On 25th April, 1936, the RUC raided the Craobh Ruadh rooms in 10 Crown Entry, Belfast. Inside, was the IRA’s Adjutant-General, Jim Killeen (not Moss Twomey, as The Irish Press reported), two other GHQ staff members and almost all the IRA’s northern leadership. All present were charged with treason felony (not used in 50 years). The long term repercussions were the removal of individuals who would have opposed Sean Russell’s English bombing campaign of 1939 and Killeens influence on the IRA’s Northern Command concept, set up in 1939.
While the horrific circumstances of Sean McCaughey’s death on 11th May 1946 after a 23 day hunger and thirst strike are well known, less people are aware of the story of David Fleming, from Killarney, in County Kerry, who was serving a 12 year sentence on a treason-felony charge in Belfast prison since 1942. Fleming had been subject to severe beatings at the hands of prison staff and had participated in a blanket protest in 1943 and a 40 day hunger strike in 1944. He began a hunger strike on 22nd March 1946 which ran alongside Sean McCaughey’s in Portlaoise despite both prisoners being held in isolation.
His brother Patrick (a former IRA Army Council member who had himself spent considerable time interned in the Curragh), was allowed to visit him in Crumlin Road prison and gave a statement carried by the press (on 18th November 1946). He recorded that, when the three month blanket protest had ended in September 1943, David’s behaviour had been a cause of concern and he had been placed under observation for two months by the medical officer.
After the ending of the blanket protest in September, the IRA prisoners in A wing of Crumlin Road had debated what to do next about conditions inside the prison. Sixteen women interned in Armagh prison had gone on hunger strike in November and December 1943, and unfounded rumours had circulated in the press over the winter that Hugh McAteer (the former IRA Chief of Staff who had escaped and been eventually re-captured in 1943) had gone on hunger strike. On the 22nd February 1944, a hunger strike did begin, with teams of three joining in stages, first beginning with McAteer, Liam Burke (O/C of the republican prisoners) and Pat McCotter. The prison authorities delivered food and milk to their cells every day, hoping to tempt the prisoners to come off the strike by leaving the food there in front of them. The will power required to continue the strike, in the cold cells of Crumlin Road, with food in easy reach, must have been formidable.
The prison staff also continued to subject the strikers to two to three searches a week, including strip searches, despite the fact they were no longer allowed out of their cells. On day four of the strike (26th February), David Fleming and Jimmy Steele joined the hunger strike with the second team. The first of the hunger strikers had already been moved to the prison hospital by the 16th March, by which time eighteen men had joined the strike, including Joe Cahill on the 9th March. On the 16th March, William Lowry, the Home Affairs Minister in Stormont, reported to Stormont that the “…condition of these men is only what could be expected after such a prolonged period without food. The Government cannot accept any responsibility for the actions of these men whose present condition is solely due to their own voluntary abstention from food“. He described hunger striking as a malignant and criminal practice and insisted that the medical treatment the prisoners were receiving was entirely satisfactory. Lowry went on to say, “…Their own relatives at an appropriate time, for example when death is imminent, will be duly notified.”
The hunger strikers were joined for a week by 100 internees in Derry prison in mid-March. By the 22nd March, the Irish Times was reporting that Liam Burke, Pat McCotter, Hugh McAteer and Jimmy Steele were all weak after 30 days on hunger strike and had abandoned the strike. That story was not true but, as it was the latest in a series of inaccurate reports on the strike, it was becoming painfully obvious to the IRA prisoners that the censorship was preventing the strike having any impact on public opinion. When the forty day mark was passed, the IRA staff debated the futility of continuing when the chance of fatalities was now growing ever higher. On the forty-fourth day (6th April), the strike was called off. It seems, from Joe Cahill’s account in his biography A Life in the IRA, that the decision was not made by the hunger strikers themselves, as he puts it that a decision was “...taken to bring them off.”
A couple of months after the hunger strike ended, David Fleming was given a particularly brutal beating by prison staff on 15th June (detailed here). Hugh McAteer described the blood stains after the assault on Fleming: “…the west wall of my cell was spattered with blood over a space of 42 square feet… On the north wall, where it joins the west wall, was a large, streaky, blood-stained patch which looked as if a blood-stained head had been pressed against it. The stains remained clearly visible until whitewashed out about a week later.”
As the end of the second world war appeared to be in sight during the remainder of 1944 and 1945, the prison issues became less pressing as there was an assumption that internees and even sentenced prisoners would be released once hostilities ceased. While the internees were released during 1945 (some having been first interned since 1938, long before the outbreak of the world war), the northern government appeared to have no appetite for remitting the huge sentences it had handed down over the previous five to six years (eg 10 to 12 years penal servitude for possession of revolver instead of a £2-£5 fine).
