The 1972 hunger strike

In 1972, an IRA hunger strike was successful in achieving the recognition of the political status of those held as prisoners by the British government. The hunger strike provided significant lessons for later republican protests in 1980 and 1981 and, in itself, was modeled on earlier hunger strikes.

The numbers of prisoners had increased dramatically since 1969, when a wave of detentions in August had preceded the burning of Bombay Street by unionists. Two of those detained were interned until later that year, foreshadowing the widespread use of internment to repress opposition to the northern government from August 1971.

From August 1971, there was a constant increase in the numbers held at Belfast Prison (Crumlin Road), Armagh Gaol, the Maidstone prison ship and the camps at Magilligan and Long Kesh. Many of those detained had been imprisoned by the northern government on one or multiple occasions from the 1920s to the 1960s. Collectively there was a deep well of knowledge of dealing with the systems the northern government deployed to keep its opponents in captivity. This included forms and modalities of protest and resistance, such as hunger strikes.

Republicans had participated in various forms of hunger strike against the northern and southern government in the previous thirty or so years. Open-ended group hunger strikes had taken place in 1936 (in Crumlin Road), 1939-40 in Mountjoy and 1940 and 1941 (in Crumlin Road), 1943 (in Armagh) and 1944 (in Crumlin Road). In 1939, republicans had gone on hunger strike to pressure the southern government, successfully, for release from captivity. In 1940 republican hunger strikes had saw two fatalities, Jack McNeela and Tony D’arcy, but had achieved recognition of their political status by the southern government.

Token, or defined period hunger strikes had also taken place at times (either in solidarity with other protests, or to disrupt the prison system), such as in Crumlin Road in January 1942 and November 1943. They had also taken place more recently, such as on the Maidstone prison ship in 1971. There were also solo hunger strikers, like Paddy Cavanagh in 1935, Sean McCaughey in 1946 (in Portlaoise) and David Fleming in 1946 and 1947. Notably Fleming’s was in parallel with Sean McCaughey’s. He had died quite quickly in Portlaoise after he also refused water as well as food. That tactic dramatically accelerated the point at which a crisis would arise.

A long debate about a hunger strike in D wing of Crumlin Road in 1958-59, ultimately ended in the IRA’s Army Council refusing to endorse such a protest. Many of the senior IRA figures inside and outside Crumlin Road in 1958-59 had been active during the 1940s and were only too aware of the risks and variables that would dictate the likely successful or failure of a hunger strike.

Various initiatives proposed by the IRA leadership in 1971 and 1972, which included ceasefire proposals also called for the release of all ‘political prisoners’. During 1938-45 and 1956-61, when there was widespread use of internment without trial by the northern government, those held as ‘internées’ were accorded special status. As IRA proposals referenced ‘political’ prisoners, there appears to have been a growing consciousness that those awaiting a formal trial or who had been given a prison sentence might be deemed to be outside of this framework, since this happened in 1945 and again in 1961. Senior IRA figures held in Crumlin Road in 1972, like Billy McKee and Prionsias MacAirt, had been present at the time of the releases in 1945 and again in 1961.

Many of the conditions that had limited the effectiveness of previous hunger strikes were not present in 1972. There was a significant level of overt public support for the IRA and the publicity tools that the IRA had access to, such as Republican News, and international media coverage, offered much greater leverage than had been available in the past.

That said, the hunger strike began on 15th May 1972 with little fanfare. This was down to the lack of any real advance notice as, apparently, the IRA inside Crumlin Road had only notified the outside leadership of their intentions on 10th May (it also leaked into the media almost immediately), even though there had been an ongoing protest inside the jail. The first group to join the hunger strike included Billy McKee, Kevin Henry, Malachy Leonard, Martin Boyle and Robert Campbell. The hunger strike cut across high level contacts between the IRA and British government as the Army Council sought to illustrate its capacity to command and control IRA operations through implementing (and insisting on strict observation of) a ceasefire. Brief reports of a possible IRA ceasefire were mentioned by the press during late May, adding further pressure on the authorities to find a settlement to end the hunger strike. Based on previous hunger strikes, the critical period when a hunger striker was going to be at risk of dying, would be around 50 days, which would be early July.

There was a short article about the hunger strike inside the 18th May 1972 edition of Republican News. It mainly quoted Action, a newsletter published in Newington, which “…British justice finds political prisoners: – ‘Guilty’, British justice finds internees – ‘Guilty’. Are they then willing to release only internees? What is the distinction between ‘Guilty’ and ‘Guilty’? The distinction is this: – There has never been enough clamour for the release of ALL. Amnesty is often considered only in terms of internees. THE ‘GUILTY’ MUST BE FREED WITH THE ‘GUILTY’.”

The format of the hunger strike followed that used in the open-ended hunger strike of 1944, as small groups joined at intervals. Unlike 1944, when external publicity was frequently outdated and inaccurate, Republican News could now provide an effective platform for the hunger strikers to increase pressure on the British government. By the next issue, Republican News covered the hunger strike on its front page, stating that it was “…breaking the wall of silence that has been maintained by the authorities…”. This wasn’t strictly true, as the press had issued some reports on the hunger strike, such as nationalist MPs and senators calls on 22nd May to grant political status. The same day, a second team had joined the hunger strike, including Tony O’Kane, John Cowan, Malachy Cullen, Billy McGuigan and Paddy Monaghan.

On 25th May, it was announced (by the Irish Republican Publicity Bureau) that McKee was also now refusing liquids. If the authorities had anticipated some time to review their options, until mid or late June, McKee’s thirst strike meant a crisis could arise in the first week of June. The IRPB statement pointed out that a thirst strike could be fatal after seven or eight days. That weekend, there were twenty-four and thirty-six hour hunger strikes held at various towns and cities in Ireland, Britain and the US in solidarity with those in Crumlin Road. They were also joined by hunger strikers in Armagh jail, the Curragh and Mountjoy.

That Friday (26th May), the southern government re-instituted Special Criminal Courts and carried out a wave of arrests of senior republicans, including leaders of Sinn Féin. Ruairi Ó Bradaigh and Joe Cahill, who were arrested as part of the swoop, went on hunger strike in protest. Now, both the southern government and British government faced hunger striking republicans. On the 29th May, the ‘Official IRA’ called a ceasefire. This coincided with reports that the ‘Provisional’ IRA was considering a ceasefire.

The same day, a third team joined the hunger strike in Crumlin Road, including Ciaran Conway, Gerard McLoughlin, Michael McCrory, Tony Bradley and Noel Quigley. A team had also joined the hunger strike in Armagh jail on 25th May, including Seamus Connelly, Hugh McCann, Tom Kane, Jackie Hawkie, John Haddock and Tom Kearns. Susan Loughran, also in Armagh jail, now joined the hunger strike on 30th May. At the start of June, more women internees in Armagh would join the hunger strike in solidarity, as would internees in Long Kesh. Public hunger strikes in solidarity, petitions and calls from individuals and organisations to grant political status continued to make the news.

