The re-birth of the IRA in Belfast

On October 29th 1924 the Free State government handed back the remains of 18 men for burial. These 18 were some of the 83 or 84 ‘official’ executions by pro-Treaty forces during 1922 and 1923. One of those whose remains were handed back was Joe McKelvey (below), former O/C 3rd Northern Division and briefly Chief of Staff of the IRA. McKelvey had been executed on 8th December 1922, along with Liam Mellows, Dick Barrett and Rory O’Connor. All four had been captured in June 1922. They were suddenly charged and convicted by a military tribunal at 3.30 am on 8th December and then shot five hours later. Their execution was an open reprisal for the murder of a TD, Sean Hales, on the day before their execution (while all four were imprisoned) and rapidly intensified the bitterness of the Civil War.

Joe McK

After release, McKelvey’s remains were to be brought to Belfast for burial. They were released the same day as an election to Westminster which saw Patrick Nash stand in West Belfast and Hugh Corvin stand in North Belfast. In an election taking place in the cold shadows of the 500+ killed in the city during 1920-22, the repression of the triumphalist northern government, and, the Civil War, both candidates did poorly. The IRA in the city had also effectively lost operational contact with GHQ in Dublin in late 1922.

The Free State authorities handed over the remains at Hardwicke Street Hall on October 29th, where they briefly lay in state draped in tricolours emblazoned with an IR (for Irish Republic). From there McKelvey’s coffin was brought in a procession to Amiens Street (now Connolly) Station accompanied by Joe McKelvey’s mother and Sean MacBride. According to Leo Wilson, McKelvey’s body was guarded on the way to Belfast by both former and current volunteers . The Belfast Brigade immediately dispatched a guard of honour to join the party as it travelled up to Belfast. The Irish News reported that the remains were formally handed over to the guard of honour from Belfast at Amiens Street Station. The guard of honour were dressed in trench coats and soft black hats.

At Drogheda, Dunleer and Dundalk the train was held up as crowds came to place wreaths and a tricolour on the coffin in the mortuary car. By the time MacBride and McKelvey’s body arrived in Belfast, a large crowd had gathered at the station with the Craobh Ruadh Pipe Band. Brigade and Battalion officers from Belfast had also assembled at the station. The RUC were also present in force to try and intercept the train.

At 2.30 pm the train arrived at the Great Northern Railway Station in the centre of the city. While the train slowed to a halt at the platform, a large force of armed RUC men stepped forward and surrounded and searched the mortuary car as soon as the train stopped. Determined to prevent any public display of republican sentiment, they insisted that they remove the tricolour from McKelvey’s coffin and, so, refused to allow it to even leave the train with the flag in place. Sean MacBride, himself the son of an executed republican icon and already a senior IRA figure, tackled District Inspector Stevens who was in charge of the RUC force asking if he, Stevens, had authority from the Home Office of the northern government for the removal of the flag. Stevens confirmed that he had and proceeded to remove the flag.

With the flag removed from the coffin, the RUC permitted it to leave the station. The bearer party carried the coffin on their shoulders out of the station and into Glengall Street. There it was placed on the hearse. A funeral procession then formed up behind the Craobh Ruadh Pipe Band in Glengall Street. The pipe band included many IRA volunteers and it appears that the coffin was then covered with a tricolour again. The hearse was followed by members of the IRA, Sinn Féin, Na Fianna, Cumann na mBán, members of the clergy and the public. The cortege moved along Great Victoria Street, College Square East, King Street and Mill Street, then on into St Mary’s in Chapel Lane. As if in mitigation for the RUC permitting this display, this is apologetically described as the shortest route by the RUC Inspector General in his report to the Ministry of Home Affairs.

At St Mary’s, McKelvey’s remains were received by Fr Murray, the Administrator. The coffin was carried in by the bearer party then placed on a catafalque before the high altar where it lay in state, with the bearer party forming a guard of honour. Fr Murray and Fr O’Neill (from St Peters) conducted a short service. Afterwards member of the public came to pay their respects and a Fianna guard of honour was relieved and replaced every half hour.

The next morning, October 30th, a crowd began to gather outside St Mary’s for the funeral which was to take place at 1.30 pm. A guard of honour was again stationed around the catafalque as soon as the church was opened in the morning. Some of those who had arrived to pay their respects carried photographs and pictures of McKelvey. McKelvey’s coffin was once again draped with the ‘IR’ emblazoned tricolour.