The stress of the beatings and the threat of lengthy imprisonment led David Fleming to embark on a further hunger strike on 22nd March 1946, in protest against his incarceration. After the severe assault he was subjected to in June 1944, his brother Patrick records that David’s mental health remained an issue for the prison authorities (see statement below). By the end of 1946, he had spent at least 155 days on hunger or thirst strike. This included the first hunger strike begun on 22nd March which he continued, despite a beating in his cell of 12th April and forced feeding the same month, for 82 days until the 12th June. As with the previous hunger strikes the press continued to report inaccurately, claiming he had taken food on occasions.
Between June and October, David embarked on a number of short hunger strikes of between 12 and 16 days, refusing liquids for 7 days on the longer protest. On the 12th October he again refused food and went on hunger strike. It was his tenth hunger strike (according to the Irish Examiner on 22/11/1946). During the strike he seems to have intermittently refused liquids as well as food for periods up to at least 6 days during the protest. As public concern about both his health and mental state continued, pressure seems to have told on the northern government. On the afternoon of 25th November, after 45 days, he ended the hunger strike. That Saturday, assuming David’s health was irretrievably broken, the northern government released him to his brother Patrick and a nurse and he was brought straight over the border to the Pembroke nursing home in Pembroke Street in Dublin. For good measure, the northern government served an exclusion order on David Fleming under the Civil Authorities (Special Powers) Act.
This is Patrick Fleming’s statement as reported in the Irish Press (18/11/46):
“Owing to travel restrictions during the war he was not visited by any members of his family until eight months ago, when his mother was informed by the prison governor that he was dangerously ill, as a result of hunger strike.
“I visited him at that time and found that he had been on hunger-strike for 40 days. After having a conversation with him I formed the opinion that he was not normal mentally. Other persons who had seen him, including the prison chaplain, formed the same opinion. No amount of reasoning could prevail on him to abandon the strike. On the 82nd day, without giving: any reason, he took food. At this stage he was in a state of collapse and very confused mentally.
“After a period of three weeks, when he was recovering, he went on a succession of fasts, some lasting 12 and 16 days, the latter including the refusal of liquids for 7 days.
“On October 12 he again started a fast, and has since taken no food.
“Since I first visited my brother in May last, I learned some of the facts concerning his condition and treatment since his arrest. In the second year of his imprisonment he, with a number of other political prisoners, as a protest against their treatment, refused to wear convict dress. He was kept naked in solitary confinement for three months; even the bedding was removed in the daytime. After this it was noticed that he was acting in a peculiar manner, and the medical officer had him placed under observation, for about two months. He was then returned to a work party.
Mr. Fleming adds that later David was removed to the prison hospital. Whilst in hospital a government mental specialist was brought to examine him. After nine weeks he was returned to the prison, and some time later he began the first hunger strike.
“After 20 days’ fast he was forcibly fed three or four times, at intervals of five days. He resisted violently on each occasion, and was put in a straitjacket. He was afterwards locked in a padded cell.”
‘” I am convinced that my brother is not conscious of what he is doing-. I am further convinced that the Belfast Government are of the same opinion.“
Based on this statement confirming the duration, I’ve revised the dates and timings of David Fleming’s first hunger strike in 1946, to allow 82 days (as stated by Patrick) from start to finish. This means the strike started on 16th March and strengthens the suggestion that McCaughey had calculated that accelerating his protest by refusing liquids would bring both strikes to a critical point at the same time (ie between 50-55 days after Fleming’s began, similar to when D’Arcy and McNeela died in 1940).
Jimmy Steele published a poem called Easter Morn in the Belfast republican newspaper, Resurgent Ulster in 1953. It is subtitled Belfast Prison 1944, meaning he must have written at the end of 40 days on hunger strike that year. In a debate in Stormont in May 1946, Cahir Healy described the condition of David Fleming after the forty days on hunger strike with Jimmy: “…hunger strike left its trace upon both mind and body. He was a nervous wreck then.” The hunger strike had followed his escape (and recapture) in 1943, the 1943 blanket protest and repeated violent attacks on republicans by the prison staff (and the dreadful conditions in the prison). Also, the death of Rocky Burns during an exchange of gunfire with the RUC in February 1944 (Rocky was O/C Belfast at the time), cast a considerable shadow over those of his friends in Crumlin Road prison.
(Belfast Prison, 1944)
This morn I knelt at Holy Mass,
And heard the Word that came to pass,
The Resurrection from the Dead,
Of nailed-pierced limbs and thorn-crowned Head,
And in the prison chapel there,
This Easter morn went forth my prayer,
Of love and joy for He who died,
And came to life at Eastertide,
The days of torture He had spent.
With pain His Sacred Body rent.
‘Til death had called His Sacred Name.
Had now returned a living Flame-
A Flame of Faith and Love and Peace,
That e’er would burn till time would cease.
Then through my thoughts from somewhere near. A comrade’s voice speaks loud and clear,
Requesting prayer for those who died
In Ireland’s cause one Eastertide.