By that weekend, McKee had once again begun to take liquids but Kevin Henry, who had started the hunger strike with McKee, had become so weak that he once again began to take food. Unlike previous hunger strikes, the republican O/C in Crumlin Road, Prionsias MacAirt, could have statements carried in the press clarifying misinformation about the progress of the hunger strike. Claims that Billy McKee had ended his hunger strike on 30th May and that the hunger strikers had abandoned the protest on 1st June were immediately dismissed by MacAirt and the IRPB by the next day.

By the 6th June, Billy McKee was so weak that he was confined to his cell. Robert Campbell, who had also been on hunger strike since 15th May, was removed to the Mater Hospital the same day. Reports of Campbell’s condition apparently sparked riots in the New Lodge Road area, but on the morning of the 7th June he was sprung from the hospital by the IRA. The next day, the British government’s Minister responsible for direct rule, William Whitelaw, faced awkward questioning in the Commons over the escape and hunger strike and stated that the British would not be blackmailed.

On the 11th June, Brian McCann, Liam O’Neill, D. Power, Hugh McComb and Denis Donaldson joined the hunger strike. By now there were eight women in Armagh who had joined at a rate of one a day after Susan Loughran, including Margaret O’Connor, Brenda Murphy and Bridie McMahon. A full list of women participating does not seem to have been published although press statements referred to ‘all eight sentenced women’ in Armagh. There were also forty internees in Long Kesh on the protest in solidarity (listed in Republican News, June 11th 1972). Later press reports would claim up to eighty internees were taking part in hunger strikes.


List of internees joining the hunger strike, Republican News 4th June 1972

The condition of the hunger strikers was often unclear in press reports, with conflicting reports in the press on whether Malachy Leonard and Billy McKee had been moved to Musgrave Park military hospital. However, there was significant co-ordination of related protests by republican, with the image on the front of Republican News on 4th June featuring as a poster and placard at protests, as well as regular press statements being issued from the Kevin Street offices of Sinn Féin in Dublin.


Front cover, Republican News (4th June 1972)


Women carrying “DO YOU CARE IF THIS MAN DIES” posters (Republican News, 18th June 1972)


Poster in display in window of a house, McDonnel Street, Belfast (Irish Press, 12th June 1972)

Behind the scenes, contact between Whitelaw and the IRA leadership saw the SDLP taking on the role of facilitators to try and arrange a direct meeting. The IRA had offered a ceasefire in return for some pre-conditions, which included the granting of political status. The IRA made its position public on 13th June at a press conference in Derry. Behind the scenes, for the next week, the SDLP attempted to broker a meeting between Whitelaw and the IRA against a backdrop of reports on the worsening condition of McKee, Leonard and Boyle. A foretaste of what might happen in the event of the fatality was seen on the day of the IRA statement in Derry, when rumours spread in Belfast that Billy McKee had died and led to widespread rioting in the city.

In late June, press reports also listed ‘Official IRA’ prisoners who had joined the hunger strike, starting on 22nd May (Peter Monaghan and Pat O’Hare), 29th May (Sean Bunting, Mick Mallon, Seamus Carragher and Franky McGrady), 4th June (Brendan Mackin, Artie Maguire, Gerry Loughlin, Jim Robb and Sam Smith) and 11th June (Jim Goodman, Peter O’Hagan and Frank Quinn).

Whitelaw finally agreed to the preconditions on 19th June. That night word reached the hunger strikers in Crumlin Road. As this included political status, a discussion late into the night followed with an agreement to end the hunger strike in Crumlin Road early on the morning of the 20th June. Billy McKee was finally moved to hospital that day. The same day, Joe Cahill ended his hunger strike in Dublin as he was released without charge by the Special Criminal Court (Ó Bradaigh had already been released a week earlier). As news reached Armagh and Long Kesh, those on hunger strike there also ended their protest. In Armagh, the end of the hunger strike was delayed until 21st June as the British hadn’t made clear that the same status would be extended to women prisoners there. Press reports claim it took an additional twenty-four hours to clarify the issue.


Back page of Republican News (18th June 1972), showing messages of support.

The 1972 hunger strikes represent the template adopted for the republican hunger strikes of 1980-81, in terms of the tactical approach, public protest and publicity strategies, particularly in 1981. There were to be subsequent major hunger strikes, including the group hunger strike of 1974, in which Michael Gaughan died and were the strikers were force-fed, and, the solo hunger strike in which Frank Stagg died in 1976. While neither the group that embarked on the open-ended hunger strike of 1980 or the individuals who joined at intervals in 1981 strictly followed the same format as 1972, the co-ordination of publicity and the scale of the protest bear closest parallels to that of 1972 from which (as from other protests in between) lessons were clearly applied in 1980-81. The 1972 hunger strike itself, though, was modelled on experiences gained by republicans over the 1930s and 1940s. Where the earlier hunger strikes were not successful, the success of the 1972 hunger strike may have been central to the hope, after 1972, that the tactic would work again.


Captain Lynch, Parachute Regiment: a Fianna Fáil connection?

Did Taoiseach Jack Lynch have a nephew who was a Captain in the Paras in Belfast in 1972? I came across this by accident. It’s on the front page of Republican News of 28th May 1972 (see below).

There, on the right hand side, is a little insert which simply states that: “The people of New Lodge may be shocked to learn that the Officer in Charge of the Paratroopers on this district is Captain Lynch, from Waterford, a nephew of the Taoiseach, Mr Jack Lynch.” I can’t immediately locate any more information that sheds any light on this. Given the circumstances (a month after Widgery and four months after Bloody Sunday), if true, was it a PR stunt by the British Army and (or) an attempt to influence the attitude of the Irish government?

Anyone with further information might stick a comment below? Is this a mistake or is there more to it?

Torture, 1971

This report on Torture: The Record of British Brutality in Ireland details the experiences of those tortured by British Army personnel and RUC personnel and was published in 1971. The report was published by Northern Aid in co-operation with The Association for Legal Justice. Northern Aid was an organisation founded to raise funds for the relief of distress in the north. It’s board included Frank MacManus MP and Paddy Kennedy MP and Frank Gogarty from the NICRA. The Association for Legal Justice had been launched on 25th April 1971 in Belfast including the likes of Christopher Napier, Rita Mullan, Sean McCann and Frances Murray. Within a week of the mass arrests on 9th August 1971, the Association for Legal Justice had already raised allegations about the brutal ill-treatment of the detainées by the security forces.

Over the next few days, both the Association for Legal Justice and the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association publicised accounts of the torture, with up to thirty separate instances being documented by the 17th August. Within a few days, the British government announced that an inquiry would take place. The inquiry produced the Compton Report (named after the chair, Sir Edmund Compton, G.C.B., K.B.E.). The inquiry report was published on 16th November 1971 and was widely derided as an exercise in semantics and a whitewash amid calls for an independent international inquiry. On 30th November, in Dublin, the government announced it would take a case against the British government in the European Court of Human Rights (the case is still not closed).

Following its publication, the statements that had been assembled by the Association for Legal Justice were brought together and published as Torture: The Record of British Brutality in Ireland. It was printed by The Record Press Limited in Bray and launched at a press conference in Dublin on 14th December 1971. To put the publication in context, this was only ten days after the bombing of McGurks Bar in Belfast and six weeks before Bloody Sunday.


