Obituary for Jimmy Steele, published in Republican News, August 1970

This is the obituary published for Jimmy Steele on the front page of Republican News in August 1970 (Vol 1, No 3). The text is reproduced as written below.



A life-long, staunch and ardent Irish Republican

In the sudden death of Seamus Steele, R.I.P., Ireland has lost a loving soul and a stalwart defender of her right to freedom and national sovereignty. “Jimmy” as he was affectionately called by his friends and comrades, gave unsparingly of his time and talents in organising, educating and training those who like himself were pledged to continue the fight until Ireland was free and the Republic of Tone, Emmet, Mitchell, Pearse and McKelvey became an established fact in a Nation where all her children would be treated equally and the common bond of “Irishmen” would erase the age old British inspired divisions amongst the people.

He trod the hard road of sacrifice without regret. In terms of imprisonment, almost a third of his life was spent behind prison bars. His principles based on the teachings of Tone, Pearse, McKelvey and Brugha were the guide lines on which his life was moulded. Freedom, Honour, National Morality and Social and Economic well-being of the people were the things which sustained him in his unflinching opposition to the enforced Rule of Britain in Ireland.

He died still active in the ranks of the Republican Movement. His loss, like that of his life long comrade, Hugh McAteer, whose death took place in similar circumstances only five short weeks ago will be felt by his comrades throughout Ireland; by those who served the long years of incarceration with him behind the grey walls of Belfast Prison; by his legion of friends throughout Ireland and in the USA. But most of all the loss and separation comes to his loving and devoted wife Anna to whom the sympathy of a grateful people goes out and to his brothers Billy and Dan and relatives in this hour of their great bereavement.

Born on 8th August, 1907, he joined Na Fianna Éireann at a very early age. He was active with his comrades in the Fianna in assisting the Volunteers in his Company area around the New Lodge Road.

At the split, following the treaty he remained with the Anti-Treaty Forces and after the break up of the Fianna he continued his association with Oglaig na Eireann: In 1923 he was first arrested. He was taken from his home with an elder brother and detained for nearly three weeks. In 1924 Jimmy was again arrested; this time in company with the late Miss Mary Donnelly outside St. Patrick’s Church, Donegall Street.

In 1924-25 after the release of the Internees the re-organisation of the army took place. Out of this came the foundation of the Joe McKelvey G.A.C. Jimmy was a founder member. It was ta this period also that efforts were made to re-organise the Fianna. With the late Anthony Lavery, Jimmy was appointed to carry out this task which was successfully accomplished. He was arrested during the November 1926 round-up and was held on several occasions by the police under the notorious “Questions and Answer” Act which was part of the Special Power Regulations.

In 1933 he was again apprehended and sentenced to some months imprisonment. But it was in 1936 that his first term of penal servitude began. Following the abortive Campbell College Raid, a Court Martial was to have been held into matters arising from the raid. This was to have taken place in Crown Entry, in Craobh Ruadh Rooms, between High Street and Ann Street. The entire area was sealed off by the police and twelve men including Jimmy Steele were arrested. They were charged with treason. Jimmy Steele was sentenced to five years penal servitude.

During this time he took part in a number of protests in jail. In one such protest against the conditions prevailing in the prison at that time and in furtherance of the demand for full political treatment Jimmy was on hunger strike for 32 days. On the expiry of his sentence he was released in May 1940.

When the 1940 Campaign was in full swing, he reported back to the Army and was reappointed as Adjutant to the Northern Command Staff. Later he attained the position of Adjutant General with the rank of Lieutenant-General. He was soon back on the run. It was at this period that he married Miss Anna Crawford whose home was ever open and whose family ever helpful to those in need of assistance.

But the term of married life and freedom to Jimmy and Anna was short-lived. He was re-arrested in December 1940. This time he was sentenced to ten years.

In January 1943 in company with Paddy Donnelly and the late Ned Maguire and Hugh McAteer he escaped from Belfast Prison. He again reported back for full duty to An Oglaigh. It was to be a hectic period of freedom for him.

On Easter Saturday, 1943, members of the Belfast Brigade, Northern Command, took over the Broadway Cinema, Falls Road. An Easter Commemoration Ceremony was held. Jimmy Steele and Hugh McAteer appeared on the stage. The Proclamation of 1916 and a statement from the Army Council was read by both men.