In Gaelic tongue our prayers were said,
For them: and all our Martyred Dead,
They too had trod the Calvary’s way,
To free us from the tyrant’s sway,
E’en though they died in that brave deed,
In youthful hearts they sowed their seed,
From death to life a broken land
Was raised by this heroic band,
Thus every Easter dawn since then,
Has brought its meed of patriot men.
I look around where patriots kneel,
Conscious of such patriot steel;
‘Thank God’ I pray it shall be so
Till Freedom’s sun for us doth glow.
Commemorating the Easter Rising in the area under the control of the northern government was always a difficult matter for the IRA. In the early years after the Civil War, the main commemorative event in Belfast was actually, like Bodenstown, the existing Wolfe Tone Commemoration on Cavehill in late June or early July. In the 1920s, senior republican figures like Brian O’Higgins and Frank Ryan came to the city to gave the main oration. The Cavehill event often involved some form of cat-and-mouse with the RUC as republicans attempted to hold the event without any interference from the RUC, such as publicising the wrong time or place. In many ways this pre-figured the pattern that Easter Rising commemorations would fall into.
By 1926, and the tenth anniversary of the Easter Rising, comments at recent commemorations had prompted the northern government to ban any Easter commemoration at Milltown cemetery in Belfast that year, under the Civil Authorities (Special Powers) Act (see here for a paper on bans under the Act). This was extended to include the Brandywell in Derry in 1927 and, by 1929, Armagh and Newry too (the list of places at which Easter commemorations were specifically banned continued to grow into the 1930s). In Belfast, the Easter commemoration became a set piece confrontation between republicans and the RUC. Since the wearing and sale of Easter Lilies was banned, as was the display of flags or posters, the presence of any of these would see the RUC attempting to arrest some of those present and there was often violence at the cemetery. Throughout the 1920s and into the 1930s, republicans were arrested at Easter for the sale or wearing of Easter Lilies (often derided in the court as Sinn Fein poppies) and erecting political posters.
One exception to the ban that was found, was the holding of religious ceremonies, so the solution that was often adopted by the Belfast IRA was to assemble at an undisclosed location then parade to the gates of Milltown (which were usually locked or guarded by the RUC). At the gates, the IRA and anyone else present would usually kneel down in the roadway and hold a short religious ceremony, usually a decade of the Rosary said in Irish by a senior IRA figure. The parade to the cemetery and the fact that the assembled volunteers were addressed by the Belfast battalion O/C or Adjutant (albeit in leading prayers) was taken to satisfy the requirements of a suitable 1916 commemoration. The paradox, of course, was that this way of circumventing the Special Powers Act ban also contributed to an impression that the Belfast IRA were primarily devout Catholics.
Most accounts of Easter Commemorations at this time appears as either RUC evidence in court proceedings or as police reports to the Minister of Home Affairs. Vincent McDowell, in his historical novel An Ulster Idyll, gives what may be closest to a republican account of a commemoration, in this case in 1941 (McDowell’s brother was an IRA volunteer and he himself was interned – and the novel was meant to be historically accurate):
It was resolved that the Commemoration in their Company area would take place on the Sunday afternoon just after the main Mass in St. Patrick’s when a crowd of people would be passing along and could be directed down a side street. They estimated that they would have possibly ten minutes… He met the others, at the corner of Frederick Street with North Queen Street, at the appointed time. The Company of volunteers took up position at various corners… A squad of volunteers diverted the people coming out from Mass by standing across their path at an angle and holding hands, calling out: “Commemoration, Easter Commemoration, just down Frederick Street, Easter Commemoration.” More than half the people walked down, mainly for curiosity… and as the small crowd began to gather of about one hundred and fifty people, Billy Kelly [the name McDowell uses for the local O.C. in 1941] stood on a table which had been volunteered by someone locally. The adjutant shouted: ” Attention! At ease!” Kelly started his brief oration.
“Friends, every year since the outbreak of the Rebellion in 1916, the Republican movement has always commemorated the birth of our Nation. Despite the enemy occupation of part of our country, we commemorate that birth here today. Easter is a story of the rebirth of the hope for all men, and particularly the Irish…”
McDowell then has Kelly read the 1916 Proclamation and three volunteers emerge with pistols and fire three shots into the air. He concludes…
A section of the crowd cheered and the others looked on, some with indifference, one or two with a certain amount of hostility.