At about 2.15 pm after a requiem mass at which there were twenty priests, the coffin, still covered in the tricolour, was carried by a bearer party of young men out to the awaiting Craobh Ruadh pipe band which was to accompany it along the route to Milltown cemetery. By now a large crowd had assembled outside St Mary’s in the narrow confines of Chapel Lane and the top of Bank Street. A large detachment of RUC men was also present and Stevens again attempted to halt the procession and remove the tricolour from McKelvey’s coffin.

The RUC men used batons and waved their guns to force their way through to the coffin and bearer party. Within the tight space of Chapel Lane, by now crowded with mourners and RUC men, an already emotional atmosphere almost reached boiling point. The funeral procession itself was halted at the doors of St Mary’s as the bearer party and mourners attempted to physically prevent the tricolour from being seized by Stevens and the RUC. The bearer party managed to pin down the tricolour onto the corners of the coffin and managed to move backwards into the church. The tricolour still shows repairs that were made where it was torn during the struggle to prevent it being seized by the RUC.

The RUC report was later to describe this incident as ‘protests of a trivial nature’. For a few minutes it appeared that the funeral was going to descend into chaos. The Belfast O/C, with the bearer party inside St Marys, ordered that they remove the tricolour to avoid any further dispute. An agreement was reached out in Chapel Lane that Fr Murray could take possession of the tricolour and deposit it in the church.

However, the reason why the Belfast O/C backed down soon became apparent. The funeral organisers had already anticipated that the RUC would intervene and prevent the funeral procession displaying a tricolour on McKelvey’s coffin. For, as the funeral procession formed up in Chapel Lane, led by the hearse bearing the coffin and the Craobh Ruadh Pipe Band, a number of girls then joined the cortege around the hearse, carrying wreaths and other emblems in green, white and orange. The funeral proceeded from St Mary’s, along Chapel Lane to Castle Street and from there along Divis Street to the Falls and then to Milltown Cemetery. Newspaper reports state that the whole route was lined with crowds.

At Milltown, the RUC had two Lancias, armoured cars each mounting a heavy machine gun, drawn up outside the gates. Inside the cemetery, a large RUC detachment armed with carbines were also on duty. At the graveside, the tricolour was once again placed on the coffin whilst the burial service took place. By the stage, the RUC kept their distance and didn’t try to remove the flag. The burial itself largely passed off without incident as the RUC appear to have been anticipating an attempt to hold a military funeral including a colour party and firing party, neither of which materialised.
When the funeral procession reached the Harbinson plot, McKelvey’s remains were interred there. Sean MacBride then stood up and gave a short oration to those present. He said:

We are gathered here to pay a solemn tribute to one who was a true soldier of Ireland. General McKelvey was a man who died for his principles, and he thought it was the noblest and truest thing a man could do. When he walked across the yard of Mountjoy Prison and stood before the firing squad, he did so confident in the thought that the people he left behind would carry on where he had left off. He was being buried among his friends and foes, not as a traitor to a foreign country, but as a hero and a true Irishman. It is up to all of us to carry on until our efforts are crowned with success, then, and not till then will we have a free undivided and prosperous Gaelic Ireland.

The mourners then sang Faith of Our Fathers and, in defiance of the RUC presence, The Soldiers’ Song.

McKelvey’s burial marks a symbolic end to the War of Independence and Civil War in Belfast, coming just before the release of internees and intentional moves to give the IRA in the city new impetus. McBride, effectively acting as a nationwide organiser, re-established operational command between Belfast, and, GHQ and the IRA’s Army Council in Dublin. Notably this also coincided with a growing expectation that the boundary commission would be a non-event. It was also against the backdrop of the poor electoral performance of Nash and Corvin which was taken as a signal of the utter apathy nationalists and republicans held towards the northern state.

Almost every republican source that refers to it, cites McKelvey’s funeral as the key event in the re-organisation of the IRA in the city after the Civil War. The IRA even formed a new GAA club that it named after McKelvey, that survived until 1939. The tricolour placed on McKelvey’s coffin (below) can still be seen today in the republican museum in Conway Mill, Belfast.

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You can find out more here about Joe McKelvey GAC

And see a photo of the club here (from about 1925)

The IRA at Bodenstown, June 1933

In June, a Belfast IRA contingent went to Bodenstown for the IRA’s annual Wolfe Tone commemoration (which was attended by 20,000 that year). This was an unusual period as the IRA was both legal and visible in public in the south (although ominously, that year, Fianna Fáil held its own, separate, Bodenstown commemoration a week later).

