against Sarsfields in Donegall Park in June 1926 gives a flavour of the club’s early playing members. That day the team was G. Donnelly, Davy Matthews, J. O’Boyle, Hugh Matthews, Joe McGurk, A. Johnston, Frank Pimley, J. Ralph, Hugh Corvin, F. McGoldrick, M. Maguire, O. McGeough, A. O’Donnell, J. Curran and James Thompson. The report on the games notes that regulars N. Donnelly and George Nash were both missing (McKelveys still won 2-1 to 1-0). The same year, McKelveys’ footballers beat Parnells, then lost to Stephens in the South Antrim Junior Football Championship semi-final. The Irish News report on the semi-final (which McKelveys lost 3-4 to 4-0) includes the following line-up: E. Colligan, J. Meighan, J. Dempsey, H. Laverty, J. Doherty, O. McGeough, N. Donnelly, G. Nash, J. Havlin, D. Matthews, A. O’Donnell, H. Corvin, F. Pimley, G. Donnelly and E. Quinn. McKelveys N. Donnelly also played on the Antrim team that defeated Cavan in the final of the Northern Division of the National Football League in 1926.
Hugh Corvin (the Belfast IRA O/C), Davy Matthews (who was later Belfast IRA O/C), Hugh Matthews (Davy’s brother and another future Belfast IRA O/C) and George Nash, O/C of one of the Belfast IRA companies were all prominent Belfast IRA staff members. Others, like Joe McGurk who had been imprisoned the previous year for possession of arms and weapons, are well-known IRA men. Visibly, McKelveys was very much an IRA team drawing on the small pool of active republicans left in Belfast. It was also very much an anti-treaty IRA side. The O’Donovan Rossa club, which McKelvey helped found, was associated with Belfast IRA staff who had taken and, in 1924, still remained, on the pro-treaty side. If other prominent South Antrim clubs, like Morans, Kevin Barrys (also originally an ‘IRA club’), Stephens, Parnells and Ardoyne had any associations it could equally have been to organisations such as the Ancient Order of Hibernians or Irish National Foresters. In that regard, McKelveys being left as the sole IRA-sponsored GAA club may be a reflection of the political landscape of nationalist Belfast in 1924-25.
An early photograph (above) survives of a McKelveys’ football team, which appears to date around 1925-26 and must presumably be one of the first junior football teams fielded by the club. Those that can be identified in the photo include Hugh Corvin, Jack McNally, Davy and Hugh Matthews, Joe Hanna and Jimmy Steele. McNally, Hanna and Steele were also intimately involved in the IRA in Belfast from 1924. McNally dropped out of republican activities for a number of years after 1927 and doesn’t seem to feature in any recorded line-ups for McKelveys from that date onwards, suggesting this photo dates to 1927 at the latest.
The club had a base in Rockmount Street, just off the Falls Road, where an old wooden building, known as the McKelvey hut, was used. It is also clear, from various accounts in the 1920s, that it was openly known to be a base of the Belfast IRA as individuals who wished to join the IRA went there to ask about joining. Its official name, when it is mentioned in the press, was McKelvey Hall, later (in the 1930s) being known as the McKelvey Recreation Club. By the mid-1930s McKelveys also used Pearse Hall, in the city centre, as their base.
By 1927, McKelveys had attracted a number of transfers, including Jack Gaffney from Morans and Art Thornbury from O’Connells, both of whom were closely associated with the IRA. While the McKelveys’ footballers came bottom of the South Antrim Senior Football League, they did well in the Senior Football Championship that year and came up against Jack Gaffneys former club, Morans, in the semi-final. The line-up for the semi-final in Shaun’s Park was A. O’Donnell, J. McCrealey, Jack Gaffney, P. Rafftery, M. Maguire, R. Boomer, H. Lavery, Art Thornbury, T. Carabine, D. McGregor, J. McKeown, J. Steele, Hugh Corvin, E. Quinn and A. Johnston.
Morans were too strong for McKelveys, though, winning 2-9 to 1-1. The Irish News reports that the best back was McCrealey, Corvin and Steele best of an indifferent forward line, and Thornbury was the outstanding player on the pitch. Jack Gaffney, only returned from six weeks out due to illness, was described as not fully fit. The hurlers made it to the South Antrim Junior Hurling Championship final in 1927, losing heavily to Parnells, 8-4 to 2-0, who were winning their first honours, while the footballers made it through to the South Antrim Junior Football Championship final the same year.