The planning for the 1942 Easter Commemorations saw the IRA deciding to stage a diversionary attack on the RUC in Kashmir Road. The planned operation was for C Company, under it’s O/C Tom Williams, to fire shots over an RUC cage car and draw the RUC into a substantial search of the area, forcing them to move men away from other districts. The C Company unit would retreat before the RUC saturated the area and the Belfast Battalion would hold its main commemoration without interference. The plan went wrong when the RUC pursued the IRA unit and there was an exchange of gunfire in Cawnpore Street during which Tom Williams was wounded and RUC Constable Patrick Murphy killed (apparently shot by William’s Adjutant, Joe Cahill). Williams subsequent claims of responsibility (as he had been led to believe his wounds were fatal) meant his was the only one of six death sentences that was not commuted. His execution was to add to the significance of Easter Rising commemorations for the Belfast IRA.
In 1943 then, the commemoration was to be particularly significant. It was held against the backdrop of a number of publicity coups for the IRA in Belfast. The leadership of Hugh McAteer and Jimmy Steele developed the idea of staging a public Easter Rising commemoration. Harry White (in his biography, Harry, written with Uinseann MacEoin) recounts how the idea evolved from a throwaway suggestion from two young IRA Volunteers to an operation involving sixteen Volunteers taking over the Broadway cinema to stage a commemoration. The wartime setting and heavy military presence resonated with Dublin in 1916. Similarly, the venue, built on the site of the Willow Bank huts from where the Belfast Volunteers had mobilised in 1916 provided a coded challenge to the various competing groups claiming primacy as the authentic inheritors of the Republic declared in 1916 (ownership of the Easter Rising commemorations were to see similar political battles in the 1950s when formal parades were permitted).
The 1943 commemoration also intentionally signalled a formal shift in the IRA’s centre from Dublin to Belfast, and in focusing on ending partition rather than challenging the legitimacy of Leinster House (the ambition of the Belfast IRA since the 1930s). While few enough may have understood the reference to 1916 and the pre-Treaty IRA (although those that did were the intended audience), the parallels of a public reading of the 1916 proclamation in 1943 in Belfast during a general world war and the original proclamation in Dublin in 1916 during an earlier war were no doubt clear. Symbolically, Easter 1943 marked the final shift in emphasis of the IRAs campaign to the north. McAteer, writing in 1951 in the Sunday Independent, clearly saw the parallels between 1916 and 1943.
Initially, according to White, the plan had been to simply flash up a slide on screen that said “Join The IRA”, but the concept expanded until it became a full dress commemoration. White had been staying at the house of a projectionist in the Broadway Cinema on the Falls Road, Willie Mohan, whose brother Jerry was an internée. Mohan’s uncle, Frank, was also the manager of the cinema. Typically, the projection box was kept locked, but normally the projectionist went for a smoke between films which gave the IRA a short window in which to go and take control of it. The RUC were expecting some form of commemoration to take place over the Easter weekend. According to the Irish News, they had turned the Falls Road into an armed camp with hundreds of uniformed and plain clothes police, with armoured cars, whippet cars, patrol cars and cage cars patrolling the district.
Despite this, on the afternoon of Easter Saturday, the IRA converged on a house close to the Broadway Cinema. They drew revolvers and grenades from the quartermaster and proceeded in pairs towards the cinema, walking within sight of each other for security. Armoured vehicles passed them but there were no incidents. Finally, the sixteen armed IRA men took up positions around the Broadway cinema on the Falls Road just before 5 pm. Some, armed with grenades, were on the flat roof to delay any potential raiders, the others took positions around the exits. Jimmy Steele and Hugh McAteer sat down in the audience and got ready to go out onto the stage. At 5.05 pm, as the film, Don Bosco, was ending the audience got to their feet and began to move towards the exits only to find that they were blocked by armed men. The armed men told them to go back to their seats and that no-one was going to be harmed. Meanwhile Steele and McAteer went up on stage.
“Are you the police?” asked one woman.
“No, it isn’t the police. It is the IRA and no-one is going to harm you,” was the reply.
Fr Kevin McMullan, who was 7 years old at the time and had just watched the afternoon matinee of Don Bosco recalls how excited the audience were as this happened. Since no advance notice of the event had been given, those present were simply the cinema goers who happened to be attending the film. Given that the film, Don Bosco, was a 1935 Italian film of the life of the Catholic saint, the IRA were assuming, at the very least, that the audience wouldn’t be hostile.
Three volunteers went into the projector box and handed over a slide which was flashed up on screen.
THIS CINEMA HAS BEEN COMMANDEERED BY THE IRISH REPUBLICAN ARMY FOR THE PURPOSE OF HOLDING AN EASTER COMMEMORATION IN MEMORY OF THE DEAD WHO DIED FOR IRELAND. THE PROCLAMATION OF THE REPUBLIC WILL BE READ BY COMMDT. GEN. STEELE AND THE STATEMENT FROM THE ARMY COUNCIL WILL BE READ BY LIEUT. GEN. McATEER.
