Belfast men in the Pro-Treaty IRA

Who from Belfast joined the Free State Army and fought on the Pro-Treaty side in the Civil War?

In numerical terms, at least 216 men from the general Belfast area are listed in the Free State Army census of November 1922 (you can see them here). A total of 366 Belfast men were  also recorded as having been supplied with pensions information in 1926 (thus indicating ‘service’ in the Free State Army after July 1922). That would not include those still active in 1926, including many former 3rd Northern Division officers who made careers in the Free State Army. Kieran Glennon’s excellent From Pogrom to Civil War contextualises one such officer, Tom Glennon’s, experience in the complex political environment of post-truce Belfast. Similarly, Jim McDermot’s (equally excellent) Northern Divisions shows that Glennon’s story was, in many ways, typical of the Division’s officers.

Glennon also makes it clear that there was a complicated matrix of motivations that led Belfast men to take the Pro-Treaty side, or at least not be actively anti-Treaty. Loyalty, politics and events influenced individual choices, alongside the prospect of a regular pay packet or relief from the intense violence in Belfast.

In the first half of 1922 alone, around 15% of the total of all fatalities of the War of Independence in Ireland had occurred in Belfast. The IRA had around 800 men in the  3rd Northern Division, 1st (Belfast) Brigade in July 1922, split into the five Battalions (1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th and Engineering). By the summer, the Divisional staff of the 3rd Northern Division were struggling with the Pro-Treaty GHQ’s attitude towards the north (the background to this is detailed in From Pogrom to Civil War). With confusion over their attitudes towards the Pro-Treaty GHQ and IRA Executive forces, at the end of August 1922 it was agreed that IRA operations would cease in the north and a percentage of officers and volunteers would go to the Curragh for a rest and to train. They were allocated their own barrack in the Curragh to rest and train in anticipation of renewing the campaign in the north. It was also agreed that they would not be asked to participate in activity in the south.

According to Joe Murray by September 1922 this had depleted the Belfast IRA, although this does not seem borne out by the numbers involved (see Military Archives, WS0412). Certainly some went south, but clearly not all (Murray may really mean the Pro-Treaty units were depleted by September). According to Murray, the first groups to go to the Curragh were “…officers and men who were harassed by the enemy and in need of rest.” Joe Murray’s claim that those who left Belfast did so to get relief from the violence is illustrated by where they came from in the city. Based on the geographic focus of the Belfast IRA’s 1st and 2nd Battalions (up to late 1921), the number of men recorded in the 1922 census that were drawn from each unit (centre of district in brackets) was: A Company (Leeson Street), 1st Batt. – 26, B Company (Pound/Cullingtree Road), 1st Batt. – 23, C Company (Carrickhill/Smithfield), 1st Batt. – 26, D Company (Clonard), 1st Batt. – 10, E Company (Upper Falls), 1st Batt. – 7, A Company (Bone/Ardoyne), 2nd Batt. – 12, B Company (Ballymacarrett), 2nd Batt. – 26, C Company (Markets), 2nd Batt. – 22, D Company (North Queen Street/York Street), 2nd Batt. – 44. The units with the highest numbers, C Company, 1st Battalion and B and D Companies, 2nd Battalion are those districts which saw the highest fatalities and most intense violence in 1920-22.

What is also interesting is comparing men identifiable on the census and on the lists for each unit reported by the Brigade Committees in the 1930s. Of these, only 40 can be identified in the 3rd Northern Division, 1st (Belfast) Brigade company lists as prepared for June 1921 and July 1922. Of the 40 listed in the Belfast Brigade, the numbers from each unit were: A Company, 1st Batt. – 6, B Company, 1st Batt. – 4, C Company, 1st Batt. – 17, D Company, 1st Batt. – 1, E Company, 1st Batt. – 2, A Company, 2nd Batt. – 4, B Company, 2nd Batt. – 0, C Company, 2nd Batt. – 3, D Company, 2nd Batt. – 0 and the (5th) Engineering Battalion – 3. This suggests that there was either a significant turnover of personnel in the Belfast IRA units, or that the lists are substantially incomplete. There is also an odd discrepancy here between the high figure for Carrickhill (C/1st) and the lack of volunteers listed in Ballymacarret  (B/2nd) and York Street/North Queen Street (D/2nd). Does it just reflect the lists recorded in the 1930s?

