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.