Whatever the audience reaction was expected, Jimmy Steele, in full dress uniform, appeared on stage and was introduced by McAteer. Then, to a breathless hush, Steele read the Proclamation of the Irish Republic to the growing amazement of the audience. According to McAteer, “Through the stillness of the darkened cinema his voice rang clearly as he spoke the immortal words of the Proclamation.” It ended with a great burst of applause applause. Next McAteer read a statement from Army Council on IRA policy, the resonances with 1916 are clear. While the “cause had not yet triumphed” he told them, “Ireland is being held within the Empire by sheer force and by force alone can she free herself. Now with Britain engaged in a struggle for her very existence, we are presented with a glorious opportunity.” McAteer finished to applause and much enthusiasm. He then called for two minutes’ silence to commemorate those who had died for Ireland. Steele and McAteer then stood to attention (with McAteer wondering if their luck could hold). A voice then rang out “Volunteers, dismiss,” and Steele and McAteer jumped down from the platform and left the cinema. With proceedings over, the remaining IRA men left the building to much applause.
In Dublin, The Irish Times reported that no commemoration took place. In Belfast, though, The Irish News enthusiastically reported on proceedings which were recounted in news bulletins as far away as Germany. The northern government’s Prime Minister, J.M. Andrews, who was already under pressure as being perceived as a moderate, resigned on the Friday after Easter.
The following is a transcription of an account written by Nora Connolly O’Brien of Belfast 1911-1916, talking about her father James Connolly, his execution and her own republican activities. It was published in 1966 in the 1916-66: Belfast and nineteensixteen commemorative booklet issued in Belfast by the National Graves Association and edited by Jimmy Steele (who added a couple of notes).
The text is reproduced in full including a ‘tailpiece’.
Nora Connolly O’Brien
Nora Connolly O’Brien was the eldest daughter of James Connolly one of the signatories to the Proclamation of the Republic 1916 who was executed in Kilmainham Jail, May 12th, 1916. Mrs O’Brien played a very prominent part in Republican activities in Belfast from 1911 to 1916. She founded the 1st girl Sluagh of Na Fianna Eireann in Belfast and also Cumann na mBan, and was with the Belfast Contingent of the Irish Volunteers at Coalisland 1916.
In this little booklet we are able to publish an interview which she recorded for us, of those stirring days in Belfast from 1911 to 1916. –Ed.
“We came from the United States to Dublin in December 1910. In the following year, we all moved to Belfast, where Daddy and I got a house in Glenalina Terrace – a house on the Falls Road, between St James Road, and Clondara Street, and facing the City Cemetery. The house afterwards became well known to all the Fianna lads and girls.” They used ask each other “Are you going up to Glenalina.”
My father was appointed organiser of the Transport and General Workers Union, and he had to go to Dublin in 1913. He was there most of the time. During the big strike he was arrested as he defied a Proclamation and spoke at a proclaimed meeting. He was the first Republican in refusing to recognise the Court, saying that the King of England had no right in Ireland. He was sentenced to three months’ imprisonment, and he went on hunger-strike. When he was released, he came home to Belfast. He was expected on the 6 o’clock train. I remember mother went to meet him and I stayed behind to look after the others at home – eventually I made my way to the station, and when I got there, the place was crowded with people – thousands of them. I wondered what had happened so I pushed my way to the front, said to a man. “What are all the people here for?” “We are here to meet General Connolly.” he said. When I told my father about it later, he was thunderstruck, he wasn’t expecting such a reception.
When he got outside the station he was put on a side-car and the crowd followed him down past the City Hall, Royal Avenue, York Street and Dock Street to the Transport Workers’ Union H.Q. The crowd wouldn’t go away until he spoke to then.
He was terribly pleased with the Belfast people and the workers adored him. Often I heard the mill girls singing: –
“Cheer up Connolly, your name is everywhere.
You left old Baldy sitting in his chair
Crying for Mercy: Mercy wasn’t there:
Cheer up Connolly, your name is everywhere.”
My father loved the spirit of Belfast, and he was always proud to let people know he was a Northman – “I’m a Northman,” he used to say.
Regarding Na Fianna, we were always terribly proud of the fact that there was a Girls’ Sluagh of Na Fianna – the only one in Ireland. We had Ceilidhte, language classes, route marches, drill parades, and first-aid. When it began to look as if things might happen – I took a special course in first-aid, with special reference to wounds. I then taught the boys, and girls, and also the Volunteers.
When Cumann na mBan was organised in Dublin, I wrote a letter to all the newspapers, rented a hall and advertised a meeting, to organise the Cumann in Belfast. We had a very successful meeting – some of the names of those who joined were, Roisin Braniff who became City librarian in Dublin; Bridie Farrell one of the Ulster players; Agnes Ryan who later married Dinny McCullough; Lizzie Allen and many others. One thing about Belfast people, they were very reliable and you could always depend upon them, and get them to do anything.
