This is a long post but it is worth bearing with it. It concerns Dan Turley, shot dead on 4th December 1936 by members of the Belfast IRA. Despite being mentioned in various accounts of the IRA, the circumstances surrounding Turley’s death don’t seem to have been fully explored or understood. His family, some of whom remained active and staunch republicans, have never wavered in protesting his innocence.
Born in Belfast around 1889, Dan Turley had been involved with the Belfast Circle of the Irish Republican Brotherhood and the No. 1 Dungannon Club in Belfast, since 1907. Those involved with the Belfast Circle included the likes of Bulmer Hobson, Denis McCullough (President of the Supreme Council of the IRB in 1916), Sean McDermot (who was to be executed in 1916), Ernest Blythe, Liam Gaynor and Cathal O’Shannon. Blythe remembered him as ‘quite a good fellow’. Turley had mobilised with the rest of the Belfast IRB Circles and Irish Volunteers at Easter in 1916, travelling to Coalisland.
After the Rising, he was Sinn Féin’s director of elections in Belfast in 1918, the election which led to the creation of the First Dáil. Sinn Féin stood a candidate in each of the nine constituencies in the city (Cromac, Duncairn, Falls, Ormeau, Pottinger, St Anne’s, Shankill, Victoria, Woodvale) but fared badly and made little impact. His role in the IRA after 1919 isn’t entirely clear, but as he was appointed Head of Intelligence for the 3rd Northern Division in 1922, presumably he was involved in an intelligence role up until that time. He opposed the Treaty and was eventually arrested and interned in 1922, on the Argenta prison ship and in Larne Camp. He was also treated as a suspect in the death of William Twaddell, a Unionist MP shot dead in May 1922. After his release from Larne in August 1923, he continued his involvement in the IRA.
Turley then served on the staff of Belfast IRA under its O/C, the former Quartermaster of the 3rd Northern Division, Hugh Corvin. When Corvin resigned in April 1926, GHQ had sent an organiser to Belfast, a Staff Captain called Wilson, who notified Dublin that Turley was taking over as O/C. GHQ seemed to think he was difficult to deal with and Turley didn’t last long in the role, with Davy Matthews taking over. Notably (in light of later events) Wilson seems to have been associated with Mick Price and George Gilmore in GHQ.
Turley stayed on as part of Matthew’s staff, often serving as either Adjutant or Intelligence Officer. He also remained a member of Sinn Féin. Harry White remembered hearing Turley give lectures on the party in the early 1930s, and wrote in his memoir, Harry, that Turley was a good speaker and good organiser. Remaining on the Belfast IRA staff, over the years, Turley was also to spend spells as a detainee in prison in Belfast and Derry, often with no charges brought against him. In 1930, for instance, he was picked up and held for a while, at a time when he was specifically concerned at arms dumps being captured by the RUC. Turley didn’t believe those finds were being made by chance.
Over the winter of 1931, Matthews and Turley were to hold meetings over political strategy with Harry Diamond, initially a Devlinite, but later a socialist republican who was to be elected to various offices in the 1930s and later (quoted in Monck and Rolston’s Belfast in the 1930s: An Oral History). Diamond thought they lacked a political strategy at a time when there was increasing agitation on social issues in Belfast.
In the early 1930s the Belfast Battalion was becoming increasingly active. In January 1932, they raided a house in Glengormley for arms., leading to James Connolly and Arthur Thornbury being arrested and given 18 months for larceny. Before their trial, the IRA organised for handbills to be posted up calling for their release. The northern government prosecuted both those who produced the posters, printers Joseph and Thomas Cahill (the father and uncle of Joe Cahill) and those who had ordered the posters; Dan Turley, Tom O’Malley and Willie McCurry. Turley got three months and O’Malley and McCurry a month each.
After his arrest and imprisonment in June, Turley seems to have resigned from the IRA. In a letter he wrote to his wife on the 4th May 1933, apparently referring to when he was arrested, said, “I had been quietly praying to God to guide me if I was doing right in allowing my children to continue in an organisation that, in my opinion, was going day by day anti-Catholic.” He also suspected that the arrests were down to an informer (printed in Irish News and Irish Press on 21st September 1945).
During that year the IRA issued an address to the men and women of the Orange Order, written by Peadar O’Donnell, trying to appeal directly to northern Protestants rather than through the Belfast IRA. Correspondence in early and mid-July between Matthews and the Chief of Staff do make it clear that IRA volunteers in the city did deliver it door to door in districts like Sandy Row. For a number of years, O’Donnell and others in GHQ had been liaising with individual IRA volunteers in Belfast on sociopolitical issues rather than going through formal command channels. Alongside their bypassing of the Belfast IRA staff, there was ongoing and increasingly bitter, and public, criticism of Matthews and Turley by O’Donnell, George Gilmore, Mick Price and others at GHQ.
