In a previous post on Belfast in 1916, I had added the list of Irish Volunteers from the Belfast Companies involved at Easter 1916 compiled as part of the military pensions committee’s work in 1936. The list contained 156 names which didn’t seem consistent with other figures given for the number of Irish Volunteers from Belfast who had mobilised at Easter 1916 (the suggested figures seem to vary from 90 to 130).
In the witness statements made by those involved to the Bureau of Military History, the actual numbers are a bit clearer. Excerpts from three statements are included below that shed some light on the Belfast contingent that mobilised. It was effectively divided into four sections, three companies that were to travel to Dungannon and Coalisland on Easter Saturday, a fourth that was to arrive on the Sunday morning, along with an expected contingent that was to arrive by boat in Belfast from Glasgow then travel onwards with the Belfast Volunteers on the Sunday. Once linked up with the Irish Volunteers from Tyrone they were to travel to the west and serve under Liam Mellows command, including the provision of a defensive screen along the River Shannon.
The first account is by Cathal McDowell, who was Captain of A Company in the Irish Volunteers and also an IRB member. He gives an exact figure of 114 Volunteers travelling on the Saturday in three groups, one of 30, one of 20-25 and the remainder in a third. If the list of 156 names compiled in 1936 is credible, then that would mean 42 were travel on the Sunday morning, which seems consistent with the groups travelling on the Saturday. Frank Booth, another Belfast IRB man, describes what transpired with the Glasgow contingent. Booth was to travel on the Sunday but the remaining 42 men never left Belfast that day but are included on the list (showing that the list indicates only that they mobilised, not that they travelled to Tyrone). Finally Pat McCormick, who represented the IRB’s Scottish Division on the Supreme Council, explains what happened to the Glaswegians.
From Tuesday or Wednesday previous to Easter Week we had orders to march to Coalisland, Co. Tyrone. The rifles were transferred by taxi on Holy Thursday, and the contingent for Coalisland was divided up into three batches.
The first batch to move were unemployed man and men who had the weekend off – I had charge of this batch. The second batch was under the command of Archie Heron who had been made an officer a short time previously. The last batch was under the charge of Peter Burns and Sean Kelly. The first batch left midday on Saturday; the second batch left about 5 or 6 o’clock on Saturday, and the third batch arrived around midnight. There was a further batch to leave on Sunday morning – men who were working late on Saturday night such as barmen – and also a contingent that was expected by boat from Scotland. This Scotch contingent did not arrive in Belfast, and the Sunday morning contingent did not travel.
On my arrival in Tyrone I met a man whom I met previously in Belfast. His job when I met him in Belfast was a travelling inspector who visited the different circles, and it was in this connection I had met him. I can’t remember his name just now, but he walked with a limp. I discussed with this man the problem of billeting the men in Coalisland. He made arrangements for billeting and the protection of the district where the men were to be billeted.
I informed him that there was 114 men in all due to travel from Belfast. My first contingent numbered 30 men. The second contingent numbered about 20/25 and the remainder of the 114 were due to arrive on the last train. The 30 men who travelled with me were to occupy billets three miles outside Coalisland, The second contingent under Archie Heron were to occupy billets about a mile from Coalisland. The third batch were to occupy the town of Coalisland. This batch was under the command of Peter Burns and Sean Kelly.
On Friday night – I think it was Friday night as the moat of the Belfast Volunteers had left for Tyrone before Saturday night – I got orders to remain in Belfast on Saturday night, and on Sunday morning, to proceed to the Scottish boat and contact a party of Glasgow Volunteers expected that morning, and to guide those men to Coalisland, Co. Tyrone, by train on Sunday morning I think it was also on Friday evening that Sean Cusack came to my house and showed me a note signed by Sean McDermott. This note mentioned names of 2 men Cusack should contact. Cusack told me of his plans for leaving for Co. Cavan. it was after 8 P.m. on Saturday night when I finished my work as a bread server. All the Belfast Volunteers who were travelling to Tyrone had left Belfast by then. On Sunday morning at 6 a.m. I proceeded to the docks to make contact with the Glasgow contingent as per instructions. No Volunteers arrived by the Glasgow boat. I got no instructions as to how I was to introduce myself to the Glasgow crowd had they travelled to Belfast. On thinking back of this mission of mine to the boat I feel that had the Glasgow Volunteers arrived in Belfast on Easter Sunday morning I and they might have round ourselves in a pretty difficult position as I had not procured any cash for railway tickets to Tyrone. I might have had finance sufficient for a fen men and myself, but the others would have had to provide for themselves. In the afternoon of Sunday I and Marry Osborne travelled to the Northern Counties Railway to get a train for Coalisland. When we were waiting at the station for our train, a train arrived from Cookstown with all the Belfast men returning from Coalisland.
I travelled to Belfast, arriving there on Holy Thursday morning. I contacted Dan Branniff who then worked in Belfast. Dan and myself came to an arrangement that I should travel with the Belfast men on Saturday to Dungannon and that Dan was to remain in Belfast and meet the Glasgow boat due to arrive there on Sunday morning and put the Glasgow men travelling on it in touch with a Belfast contingent due to leave Belfast on Sunday morning for Tyrone. As it turned out, none of the Glasgow men travelled to Belfast on Sunday morning. There was about 40 to 50 young Glasgow men already in Dublin with the Kimmage garrison.