It also happened against a backdrop of strategic confusion within the IRA as some on GHQ staff sought to transform the IRA into a platform to agitate for socio-economic change. In the run up to the Outdoor Relief riots the previous year, there had been an open dispute over direction between left-leaning republicans at GHQ, and, the Belfast battalion O/C Davy Matthews and senior staff like Dan Turley. Peadar O’Donnell, Mick Price and George Gilmore had been agitating for the Belfast IRA to be more active in class politics, which did not happen until the rail strike of January 1933. This had culminated in covert moves against the Belfast leadership, with Turley exiled just before Easter 1933 while Matthews was expelled from the IRA by the end of that year.

The IRA’s involvement in the likes of the rail strike, though, was being denounced as Communist in the press and by its opponents including the Catholic hierarchy. In the popular mind in the 1930s, such a label was problematic and, to some degree, Bodenstown 1933 established the strategic direction the IRA  was not going to take.

The extent to which the IRA was a public organisation is shown by the press coverage. Newspapers named those in attendance as the GHQ, Staff and Army Executive as well as Battalion leaderships and include a who’s who of the 1930s IRA, listing Moss Twomey, Domhnall O’Donnchada, Sean Russell, Sean McBride, Mick Price, Jim Killeen, George Gilmore, Mick Fitzpatrick, Frank Ryan, Peadar O’Donnell, Andy Cooney, Peter Kearney and John Joe Sheehy. Among the battalion leaders named are Patrick Fleming, Liam Leddy, Tom Barry, Patrick McLogan, Stephen Hayes, Con Lehane and George Plunkett.

Both Davy Matthews and Jimmy Steele are listed for Belfast. As the Battalion Adjutant Joe McGurk was in prison, Steele appears to have been acting as Battalion Adjutant (or was simply there as O/C of Na Fianna in Belfast). Steele and Tony Lavery were to take over leadership of the battalion after Matthews’ expulsion.

Notably, the main speaker at Bodenstown, Moss Twomey, was openly introduced as Chief of Staff of the Irish Republican Army. In his speech, while not renouncing the left-leaning socio-economic programme of the IRA, he made reference to the movement being:

“…accused of being anti-religious and aiming at the subversion of religion in Ireland.

I emphatically and officially declare that those charges are deliberate falsehoods, and I now challenge our accusers, of whatever position or station, to bring forward proof to sustain their charges… I am in a position to assure the Irish people that neither the propagation of irreligious doctrines, nor the subversion of religion is an aim of the Irish Republican Army. We honour the proclamation of the Republic which guarantees religious freedom to all citizens. This is a principle which we respect and uphold…

We are accused of being Communists. The policy of the army is not Communism, as can easily be proved nor is the army in alliance with the Communist movement. Because Communism has become associated with irreligion, the Imperialists know the value in Ireland of the Communist label. It is tagged on to-day to any individual or to any organisation refusing to accept British rule, or revolting against economic and social order. Who is not against the existing economic and social conditions? ”

Twomey’s speech is significant as it may well have been the template Jimmy Steele had in mind for his own speech at Mullingar thirty-six years later.

The Organisation of the Belfast IRA from 1917 to 1970

On formation of the IRA in 1919-20, the existing Irish Volunteer Companies of the Belfast Battalion simply became A and B Company of the IRA’s Belfast Battalion, with a C Company and D Company added in early 1919. It isn’t clear now whether each Company had strict catchment areas. The city’s IRA units were then re-organised, beginning in September 1920, when the companies were divided into a 1st and 2nd Battalion and by March 1921, officers and experienced members from the four existing Companies had been used to staff Companies in each of the two Battalions, which now formed part of the 1st (Belfast) Brigade of the 3rd Northern Division. The 1st Battalion had Companies A to E and an Engineering Company. While C Company was centred on Carrickhill, the other Companies covered the Falls Road (again demarcation lines appear vague). The Companies of the 2nd Battalion each had a geographic focus, with A Company in Ardoyne and the Bone, B Company in Ballymacarrett, C Company in the Markets and D Company in North Queen Street. By April 1921, Na Fianna and Cumann na mBán structures were been aligned onto the IRA’s Divisional command structure.

In August 1921, two additional Battalions were created under the 1st (Belfast) Brigade, as 3rd and 4th Battalion and the Engineering Company of 1st Battalion effectively became a distinct Engineering Battalion in its own right. The new Battalions were created from the existing companies, such as the 3rd Battalion’s B Company which was based on the New Lodge Road. Many of those who joined the 3rd and 4th Battalions enlisted after the Truce and were derided as Trucileers by pre-July 1921 veterans.

