Fianna Éireann in Belfast, 1917-24.

This article takes a look at Fianna Éireann in Belfast in the period after the Easter Rising in 1916, through to 1923-24 when the organisation more or less collapsed. It includes a list of members of the 1st Battalion, Belfast Brigade, for 1921 and more detailed accounts of the north Belfast companies (in 2nd battalion). It also includes some information about Fianna activities and casualties.

Fianna Éireann was a republican youth organisation often just known as Na Fianna or referred to in contemporary media as the Sinn Féin scouts. An individual member was known as a Fian and a unit was known as a sluagh. A sluagh was led by an O/C (officer commanding), with an Adjutant, Intelligence Officer and Quartermaster, while individual sections also had an O/C. Na Fianna in Belfast had been re-organised in July 1916[1] after the Easter Rising, and was intended to take in teenage boys and prepare them for the role of soldiers who would restore the republic as declared in Dublin in 1916. The first North Belfast members, Jack McNally and Brian Convery, joined the James Connolly sluagh based in Berry Street in February 1917[2] with Joe McKelvey as Captain, and Seamus Mallon, Hugh Kennedy, Paddy McDonnell and Seamus ‘Nick’ Bateson as officers. All were 14 or 15 years of age.

Jimmy Steele wrote briefly in 1966 describing how he first became aware of Na Fianna[3] in 1918-19 (he joined Na Fianna in 1920): “There were stirrings too of young boys in green uniforms, Na Fianna, who had pledged themselves to serve Ireland and the older boys and men in the uniform of the Irish Volunteers. There are rumours too that these men and boys will march out one day to fight for Ireland’s freedom.” Jack McNally records how Fianna members staffed church door anti-conscription protests and distributed leaflets[4].  They also trained using miniature rifles and revolvers and raised funds (each sluagh was to collect a fixed amount). Thomas McNally, who later became Quartermaster of the Belfast Brigade of the IRA gives this account of how teenagers received their political formation in Belfast before 1919: On the break-up of this team [Sarsfield Ogs] I went to the Mitchells and played for the Mitchell Ogs. This team had an old military hut as a club room and here I learned something of nationality. Seannachi and Ceilidhes were held and national songs were sung and our own dances performed so that I can say the idea of nationalism was taking root.[5]

In 1919, with the founding of the Dáil, there was a push to expand the Fianna organisation, with a Fian called Sullivan acting as an organiser in Belfast. Recruitment to Na Fianna appears to have been intensive in Belfast in late 1919 and early 1920, apparently through existing members simply inviting friends from school and other acquaintances along to Na Fianna events. It’s probably not a coincidence that the Belfast Schools Hurling League seems also to have been more heavily promoted from 1919 onwards (there was also a schools hurling league centred on Randalstown). Both schools, like Hardinge Street Trades Preparatory School and clubs like O’Connells, supplied teams to the league. Playing Gaelic games was likely seen as a reflection of the political attitudes in a family and helped identify likely candidates for Na Fianna to approach.

Jack McNally has described how he and Brian Convery prompted school friends and others they knew to attend a meeting in the back of a shop on Herbert Street in Ardoyne. Mick Carolan, the O/C of the local company of the IRA came in to the meeting to encourage those present to join Na Fianna. In the end, a new sluagh, the Henry Joy McCracken, was set up, based in the Bone. The first O/C was 17 year old Oliver McGowan, with 16 year old Willie Murray as his Adjutant, Jack McNally as Intelligence Officer and Brian Convery and Liam Mulholland as section leaders.The post of Quartermaster was unfilled. The sluagh was loosely attached to a local company of the IRA. Jack McNally records that the Henry Joy McCracken sluagh in the Bone was then split into two with the William Orr sluagh formed in Ardoyne. The new sluagh was 110 strong with Jack McNally as O/C, with Eugene McCurry as his Adjutant, Tom O’Donnell as Quartermaster and Frank Gallagher as his Intelligence Officer. Others who served as Fianna officers in the Bone and Ardoyne were Owen Miles, Alfie McDowell, Moses McFall, Johnny Wales and James Campbell.