At this time too the internees in Derry were planning an escape. He immediately interested himself in the Derry project and on the morning of the attempt he was in Derry with a rescue party and transport. Twenty-one men escaped from the jail.

Shortly afterwards he was back in jail himself having again been apprehended. This time he was sentenced to twelve years.

Back in prison, Jimmy found that his comrades in “A” Wing were again protesting. This time they were refusing to wear prison clothes. He immediately joined in with the others. The no-clothes protest lasted 90 days and afterwards he took part in a hunger strike which lasted 18 days.

Whilst in Prison, he was continuously writing for “War News” and lectures for “An Toglach”.

During this period he also wrote articles for the “Critic”, all of these articles having to be smuggled out of prison. A great lover of his native culture, he penned many a poem and song, the most popular of which was “Belfast Graves”.

During his prison terms, he was responsible for an unknown number of fellow prisoners attaining “An Fianne”. He was eventually released in 1950 being the last political prisoner to be released. In 1951 with other known Republicans, he was detained during a visit by British Royalty. He was editor of “Glor Uladh” and “Resurgent Ulster” in the period between 1951 and 1957. In 1957 he was again arrested and interned, eventually being released in 1960. Can those interned with him ever forget how he rallied the dispirited and down-trodden internees after their ruthless beating up by the R.U.C. Reserve Commandos which followed the discovery of the escape tunnel. Jimmy took control of the men and marched and drilled them up and down the prison yard for most of their exercise period, making them sing patriotic songs until their flagging spirits rose, indeed a man among men. He was a prolific writer. He edited the booklets “Belfast Patriot Graves,” “Antrim’s Patriot Dead” and “Belfast, in 1916.” He was chairman of the National Graves’ Association, being the driving force behind the Co. Antrim Republican Memorial in Milltown Cemetery which cost over £3,000.

He was a member of the Barnes and McCormaic Repatriation Committee and before the present troubles was actively engaged in work for the return of the remains of Thomas Williams, a long cherished dream of his. A life-long staunch and ardent Republican, after the 1969 “Army Convention,” he took his stand with those men who wouldn’t compromise true Republican principle. Following the establishment of the Provisional Army Council, he pledged allegiance to it and became even more actively engaged than ever before. At the time of his death he was a Staff Officer on the Belfast Brigade Staff being director of Publicity, in which position he was directly responsible for the launching of the “Republican News” which is the true voice of Republicanism in the North.

So ends the life of one who dedicated himself to the establishment of a thirty-two county Irish Republic. May his life and death bring others to the realisation that Ireland, if we would be free, needs all her sons. May his life be the inspiration that will sustain us until his hopes for the re-establishment of a Free and Irish Republic has succeeded.

Jimmy, until his death, was Director of the Belfast Republican Press Centre and Editor of “Republican News.” He was on duty at the Centre on Monday night, August 3, preparing copy for the next issue of the paper. He had attended the funeral of young Daniel O’Hagan that day and walked with the cortege from the Antrim Road to Milltown Cemetery. The following morning he was forced to go to bed.

Only a few weeks before, he gave a moving oration at the graveside of his comrade-in-arms, Hugh McAteer, who was also on the Staff of the Press Centre when he died.

He was a man of indomitable spirit, active and loyal in the cause of Irish freedom to the very end.

Perhaps his epitaph could come from the words of his own song:-

“Through battlefield and prison cell and comrades treachery brave Jimmy Steele withstood it all till death claimed victory.”

Go ndeanfaidh Dia trocaire ar a anamh

The 5 Escapers: June 1941

Of the many attempts to escape from Crumlin Road, most didn’t get beyond the planning stage. Others did manage to get as far as the wall, like Gerry Doherty and Eamon Ó Cianáin[1]. Their escape attempt also took place from D wing on 5th June 1941.

A few weeks earlier the Luftwaffe had blitzed the city including districts beside the prison like the Antrim Road, Cliftonville and Oldpark. The air raids left over 900 dead and caused significant damage across large tracts of the city. It took days to bring the fires under control. But the districts close to the prison, that bore the brunt of the bombing, were in a state of chaos due to the damage and would provide ample opportunities for safe houses.