In 1928, McKelveys lost Art Thornbury and Jack Gaffney who were arrested along with others at an Easter Commemoration in Milltown cemetery. They also lost George Nash to a three year sentence for illegal possession of documents. But McKelveys did make the final of the South Antrim Junior Football Championship where they met Kevin Barrys on 20th May at Corrigan Park. By half-time, McKelveys were 1-4 to 0-0 ahead. They didn’t score again in the second half and two Kevin Barrys goals reduced their lead to a single point. But that was how the game ended and McKelveys survived to become South Antrim Junior Football champions. They then played Lamh Dearg, Toome a week later in Toome in the final of the Antrim Junior Football Championship. By half-time, McKelveys were 1-1 to 0-1 behind. McKelveys inched closer during a scrappy second half, trailing by 1-2 (5 points) to 0-3 (3 points) with a few minutes to go. But, a goal from Lamh Dearg put the final result beyond doubt and it ended 2-2 to 0-3.
McKelveys also made the final of the Ben Madigan Cup on the 10th June where they played O’Connells in Corrigan Park. The McKelveys’ team was A. O’Donnell in goal, D. McCann, J. McCreely and J. McKeown in the full-back line, Joe O’Neill, T. Carabine and H. Laverty in the half-back line, Frank Pimley and Davy Matthews in midfield, Hugh Corvin, Jimmy Steele and J. Conkey in the half-forward line, T. Cunningham, P. Rafferty and A. Johnston in the full-forward line. Jimmy Steele scored one of the first half goals (the Irish News describing him as a live wire during the game), as McKelveys went into a 2-2 (8 points) to 0-0 half-time lead. The second half was fairly tame and McKelveys cruised home 3-2 (11 points) to 0-1 (1 point).
By 1929 McKelveys’ players like Matthews, Boomer, Pimley, Ward and O’Neill were being called up to the Antrim county sides, both football and hurling, and in Art Thornbury, the club had a dual inter-provincial player who was the outstanding player in the county, in both codes, in the 1920s. He had won a number of Ulster Senior Hurling championships. He playing on the side that defeated Cavan 4-3 to 3-1 for the 1926 Ulster title. Cavan had led for much of the game until Thornbury set up McCarry for the crucial third goal. In the 1927 final, Thornbury also played a lead role as Antrim again overcame Cavan, this time on a score-line of 5-4 to 3-3 at Breffni Park on 3rd October. Thornbury continued to star in Antrim’s defence throughout the 1920s, and played on Antrim teams which won further Ulster titles. In mid-April 1931, when Antrim entered the National Hurling League for the first time, Thornbury was a central part of the squad (he had also played regularly in the National Football League for Antrim). Antrim filled a place in Group B in 1931 that had been vacated by Wexford’s withdrawal. The first game, on 24th May 1931, at Portlaoise, finished Laois 4-4 Antrim 0-4. The other game was played against Dublin at Corrigan Park in Belfast on 2nd August and Antrim again lost, this time on a score of 4-4 to 2-2. Antrim weren’t to re-enter the National Hurling League until 1945 (although in some seasons a Northern Division was contested by some Ulster counties).
A lot of Belfast republicans were subjected to routine harassment by the northern government and some, including McKelveys players, were charged and sentenced to terms of imprisonment. As in 1928, Thornbury missed a portion of the 1930 season as he was arrested again at the 1930 Easter commemoration and received three months in prison, along with Hugh Matthews.
Despite the loss of players to arrest and imprisonment, by the early 1930s, the club was fielding teams in the Senior and Intermediate football, hurling and (from 1929) camogie leagues. McKelveys won the South Antrim Senior Football League in 1930-31 (the league itself was completed in November 1931) as well as the Senior Football Championship and the South Antrim Cup in football. As South Antrim champions, McKelveys contested the final of the Antrim Senior Football Championship against Cuchullains Dunloy on July 12th 1931 at Dunloy.
McKelveys were without Thornbury and Ward who had been suspended the previous week for being sent off when playing for the Antrim county side. Cuchullains, playing with a strong breeze in the first half, led 1-3 to no score at half time. McKelveys, who (The Irish News notes) also had to contend with playing uphill in the first half, began the second half strongly. As per regulations at the time, both clubs had supplied umpires to the referee, John Osborne, but on a number of occasions the umpires disagreed over scores. Carabine and Jimmy Steele were both guilty of wasting chances before Joe O’Neill got McKelveys’ first point of the game. Chances then began to come for McKelveys and Joe Pimley had a shot saved, then Finnegan had a shot deflected wide. Carabine managed to win the ball after a placed kick from O’Neill, and directed a shot on the Cuchallains’ goal. The score was signalled with a red flag by one umpire (indicating a goal) and a white flag by the other (indicating a point). A Cuchallains’ player then pulled the red flag from the umpire and a McKelveys’ forward tried to influence the other umpire to award the goal (The Irish News, which published a report of the game on 14/7/31 diplomatically does not name those involved). The referee decided to award a point but such a heated row then followed between the spectators and umpires that the referee decided to halt the game. The County board decided the game had to be replayed.