Dan Turley’s release from Crumlin Road in September after four months included a céili to welcome him home. The real reason for the celebration after his release appears to have been that Turley had decided to go back on the active list. He was later to write that, despite his misgivings about the left-wing political emphasis, he “…went in body and soul to do everything to stop the information that was breaking out somewhere.” He believed that, before his arrest, he was “…close on it and the person, or persons responsible for it were getting afraid…”. Turley also appears to have returned to his role as the Belfast IRA’s Intelligence Officer.
According to Peter Carleton (in Uinseann McEoin’s book Survivors), later that September he was asked to deliver a letter to Davy Matthews at Pearse Hall and found Turley there with Joe McGurk, the Belfast Adjutant. The letter was from GHQ’s George Gilmore who had been openly critical of the resistance and apathy of Matthews and some of the Belfast IRA leadership to Saor Éire and left-wing policies in general. Turley appeared to have already been unpopular with Gilmore’s circle in 1926. Although Matthews was not there when the letter arrived, Turley tried to get McGurk to open it. Carleton objected to this, but Davy Matthews then appeared and read the letter (Matthews had actually been at a meeting of the Painter’s Union). He told Carleton, “This is Communist philosophy, Peter. And there is as much difference between Republicanism and Communism as there is between day and night.” Matthews also dismissed concerns that riots in Belfast were now likely, expressed to him in person by Peadar O’Donnell after rioting in Liverpool at the end of September.
A month later, the Outdoor Relief Riots were to catch Matthews and Turley off-guard. While it is clear from the oral histories collected by Ronnie Monck and Bill Rolston that individual IRA members were involved in the riots, as an organisation the IRA weren’t directly involved. This drew even more criticism onto Matthews and Turley (particularly among those members of GHQ staff that were left-wing) and increasing pressure to participate in future campaigns on social issues.
In December, the RUC ran into a group of IRA volunteers being drilled in Finaghy (later claiming 70-80 men were present). There was a scuffle and some guns were waved around but no-one was injured. As a result of this incident, Sean Turley, Dan’s son, got twelve months and Chris McLaughlin, from North Queen Street, got eight months.
In January 1933, at the trade unions’ behest, Matthews consented to the IRA taking actions in support of a rail strike that was underway. On 28th February an RUC man was killed in an exchange of fire with an IRA unit in Durham Street. By this time the Irish Catholic bishops had already become increasingly vocal critics of ‘Communism’ and the left-wing policies of the IRA and there was quite a public debate in the press on the issue. Clearly not everyone in the IRA agreed with supporting the strike. The letter Dan Turley had written to his wife in which he described the IRA as “…an organisation that, in my opinion, was going day by day anti-Catholic…” refers to the rail strike and is dated 4th May (1933).
Turley was summoned to a meeting in Dublin on the 5th April which he was told was to be an IRA army convention. He was accompanied by two other senior Belfast IRA staff members. He had intended to resign from the IRA, this time for good. Not only had he been unable to expose the informer he suspected among the Belfast IRA, he also disagreed with IRA strategy. Based on his letters, it is also clear that he personally did not get on with a number of other IRA veterans. But at the meeting, he was told that he had been secretly under investigation and was now under arrest. He was placed in a car and driven over the border into Monaghan. While in the car, he was told that he was being charged with giving information to the enemy. Initially, Turley felt that he would be exonerated by a court martial. He was held for a week without anything happening until the next Tuesday night, when he was questioned by a member of GHQ staff. He was asked to admit that he had given away arms dumps. The interrogators beat him badly and after three hours and more threats he agreed to confess, assuming this would lead to a court martial at which he could plead his innocence.
In the morning he was given a statement to sign, which included that he had given away Thornbury and Connolly. He refused and was again beaten for an hour and a half, eventually signing a confession. He was then court-martialled with Mick Price as the prosecuting officer. There was, of course, a history of antagonism between Turley and Matthews and the left republicans, like Price, in GHQ. In that regard, he may have been the victim of a personalised attack by those who disliked him in GHQ.
Turley was found guilty and sentenced to death for spying but agreed to going into exile on pain of being shot if he returned to Belfast. Initially it was suggested he move to Canada, but he refused and in the end Sean Russell accompanied him to Glasgow. Within a few weeks, he seems to have moved to Southampton. Rumours then appear to have circulated that he had returned to Belfast and, at the end of September, two masked gunmen broke into the house he had shared with his wife in Dunmore Street and searched it (finding nothing).
By 1936 Dan Turley had definitely returned to Belfast. Certainly for some considerable time he had been living openly with his own family home in Dunmore Street. As he was in receipt of public assistance, he was to attend the Public Assistance Bureau at 3 pm in the afternoon of the 4th December. He had already been out at mass in Clonard monastery that morning. As he walked along Clonard Street and into Kashmir Road, a car drew alongside him and gunmen jumped out. They shot him four times. When passers-by rushed to his aid they found his hand clasped on a small statuette of the Child of Prague that he carried in his pocket. He died in the Royal Victoria Hospital half an hour later.