The air raids provided a challenge to the security routines of the prison, but don’t appear to have offered lapses that would lead to opportunities to escape. During the air raids, prisoners and warders were packed into a tunnel linking two parts of the prison. As well as the big raids, there were numerous smaller air raids and warnings of raids. The months before Doherty and Ó Cianáin’s escape attempt, German planes dropped bombs all around the prison. According to Joe Cahill, one warder who was renowned for his hatred of Catholics and sneered when they said rosaries in the D wing canteen, got particularly rattled. When the bombing seemed very close to the prison he broke, yelling at the internées: “Quick, quick, fuck yez, say the rosary to save us.[2]

Since his arrival in D wing, Gerry Doherty was continually on the lookout for an opportunity to escape. While Belfast was under threat of the blitz, the prisoners had slide bolts installed on the outside of their cell doors to allow for a swift evacuation during an air raid[3]. A prison officer would have to use the keys to open the cell doors if the lock was used, which meant the cells would have to be unlocked one at a time which did not allow sufficient time to evacuate prisoners (and, presumably, of more concern to the authorities, the staff). A circular glass panel in each cell door (known as the judas hole) was designed to allow the prison staff to shine a torch into the cell after lights out to confirm that prisoners were present.

Doherty was somehow able to retract the bolt on his cell door. How he did this isn’t clear. One suggestion is included in a statement in a file on another escape, in 1943. A prison officer claimed that a (non-political) prisoner reported finding a device made up of a lump of leather and a string to him and that this was a device widely known to have been used previously in the prison. It was belived that the leather was somehow used to plug a lock in a way that it would appear locked, but could be opened by pulling the string. However, given that Doherty’s cell in D wing was locked using a slider bolt at the time and not a conventional deadlock, it’s unlikely that device would have worked.

Billy McKee thinks Doherty was able to get out using the circular torch panel and that he had maybe found a way to remove it and replace it without it being noticed. This would allow him to put a weighted string out through the hole. Doherty could then swing this line and lasso the bolt and retract it so the cell door could be opened[4]. However he did it, Doherty’s ability to get out had obvious value for an escape attempt as it didn’t solve the issue of escaping from D wing or the prison building and grounds. It also provided an opportunity for practical jokes. After lock-up in the evening, Doherty would release himself from his cell and pay a visit to the door of a newly-arrived young internée. Doherty would knock the cell door and call out the prisoner’s name. On getting an answer, he would announce that they had just been informed that there had been a mistake and that the young internée should have his bag packed in the morning since he would be being released. The next morning, the orderly and prison staff opening the door for slops would find (and quickly disappoint) the eager young internée standing by his cell door ready for his release.

But Doherty’s routines inside D wing were well known to prison staff. As Jimmy noted in a communication smuggled out to the Adjutant of the Northern Command, such unofficial escapes could lead to the doubling of the guard inside the prison. Doherty’s nightime antics may have kept the focus of the prison’s security regime on preventing an escape attempt from within D wing itself. While keeping an eye out for an escape opportunity outside of D wing, Doherty had spotted that the remand and non-political prisoners, in C wing, were moved from the C wing yard and back into their cells for meals at 12.15 and 4.15, some 15 minutes ahead of the internées in D wing. Doherty realised that, if a way was found to breach the corrugated sheeting that separated the yards of C and D wing, it may be possible to escape over the wall of C wing.

Doherty must have got approval for his escape from the O/C of No. 1 Battalion (the internées in D wing) as significant effort went it to preparing the equipment for the escape. He manufactured a spanner from a spoon and, along with Paddy Gallagher and Ó Cianáin, they prepared a rope from bed sheets and a plywood grappling hook. The bed sheet rope meant acquiring a number of sheets from the laundry, which was where Jimmy worked. To manufacture a rope required multiple sheets to be procured from laundry, preferably without a prisoner’s identifying number stamped on them[5].

Doherty and Ó Cianáin decided to make their escape attempt at the end of May 1941. When the C wing prisoners returned to their cells, the escape team quickly loosened the sheeting and made for the wall. Gallagher threw the plywood hook over the wall and it caught first time. When he tried to climb the wall, though, the plywood hook simply disintegrated and the escape attempt was over. Doherty, Gallagher and Ó Cianáin rushed back to D wing without being noticed (apart from a maintenance man who merely repaired the sheeting).

The Luftwaffe had been blitzing the city on the night of Sunday 4th/5th May. This time the bombing mainly targeted the east of the city and the harbour area, causing a further 150 deaths. Again, the clean-up operation took a number of days. There were further air raids on the city on the Monday night (5th/6th May). None of those who participated made any mention of whether the air raids had any additional bearing on their decision to escape.