Following the increased recruitment, by 1920, there were four sluagh in the north Belfast battalion (part of the Belfast Brigade of Na Fianna). As well as the Henry Joy McCracken and William Orr sluagh, there were sluagh centred on the North Queen Street and Carrickhill districts. A further sluagh was later added in Greencastle. Peter Carleton records the strength of the Carrickhill sluagh as sixty, aged between twelve and sixteen[6]. When Peter Carleton joined in 1919 John Maguire was the O/C in Carrickhill later becoming O/C of the Fianna 2nd battalion (as one of four officers seconded from the 1st battalion).

Jimmy Steele was thirteen when he joined the North Queen Street sluagh in 1920[7]. Members in the North Queen Street sluagh were drawn from the wider district including the Docks area and New Lodge Road[8]. Prominent figures in the North Queen Street sluagh were Hugh McNally (who was from Artillery Street), Frank Millar (from McCleery Street) and Fossee Lee from the Docks[9]. Jimmy Steele was a Fianna officer by 1922 when he held dual membership (he is listed as a volunteer in B Company, 1st Battalion of the IRA’s Belfast Brigade at the time). In Reminiscing (A Prison Poem, 1946), Steele gives an idea of how he then remembered taking part in some of the activities of Na Fianna, such as country walks and history and political talks:

“The tramp o’er mountain, road and hill,  

Or sitting in the quiet still

Of some lone glen; while someone there

Would speak or sing of Ireland fair.

The story of her ancient right.

The struggle ‘gainst usurper’s might;

Her sons who served and fought and died

In her just cause so sanctified,

And thus our hearts with pride, we’d lace

With love for our unconquered race.”

A raid on a house in Gardiner’s Court, off the Old Lodge Road, at the end of July 1922 illustrates the age profile and military training of Na Fianna in Belfast from about 1919 onwards (and that they stayed more or less the same until then). At Gardiner’s Court, the RUC swooped during a Na Fianna meeting. Those present were aged between 12 and 18. One of the older Fian was armed with a revolver and two further revolvers and ammunition were found to the rear of the property. Gardiner’s Court was in the district covered by the Carrickhill sluagh.

By early 1920 Na Fianna was actively involved in supporting IRA operations. This included acting as scouts, gathering intelligence or general information and observing activity to report it back up through the chain of command. Fianna members did sometimes carry arms and could hold dual membership with the IRA. These were the activities Jimmy Steele was later to recall on the rare occasions when he talked about this period[10] (and corroborated by the likes of Gardiner’s Court raid in 1922 described above).

In April 1920 B and D Company of the Belfast IRA participated in a co-ordinated response to Tomás MacCurtain’s death by burning income tax papers and records in three offices in Belfast[11]. The operations included units of Fianna Éireann, who acted as lookouts[12]. When the fire brigade arrived quickly and put the fire out, the same IRA and Fianna units returned and repeated the action a week later. This time they succeeded in destroying a substantial number of income tax and other related records. Peter Carleton describes how Na Fianna had scouted for attacks on the tax office by carefully recording when staff left work and the main points of access to the buildings[13]. Jack McNally also reports how, on another operation, Fianna members were posted as lookouts apparently forming an outer cordon with armed IRA volunteers posted as guards at key points of an inner cordon[14].

Sean Cusack describes how, in the summer of 1920, a trusted Fianna member went to Lisburn to monitor a target for assassination and then report back to Belfast every evening[15]. Jack McNally names a number of operations involving his Na Fianna engineering unit from the north Belfast sluagh and how combined operations of Na Fianna engineering units and the IRA were causing concerns in Na Fianna Headquarters in Dublin. This wasn’t resolved until April 1921. Until then, the existing sluagh system of Na Fianna remained in place. Afterwards, Fianna units were re-organised and formally attached to a structure matching that of the IRA, with an assumption that a Fian would automatically progress to IRA membership on turning 17.