We also, in Belfast, the older members of Na Fianna formed the Young Republican Party for the purpose of public organising, speaking, recruiting etc. I designed a Banner with the Golden-Sunburst, letters of Y.R.P. in white ribbons and bordered with a green fringe – thus we had also our Tricolour. We held our meetings at the Central Library, Royal Avenue, Hamill Street, and a few at the Custom House Steps. We had a box with four collapsible legs which acted as a platform.
We would preach Republicanism to the young, and we were very proud when Patrick Pearse in an editorial in his paper, quoted our activities as an example for the younger people of Ireland to follow – we were terribly proud of our efforts. In winter we had meetings in the Freedom Hall, which I think was in King Street. Countess Markievicz used to speak at these meetings. She was always very proud of Na Fianna in Belfast.
I remember one meeting we had, under the auspices of all the Republican groups. It was held in St Marys’ Hall and it was an Emmet Commemoration, and Pearse delivered the lectures. Pearse delivered a magnificent oration, and so good was he, that he roused the whole people, as I never saw them roused before, and at the end of his speech, the entire hall rose as one man, and gave him a terrific ovation. I never experienced anything like it.
During the big strike in Dublin, we also held meetings explaining the reasons of the strike and collecting money for the strikers. The police never bothered with us, except to keep an eye on us, but the Hibs gave us an awful lot of trouble, trying to stop our meetings and pulling us off the platform, but Na Fianna were always very active and carried on with their work.
The Cumann na mBan held their meetings in King Street, and the Betsy Gray Sluagh of Na Fianna held their meetings in Willow Bank Huts.
The Fianna used to hold their Ard-Fheis in Dublin every year during the Twelfth of July holidays. Delegates got their expenses which were small then, but a large crowd of Fianna boys and girls who were not delegates, used to go to hear the debates etc.
Somebody then discovered that we could get a boat with a six month return ticket for 5/-. So about 30 of us used to go in uniform and with pipers with us, we could leave Belfast at 8 p.m. and arrive in Dublin at 6 a.m. the next morning. We would dance and sing all night on the boat. Then we would camp out for a week at the Three Rock Mountain where Madame Markievicz had a cottage.
The Howth Gun Running happened during the Sunday we happened to be down for an Ard-Fheis – we have a lot of help that day, and later in the day, my sister Ina and I helped to remove some of them safely to Dublin. For this we received two of the rifles which we managed to bring back to Belfast with us.
In those days Republicanism was not very popular, and were class as outrageous people and in Belfast we were called “The Hillsiders.”
However we felt that we were moving towards something, and we began to hope that we would be able to play our part in something we had always hoped for.
When the Irish Volunteers were formed in 1913, it was the Fianna officers who trained and drilled them although they became members of both, we always insisted that our boys were only “on loan“ to them. They were a great type of active boys in Belfast, both in the Fianna and the Volunteers. It is a great pity and something that I always regret that they did not get the chance to fight.
Both the Volunteers and the Fianna were mobilised for the 1916 manoeuvres. Previous to the mobilisation order, I was down in Dublin when my father told the citizen Army, “We have been playing at soldiers for a long time, but now the time has come when we will have to be soldiers in earnest – the day has been decided upon” – my father then told me that the date of the Rising had been settled. He asked me would I stay with him, so I had to make my choice between Dublin and Belfast. I told him I would stay with the Belfast crowd. “I’d rather be with you, but after all I’ve been working with them, teaching and instructing them and though I’d rather be with you. I think my place is with them,” so I made my choice.
When I came back to Belfast I saw Dinny McCullough and I told him that I knew the Day had been settled and that I had an ambulance group well-trained in first0aid. I would pick out the girls most suitable for this work and we would go along with the Volunteer contingent. McCullough wasn’t at all anxious for us to go – I thought it was really stupid of him, because we had worked very hard once we knew that the day was near at hand and apart from teaching the girls and volunteers first-aid, we had also made up first-aid kits that could be sewn in their coats – in fact we made hundreds of them and we were able to send quite a lot of them to Dublin. However McCullough wasn’t too keen on the suggestion but eventually he consented and told me to choose six or seven girls. I choose my sister Ina, who was well trained in this kind of work; Bridie Farrell who was an older woman nearer my father’s age and one who wouldn’t be considered a youngster; Lizzie Allen, Kathleen Murphy, the two Corr sisters and a girl called O’Neill. It was arranged to meet in Coalisland on Easter Saturday (i.e. the Saturday of Holy Week) and in addition to bringing our first-aid equipment with us, I instructed them to bring three or four days’ rations.
We went off early in the afternoon on Saturday, and the station was packed – you would have thought all Belfast was going away. We put ourselves in different queuesm and got our tickets and made for the carriages.
Members of the young Ireland pipe band came after us and got into the carriages next to us. They were more like soldiers than pipers. They had groundsheets over their baks, bandoliers over their shoulders, bayonets at their hips and they had tricolour ribbons on their pipes.