This raises questions about the detail and accuracy of the 1921-1922 lists produced by the Brigade Committees in the 1930s (see The 1st (Belfast) Brigade Committee in the 1930s was largely composed of those who had taken the Pro-Treaty side. The surviving records from the Belfast Brigade Committee claims that the 3rd and 4th Battalions were constituted after July 1921 and non-existent by July 1922. Yet, they list Battalion staffs for the 3rd and 4th Battalions and at least one personnel list survives, from A Company, 4th Battalion. Joe Murray also records that, as Battalion O/C, he supervised the dumping of arms of the 3rd Battalion on 31st October 1922. This suggests that there are considerable problems with the information supplied by the Belfast Brigade Committee.

According to the A Company, 4 Battalion list (see, MA_MSPC_RO_406), the unit had originally been E Company of the 1st Battalion, but was reorganised into the 4th Battalion. It was later re-organised as D Company, 1st Battalion of the Pro-Treaty IRA in Belfast. This last re-organisation must have occurred between July and October 1922 and is largely undocumented. The re-organisation of Pro-Treaty units may reflect the ‘depletion’ mentioned by Joe Murray.

A list of those who had been issued with forms to apply for pensions in 1926, includes 366 from the 1st (Belfast) Brigade area ((Military Archives, ref WM_MSP_10). The RUC estimated that a total of 1,685 men left the six counties to join or train with the Free State Army during 1922 (see PRONI HA/32/1/257). A proportion of these must have been individuals who joined the Free State Army of their own volition, presumably for financial as well as political reasons. It is clear from the witness statements (see that initially, personal allegiances and trust in individuals such as Michael Collins clearly influenced some 3rd Northern Division officers in supporting (or at least not opposing) the IRA’s Pro-Treaty GHQ. Collins death severed some of those ties, but the circumstances of it strengthened others.

With 3rd Northern men in camps in the south, the Pro-Treaty Belfast officers in the Free State Army wrote to Richard Mulcahy, its Chief of Staff, at the end of September asking what the plans were for the north. The letter was unanswered yet they had to attend meetings in Belfast in early October with those opposed to the Treaty. At a meeting of both sides of the IRA in Belfast on the 4th October, the issue was raised of recognising the northern government (a Mulcahy proposal). The Anti-Treaty officers dismissed the idea and walked out. At a second meeting in the Boys Hall on the Falls Road on the 6th October went even worse. Those present included Dinny McCullough, President of the Supreme Council of the IRB at the time of the Easter Rising and a brother-in-law of Mulcahy. The 3rd Northern Division officers who had moved to the south were slammed by those opposed to the Treaty for taking comfortable paid positions while Belfast was still under pressure. It was an accusation that stubbornly followed many of them around for the rest of their lives.

By October, it is clear that there was also discontent among those in the Curragh. Since it was recognised that continuing the northern campaign was futile, and following instructions from Dublin, the officers on the Divisional Staff in Belfast that still supported GHQ placed some arms in dumps, destroyed files and left for the south. According to Tom Fitzpatrick, those who couldn’t return home were transferred to Dundalk (where 134 are listed in the November 1922 census as part of the 5th Northern Division) or to the 3rd Northern Division reserve in the Curragh (71 were listed in the November census).

In overall terms, there are appear to have been three discrete groups of Belfast men who joined the ProTreaty forces. The first were the units which moved south after August 1922, on instruction from GHQ but likely remained neutral on the treaty itself (and strictly speaking, never really joined the Free State Army). The next group were those who chose to join the Free State Army either for political reasons or purely for the pay. The third group were officers bound by ties to Michael Collins and others. While not necessarily ideologically bound to the treaty, many did not reconcile to their former Belfast colleagues for decades (if ever).

You can view the Free State Army census of November 1922 here.

Some of the Belfast men in that census are listed here.

The 366 Belfast men sent pension applications are listed here.

7 thoughts on “Belfast men in the Pro-Treaty IRA

  1. Hi John

    You could almost add a fourth group to your list of three, they would literally be outliers. In this group you would have my granda who was in Donegal in the 1922 Census, his brother Charlie who by then had transferred to 1st Midland Division and was stationed in Belturbet, two stationed in Wellington Barracks in Dublin (including Thomas Gunn, brother of the two Gunns in your list of 216) and Jimmy McDermott’s grandfather who for some reason was in the Mercy Hospital in Cork but is listed in the census as being O/C Curragh [indistinct]. These are just ones I know of, but it’s very possible there were others. On top of that, many of the Belfast officers didn’t appear in the census at all, my guess is cos they were still being piad from the “Director of Organisation’s list” rather than having formally joined the FS Army.

