Rocky Burns was the 23 year old O/C of the Belfast IRA who was shot dead in February 1944.
Jim Burns, also known as Seamus and, more commonly, Rocky, had first been imprisoned as a seventeen year old Fianna member in April 1938, for possession of a banned publication.
Released that September he joined the IRA, only to get picked up in the September 1939 internment sweep that coincided with the outbreak of World War 2. He was brought to Springfield Road barracks along with Liam Burke and 32 others. There Rocky confronted the B Specials rather than be pushed around, as he was well able to look after himself, but Liam Burke records that while there was some bad language from the Specials and RUC, there were no serious physical assaults.
Burns, Burke and the others were first interned in Crumlin Road, then moved to Derry Jail just before Christmas 1939. The internees in Derry mutinied on Christmas Day, seizing a wing. When the B Specials, RUC and fire brigade were trying to break into the wing, they used a battering ram on the barricaded steel door, accompanied by Rocky singing ‘Who’s That Knocking At My Door?’ Like the rest, Rocky was subject to indiscriminate beatings by the Specials, RUC and British soldiers when the internees lost control of the wing again.
Rocky was then sent back to Crumlin Road. Eamon Ó Cianáin was to describe him as the sort of person everyone needed to help them do their time, particularly when it was open-ended like internment. According to Ó Cianáin, Rocky almost made internment bearable. Tarlach Ó hUid also recounts stories of Burns’ antics in Crumlin Road (in Faoi Ghlas), describing his comic routines and practical jokes. A fad at the time was to refer to people as ‘Bores’ based on their interests. To Rocky and Seamus McKearney, Ó Cianáin was the Singing Bore, others were Gaelic Bores, Chess Bores, Physical Culture Bores, Football Bores, Music Bores etc. To Ó Cianáin and others, Burns was the Messing Bore. He also had a more serious side and, despite his youth, was considered a proficient Gaelic speaker and teacher. He also acted in a number of plays put on by the internees.
In October 1942, Rocky had again been moved back to Derry prison due to the overcrowding in Crumlin Road (September 1942, after Tom William’s execution, had saw a big upsurge in arrests and internment). He arrived in time to take part in the escape bid in March 1943. To be part of the official escape team you had to be willing to report back for duty immediately on release. Harry White (in his biography Harry) recounts stories of Rocky in Derry Jail, where he was in the cell next to Joe McGurk. McGurk had experienced prison at various times in the 1920s and 1930s (and was to again in the 1950s) and had learnt how to cope with imprisonment. Howeverm he hadn’t previously had to cope with having the Messing Bore, Rocky, as a neighbour.
Rocky would put on a female voice and call through his cell window: “I say, is that you Mrs Donaghy, did you hear that poor man McGurk was lifted again?”
He would then provide the response too, “Oh dear, oh dear.”
He also had another routine where he pretended a B Special was battering on his cell door, shouting “Get down, get down from that winda ya bastard.”
Burns would then respond in his own voice, “Oh is it me? Mind ye wouldn’t talk like that to Joe McGurk.”
Like most of the other escapers he got picked up and ended up in the Curragh, although, like Jimmy Drumm and others, he had intended to go back to Belfast. Pat Hannon, who was in the Curragh with Rocky also remembered him as full of fun. Under instructions from Harry White, he resigned from the IRA, signed out from the Curragh, then rejoined the IRA and returned to Belfast in May where he became O/C of the Belfast Battalion after Jimmy Steele was arrested in Amcomri Street.
When his sister Madge was a prisoner in Armagh Gaol, the warders were nervous that Rocky was on the loose and might try and break her out. They were so apprehensive that one night, they were convinced Rocky was coming down the chimney. She was to be refused parole to attend Rocky’s funeral.
He had several narrow shaves once he was back in Belfast. On one occasion, he was sat on a trolley bus when an RUC man told him there was a problem with his identity card. As Rocky gripped his revolver he asked the RUC what he thought he should do with it. The RUC man advised him to get it changed. In early February 1944, Burns was using safe houses in Ballymacarrett and Ardoyne. He left Albert Price in Ardoyne on the morning of the 10th February en route to meeting Billy Perry, Harry O’Rawe and Harry White in a bar on Francis Street that evening. But that afternoon, about 5.50 pm Rocky was picked up as suspicious by two RUC detectives leaving the Continental Café on Castle Street, although initially it didn’t appear that they knew who they were detaining. As they were walking along Chapel Lane on the way to Queen Street barracks, Rocky broke away from the two detectives accompanying him and, drawing a revolver, tried to make good his escape, not realising a third policeman was behind them. He received four bullet wounds to his stomach and chest and died on the Saturday.
Burns was such a larger than life figure that his death was keenly felt. Jimmy Steele was to write new words to the tune of The West’s Awake and titled it ‘Seamus Burns‘:
His youthful years for thee he spent
Within the prisons of the foe,
Until their prison bars he rent
To serve you still in weal and woe ;
They tracked him with their might and power,
These human blood hounds crossed his way ;
Dear Ireland this was but the hour
You asked of him death’s price to pay.
Rocky Burns is buried in the Harbinson plot in Milltown cemetery.
There is a brief biography of Rocky by Jimmy Steele in Antrim’s Patriot Dead and MacEoin’s Harry p142-43.s
MacEoin 1997, 443.
Quinn 1998, 104 and see McNally 1989, 111.
MacEoin 1997, 603.
Resigning, signing out and re-joining was how IRA volunteers justified signing out, as they didn’t then sign out as members of the IRA.