We arrived at Coalisland and put up at the Hotel where we had tea. Then I got my first case – one of the lads had accidentally shot himself in the finger – it was the only flesh wound which I attended to immediately.
We were only a short while there when I was sent for, and given a verbal message from the commandant to say that there was going to be no fighting in the North and that I had been given my choice of going back to Belfast or Dublin. I asked the messenger why I had been given the choice, did he think there was going to be fighting in Dublin; he replied that he thought so. I said “ It is awfully queer that he should send word to me.” I asked one of the volunteers standing beside me if he could vouch for the messenger. He did so. I then repeated the message to the volunteers, which the messenger had given me – the volunteers were thunderstruck at the news. I said “If there is going to be no fighting in the North, I am going to Dublin but I will see the girls and give them the same choice.”
I told the girls the message which I had received and I sad, “Ina and I are going to Dublin and you have your choice.” They all voted to go to Dublin with us. As we rushed to catch the last train, another Belfast batch of Volunteers arrived, so I hurriedly told some of them the message I had received, and I told them to make enquiries about it.
Did this hurried visit to Dublin by Nora Connolly and her group, and, the story they brought with them change the whole course of Irish Revolutionary history? Did it influence the leaders to come to a final decision regarding the staging and timing of the Rising? The leaders seemed to take a very serious view of the story, so much so, that they were aroused out of their beds by James Connolly and summoned to a special conference. –Editor
We arrived in Dublin at 6 o’clock on Easter Sunday morning and went straight to Liberty Hall, to see my father. There was a heavy guard of Citizen Army men on the Hall. Eventually I was taken to see my father who was in bed. When I told my story, he said, “This is very serious, is it true?” I said “Well I have six girls with me and you can send for each one of them and question them separately as to what happened, don’t depend on my story.”
“You see Nora,” he said, “We got a message that 50 men could not be got to leave Belfast.” “50 men?” said I “there are over 100 Belfast men already in Coalisland.”
My father sent for each of the girsl as I suggested, and all repeated the same story. Calling the officer of the guard, Connolly asked for six men to conduct each of the girls on a special message. To his daughter he said, “I am sending each of you to a different leader, tell him, what you told me, and tell him to ask you any question he wishes and then tell him to come and see me immediately.”
Each of went to the leaders assigned to us, I went to Sean McDermott, the others to Pearse, Clarke, McDonagh, Plunkett and Ceannt. We all arrived back and reported to my father, all the six leaders followed us immediately. I gave all of them their breakfast on that last Easter Sunday morning.
My father came back from this fateful and momentous meeting, one that was to mean so much for the Ireland of the future, for the Free Republican Nation.
The girls were all sent back to Madaem’s house to get a good sleep. I stayed on at my fathers request. Everything around was a hive of activity. Citizien Army men moved around openly armed. You just felt that something was going to happen. A crowd, mostly women and girls stood outside. My father sent for me. “It is alright now, Nora, it is decided for tomorrow. Go up and have a rest and all of you report to Liberty Hall at 7 a.m. tomorrow morning (Easter Monday). Pearse will write and give you dispatches to deliver to the North.” My father then gave me a little revolver and ammo. He said “ You don’t know what the position will be tomorrow and you might need these. The place may be over urn by police and soldiers.” He also gave me a paper bag of money saying “That will help you carry on for awhile.”
Then he came with a paper and he opened it out and told the girls to read slowly and carefully and to try and memorise as much of it as possible. “I cannot give it with you, but you can let the people in the North know that you saw and read it and that it will be posted up all over Dublin at 12 o’clock tomorrow, Easter Monday.” It was the proclamation of the Irish Republic.
As we were waiting for Pearse to come with the despatches, Tomas McDonagh came along and jokingly said to us:-
“Here we are,” he said, “on the brink of a revolution and a fine strapping bunch of girls like you, all anxious about getting out of Dublin before we strike.”
Then Pearse came along and he gave me the dispatches and then very solemnly he bade us good-bye. “May God bless you and take care of you.” He said. Then we went off to catch the train. We knew we would not reach Coalisland until after 12 o’clock and we also realised that the Rising was timed to start at 12 noon in Dublin. When we brought the news into Coalisland, there was no one there only a bunch of local lads. The Belfast Boys had been demobilised on Easter Sunday and had gone home.
I sent Lizzie Allen on to Belfast with one of the dispatches, and my sister, Ina, on to Dr McCartan and the others to other centre. I had to stay on and wait, but the local O/C had mobilised his unit and they were staying in a barn with rifles and haversacks. They were quite a crowd of lads, he brought me out to see them. We waited and still no word came. They would not do anything, unless they could mobilise them all, and , it is not so easy outside the City.
I was terribly worried. The local O/C was in a quandary he could not keep his men tied up over Monday. It was alright if there had been a crowd, but their absence from home would be noticed. He decided to send them home late on Easter Monday night. Just with that there was some excitement. A Belfast boy, Seamus Dempsey, had arrived. They thought he was bringing news, but Seamus had got fed up with them doing nothing in Belfast so he had made his way back to Coalisland – hence that was another disappointment.