Those whose experiences are recounted are James Magilton, Thomas Largey, James Lynch, Liam Rogers, Liam Shannon, Sean Drumm, Edward Campbell, Brendan Harrison, James Auld, Kevin Hannaway, Thomas Sinclair, TJ Conlon, Brian Turley, Sean McKenna, Gerrard McKerr, Henry Bennett, MJ Donnelly, Michael Harvey, Joe Clarke, Patrick Shivers, Elisha Anderson and Anthony Maxwell. It also gives account from those thrown from helicopters (including some of the above and Frank McGuigan, Michael Montgomery and Patrick McNally). There are also accounts of the ill-treatment of prisoners in Long Kesh, including Bill Denvir, J. McMahon, Tex Duggan, Laurence McCay, F. Maynes, J.J. Davey, P.R. Mallon, Pat Mulvenna, Liam Mulholland, Pat O’Hagan, Benny Doonan, Frank McGlade and Phil McCullough.

The report also reprinted photos of the Maguire sisters which proved that official claims that they had been dressed as men when shot dead were untrue. The sisters (Maura Meehan and Dorothy Maguire) had been shot dead by British soldiers in a car on Cape Street on 23rd October 1971. Both IRA volunteers, they were unarmed when shot. The photographs had been printed in some newspapers in the days after they had been killed.

Finally, it should be noted that this report merely documents examples of torture up to November 1971. This is merely a prelude to the subsequent development and application of a variety of torture techniques by the security forces over the next decades.

The Other Side of the Wall: escape from the Crum, 1943

This is an account of events in A wing, Belfast Prison (Crumlin Road) on the morning of 15th January 1943 when Pat Donnelly, Ned Maguire, Hugh McAteer and Jimmy Steele escaped.

If you prefer a shorter version, you can see it here.


The day discipline staff arrived as usual at 7.30 am under Principal Officer William Nelson. Nelson didn’t normally perform this role, but on the 15th he happened to be replacing Principal Officer Graham who was on his day off. Nelson relieved the temporary Officer, Nicholson, who had been in charge of A wing during the night. Nicholson confirmed that 115 prisoners were present in A wing and completed the hand over. Two warders went on duty on A1 (James Johnston and Joseph Carson), two on A2 (George Tate and Charles Hipson) and one on A3 (Robert Haddick), which housed only twenty prisoners. The warders moved to their stations on the various landings.

Prison Officer James Johnston confirmed that 43 prisoners were present on A1. Johnston was 40 years old and had been a prisoner warder for four years having previously completed 15 years service in the Royal Ulster Rifles where he had risen to the rank of Sergeant. He lived in Roseleigh Street. He opened the cells so that Ned Maguire (brother of the Belfast  IRA O/C) and the orderlies could begin first slops and the usual morning routine. On A1, the other orderlies were Frank McKearney, James Kane and Anthony McMenemy.

Prison Officer George Tate and Charles Hipson, a native of The Curragh in County Kildare, confirmed that 52 prisoners were present on A2 when they relieved Nicholson. They opened the cell doors to allow the orderlies, Joe McKenna, George Crone, Arthur Kearney, David Barr, Vallely, McCoy and Michael Walsh, to begin their rounds. Barr was the only orderly on A2 who wasn’t a republican prisoner. Hipson began to go around the cells, opening the doors for slops, while Tate followed in his wake. When Pat Donnelly’s cell door was opened, he made a request to Tate to see the doctor, saying he had diarrhoea (Donnelly was O/C of the IRA unit in A wing). When interviewed that evening by Sergeant Maguire of the RUC, Hipson admitted that, to make it easier for second slops, doors regularly had their bolts drawn across rather than having the key turned in the lock.

Temporary Officer Robert Haddick, a former B Special, confirmed that 20 prisoners were present on A3. He open the cells of the two orderlies, Stevenson and Edward Dalzell, and they began first slops. Haddick also opened the lavatory on A3.

The handover had occurred at 7.30 am. Nelson then left to open the passage gate and workshops, entering the A wing yard. Nelson hadn’t noticed anything unusual.

The day and time had now arrived. The warders began to distribute tea, bread and milk for breakfast on A1 just before 8 am. None of the escape team managed to eat their breakfast apart from Jimmy Steele who drank his tea. Having drank his tea, Steele asked permission to go to the lavatory from James Johnston. His cell door was left unlocked awaiting his return. Steele began the escape attempt by walking up the staircase of A wing in full of view the warders on A1, A2 and A3. Ned Maguire simply followed him up the stairs. According to Billy McKee, despite the regulations, prisoners regularly might move between wards (as the floors were known) to return a book or for some other errand even though it was expressly forbidden. It was hoped that a member of prison staff who noticed movement on the stairs would assume that that was why Steele and Maguire were on the stairs.

On A2, Pat Donnelly had asked permission from Tate to visit the toilet due to his diarrhea. Donnelly was now just ahead of Steele and Maguire on the stairs. On the way up the stairs to A3, Donnelly saw McAteer’s cell being left unlocked after he too had requested permission to visit the toilet. As McAteer emerged he saw Steele and Maguire following Donnelly up the stairs. The whole escape team had now arrived on A3, in plain sight of any of the warders who might chance to look up to the Threes landing. The staff were mainly concentrating on opening cells and distributing breakfast.

The escape team covered their boots in prison socks to deaden the sound of their footsteps on the landings. While Haddick was distributing the breakfast and wasn’t watching the lavatory they entered and organised the tables so they could open the lock then climb up through the trapdoor and into the roof space. It was already arranged for the tables to be moved away from the trapdoor after the escape. To save time, the lock had been picked the day before and plugged with soap so it appeared closed.

Meanwhile, the orderlies, who were nearly all republican prisoners, had been detailed to close the cell doors of the escape team to delay discovery as long as possible. Some prisoners even staged one way conversations with some of the escape team, hovering at their cell doors to maintain the pretence that they were still inside. So far, nothing had raised the suspicion of the warders. Indeed, George Tate, on A2 was convinced he had saw Donnelly return to his cell and locked the cell when he gave a statement on the escape that afternoon.

The escape team had now all assembled in place in the roof-space. They walked down the roof space, over the occupied cells on A3 and as far as the Circle, from where they turned back and stopped at the point where the roof had been weakened. They collected the escape equipment such as the ropes and rope ladders that had been hidden in the roof. They lit a candle to allow them to find the place where the roof timbers and slating laths had been sawn through and they intended to break their way through the roof. Ned Maguire tried to force the slates free but pushing them up was more difficult than expected. A spare pair of trousers later found in the roofspace below the hole may have been used to dampen blows on the slates. As the seconds ticked by, trying to lever the slates up was abandoned in favour of brute force. Finally, the would-be escapers held their breath as the first slate parted from its nail. The sound, in the confines of the roof space, echoed like a gun shot. Everyone tensed as they waited to hear where the first whistles blow to signal their discovery.

For the first few seconds there was silence. Then another few seconds. The, slowly, everyone began to breathe again. Examining the hole made by the first slate, they carefully removed enough that they might get themselves up through the opening and onto the roof. Still, there wasn’t yet any sound or hint of movement in A wing or outside. The 30 foot rope was secured to a roof beam by Ned Maguire and slipped out and over the end of the eaves dangling into the darkness in the yard below.