    On the 1922 Census, it’s telling that there were relatively few from Belfast still in the Curragh at that stage, compared to men from Antrim or Down or from the 2nd Northern. If almost 150 were in Dundalk or Clones, how many others had gone all the way home? However, we know from Roger McCorley’s interview with Ernie O’Malley that an FS Army unit composed of half Belfast men and half Derry / Tyrone men was sent to Kerry in the spring of 1923.

    Just cos nearly 1700 men travelled down from Belfast to join the FS Army doesn’t mean they were all taken on. This could have been due to lack of physical fitness but there was also a group of about 30 from the Shankill and the Crumlin Road who went to Dublin, whose presence there initially caused consternation among the Unionist government. Unfortunately, nothing is recorded of what became of them!

    As regards the list of 366 who got pension forms in 1926, my guess is that this would include a mixture of men from the first two of your three groups, and that is why the pension authorities wrote to as many former 3rd Northern officers as they could, to establish whether any of them had pre-Truce service. It’s a pity the file doesn’t include any replies from the officers.

    Finally as regards the lists drawn up by the Brigade Committee in the ’30s, I would say these are definitely incomplete. If you look at the letter written by the officers of the 4th Battalion (RO-406), they explicitly state there are additional men who didn’t want their names appearing on any list out of fear for their jobs. Men from other units in the Belfast Brigade most likely had similar reservations.

    I don’t mind trying to cross-reference the “1926 list” of 366 to the census list of 216 (plus ten more “outliers”) and the Brigade Committee lists, but it’ll take a while.


  2. Thanks Kieran,

    the roughly three groups I had mentioned were (i) the units that moved down en masse to the Curragh, (ii) those who joined for various reasons, mostly down to circumstances, some political, other casual, such as for the pay – for some it may have been a bit of both, and (iii) the officers who were more engaged with the internal politics and were, in particular, close to Collins. To be honest, I’d put most into the second group.
    I think you are right – it is clear from the witness statements that, from the Pro-Treaty GHQs perspective, it formally wound up its Belfast staffs down to Battalion level on 31st October 1922. So many of the Belfast staff officers were no doubt still officially attached to the IRA in November and were probably only re-assigned as they committed to joining the Free State Army.
    The 1700 reported to have joined from the north, were from all over. In that regard, 366 (plus the officers and those still serving in 1926) would seem fairly proportionate for Belfast. I’ve already been transcribing from that list into excel to try and cross-tab the two lists. I should have it finished by next week. I’ll add it to the existing google doc. If I am super organised, I’ll include the transcribed unit lists too (although that might take longer). In theory then, you could check if someone was listed for any of (i) 1916 service, (ii) Belfast Brigade July 1921, (iii) Belfast Brigade July 1922, (iv) Free State Army census November 1922 and (v) list of eligible Free State Army pension recipients 1926.
    As to people asking not be included on the lists – clearly some of the unit lists were incomplete. The context of this, in mid-1935, is intriguing. The start of the process overlaps with the 1935 pogrom, and (significantly for the Belfast IRA), the raid on a Belfast IRA training camp at Gyles Quay in Louth on the first day of the progrom. Subsequently it was alleged that the Gyles Quay raid was co-ordinated by the FF and unionist governments. The backdrop to the lists being put together was then dominated by conspiracy theories about the extent of intelligence being shared by FF and the unionists (the Campbell College raid, Crown Entry etc).
    The discrepancy in the claims about the 3rd/4th Battalions are also odd since they were clearly still in place after July 1922. That may reflect a dismissive attitude towards ‘Trucileers’ (since the units were formed in August 1921). Either way, it indicates that there is scope to claim membership for someone outside those listed since the lists prepared in 1935-37 are demonstrably incomplete and also flawed.


    1. I don’t mean to complicate things but another list to cross-check against would be the list of internees on the Argenta at the back of Denise Kleinrichart’s book, it would help rule out men who could appear on the 1930s Brigade Committee lists but not on any of the FS Army lists.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Was wondering if you had any information on the men who were deported in the 20s from the North who were interned and refused to give an oath to the Queen? They were billeted in the Hibernian Military School in the Phoenix Park.


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