The replay was on 10th August and was refereed by the chairman of the County Antrim board, Padraig McNamee with selected umpires. McKelveys had Thornbury back for the replayed game, although Ward was still absent. The team that started the game was A. O’Neill in goals, James Pimley, Jack Gaffney and W. Connolly in the full-back line, Joe Pimley, Art Thornbury and P. O’Neill in the half-backs, P. Boomer and Joe O’Neill in midfield, W. Cochrane, Gene Thornbury and M. Finnegan in the half-forwards and Jimmy Steele, T. Carabine and R. Boomer in the full-forward line. There was a strong cross-wind that reduced the accuracy of the passing and the game was frequently interrupted with frees for minor infringements and some bad blood that spilled over from the abandoned first game. McKelveys, playing uphill for the first half, were 0-4 to 0-0 behind at half time. Joe O’Neill then got McKelvey’s off the mark at the start of the second half but a Cuchullains goal left them 1-4 to 0-1 behind. The game then got scrappier and Gunning (Cuchullains) and P. Boomer were sent off. Joe O’Neill then gave McKelveys some hope with two further points to reduce the gap to 1-4 (7 points) to 0-3 (3 points). Cuchullains continued to break up the game and also had Dillon sent off, later followed by R. Boomer (McKelveys). But time ran out and McKelveys lost.
The season wasn’t yet over, though, as McKelveys had also reached the final of the South Antrim Senior Hurling Championship against O’Connells. This was played at Corrigan Park, and the McKelveys’ team was S. McKeown in goal, James Pimley, Davy Matthews and W. McFadden in the full-back line, Joe O’Neill, Art Thornbury and J. Walsh in the half-back line, T. Carabine and P. O’Neill in midfield, Joe Pimley, P. Boomer, and Jimmy Steele in the half-forward line, and, W. Connolly, R. Boomer and Gene Thornbury in the full-forward line. The game started up even enough, tying at 0-1 to 0-1 but O’Connells added a goal and two points before McKelveys scored again. Another goal before the break left McKelveys 2-3 (9 points) to 0-2 (2 points) down at half-time. Despite the best efforts of the Thornburys and Boomers, McKelveys couldn’t reduce the gap and a third goal for O’Connells effectively killed off the game. At the final whistle, O’Connells won by 3-5 (14 points) to 0-6 (6 points).
Hugh Corvin’s absence from the McKelveys’ teams by 1931 is interesting. In 1927, he had stepped down as O/C of the Belfast IRA but was to remain prominent in the McKelveys club for the next couple of seasons. His replacement as O/C, Davy Matthews, was one of those who represented the club at South Antrim Divisional Board. By 1930, Corvin appears to have less association with the club (and the IRA).
In 1931-32, the South Antrim Senior Football League contained nine teams, O’Connells, Rossa, McKelveys, Sarsfields, Ardoyne, St Galls, St Johns, Tir-na-nOg and Shamrocks (Aughagallon), while there were eighteen teams in the Intermediate and Junior leagues. But for the new 1931-32 season McKelveys struggled. In the same year the club also played games against clubs from outside Antrim, such as against a Lurgan team as part of a benefit tournament in January 1932, (which McKelveys lost 3-1 to 1-2). They struggled early in the league in 1932 at which time Art Thornbury and Jack Gaffney were suspended (along with two other senior players). Thornbury, along with another IRA man, was arrested over an attempted arms raid that month and subsequently sentenced to eighteen months in prison. His brother, Gene, also was dragged into the case. Other McKelveys men, such as Willie McCurry, were arrested and imprisoned over the summer (in McCurry’s case, for printing posters protesting Thornbury’s imprisonment).
McKelveys lost to Tir na nOg in January 1932, by which time they had dropped 3 points in the league, as much as in all of the previous season. They then lost to Ardoyne, although they did beat St Galls and St Johns in February. By the time the 1932 South Antrim Senior Football Championship came around in April, McKelveys were no longer contending for the league but easily beat Sarsfields in their first round tie, although eventually going out in a heavy defeat to Tir-na-nOg, 4-5 to 0-1 in October (when many IRA members in Belfast were involved, albeit unofficially, in the Outdoor Relief riots).