The status of the 1st Belfast Brigade from 1922 is complex. As it mounted an offensive against the northern government from May 1922, it continued to remain in contact with both the Army Executive and Free State government until formal liaison with Headquarters ended around October 1922. It also appears that most of the 2nd Battalion and all the 3rd and 4th Battalion Companies did not recognise the authority of the Free State government by July 1922.

The 1st (Belfast) Brigade command structures were, effectively, autonomous until the end of 1924 when the re-interment of Joe McKelvey’s remains in Belfast became the catalyst for the Belfast command to re-establish formal links to the IRA’s GHQ in Dublin. It was apparent, by this time, that the obsolete Divisional structure that had been put in place in 1920 needed to be replaced with something more suitable for the post-Civil War IRA.

The newly created Belfast Battalion had a staff with elected representatives of the Falls, Ardoyne, Bone, Carrick Hill, North Queen Street, Greencastle, Markets and Ballymacarret. It reported directly to GHQ in Dublin through a Communications Officer, in the absence of a middle-ranking regional command structure although it is often formally referred to as Ulster No. 1 Divisional Area. The Belfast Battalion was now organised into two Companies, both located on the Falls Road and an independent unit that covered Ardoyne, the Bone and North Queen Street. Volunteers from Greencastle joined the independent unit, while those from the Markets and Ballymacarret joined the Falls Road unit that covered the city centre.

Following the De Valera split, there was a further consolidation with Cumann na mBán, the IRA, Na Fianna and Sinn Féin that took place before the middle of 1928. The Belfast Battalion now undertook an expansion programme including a renewed focus on Na Fianna as a source of recruits.  District-based Companies were formally re-established beginning with Ballymacarrett. In the short term, there was a decline in strength between 1926 and 1930, from 242 to 177. Ulster No. 1 Area now had Companies A to G, with A Company covering North Queen Street, Carrickhill and the Docks, B Company covering Ballymacarrett and the Markets, C Company based in Ardoyne and the Bone, D Company on the Falls and F Company centred on the Pound. The other companies (E and G) covered from Clonard out to the Whiterock, Hannahstown and Andersonstown. The throughput of recruits from Na Fianna saw the Belfast IRA Companies expand in size to 564 members by 1932.

The Belfast IRA retained this structure through the 1930s, reporting directly to GHQ, until the beginning of the English Campaign in 1939, at which time regional commands were created as a response to pressures restricting the ability of GHQ to exercise control on activity in other districts. This was particularly the case in the north, where a Northern Command that was set up and then re-organised under Charlie McGlade in the summer of 1939 to include Donegal. The Northern Command included representatives from each local IRA unit, with the likes of the officer commanding (O/C) of the Belfast IRA concurrently holding a staff position on Northern Command (often the Adjutant of the Northern Command was O/C Belfast). By 1941, the internees and sentenced prisoners in the jails in Belfast, the Al Rawdah, Derry and Armagh also reported directly to the Northern Command via the Adjutant, with the internees in D wing in Belfast organised as Battalion No. 1 and the sentenced prisoners as Battalion No. 2.

A H Company was added secretly to the Belfast Battalion during 1941, which was a special section of mainly Protestant IRA volunteers which carried out particular tasks and roles. By the start of 1942, arrests and internment had led to a complete re-organisation of the Battalion back into four Companies (once again labelled A-D). For the remainder of the mid-1940s, these survived in a skeletal form and the Northern Command and GHQ both became inactive due to arrests and defections.

By the time the internees and sentenced prisoners had been released, the Belfast Battalion was effectively reduced to a single company. This remained the case until 1956 when, as part of the pre-amble to the Border Campaign, the Belfast Battalion was re-organised into two Companies. One was made up of veterans and others who were likely to be known to the RUC. The other was made up of younger, unknown Volunteers who were unknown to the RUC (and possibly also an informer who was believed to be active among the Belfast Battalion staff). Despite the widespread belief that Belfast was to play no part in the Border Campaign, Paddy Doyle, the Belfast Battalion O/C was fully aware of plans and operations to be carried out in Belfast (such as cutting the cable to Britain on the night of December 11th /12th 1956). As he had kept all the operational details to himself, the Belfast Battalion wasn’t able to re-organise in time after Doyle’s arrest to carry out the action.

The Belfast IRA was decimated by internment in 1956 and 1957 and was rebuilt by Billy McKee after his release. By 1961 the concept of a Northern Command had arisen again but not adopted. The Belfast IRA was to remain small until the changes that occurred in 1969-70 when, following internal upheavals, it broke connection with the then GHQ staff and leadership.