Maguire was the first man to climb up through the opening in the roof. As he exited through the slates, far off to his left he would have seen the outline of the armed warder who guarded the main gate. He began his descent. All the way down he awaited the tell-tale sounds of warders assembling to intercept him at the bottom of the rope.

On reaching the ground Maguire discovered he was alone. As Steele climbed out, he edged down to the eaves then, grasping the rope, headed down to the ground. Shortly Maguire was joined by both Steele and Pat Donnelly. McAteer was deliberately positioned as the last man to descend the rope ladder. Having previously had a big fear of heights, there was a significant risk that he could freeze on the roof or rope and trap anyone behind him until he was able to either move back or forwards. Chances were that he could lose his nerve completely and effectively stop anyone following him.

Even as a former Chief of Staff, McAteer was not afforded any indulgence by the rest of the escape team. Once Steele, Maguire and Donnelly had all reached the ground they continued with the escape plan without waiting for him. The arrival of the escape team into the prison yard had not gone unnoticed, though. Once on the ground and moving across the yard, they were observed from the ground floor of A wing. The person they had been spotted by, though, was the resident of a cell on A1. However, their arrival had been expected since the shaft that had been manufactured for the hook was assembled in that cell in A1 and was now passed out through the window.

Meanwhile, Hugh McAteer had surprised himself as, pumped with adrenaline, he had climbed through hole in the roof. Over to his left he could still see the armed guard standing inside the front gate. Directly below him he could make out Steele, Pat Donnelly and Ned Maguire, having collected the shaft from the cell window and now en route to the outside wall. McAteer gripped the rope, swung himself over the eaves and quickly descended the thirty feet to the ground. He then moved across the yard to join the rest of the team at the wall.

McAteer reached the wall as the rod was being attached to the hook. Once it had been secured, they tried to attach the hook to the top of the wall. Even though the hook was smothered in bandages to try and catch the barbed wire, it stubbornly refused to take a grip as it was several feet short. To make good the shortage, Ned Maguire climbed up on McAteers back and tried to put the hook into position. The toe of Maguire’s boot, digging into McAteers back, caused McAteer to squirm and lose his balance.  The hook, shaft and ropes being carried by Maguire, crashed, along with Maguire, to the ground. Again the sound seemed to echo loudly across the prison yard.

Maguire turned on McAteer: “Why the hell did you have to start wriggling just then?”

But McAteer snapped back: “God Almighty! Do you think I did it for a joke?”

At that point, Pat Donnelly cut the argument short: “I think, lads, that you should finish that discussion on the other side of the wall.”

McAteer then tensed himself and Maguire swarmed up the former Chief of Staff’s back and tried to stretch and use the rod to hook the rope-ladder into position. The account of the escape published in the Republican News claimed that, after a couple of unsuccessful attempts, they only succeeded in putting the rope-ladder when a third man climbed up on the first two and finally succeeded. Given his size, if the Republican News version is correct, then this third man must have been Jimmy Steele.

However, it was hooked into position, the first up the rope-ladder was Ned Maguire and he placed a blanket, folded in four, over the barbed wire to give some protection to their hands. Once that was done, Ned Maguire slipped over the barbed wire, grasped the down-rope placed on that side then began to descend the other face of the wall. With that, he disappeared from the view of the rest of the escape team.

Jimmy Steele and Pat Donnelly followed Maguire, keeping to the same pattern as had held on the roof with McAteer filling the final place to minimise the risk of his fear of heights jeopardising the others’ chances. Steele climbed the rope ladder, passed over the blanket then, holding the down rope, continued to the ground on the other side of the twenty-odd foot wall. After twenty-five months of being confined inside the walls of the Belfast Prison on Crumlin Road, he was now found himself staring at the outside of perimeter wall of the jail. When he reached the bottom he turned around to see that he was alone in the entry that ran along the back of the warders cottages.

As had been agreed at the outset, Maguire hadn’t waited for Steele to appear. Neither was Steele to wait on Donnelly. Each man over the wall was to walk away. That had been the plan. As GHQ, the Northern Command or the Belfast hadn’t been forewarned, there wasn’t a waiting car to whisk them away to safety. So every second counted. Each hurried down the entry and out onto the Crumlin Road and headed towards Trainors Yard in Lancaster Street, the one arrangement that the escape team had put in place. Out on the Crumlin Road, a warder passed Jimmy Steele on his way in to his shift in the prison. The warder acknowledged Steele, then continued without reacting, towards the prison gate. He never reported seeing the escapers.

In real time, Jimmy Steele, Ned Maguire and Pat Donnelly had all emerged from the entry within seconds of each other. As the escaper with the most intimate knowledge of that part of Belfast, Steele headed off intending to take the shortest route possible. The others had also memorised the route but might have to pause to keep their bearings. They ran straight across to Florence Place, alongside the Belfast Court House and headed towards the Old Lodge Road. Despite the fact that he, Maguire and Donnelly were all wearing prison clothing, they managed to pass, more or less unnoticed, through the early morning crowds around the wartime Crumlin Road and the adjoining districts. Walking within sight of each other they arrived in Lancaster Street.

It was now 8.30 am. The escape, including breaking through the roof, assembling the hook and pole and making two attempts to catch it on the top of the wall, had taken roughly fifteen minutes. When the authorities, as part of their investigation, had an officer go over the escape route in daylight, with the roof breached and all the escape equipment in place, he also did it in fifteen minutes. The second team (John Graham, David Fleming and Joe Cahill), scheduled to make their attempt at 9 am and anyone who followed them, would still have the cover of darkness if they did it in the same time (Graham had reputedly told Billy McKee and others to take their chances once the second team had gone).

However, Hugh McAteer, the last man in the first escape team, hadn’t yet got over the wall. He began to climb up the rope ladder, but, having held the ladder out for the others, found that the effort had put too much strain on his arms and, quite likely, that the adrenalin of the roof top descent had also worn off. Suddenly, his arms could no longer pull his weight up the rope ladder and, eighteen foot up the wall and, only a couple of feet from freedom, he had to let go. McAteer dropped back into the prison grounds. He landed awkwardly on his left ankle and collapsed onto his back, having the breath knocked out of him. After a moment’s pause, though, McAteer got up and raced up the ladder.

At the top, he discovered that, to manoeuvre himself over the top of the wall and reach the rope to descend the other side, he would need to rely on his weaker left arm to safely complete the task. Since he felt he couldn’t trust that his left would support him on the blanket covering the barbed wire, he momentarily grasped the exposed barbed wire with his right hand instead. He paused for a few seconds to get his breath again. However, he then felt a surge of pain from the barbed wire sticking into his right palm. Instinctively withdrawing his right hand, his left was unable to reach the down rope to make a controlled descent down the wall via the rope. Instead, he fell the twenty feet to the ground again. This time, at least, he was on the outside of the wall, looking at the rear of the warders’ cottages.