The Belfast IRA had been re-organised in March 1921, with the four existing companies (A, B, C and D) of the Belfast battalion re-organised as part of the Belfast Brigade of the 3rd Northern Division. This was followed by the re-structuring of Na Fianna in April and the end of the sluagh system. Na Fianna were now fully integrated into the IRA structures and organised into companies and battalions with dual membership permitted for officers. For example the Carrickhill sluagh and North Queen Street sluagh were now linked with C Company of the 1st Battalion and D Company of the 2nd Battalion, respectively, of the 1st Brigade of the IRA’s 3rd Northern Divison. The company and battalions were to be re-structured on a number of  later occasions such as after the Treaty with the influx of new volunteers (who were derided as ‘Trucileers’) and the formation of a 3rd and 4th Battalion. A list of names of Fianna members in 1921 only survives for the 1st Battalion (which covered the Falls), which I’ve added below. It’s worth noting the likely reason for the limited information surviving for some districts. Take, as an example, the North Queen Street company of 2nd Battalion of Na Fianna, D Company of the 2nd Battalion IRA and the Lamh Dearg company of Cumann na mBán. The lack of information for these units seem to reflect the strength of Anti-Treaty feeling in North Queen Street (e.g. Lamh Dearg sent two delegates to the Cumann na mBán convention to vote against the Treaty). The sources for the surviving lists held in the military archives in Dublin were former Fianna, IRA and Cumann na mBán officers who were co-operating with the Free State government to collect the information – few from North Queen Street co-operated (I’ll blog on transcribed lists of names in the future).

The reality of service in Na Fianna was stark in North Belfast (on the Falls, a Fian could openly wear a badge in his lapel, elsewhere in Belfast it was considered unwise). For much of the two years up to July 1922, there were a series of eruptions of fighting, some quite sustained. Some measure of the sheer intensity of the conflict in Belfast can be seen in the casualty figures. A little over 2000 people died across Ireland during this period, about 25% of them in Belfast alone (when Belfast had only 9% of the population)[16]. The casualty statistics for 1920-22 make for stark reading. Kieran Glennon gives 178 fatalities in the area from Carrickhill across North Queen Street to the Docks[17]. That relatively small area saw roughly 36% of all war-related fatalities in Belfast in 1920-22 (about 9% in Ireland, as whole). Those responsible for the fatalities are unknown in 15 cases, with 42 known to be caused either by the IRA itself or others on the Catholic side. The remaining 121 were caused by the crown forces or others on the Protestant side.

Alongside this was a low level of background violence, raids, constant curfews, patrolling and sectarian tensions. As the lulls gave way to more intense violence, Catholics began to break holes into the dividing walls between yards and even within houses. That meant it was possible to move along streets, or between back yards, without fear of being shot[18]. Given the casualties, remarkably little has been published on this period in Belfast.

The exposure to violence is also illustrated by members of Na Fianna killed in Belfast during 1920-22 and are named on the County Antrim Monument in Milltown Cemetery in Belfast. This includes William Toal, John Murphy, Joseph Burns and JP Smyth. Toal’s death is recorded in 1922 (although the date on the monument is wrong), but the others aren’t readily identified in contemporary news reports. It is possible that John Murphy is actually John Murray, killed in the Bone on 28th August 1920. However, Burns and Smyth can’t be reconciled with individuals killed during this period, either in Belfast or elsewhere. The only explanations are that either their deaths simply weren’t reported as the nature of how they died was accidental, or, that their deaths were deliberately kept secret. A further example of the confused air that hangs over Belfast at that time was that Thomas Heathwood, a Fian killed in March 1922 is not normally named on the Fianna roll of honour for this period. Nor are Fianna 2nd Lt Joseph Hurson (from A Company, 2nd Battalion) or Fian Leo Rea who were both killed but don’t get listed on the Fianna roll of honour.

When Civil War broke out in the area under control of the southern government, Fianna Éireann rejected Treaty but remained, officially, neutral (although it effectively took the Anti-Treaty side). However, individual members took sides, including in Belfast, and like the other republican organisations in the city went in to decline for a number of years.

The following is a list of the Fianna members in 1st Battalion, Belfast Brigade, mostly west Belfast (transcribed from Military Archives document FE/34). A number of Fian listed were to remain prominent in the IRA in later decades, such as Liam McAllister, Art Thornbury (also a noted hurler) and Tom O’Malley (who was later to take ill in prison and die a couple of weeks after being released from Crumlin Road in 1959).