The political leanings of the GAA in Antrim at this time was heavily influenced by McKelveys, as can be gauged by its sponsorship of motions with regard to the status of British soldiers, sailors and police being beyond the pale of the GAA in 1930 and again, specifically proposed by McKelveys, in 1932. The later motion called for a definition of the position of the Civic Guard and Army in the Irish Free State, and specifically referred to the issue of the naming of clubs. The motion was eventually withdrawn and referred to the GAA’s Central Committee. McKelveys also had Art Thornbury proposed for position of secretary of the Ulster Council, but he lost out in a ballot.
That summer, McKelveys organised a training camp at Harp Hall near Carnlough. On July 19th, at 4 am, the RUC stormed into the camp. In the main hut, Farrell John Leddy from Rockdale Street in Belfast, a 22 year old doctor and son of a former RIC man, was detained. A bugle was reportedly found in Leddy’s bag, whilst a book with notes about the use of arms was found on a table in the hut. The twenty-five young men found at the camp had their details taken then were transport back to Belfast and released.
The camp had consisted of a wooden hut for the officers and instructors, and, four canvas tents for those attending the camp (the hut was owned by a J. McKeown of Belfast, who also happened to be secretary of the Antrim County board). A tricolour was flown from a flag pole (the flag was confiscated by the RUC). It is clear from accounts of the camp that it was an IRA training camp organised by the McKelveys club. At the start of August the wooden hut used at Harp Hall by Farrell Leddy was burnt down.
The McKelvey’s Senior Hurling team were heavily beaten in Glenarm a week after the camp was raided (they received another heavy defeated from Glenarm in October the same year – somewhat offset by beating Queens University in the Senior Football on the same day). That autumn, McKelveys fortunes were mixed, losing heavily (3-3 to 0-2) to St Galls in October, and then to O’Connells in November (2-1 to 1-2) and narrowly to O’Donnell’s in December (0-3 to 0-2), although going well in the Intermediate Football. That October, the Outdoor Relief riots saw significant street disturbances in Belfast, many involving IRA members (and McKelveys heavy loss in the championship).
Despite the distractions, McKelveys fared a bit better in the 1932-1933 league campaign, with Finnegan, O’Neill and Cochrane playing well, but were hampered by the increasingly regular loss of players to arrest and short-term detentions (as well as longer term imprisonments of a few months). When Art Thornbury was released from prison in October 1933 he was hounded by the northern government, detained again for a month, then deported to the south. This was against the backdrop of a further outbreak of violence in Belfast. It was hoped to run Thornbury as an election candidate that autumn and the RUC, expecting a selection convention to be held, raided McKelvey Hall in November 1933. The convention was held elsewhere and Thornbury was selected (although, as the prison authorities prevented Art signing the nomination papers, his brother Patrick stood in his place in the end). As the convention wasn’t taking place, the RUC arrested fifteen 14-19 year olds who were present instead. They were charged with drilling and, in the end, eight received two months including John McKenna (who got hard labour for refusing to recognise the court), Patrick Lavery, Thomas Graham, Francis Doherty, Patrick McCann, Rory Campbell, Vincent Kelly and Francis McGoldrick. In court, it was claimed that McKenna was giving words of command to the others, such as “’Shun! About turn!”, “Form fours!” and “Quick march!”.
Doherty died soon after his release from prison and was commemorated in the song Belfast Graves, the original version of which was written by Jimmy Steele. The lines of the song mentioning Doherty also feature in Brendan Behan’s Borstal Boy.
As well as the youths arrested at McKelvey Hall, that November, more senior players and former players were sentenced to between one and three months in prison for refusing to answer questions put to them by a magistrate. Refusing to answer was an offence under the Civil Authorities (Special Powers) Acts. Those arrested included George Nash, Jimmy Steele, Jack Gaffney, Frank Pimley, William Connolly, William McCurry, Davy Matthews and Hugh Matthews. A club delegate to various county meetings, Brendan Kielty (who was later to travel to Spain with Eoin O’Duffy), was arrested for speaking at an illegal rally in support of republican detainees on 5th November 1933.