As well as his ankle, injured falling back into the prison, he now had a pain in his knee. Once he got to his feet he noticed that his right hand had left a bloody print on the ground. Realising that no-one else had waited for him, McAteer later wrote that he felt a fleeting sense of satisfaction in the knowledge that discipline had triumphed over the ordinary human instinct of comradeship. Thrusting his bleeding hand into his trouser pocket he hobbled past the back of the warders cottages and out onto the Crumlin Road. Later, McAteer thought his attempt on the wall had taken him only two minutes but it had actually taken five. It was now 8.35am.

But McAteer had also been seen. A boy on his way to school had observed McAteer coming out of the prison. It just so happened that the same boy, Lancelot Thompson, was the son of the warder of the same name who lived in one of the cottages McAteer had just passed. He rushed in to tell his father.

Meanwhile, back in A wing, the day discipline staff were finishing the morning round and preparing to do a count before heading off for their breakfast at 8.30am. The night guard had signed over 115 prisoners to them that morning. Ten minutes before McAteer had headed over the wall, at 8.25am, the day discipline staff reported the number of prisoners in the normal fashion. Once they collected the numbers from A1, A2 and A3, they established that the number of prisoners they had locked back into their cells was still 115. A few minutes later they went off for their breakfast.

Cahill, Graham and Fleming, confined to their cells until 9am, strained to hear of any sound that might indicate that the first team had failed or their asbsence had been discovered. At 8.30 am, on the wing, all appeared normal.

At the same time, Hugh McAteer, despite struggling with the pain in his leg and bleeding profusely from his hand, attempted to follow Steele and the others to the pre-arranged safe house. Lancelot Thompson junior, by now, had rushed back to his father, Lancelot Thompson, who had just come off the night guard and was preparing to go to bed. Thompson, having been told what his son had seen, rushed out to go to the prison gate and raise the alarm. With his laces untied and his coat unbuttoned, his father rushed up to the prison warder at the front gate and raised the alarm. He also noted the time. It was now just after 8.35am.

Out on the Crumlin Road, the vagaries of wartime clothes rationing meant that few people took a first, never mind second, glance at the escapers. McAteer had attempted a short cut, but lacking sufficient knowledge of the streets around the Crumlin Road, had to retrace his steps to find a recognisable landmark. Once he did and managed to find Carlisle Circus, he was just in time to witness warders racing past on bicycles searching for the escaped prisoners. He even passed other warders who were clearly on their in to the prison to begin a shift.

Riordan, a prison officer originally from Cork, ran into A wing shouting “Lock the up. Lock them up.” The prisoners were still locked into their cells. The second team and those that intended to follow them realised the opportunity had gone.

Some fifteen minutes later, on the verge of collapse, McAteer finally arrived at the address Steele had given as the safe house, only to discover the others had safely arrived. It was now almost 9am. Steele, Maguire and Donnelly practically had to carry McAteer upstairs to bed. When they prepared to examine his injured leg, Pat Donnelly pointed at his feet. McAteer still had his prison socks covering his boots. As McAteer later wrote:

“We all stared for a moment in surprised silence and then for the first time that morning we laughed. With that, the tension lifted and I felt, with a tremendous surge of exultation, that I was free again, really free, after less than two months.”


You read some more about the escape here.


Text of the IRA report on the Campbell College Raid.

Here is the report by the IRA’s Belfast Battalion Adjutant on the attempted arms raid at Campbell College in December 1935. The text was quoted in full by the Belfast Newsletter in May 1936 after it was captured during the Crown Entry Raid. The Belfast Adjutant was Jimmy Steele, while the IRA’s Adjutant General was Jim Killeen. The report expands significantly on the information given in various other accounts of the raid.

Adjutant, No. 1 Area Ulster to Adjutant-General, I.R.A., Headquarters
The Report of the Campbell College Raid
On 27th December arrangements were made to seize 200 rifles lying in the armoury of the college. Around the front of the college three gate-lodges are situated, whilst at the rear is another gate-lodge. The gate of the rear gate-lodge is a wooden gate, about 12ft or 14ft high and is always closed, except during the day, when it is used as a goods entrance, &c. The lodge itself is a fairly good distance away from the armoury. The three front lodges however, are about 200 yards from the armoury and are linked up by telephone to the main building and armoury. It was found necessary to take and hold these lodges in order to carry out the raid successfully.
Three squads of men, with six m each squad, were selected to take over each lodge. Three of them would enter each lodge, tie up the occupants, dismantle the telephone, &c. This done, two of them would remain on guard, whilst the other four of each squad would close in on the armoury, surround it and, having got into it, seize the rifles and tie up anyone who may be in same.
The squads were to report at the different lodges at 8-10 p.m., and, all well, to make into the lodges at a given signal at 8-15. Numbers 2 and 3 Squads would arrive on foot at No. 2 and 3 Lodges, No. 1 Squad were to arrive in a commandeered car and turn up a road almost opposite to No. 1 Lodge. A check-up car had been arranged also to be hovering around the vicinity.
Immediately it noticed the arrival of No. 1 Squad it was to proceed to Nos. 2 and 3 Squads and inform them that everything was ready.If in the event of any one of the squads not arriving it was to inform the other squads.
The check-up car, on everything being right, was then to proceed to a road leading out of the college, and await the coming out of the commandeered car with the rifles.
After the armoury had been seized, the commandeered car, which was to have been lying handy inside No. 1 Lodge, having moved in after the lodge was taken, was to move up to the armoury and there transport the rifles to their future destination.
The officer in charge of this car was then to exchange places with the officer in the check-up car, proceed around the lodges, dismiss the squads, and lift their guns. So much for the plans.
The check-up car arrived at the appointed place at 8-8 p.m. and patrolled the lodges.
No. 3 Squad arrived at 8-15 p.m., and the officer in charge, being inattentive during the time instructions were given, at once proceeded to take over No. 3 Lodge. The check-up car had passed the spot a minute previously.
Three men entered the gate. One knocked at the door: a woman came to the door and, seeing the masked man. she screamed. The men entered, however, and lined the occupants up. This done, the officer came to the door to inform the other three that everything was all right.
He was met by a policeman, who rushed into the house firing. The three men inside replied to the fire and succeeded in getting past him.
His first shot, however, knocked the gun completely out of the hands of one of the men.
The three men outside, thinking they had been trapped, retreated down the road. The whole six of them escaped, and in the evidence given by each of them at the subsequent inquiry, all were unanimous in stating that not more than one policeman was there, and that if there had been more they would never have got away. No. 2 Squad arrived at their place at 8-35 p.m., twenty minutes late and after the shooting had taken place. The officer in charge, along with two other men, stopped at No. 2 Lodge to await the checkup car. He instructed the other three men to move off down the road and be readv to follow him into the lodge as soon as they noticed the check-up car.
They moved off down the road and stopped at the corner where No. 3 Lodge is situated. One of them noticed about four policemen, and he informed the other two men. The officer in charge said: ‘Don’t run; walk on quietly.’ Immediately they moved they were seen and called on to halt.
They then began to run, McCartney, the captured man, being one of them. The three men at the lodge also retreated, firing as they retreated. All got away safely except McCartney.
Each of these men stated at the inquiry that they never at any time saw more than four policemen; that it would have been impossible for any of them to escape had there been more, or had they been waiting on them.
Their late arrival was due to the late arrival of the guns for the job.
No. 1 Squad commandeered a car, but owing to a misunderstanding as to the place of meeting, the volunteer to drive same turned up at the wrong place. They waited until 8-30 p.m., when they reported to the battalion adjutant and the battalion commanding officer.
These staff officers, under the changed circumstances, decided to call off the raid, and immediately they proceeded by tram to Campbell College, arriving there at 9-5 p.m., having to wait fifteen minutes on a car.
On arrival there they noticed about four police outside No. 3 lodge. They also met one of the men of No. 2 Squad, who seemed to have lost himself, and who informed them of the shooting. They directed him how to get home. On their way home they noticed tenders of police going- out to the scene.
The check-up car hovered about the scene until 8-30 p.m. in the hope of picking up some of the men. They stated also that the first tender of police to arrive, arrived at 8-50 p.m., also that if there had been information beforehand they never would have’ got patrolling around from 8-8 p.m. until 8-50 p.m. without being stopped.
According to information received from a reliable source by the battalion intelligence officer the 200 rifles alleged to have been shifted were not shifted; that it is the usual procedure to have a small guard on the armoury at holiday times.
That the Press reports of the raid, especially ‘the information beforehand’ and the ‘shifting of the rifles’ statements were only published with a purpose to cause suspicion and distrust among the members of the organisation.
This has had a bad effect on the outside public. The ‘Irish Press’ was very prominent with this publication. ‘An Síol‘ has published a leading article on the matter this week.
We have decided to defend Second-Lieut. B. Rooney, D Company, as this is purely a frame-up so far as he is concerned, and considering there is a police notice published in the Press concerning eight young men who were supposed to have boarded a Belmont tram that night, there is every possibility that further frameups may take place if no effort is made to comhat them.
A large number of houses have been visited by the police, the persons wanted interrogated, and all volunteers, of course, refused to make statements.
There is still the possibility of a round-up, and so most of the men are sleeping out of their houses. The Battalion O.C. and Adjutant and a number of other volunteers have managed so far to elude the police. Battalion and company work is going on as usual, and shadow staffs have been arranged in the event of any arrests.