Late that night the local O/C demobilised his men, and told them to take their goods with them, and as soon as he got word, he would ring the Church bell and when they heard it, they would know that the time and word has arrived.
I waited another day and even the girls hadn’t come back, so I decided to make my way to McCartan’s house and see what had happened to Ina and if there was nothing doing I would make my way back to Dublin.
So I arrived at the heel of a riad on McCartan’s house, and the soldiers and plice were just leaving it as I arrived. I remember how mad I felt when I heard that they had found a large dump of ammunition in the turf stack, the one place where anyone in the country would look for them. McCartan was not at home and his sister wasn’t at all friendly. She thought, I should not have come there at all, drawing attention upon them.
McCartan was sent for and I remember there were a couple of Belfast boys sitting at teh fire, Rory Haskins was one of them, they had not gone back to Belfast. McCartan arrived and said it was impossible to do anything, as all the men were demonbilised and had gone back home. I said, “They were in a terrible hurry to demobilise them, there was no need for any of them to go back until Monday, so why chase them back on Saturday night. I heard in Coalisland that you chased them on the double.”
I was very angry, very indignant, terribly upset because I didn’t know how much this would upset all the plans that were made. McCartan was very apologetic and mentioned how difficult it would be to get them all back.
“No,” I said, “nothing left for the men of the North to do now, but to pray for the men of Dublin, they’ll fight and die and win Freedom for them, while they are sitting on their hunkers.”
I remember I was mad and awfully upset, so I asked if he knew where Ina was. He told me she had gone to the Walshes of Clogher. I asked if it was far and his sister said, “No, it’s not far.” Dr McCartan said, “You’ll be alright here and you can go on to Clogher in the morning.” “Yes,” I said, “I’ll go to Clogher and get Ina and we’ll go on to Dublin. I’ve wasted too much time on the North as it is.”
Ina and I made our way back to Dublin. We caught a train back to Dundalk, after that we had to walk because civilians were not allowed to use the train to Dublin. Barricades were up all over the place. After an eventful journey, we arrived in Dublin – footsore, tired, and weary, on Sunday. Margaret and Kathleen Ryan told us of the Surrender, and the arrest of the leaders including Daddy, who was also seriously wounded, and also my brother Roddy who was only 16 years old. We then made our way to Madame’s cottage where my mother was stopping. Outside a newspaper shop on a Daily Sketch was a picture of my father with the caption “Dead Rebel.” I said to myself, ” Well thank God, it is too far out for anyone to have brought Mother a copy of that Sketch, at least she would still think he was not dead,” but this was not so, we were to learn later, that someone had brought her a copy of the paper.
The news was not true of course, and we told her he was only wounded and a prisoner. The next 12 days or so were the days of anguish and heartbreak, waiting and hoping. Day, after day, came news of the executions, and we wondered when they would stop; would Daddy be executed in his wounded condition? When we did get in to see him, Daddy had not much hope.
One of the first questions Daddy asked me, was, “What happened in the North?” “It was no use, Daddy, the men were all dispersed and couldn’t be brought together again. I did my best, I waited and waited. When I saw there would be no fighting there I made my way back to Dublin, but the fighting was over when I arrived here. I had no chance, Daddy, I did nothing.”
“I think my little woman did as much as anyone,” he said, as he drew my head down to his breast.
At 12 o’clock on Thursday night, 11th May, 1916, we saw him for the last time and as I kissed Daddy, he held me close to him and said, “I’m proud of you Nora girl.”
After we had left in the early dawn of Friday, 12th May, they took my father down to Kilmainham, strapped him to a chair and executed him. Sean McDermot was executed the same morning.
When I went up to Belfast again, the spirit was rising again and they were all terribly sore and annoyed that they had been rushed back, that they hadn’t got the chance to fight. If they had known what had happened and the real facts, they would not have left Coalisland, but being soldiers they were under orders and had to obey them.
McCullough and McCartan in my opinion were to blame, but I gathered later that the messenger who gave me McCullough’s order on Holy Saturday night, had also brought McNeill’s countermanding order to them.
That’s Easter 1916 in my memory.
One night later in 1916, I was up in Belfast in the old Ard-Scoil, I think and the news of the Battle of Jutland came through – a naval Battle between Germany and England, in which England lost 15 ships – a ship for every man who was executed in Kilmainham. A big Donegal man came over to me and he says, “Isn’t that good news, isn’t that good news?” I said, “Yes.” “Ah” he say, “pray, you never know what would happen.”
Well the next time, I came up, word came through that Kitchener was lost and as soon as my fired saw me, he shouted, “Ah, ah, you’re the girl who knows how to pray.”