Turley himself had written in 1933 that he had concerns that an informer was active and that he was being targeted because of his suspicions (suggesting that he had openly voiced his disquiet among colleagues). Obviously, as he was no longer involved, he was in no position to have given away either the Campbell College raid (in 1935) or the Crown Entry meeting in 1936, which led to the arrest of all but one of the Belfast IRA staff.
Joe Hanna, another 3rd Northern Division veteran, had replaced Turley as Intelligence Officer of the Battalion and was the sole member of the Belfast IRA staff to escape the Crown Entry raid. A letter captured on 15th January 1937 by the RUC in a raid on the home of William McAllister, the Belfast Adjutant, showed that, late in 1936, the Belfast Battalion had been ordered not to carry out any armed actions for a few months. Turley’s death appears to have been carried out despite this order, suggesting it may not have been fully sanctioned by the IRA leadership.
A man called Frank Moyna appears to have been the person who first identified Turley as an informer. In Harry and Ray Quinn’s A Rebel Voice, two stories are told by Harry White, one about the interrogation of Frank Moyna the other about someone who tried to identify a senior IRA figure as an informer earlier in the 1930s. In Ray Quinn’s book this person is identified as the same person who first pointed a finger at Dan Turley. It is clear from the footnotes in Harry, that this is Frank Moyna. Moyna’s name was mentioned in court in connection with the IRA in 1933, some months after Turley’s court martial. This was during the George Gibson court case which led to the imprisonment of some senior Belfast IRA staff and escalated until an RUC man was shot dead in Roumania Street. Harry White had Moyna held for questioning in 1944 but felt that they couldn’t securely prove his guilt. Perhaps not coincidentally, Moyna’s detention was also believed to have prompted a raid on Dan Turley’s son’s house.
In the background, Albert Price and Sean McCaughey had been investigating the security lapses in 1935 and 1936. The raid on McAllister’s home in January may have been the last straw. On 26th January, Hanna attended a court martial in a club on Bow Street then went home. On his way back to Bow Street to hear the verdict he was shot dead at the corner of Marchioness Street and McDonnell Street.
Tim Pat Coogan was later to describe Turley’s as probably the most contentious of all IRA court martials. The most damning comment though is in the prison memoir, published in 1985, by Tarlach Ó hUid. He states that, in 1940, a Chichester Street RUC Detective called Davidson told him that shooting Dan Turley was an injustice. Davidson was presenting Ó hUid with internment papers and they had a pointed exchange that referred to people being shot in the street as informers, during which Davidson said, “In Hanna’s case, that’s one story, Terry. But they committed an injustice over Dan Turley.” (I dtaca le Hanna de, sin scéal amháin, Terry. Ach bhí said san éagóir ar Dan Turley.)
Dan Turley sons remained active in the republican movement and seem to both have been certain of his innocence, and, it would seem that that belief was shared by some senior IRA figures. His son Dan had been producing Republican News with Harry White in 1944 and into 1945 when he was arrested and printing equipment and other material deemed illegal was seized (after Frank Moyna’s questioning).
Turley himself had written about whoever was betraying the Belfast IRA, that he believed that he had been “…close on it and the person, or persons responsible for it were getting afraid…”. Based on the current evidence, Turley appears to have been very much a victim of circumstances. Indeed the RUC admitted his innocence and confirmed Joe Hanna’s guilt to Tarlach Ó hUid. Suspicion, rightly or wrongly, also seems to have fallen on Frank Moyna. Hanna, it is possible (although there is no evidence to confirm it), may have moved against Turley to distract attention from himself in December 1936, contravening the order that the Belfast IRA remain inactive. But this may even have put Hanna under further suspicion. Either way, whether it was Moyna pointing the finger, or Hanna, once Turley fell into the hands of GHQ he found himself at the mercy of his political critics. Given that Turley may have had a history of clashing with Mick Price going back into the 1920s, his selection as prosecuting officer for Turley’s court martial may have ensured a successful prosecution. Either way, Price would have had a conflict of interest as a direct critic of the Belfast leadership. Notably Matthews may have taken the hint and had also left the IRA by the end of the same year.
Taken as a whole, it is hard to escape the conclusion that, rather than being an informer, Dan Turley was twice sacrificed by an actual informer like Joe Hanna or by Frank Moyna (Moyna’s motivation for this isn’t entirely clear). The first time was to his opponents in GHQ, as Turley was getting too close to the real informer. The second to try and distract attention when that informer was close to being discovered. Either way, if Tarlach Ó hUid is to be believed, even the RUC have confirmed his innocence.
Given his service in the IRB and IRA, including mobilising for the Easter Rising in 1916, it would be a significant gesture if his family were asked, for the centenary of the Rising and the 80th anniversary of his death, if they would like a plaque with his name added to the County Antrim monument in Milltown. It will not change the fact that his family had to live with his name being tainted as that of a traitor since 1933. But it would remove any suspicion for once and for all and both restore his good name and recognise his long service to republicanism.