In his biography, Harry, Harry White recalls that he would drop in at the McKelveys’ base “…and look up the line-out and composition of the team only to find there were gaps – some of the lads had been arrested; they were replaced by that well-known chap, A.N. Other.”
And the arrests did not end in November. On 15th January 1934, Gerald O’Toole from Spinner Street was in the McKelvey Republican Hall in when the RUC entered. A Constable Fannin questioned O’Toole and three others about their activities and they said there were arranging football fixtures. Fannin then searched O’Toole (who he says refused to answer any more questions) and found a letter on him from a man named Crilly addressed to Jimmy Steele.
There were other problems for the club that month. Davy Matthews had taken an opportunity to sign out of prison for Christmas, as did George Nash. This was against IRA policy as it was giving recognition to the courts and prison service. Matthews was expelled from the IRA. Neither he nor Nash are mentioned again in accounts of McKelveys.
On the field the team was depleted for a visit to Aughagallon to play the Shamrocks in January 1934, where they were beaten 1-8 to 2-1, despite goals from Jack Gaffney and Maguire and a point from Joe O’Neill. That month the team continued to have ‘team troubles’ due to arrests and fielded without key men like Ward, Gene Thornbury and Pimley (although they could still rely on the likes of Jack Gaffney, McGeough, Boomer, O’Neill and Cochrane). They also lost out to Ardoyne in the Senior Football Championship in January 1934, after a replay.
The team continued to struggle, though, even when players returned. On top of being outside contention for the league, McKelveys struggled to be competitive at all in 1934, despite the likes of Gene Thornbury, Adams, Joe O’Neill, P O’Neill, Cochrane, McKeown, Pimley and Boomer doing well. They shipped heavy defeats to the likes of St Galls (3-4 to 0-1) in February and narrowly to O’Connells (1-4 to 0-5) the same month. For the next season, O’Connells also put McKelveys out of the Senior Football Championship in the first round in April.
At the end of 1934, the club proposed a motion on political prisoners that was ruled out of order at the Antrim Convention, at which there appears to have been some dispute as to the maintenance of the ‘non-political’ nature of the GAA.
The club had also continued to field a team in the senior hurling in 1933 but, paralleling the decline of the footballers, slipped down to the Intermediate League where they continued to struggle. At the end of the 1933-34 season, McKelveys’ footballers were relegated and fielded in the Intermediate and Junior Leagues in the winter of 1934 (as well as the Ben Madigan Cup instead of the South Antrim Cup). The 1934 season began equally badly as they struggled in the Intermediate League, losing to Rossa II, O’Donnells, Gaedhil Uladh and Davitts, eventually picking up points by beating St Galls II in January 1935, 2-0 to 0-1. The decline also saw the loss of the players, with the likes of Pimley moving to Gaedhil Uladh to continue playing senior football.
Further violence, including an attempted pogrom in Belfast that summer, as well as arrests at a Belfast IRA training camp in Louth further weakened the club in 1935. In the autumn resumption of the league, McKelveys began strongly in the Intermediate Football League beating O’Donnells 1-2 to 0-2 in November 1935, then St Galls 3-1 to 1-0. In February, Ardoyne were beaten 1-3 to 1-2. By late February, McKelveys were close to the top of the Intermediate League but not in contention for promotion (at the same time the junior team were struggling badly, close to the bottom of their league).
Of the McKelveys’ senior footballers who lined out against the Shamrocks in the Ben Madigan Cup in March 1936, only Jimmy Steele survived from the side who had played in the 1931 Antrim Senior Football Championship Final. The full McKelveys’ line-up was J. O’Rawe, P. Quinn, J. Kelly, J. McManus, J. McCaughan, T. Morris, P. McKenna, M. Clarke, L. Dooley, M. Higgins, J. Steele, H. White, J. Teague, J. Hamill and W. Mooney. McKelveys lost the game 0-3 to 0-0. In its report on the game, The Irish News singled out Morris, McKenna, Steele and McManus for praise. The next week, McKelvey’s made amends, winning the Biggar Cup. By May, Steele too was gone following the Crown Entry raid. By the end of 1936 the club could only field a team in the junior league.
Pearse Hall, which was also used by the McKelveys, was destroyed in a bomb explosion on May 27th 1938. On November 23rd 1938, a raid on the McKelvey Recreation Club off the Falls Road led to the detention of nineteen young men under the Special Powers Act. Those arrested included Matthew Bunting, Thomas Cairns, Kevin Barry Hughes, Michael Mullan, John O’Rawe, Thomas Gourley, David McKay, Joseph McKenna, John McKee, Billy McKee, Frank McCusker, Harry McGurk, Joseph Adams, Hugh Molloy. Most were aged 16-18 and it was claimed in court that they were members of Fianna na hÉireann and were being drilled by John McKee in the hall. All were found guilty and John McKee was given two months, while the others received fines or imprisonment.
On 28th November an attempted bomb attack on the McKelvey Hall damaged the adjoined Rockmount Social Club. By the end of the 1938, the McKelvey club was barely competing even at junior level and, in the face of the introduction of internment and the continued loss of members it eventually folded in 1939. In Antrims Patriot Dead, published in 1966, Jimmy Steele (clearly stating that McKelveys was an IRA club) says that those arrests and internment finished the club in 1939.
In 1940, McKelveys’ veteran Jack Gaffney died on the prison ship Al Rawdah. After his funeral in St Johns, his remains were brought to Milltown. At the funeral, the tricolour was produced which had been placed over Joe McKelvey’s coffin when he had been buried in Belfast in 1924. It was placed on Gaffney’s coffin in the church. It was again placed on Gaffney’s coffin when it was brought to Milltown where he was buried in the republican plot.
When the internees and sentenced prisoners, including many McKelveys’ men and women, were released after 1945 the club was not reformed, instead the main republican GAA club in Belfast was named after Tom Williams, who had been hung in 1942.