Doherty and Ó Cianáin reviewed the problems and decided on a second attempt, using a stronger hook, on the 5th June. Over the course of the next week, Liam Burke, Phil McTaggart and Billy ‘Bildo’ Watson joined the escape attempt. Gallagher dropped out, not convinced that the risk of success balanced the risk of a prison sentence on top of internment for a failed attempt. The reconstituted escape team tried again on the Tuesday, this time choosing to attempt it at 12pm. The five would-be escapers managed to open the fencing again. For this attempt, they used steel bars from under table-tops to make a stronger hook. At the last minute, two further prisoners Harry O’Rawe and Paddy Joe Doyle joined them, but only on the condition they would be last over the wall.

Once into the C wing yard the hook again caught easily and, this time, survived the first ascent, which was by Billy ‘Bildo’ Watson. Next over was Eamon Ó Cianáin, then Liam Burke, then McTaggart. Gerry Doherty was then on the rope when two warders appeared and grabbed at his legs. Having spotted the gap in the security precautions and masterminded the escape, Doherty had watched the other four exit the prison over the wall only to now find himself being dragged back down the rope by the two warders. But O’Rawe and Doyle then intervened and managed to free Doherty from the warders and he too managed to get over the wall. Escaping through the adjoining convent and St Malachy’s College, with no pre-arranged get away vehicles or safehouses, all five got clean away.

Passing through St Malachy’s College, Watson, McTaggart and Burke reached the Antrim Road only to encounter a car driven by a friend of one of them. They were driven off straight away. Ó Cianáin and Doherty had separated and ran off in different directions. Ó Cianáin quickly found his way to a safe house. Doherty, a Derry man who didn’t know Belfast well, lost his way. Reaching North Queen Street, he knocked on the door of the first house with a Sacred Heart lamp in the window.

He asked the woman inside: “Do you know any republicans, missus?

She looked at him. “Aye, there’s one working on the roof now.” Within two days Doherty was across the border. Media reporting of the escape was largely suppressed. The official investigation also didn’t get off the ground until several days later. By then the prison staff had got their stories straight and the authorities were unable to find a scapegoat. From the point of view of the IRA, prisoners like Jimmy Steele, were able to control access to sheeting via the laundry. This was to become the source of material for ropes and ladders for future escapes.

The internées left in D wing got great mileage out of the escape. Prison staff could barely move around the wing without someone singing Five Internées, a song written about the escape:

Five internees went over the wall, Barney-Boo,

Five internees went over the wall, Barney-Boo,

The rest of the lads were playing football,

When five internees went over the wall,

Inky-pinky Barney-Boo.

Five internees went over the wall, Barney-Boo,

Five internees went over the wall, Barney-Boo,

The Prison Officer Johnston stood aghast,

He didn’t know men could climb so fast,

Inky-pinky Barney-Boo.

Five internees went over the wall, Barney-Boo,

Five internees went over the wall, Barney-Boo,

Then Thompson cried, “Now come back, here!”

But Doherty smiled and said “No fear!”

Inky-pinky Barney-Boo.

[adaped from a version given by Tarlach Ó hUid in Faoi Ghlas, 1985, p98. The tune, variously ‘Parlez-vous’ or ‘The Back of the Bus is in the Huff’ is an old musical hall standard from World War 1, ‘Three German Officers‘].

[1] The account here is drawn from accounts in McEoin (1997) by Ó Cianáin and Liam Burke, and from McGuffin, J. 1973. Internment.

[2] Anderson 2002, 99. Cahill must have heard this story at second hand as he was not imprisoned until 1942, and spent his time in A wing not D wing. The raid described in the story about the warder seems to be most closely matched by the April raids, but could have been the May 5th/6th raids (the day before Doherty and Ó Cianáin’s second escape attempt).

[3] This information and the following stories were told to me by Billy McKee.

[4] This is consistent with another issues – Doherty apparently couldn’t re-close the bolt so the prison staff knew he could get out of his cell.

[5] This is based on the sheeting used for a later escape where the material was examined by an inspector of Trench House.

Healthy young men of military age: The Irish Times on #ODR

Irish Times, 1st August 1915

Irish Times, 1st August 1915

Obviously this needs little explanation (it’s the Irish Times take on O’Donovan Rossa’s funeral from 1915). It’s worth reading for the sneering tone and the bit of bloodlust at the end as it eyes up all those potential cannon fodder who could be in the trenches at that very moment.