Lodge No 3.


p style=”text-align:justify;”>This report now gives a much clearer picture of the organisation and sophistication of the Campbell College raid. More than twenty IRA volunteers participated in the operation, including eighteen volunteers in three squads, a mobile unit in a patrol car and the Battalion O/C and Adjutant back at a command post.
The raid itself involved the three squads (number 1 to 3) of six IRA volunteers. Each squad would assemble at a gate lodge at 8.10 pm (only the rear gate lodge was not be seized). Squad 1 (which was to commandeer a car and seize Lodge 1). They were to park up in the Old Holywood Road (roughly opposite Lodge 1). Squads 2 and 3 were to arrive on foot at Lodge 2 (at the junction of Hawthornden Road and Belmont Road) and Lodge 3 (on Hawthornden Road). A second car was going to be present patrolling the perimeter of Campbell College from 8 pm. Once it had observed that Squad 1 was in position, it would move down Belmont Road and signal to Squads 2 and 3 to proceed.
Three volunteers would then seize each lodge at 8.15 pm, secure the occupants and dismantle the telephone line. Two volunteers would remain to guard each gate lodge while the other four volunteers were to proceed to the Campbell College armoury. The assembled twelve volunteers were then to surround the armoury and remove its contents in the commandeered car. The officer in charge of the commandeered car was then to exchange places with the officer in charge of the patrol car, he would then advise Squads 1, 2 and 3 to withdraw.
When Squad 3 arrived at the Hawthornden Road at 8.15 pm, it immediately took over Lodge 3. As the squad leader left the gate lodge to join the rest of Squad 3 he met an RUC constable coming into the gate lodge. After the exchange of fire in the gate lodge, the three volunteers escaped and all of Squad 3 managed to leave the scene.
Due to the late arrival of their weapons, Squad 2 didn’t arrive at Lodge 2 until 8.35 pm where it awaited the patrol car to give the signal, sending three volunteers ahead to be ready to take Lodge 2. The three volunteers who had awaited the patrol car, headed down towards Lodge 3 only to encounter the RUC following up the shootout with Squad 3 at Lodge 3. The RUC gave chase, exchanging fire with Squad 2, and pursued all six of the squad back towards Belmont Road capturing Eddie McCartney.
Squad 1 commandeered a car but the intended driver missed their rendezvous and the Squad had to report to Tony Lavery (Belfast O/C) and his Adjutant Jimmy Steele at 8.30 pm to advise them of the problem. Deciding to call off the raid, they took a tram to Campbell College. Meantime the patrol car withdrew from the scene as RUC tenders began to arrive. Lavery and Steele then arrived at 9.05 pm at Campbell College. Noting the RUC presence at Lodge 3, they met one of Squad 2 who was disorientated by the shooting but informed them as to what had happened. McCartney was to be the only IRA volunteer arrested at the scene.

Another year, another anniversary: the Fenians

Another year, another anniversary.

This year sees the 150th anniversary of the proclamation of an Irish Republic by a provisional government of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, popularly known as the Fenians. It also marks the 150th anniversary of the execution of the Manchester Martyrs, which was to attain great significance among republicans until 1916 and who are commemorated in the song ‘God Save Ireland’.

The Manchester Martyrs of 1867

Here is the text of the ‘Fenians’ 1867 proclamation (very much the model for that of 1916):

Irish Republic Proclamation

The Irish People to the World

We have suffered centuries of outrage, enforced poverty, and bitter misery. Our rights and liberties have been trampled on by an alien aristocracy, who treating us as foes, usurped our lands, and drew away from our unfortunate country all material riches. The real owners of the soil were removed to make room for cattle, and driven across the ocean to seek the means of living, and the political rights denied to them at home, while our men of thought and action were condemned to loss of life and liberty. But we never lost the memory and hope of a national existence. We appealed in vain to the reason and sense of justice of the dominant powers. Our mildest remonstrance’s were met with sneers and contempt. Our appeals to arms were always unsuccessful.
Today, having no honourable alternative left, we again appeal to force as our last resource. We accept the conditions of appeal, manfully deeming it better to die in the struggle for freedom than to continue an existence of utter serfdom.
All men are born with equal rights, and in associating to protect one another and share public burdens, justice demands that such associations should rest upon a basis which maintains equality instead of destroying it.
We therefore declare that, unable longer to endure the curse of Monarchical Government, we aim at founding a Republic based on universal suffrage, which shall secure to all the intrinsic value of their labour.
The soil of Ireland, at present in the possession of an oligarchy, belongs to us, the Irish people, and to us it must be restored.
We declare, also, in favour of absolute liberty of conscience, and complete separation of Church and State.
We appeal to the Highest Tribunal for evidence of the justness of our cause. History bears testimony to the integrity of our sufferings, and we declare, in the face of our brethren, that we intend no war against the people of England – our war is against the aristocratic locusts, whether English or Irish, who have eaten the verdure of our fields – against the aristocratic leeches who drain alike our fields and theirs.
Republicans of the entire world, our cause is your cause. Our enemy is your enemy. Let your hearts be with us. As for you, workmen of England, it is not only your hearts we wish, but your arms. Remember the starvation and degradation brought to your firesides by the oppression of labour. Remember the past, look well to the future, and avenge yourselves by giving liberty to your children in the coming struggle for human liberty.
Herewith we proclaim the Irish Republic.