Eamon O’Tierney: 1916 veteran and English born Gaeilgeoir from a unionist family

Among those listed as interned in Frongoch in 1916 is an Edward Tierney whose address is given as the Falls Road, Belfast. There is also a Tierney tentatively listed among the Belfast Battalion volunteers who mobilised that Easter. So who was Edward Tierney?

Tierney’s name and address appear in the list of Frongoch internees compiled by Sean O’Mahony (in Frongoch: University of Revolution). No other details, other than the surname appears on the list of Belfast Battalion volunteers who mobilised in 1916 that is held in the Military Archives in Dublin. However, it is clear from the internment records that the Edward Tierney in Frongoch was more usually known by a Gaelicised form of the name, ‘Eamon O’Tierney’. O’Tierney had arrived in Frongoch quite late, having been transferred there in July. Harry Colley recalled that he and O’Tierney were taken into military custody from the hospital in Dublin Castle. They were marched to Kilmainham before their transfer to Frongoch. According to Colley, he and O’Tierney struggled to complete the next march from Kilmainham to the North Wall, where they were shipped to Frongoch (below). O’Tierney had been in the hospital since the surrender of the republican forces at the end of the Rising.

O’Tierney, who was described by Jeremiah O’Leary as always having being highly-strung, had suffered some form of collapse after being taken prisoner. One account states he was unconscious for as many as six weeks in the hospital. For a number of weeks afterwards, O’Tierney was also subject to severe headaches and what was described as ‘confused episodes’ and ‘loss of reason’. An account of his experience during the Rising appeared in the Irish Independent in January 1953. The area in which he fought, North King Street, witnessed some of the fiercest fighting of the Rising. O’Tierney was called the ‘Hero of Reilly’s Fort’ for his exploits in recovering an Irish Republic flag under fire. The flag had been placed on a lance that had been stuck into the ground at the centre of the North King Street and Church Street crossroads. F Company had used a pub on one of the corners of the crossroads as a stronghold which became known as Reilly’s Fort. It had come under sustained attack from British troops supported by armoured cars.

By the Friday, Reilly’s Fort had been under constant fire for sixteen hours and the decision was taken to evacuate it and retreat up Church Street to a barricade outside the Franciscan Church. The defenders were then joined by O’Tierney and others who had been defending the barricade in Mary’s Lane. When the Reilly’s Fort garrison was criticised for not bringing the Irish Republic flag and lance with them, O’Tierney went out, apparently under intense fire, and retrieved the flag and lance.

O’Tierney’s collapse after the Rising seems to be a manifestation of post-traumatic stress, presumably arising from his combat experience. In Frongoch, O’Tierney took part in the hunger-strike which began in early November. After several days on the hunger-strike, O’Tierney began to present further psychological reactions, but due to the conflict with the authorities in Frongoch he was denied medical care. For some ten days he experienced further confused episodes, including paranoid delusions about being conscripted. On the 20th November he again collapsed, which the other prisoners again described as being down to ‘loss of reason’. A few days later, on 24th November, the internees’ leaders, including Michael Collins, wrote to the authorities expressing their concern at O’Tierney’s condition and stating that he had been denied medical treatment. On 25th November, he was moved to an asylum at Denbigh where he stayed until 1917.

The 1953 series by Piaras Beaslaí that described the ‘Hero of Reilly’s Fort’.

So how had O’Tierney ended up in Dublin for the Rising?

Despite his recorded address, O’Tierney had actually arrived in Dublin from London, not Belfast. Immediately prior to the Rising, he had been in a party of eight that carried over twelve suitcases of arms and ammunition, arriving in Dublin on Good Friday 1916. Realising the Rising was about to take place, he refused to leave. O’Tierney had used the cover of a G.R. (Georgius Rex) armband of the British Home Guard when travelling between London and Dublin. The role of London-based Irish republicans in the Rising and subsequent independence campaigns has often been overlooked (eg Michael Collins spent over nine years in London).