1st Battalion (Companies A-D)

Capt Seamus Mallon (A Company); Capt James McShane (B Company); Capt George Breen (C Company); Capt Pat Donnelly (D Company); Quartermaster John Gribben

John Bateson (later attached to 2nd Battalion); Michael Bradley; John Bradley; Thomas Brady; Joseph Brady; William Bramble; John Bramble; Sam Bunting; Eugene Butler

James Campbell (later attached to 2nd Battalion); Pat Campbell (D Company); John Carbury; James Carbury; Joseph Clarke; Joseph Colbert; John Cosgrove; John Creagan; Leo Creagan; Leo Crummey; Malcolm Crummey; John Cullen; Dan Cummins

Michael Dempsey; My Doherty; Pat Donnelly (Leeson St); James Downey

Robert Gilmore; William John Gilmore

Joseph Fagan; Malachy Ferris

Leo Goodson; William Gillespie; Joseph Gum; Robert Graham; Pat Graham

Humphrey Hope; Thomas Hawthorne; Ed Hayes; Thomas Hamill; Thomas Hales; John Hannon; Hugh Hannon; William Harvey

James Kelly; Jim Kelly; Frank Kennedy

James Leddy; Hugh Leddy; Thomas Lee; Joseph Leonard

John Matthews; Sam Maguire; Tom Maguire; Tom Montague

James McMahon; Pat McPhillips; Bernard McIlvenna; Dominic McGuinness; Joseph McLarnon; Donal McDevitt; Thomas McShane; Frank McKenna; John McKenna; George McCann; John McCann; Leo McCann; George McLaughlin; Alphonsus McLaughlin; William McAllister; John McAllister; Tony McMenamin; John McCurley; John McQuillan; Pat McCusker; William McCartney; James McGuinness; John McManus; John McFadden; Patrick McFadden; John McWilliams; John McGivern; Patrick McFadden; John McWilliams; John McGivern; Joseph McCrystal; Charles McLaverty; Patrick McDonnell; George McGouran; A McBrearty; L McVeigh

Thomas O’Boyle; Edward O’Hagan; Thomas O’Malley

Hugh Rafferty; Hugh Rice; David Ritchie; S Robinson

Peter Shevlin; Patrick Shevlin

Joseph Taylor; Art Thornbury; Edward Trodden; Charles Trodden; Michael Trodden

Patrick Woods; George Watters; Peter Watters

2nd Battalion (officers seconded from 1st Battalion):  John Maguire; P Hefler; A Fox; John Trainor.


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[1] Bureau of Military History, BMH.WS0412 by Joe Murray.

[2] McNally,1989, Morally Good Politically Bad, 4.

[3] See Steele, 1966, 1916-66: Belfast and nineteen sixteen, pages 32-34.

[4] McNally,1989, Morally Good Politically Bad, 14.

[5] Bureau of Military History, BMH.WS0410. Seannachi refers to the telling of folk tales and stories. Celidhes are Irish dances (the distinction between ‘Irish’ dances and ‘English’ dances features in accounts all the way to the 1950s and 1960s).

[6] The ages are based on the best fit among the entries for the district in the 1911 Census. McGowan’s father was a plasterer, Murray’s a labourer.

[7] McEoin 1980, Survivors 305.

[8] IRB organisation in North Queen Street included Seamus Dobbyn’s father storing rifles in the 1890s (Bureau of Military History, WS0279).

[9] See McNally 1989, Morally Good, Politically Bad, 14.

[10] Interview with Billy McKee.

[11] See McDermott 2001, Northern Divisions, 28

[12] McNally 1989, Morally Good, Politically Bad.

[13] MacEoin 1980, Survivors 305.

[14] McNally 1989, Morally Good, Politically Bad,14

[15] Bureau of Military History, WS0402

[16] Violent deaths in the south largely ended with the Truce in July 1921 and didn’t start again until the end of June 1922.

[17] Glennon 2013, From Pogram to Civil War, 266.

Thanks to Kieran Glennon and Jim McDermott for discussion of some aspects of na Fianna in Belfast in 1917-1924.

4 thoughts on “Fianna Éireann in Belfast, 1917-24.

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