List of commandants of Belfast IRA, 1924-1969 (updated)

The following is an updated version of the previously posted list of officers commanding the IRA’s Belfast battalion (the name normally given to its structures in the city for most of this time) from 1924 to 1969. The list is based on a variety of sources. Despite the revisions and corrections there are still gaps and may well also contain omissions since those listed are those named in accounts of different events over 1924-1969. Some of the published also contain (eg Anderson, in Joe Cahill: A Life in the IRA names Jimmy Steele as O/C in 1969 when it was Billy McMillen), in others an inference is taken, such as in 1934 when Jack McNally had to form a staff (it is implied he was O/C but not stated). I have also noted where the commandant was arrested or imprisoned since IRA volunteers automatically lost rank on imprisonment. In each instance, presumably, someone was O/C of Belfast in an acting capacity.

As ever any corrections or suggestions can be added in the comments section.

1924-26 Hugh Corvin

Former Quartermaster of the IRA’s 3rd Northern Division. As a Belfast Brigade IRA delegate Corvin had supported the Executive against GHQ over the Treaty in 1922. Subsequently interned, he stood for election in North Belfast for Sinn Féin in 1924. Corvin acted as O/C of the Belfast Brigade during the re-organisation that followed after Joe McKelvey’s re-burial in Milltown on 30th October 1924. He continued as O/C until April 1926 when he resigned citing business reasons (he had set up an accountancy firm). He had been arrested in November 1925 and held until the end of January 1926 along with twenty others following the shooting of an informer.

He was to remain a prominent public figure, through involvement in the GAA and as secretary of the Gaelic League in Belfast. He publicly participated in fund-raising for Fianna Fáil in Belfast in the early 1930s and when he stood as an ‘independent republican’ in West Belfast in February 1943 he was largely portrayed by the IRA as a proxy for Fianna Fáil. His later political activity and the coincidence of the Fianna Fáil split suggest it may have been a motive in his resignation.


Hugh Corvin

1926-7 Dan Turley

In Belfast IRB Circle with 1916 leader Sean McDermot as early as 1907, Turley mobilised at Easter in 1916, was director of elections for Sinn Féin in Belfast at the 1918 elections and was Head of Intelligence in 3rd Northern Division. He was interned on the prison ship Argenta. He took over from Corvin but, apparently clashing with personalities at GHQ, he was portrayed as being difficult to get on with and unpopular. He remained active as Belfast Adjutant and in other staff posts, although he was a recurring target in clashes between the Belfast IRA and GHQ. The RUC used this tension to conspire against him and he was courtmartialled and expelled from the IRA in 1933, then later shot dead in 1936 (his innocence was effectively admitted by the IRA in 1944-45 when it pursued those involved in allegations made against him in 1933).


Dan Turley

1927-33 Davy Matthews

From Albert Street. A former O/C of C Company, 1st Battalion in the 1920-23 campaigns, including the Raglan Street ambush, and a former internee on the Argenta. Took over from Dan Turley who remained as part of his staff. Instigated re-organisation of the Belfast IRA in 1929, including training camps, Irish language classes and recruitment to Na Fianna. Described by Bob Bradshaw as having a ‘heart of gold and head of ivory’. Also active in Sinn Féin at a time when there were internal divisions within the IRA over whether to co-operate with Sinn Féin, Fianna Fáil or a left-wing political project (or if they were to co-operate with anyone at all). In November 1933, Matthews was arrested in possession of IRA documents and received a short sentence. So many other senior Belfast staff were arrested, including Jimmy Steele, Charlie Leddy, George Nash, Tom O’Malley and Jack Gaffney that a temporary staff was formed, including Jack McNally, Jim Johnstone and Sean Carmichael.

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Davy Matthews

1933-34 Jack McNally

From the Bone. Another 1920-23 campaign veteran. Appears to have taken over as O/C while Davy Matthews served a short sentence in 1933-34 (this is implied but not explicitly stated in his memoir Morally Good, Politically Bad). While he was in prison Matthews decided to sign an undertaking that he would cease his IRA membership if he was released just before Christmas. So too did another veteran, George Nash. Whether Matthews intended to honour the commitment or not, he was courtmartialled in January 1934 and dismissed from the IRA. McNally only stayed as O/C for a number of months but remained active on the IRA’s GHQ staff until his arrest at Crown Entry in 1936. He was interned in December 1938 and was to later be active in the Anti-Partition League.

Jack McNally

Jack McNally

1934-36 Tony Lavery

From Balkan Street, a Fianna veteran of the 1920s, took over role as O/C Belfast (at the time designated Ulster Area No 1). Despite an order from Army Council not to, he instructed those charged by the northern government over the Campbell College raid to be defended in court. After they were acquitted, the Army Council charged Lavery with disobeying a direct order and was to be courtmartialled in Crown Entry on 25th April 1936 (although it was expected, unlike Matthews, he would merely get a slap on the wrists). Crown Entry was raided just as the courtmartial was to take place and all those present were arrested including the IRA’s Adjutant-General, Jim Killeen, GHQ staff and senior members of the northern and Belfast leadership of the IRA including Lavery’s Adjutant, Jimmy Steele, and other staff members like Liam Mulholland and Mick Traynor.

1936-38 Sean McArdle

Took on role of O/C Belfast after the loss of Lavery and other Belfast staff members at Crown Entry. By early 1937, McArdle had also been arrested and sentenced to a brief term in Crumlin Road. It is not clear from existing sources as to who took on the role of O/C Belfast while McArdle was in prison. On his release he remained as O/C Belfast until he was interned in December 1938.

1938-39 Charlie McGlade

Arrested in Crown Entry, Charlie McGlade was not long out of Crumlin Road when he was sent as an organiser to England as part of the S-Plan campaign. He took over as O/C Belfast from Sean McArdle following McArdle’s internment in December 1938. Apparently influenced by Jim Killeen, McGlade was responsible for developing the Northern Command concept that was put in place in late 1939, with McGlade as Adjutant and Sean McCaughey as O/C. He edited the Belfast edition of War News and remained as O/C Belfast until 1940 (Jimmy Steele was also to be simultaneously Adjutant Northern Command and O/C Belfast).

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Charlie McGlade

1940 Jimmy Steele

A Fianna and IRA veteran of 1920-23, Steele had been imprisoned since the Crown Entry raid, only being released in May 1940. For some time there had been unease at reports that were coming in to the IRA prisoners in Crumlin Road about disciplinary procedures being applied by the Belfast IRA staff. On his release, Steele was appointed to the IRA’s Northern Command staff. He had a dossier on the activities of the Belfast staff and following an investigation they were courtmartialled and reduced to the ranks. No-one names the staff involved (and Tim Pat Coogan, who recorded the episode, does not remember if he was ever told). It may be that McGlade was O/C but was busy elsewhere and this was his staff who were reduced to the ranks. Either way, Steele took over the role as O/C Belfast until his arrest in December 1940.