O’Tierney had been one of those who had built up connections with Germany using letters addressed to prisoners of war. This was possible through his work in shipping as he was directly in contact with boats and captains travelling to Scandinavia and Germany. O’Tierney’s shipping connections meant he was invaluable in the attempts to procure arms and he was involved in organising the shipment of arms that was to come with Casement prior to the Easter Rising. He had even brought back one consignment of ammunition from Hamburg personally.

He had also been among the original members of the Irish Volunteers in London, commanded by Michael Collins. Their volunteer unit had, at first, created a relief committee for those affected by the 1913 lockout which then became the United Irish Associations (with O’Tierney as secretary). O’Tierney was also active in the Irish Self-Determination League.

Another one of the early recruits to the Irish Volunteers in London, Jeremiah O’Leary, records that Eamon O’Tierney had actually been born Edward Turnley. An article in Honesty in 1929 refers to O’Tierney as an ‘Ulster Republican’.  In the 1940s, Seamus Kavanagh recalled that Turnley had told him that his family background lay in Fermanagh and Monaghan and that his father was Grand Master of a Masonic Lodge there (Turnley himself was Presbyterian although he apparently converted to Catholicism while in hospital in Dublin Castle). Turnley reputedly said he had come over to London as a child to be educated and ended up fluent in twelve languages. His obituary, though, states that he came from a prominent unionist family in Antrim, rather than Fermanagh or Monaghan. Piaras Beaslaí (in the 1953 Irish Independent article) states that Turnley originally came from Fermanagh and that his father was a freemason and he had uncle who was an admiral. However, the quality of Beaslaí’s information is shown by him mistakenly giving the English form of Turnley’s surname as ‘Tormley’.

Seamus Kavanagh states that Turnley did first joined the Gaelic League to learn Irish, then, as he met various active republicans including some with Belfast connections like Henry Shiels, Alf Monaghan and the Wards, he became an active republican himself. His interest in the Irish language supposedly arose after a period of time in which he had been a heavy gambler and  was drinking excessively. During one such night, a British army officer made, and then lost, a huge gamble. The officer immediately left the room and shot himself. Seemingly, that turned Turnley from drinking and gambling and he took up the study of Irish instead. In the Gaelic League he met Michael Collins and it was Collins that is said to have made an Irish nationalist out of Turnley. Turnley remained active in the Gaelic League as well as the Irish Self Determination League in London. He had first joined the Clapham branch of the Gaelic League in 1910. His name appears among donors to an Irish language fund in The Irishman in October 1911 and spoke at an Irish Industry and Art events in Westminster a month later (it was organised as ‘An Aonach’ by the Gaelic League). By 1912 he was active in sponsoring motions at Gaelic League meetings.

In 1917, Turnley was eventually discharged from Denbigh asylum. A letter writer to the Irish Independent in 1953 (in response to Beaslaí’s article) recalled that Turnley was then constantly followed by Scotland Yard in London. His professional skills were such, though, that even after his release, he was still in demand by employers. At the same time, and despite the surveillance, he remained heavily involved in republican activities in London under Sean McGrath and Sam Maguire. He also gave political speeches at various events, such as one where we spoke with Countess Markievicz and Herbert Devine at the Roger Casement Sinn Féin Club in London on 5th December 1919 and was promiment at various Gaelic League and Irish Self-Determination League events. Newspaper reports from early 1920 name him as being director of publicity for the Irish Self-Determination League. He was also involved with the London Loans Committee (which sought to raise funds for the work of Dáil Éireann among the Irish in London). Within London itself he helped fund raise in Balham and Tooting, from where £600 was donated. At the start of May 1920 he helped organise a protest outside Wormwoods Scrubs in support of republican hunger strikers. According to the Freeman’s Journal he “…sustained serious injuries while protecting young girls from the attack of the London mob.” The shipping company that employed him then insisted he sign an undertaking to disassociate himself from his political activities. Turnley refused and then moved from London to Cork in late May 1920. President of the O’Donovan Rossa Club in London, he was made honorary President on his departure. He was also a secretary of the Gaelic League in London.

Aodh de Blacam, who knew Turnley well in London, mentions him in his novel about the London Irish, Holy Romans. He also included a brief memoir of Turnley in the London Gaelic League’s occasional magazine, Guth na nGaedheal, in March 1922. He quoted what he claimed to be Turnley’s own words, “…That we shall win our freedom I have no doubt; that we shall use it well I am not so certain… That should be our final consideration, and we should make this a resolution – our future history shall be more glorious than that of any contemporary State. We shall look for prosperity, no doubt, but let our enthusiasm be for beautiful living; … we shall take pride in our institutions …. as securing happiness of the citizens, and we shall lead Europe again as we led it of old. We shall rouse the world from a wicked dream of material good, of tyrannical power, of corrupt and callous politics to the wonder of a regenerated spirit, a new and beautiful dream; and we shall establish our State in a true freedom that will endure for ever.