Jimmy Steele

1941 Liam Rice

Bowyer Bell (in The Secret Army) implies Liam Rice was O/C Belfast in May 1941, when he then left for Dublin to assist in the investigation into Stephen Hayes. Rice had been arrested in Crown Entry and also spent time in prison in the south. He was wounded and arrested in Dublin and spent time on the blanket in Portlaoise during the 1940s. It seems likely that Rice took over from Steele as O/C in December 1940.

Liam Rice

Liam Rice

1941 Pearse Kelly

When Rice left for Dublin, Bowyer Bell states that Pearse Kelly took over as O/C Belfast in May. Kelly too left for Dublin in July to take part in the investigations into Chief of Staff Stephen Hayes. Kelly was eventually to become Chief of Staff himself and ended up in the Curragh. Afterwards he went on to a senior role in RTE as Head of News.

Pearse Kelly

Pearse Kelly

1941-42 Hugh Matthews

During 1941 Hugh Matthews, brother of Davy Matthews and another 1920-24 veteran, took over as O/C in Belfast, and was O/C during the Army Conference in Belfast in February 1942 (according to Bowyer Bell in The Secret Army). Ray Quinn (in A Rebel Voice) says he took over from Jimmy Steele but dates it to a later Army Convention in Belfast in February 1943. It is not particularly clear from surviving accounts, but Matthews appears to have been O/C as further disputes arose about disciplinary practices of his Belfast staff members (but not direct criticism of Matthews himself).

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Hugh Matthews

1942 John Graham

There was a confrontation between the IRA’s Northern Command staff and the Belfast staff in November 1941, again over the disciplinary practices of the Belfast staff. Graham was O/C of an independent unit, mostly made up of Protestant IRA men. This unit was mobilised by the Northern Command staff during the confrontation and ultimately the Belfast staff stepped back in line. Graham took on the role of Director of Intelligence for the Northern Command and (according to Joe Cahill), was also O/C Belfast. This was presumably after Hugh Matthews although the timing is unclear. He was arrested along with David Fleming in the Belfast HQ on Crumlin Road on 3rd October 1942, where printing presses and radio broadcasting equipment were also recovered. Graham, a divinity student in the 1930s, on his release he was to become a noted professional golfer. He died in 1997.

John Graham playing golf in the 1930s.

1942-43 Rory Maguire

Maguire was O/C Belfast in the autumn of 1942, apparently following Graham’s capture in October.

1943 Jimmy Steele

Escaping from Crumlin Road prison on 15th January 1943, Steele re-joined the Northern Command staff as Adjutant and took over the role of O/C Belfast from Rory Maguire (Maguire’s brother, Ned, had escaped with Steele). He remained O/C Belfast when he took over as IRA Adjutant General after Liam Burke’s arrest.

1943-44 Seamus Burns

Following Jimmy Steele’s arrest in May, Seamus ‘Rocky’ Burns took over as O/C Belfast. Burns had been imprisoned as a 17 year old in 1938, interned in 1939. He took part in the mutiny in Derry jail and was moved to Crumlin Road prison, only to be returned to Derry from where he escaped with 20 others through a tunnel in March 1943. Recaptured in Donegal, he was interned in the Curragh. Harry White had Burns resign from the IRA, sign out of the Curragh, then rejoin the IRA and return north (when he took over as O/C Belfast). He was shot trying to escape from RUC officers in Chapel Lane in February 1944 and died the next day.

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Seamus ‘Rocky’ Burns

1944-45 Harry White

Harry White was O/C of the Northern Command at the time of Burns’ death. He was also on the run continuously. He seems to have taken on the role of O/C Belfast for much of the time and also delegated it to others like Harry O’Rawe, Albert Price and Patsy Hicks on an intermittent basis. By the end of 1944, White was Chief of Staff of the IRA but living under an assumed name in Altaghoney on the Tyrone/Derry border. His cover was eventually blown and he was driven 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’s luck held and he avoided execution, only to be sent to Portaoise for a number of years. On his release, he was active in the Wolfe Tone Socieites in the early 1960s.

Harry White

Harry White

1945-4? There are gaps here for the years around 1945-47 that have yet to be filled in.

194?-49 Seamus McCallum

Richard English names McCallum as O/C when Des O’Hagan joined the IRA in 1949 (it is unclear if this is meant to be Seamus ‘McCallum’ or the Seamus ‘McCollum’ who was arrested in England in the 1950s). As Frank McKearney was O/C when Joe Cahill was released in November 1949, I’m listing them in that order. As noted above, it is unclear who (if anyone) was in charge of what was left of the Belfast IRA between early 1945 and 1949.

1949-50 Frank McKearney

By the late 1940s, Frank McKearney had taken over as O/C Belfast. He had received a six year term for possession of a revolver in 1939. He appears to have taken over as O/C during 1949, at least until the release of Jimmy Steele in 1950.

1950-56 Jimmy Steele

On release from Crumlin Road in 1950, Jimmy Steele again returned to active service with the IRA and once more took over as O/C Belfast while remaining prominent in other organisations such as the National Graves Association and also Sinn Féin. Stayed as O/C until 1956, when he stepped down (Steele was to remain an active republican until his death in 1970).

1956 Paddy Doyle

Took over as O/C in Belfast in preparation for the coming campaign in December, dubbed Operation Harvest. Doyle was highly thought of at GHQ but, due to suspicions about an informer, did not disclose planned operations in Belfast to his own Belfast staff. Doyle spent his time in Crumlin Road completing his education, later qualifying as an accountant, and didn’t get involved in republican activities again on his release.

1956-57 Joe Cahill

Cahill, who had a death sentence commuted in 1942, had been released in 1949 from Crumlin Road. He took over from Paddy Doyle on his arrest in December 1956 until Cahill himself was interned in July 1957. Cahill was to remain an active republican for the rest of his life.

Joe Cahill

1957-60 There is a gap in available information from mid-1957 until about 1960.

1961-63 Billy McKee

On his release from internment in 1961, Billy McKee took on the role of O/C Belfast re-building the battalion effectively from scratch. He had been imprisoned in the 1930s and 1940s and was to remain active in republican circles ever afterwards. During the Wolfe Tone commemorations of 1963 he got involved in a dispute with Billy McMillen, eventually resigned first as O/C Belfast and then from the IRA.

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Billy McKee

1963-69 Billy McMillen

Following the argument over the Wolfe Tone commemorations in June 1963, McMillen took over as O/C Belfast. Having earlier been associated with unofficial bombings in 1950, McMillen had left the IRA in the mid-1950s following an argument and linked up with Saor Uladh. After his release from internment in 1961, he first went to England then returned to Belfast and rejoined the IRA. He remained O/C through the 1960s and was interned just before the pogrom in mid-August 1969. He was imprisoned for a number of brief periods, such as 1966, when he was presumably replaced by an acting O/C by the likes of Jim Sullivan, who was his Adjutant. As part of the fallout over the failure of the Belfast IRA to adequately prepare to defend areas during the pogrom, McMillen was forced to restructure his staff and withdraw its supports for the Goulding leadership on 22nd September 1969. Later killed during an internal feud.

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Billy McMillen

Thanks to all those who have supplied further information, photographs etc.