Also included in the article were what de Blacam described as verses that Turnley had loved:

I cannot count the years
That you must drink like me
The cup of blood and tears,
Till she to you appears-
But Éire, our Éire shall be free !
 
You consecrate your lives
To her, and you shall be
The food on which she thrive
Till her great day arrives :
When Éire, our Éire, shall be free.
 
She ask you but for faith :
Your faith in her takes she,
Amidst defeat and death
As draughts of Heaven’s breath –
And Éire, our Éire shall be free!

In May 1920 Turnley moved from London to Cork where he transferred to the local I.R.A. unit (2nd Battalion). He may have continued to travel to London as later accounts claim he helped organise security for Irish people holding a vigil outside Brixton Prison during Terence McSwiney’s hunger strike in October 1920 (although this may be a garbled version of the Wormwood Scrubs protest from May 1920). After a bout of appendicitis he needed an operation from which he didn’t recover and he died in the Mercy Hospital in Cork on 17th December 1920. It was later claimed in the Freemans Journal (20/9/1924) that it was in Cork while “actively engaged in the Munitions Department of the IRA in that city that he lost his life in accident while engaged in the manufacture of munitions for the army.” So perhaps the record of appendicitis was falsified to cover-up for an IRA munitions factory.

So who was Eamon O’Tierney?

Eamonn O’Tierney was indeed born as Edward Douglas Turnley at St George Hanover Square in London in 1890 (this was also the name under which his death was registered in Cork in 1920). His family moved to Ashford, Staines in Middlesex around 1894 after his brother Alfred was born, although their mother died soon after Alfred’s birth. His father, Edward Echlin Turnley remarried in 1895, to Emmie, and had four further children and continued to live in Ashford. Edward Turnley was a senior civil servant. A clue to his Irish connection is given in the name of his house in Ashford, ‘Drumnasole’. Drumnasole, near Glenarm, was the Irish seat of the Turnley family. Edward Turnley himself had been in born in Newcastle-upon-Tyne in 1855 to William Echlin Turnley and Maria White. William Turnley was a British soldier who had join the 54th Foot at the age of 14 in 1845, rising through the ranks to become Quartermaster in 1863 (with the equivalent rank of Captain) and then transferring to the more prestigious 1st Foot Regiment in 1871 and retiring with the equivalent rank of Major. After his retirement he lived in East Brixton and Lambeth in London. Turnley’s military records show that he was born in Belfast in 1831. At his marriage in 1851, his father’s name is given as John Turnley. The name Echlin used by the family suggests that there is some connection here between the Turnley and Echlin families, both of whom had residences near the mouth of Strangford Lough (where John Turnley and John Echlin were Justices of the Peace in the late 18th and early 19th century).

John Turnley had built a new house for himself, Rockport House (now a school), at Craigavad on Belfast Lough while his brother Francis, who had amassed a fortune in the East Indies, built Drumnasole House. The Turnleys were actively involved in Belfast’s business community and there was even a Turnley Street in the city centre (roughly where Stewart Street meets East Bridge Street today).

William (Edward Douglas Turnley’s grandfather) may have been a son of John Turnley of Rockport, although references to him suggest he had no legitimate children. Either way, the Turnley family clearly had some connection to the Drumnasole Turnleys. William, a retired army major, lived not far from his son Edward Echlin Turnley and his grandson Edward Douglas Turnley and died in 1904. It is possible Edward was given some sense of his Belfast roots by his grandfather. This is presumably what later prompted Edward Turnley to give his address as Belfast. How far the Turnley’s were prominent in unionism isn’t clear, though. The surname and Drumnasole appears on the lists of donors to the UVF in the 1910s but there is nothing to indicate that the Turnleys were particularly prominent in unionist politics. Turnley features in reports of Gaelic League activity in London using both ‘Turnley’ and ‘O’Tierney’ in 1911-12.

Some of the inaccurate memoirs recorded about Turnley may have been badly remembered. But he may also have casually gave out misleading information about himself as a standard security precaution, or as the family had roots in Antrim that was where he stated he was born. Certainly the cumulative impact of his clandestine work importing arms and the physical danger of the Rising itself appears to have brought on some sort of breakdown. At least the Gaelic League in London did remember him, though. From 1937, Feis Lonndhain included an annual essay competition named in his honour which continued until at least the late 1950s.

 

This is an update of a previous post (see here). And if anyone can help – I’d like to track down a photo of Eamonn O’Tierney sometime.