The killing of William Twaddell, 22nd May 1922

On May 22nd, 1922, unionist MP William Twaddell was shot dead by two gunmen as he walked to his business in Garfield Street in Belfast city centre. The two gunmen had followed him for a brief time before opening fire with revolvers firing six or seven shots at him (according to eye-witnesses). When they ran off across Royal Avenue and into Upper Garfield Street (heading towards Smithfield) a B Special fired shots after them. One of the bullets had opened a large wound in Twaddell’s chest and while he was brought to the Royal Victoria Hospital, he didn’t regain consciousness.

William Twaddell, MP

William Twaddell, MP

Twaddell was an MP in the northern parliament and a member of Belfast Corporation (he also owned a drapery in North Street). He was also a prominent Orangeman and one of the two leaders of the Ulster Imperial Guard, one of the large paramilitary forces which formed a significant proportion of the Special Constabularies that were prominent in the intense violence in Belfast in 1920-1922. On that basis, it was assumed that the shooting had been carried out by the IRA. Various prominent IRA members like Davy Matthews and Dan Turley were considered as suspects in the killing. However, according to memoirs of the time by prominent IRA men (Joseph Murray and Sean Montgomery), Twaddell’s killing had not been ordered by the IRA, although it was carried out by two IRA volunteers. In late May 1922, Belfast had sustained a significant peak of violence for some time and the Belfast Brigade and 3rd Northern Division staff officers all admitted later that discipline within the IRA was breaking down and volunteers were carrying out unofficial operations without any sanction at Battalion, Brigade or Divisional level (see witness statements on the Bureau of Military History website).

Sean Montgomery records that when Belfast Brigade staff officers tried to find out who had carried out the shooting, they eventually located the two volunteers responsible, one called P. McAleese and another called T. Geehan. While McAleese cannot be clearly identified in the Belfast Brigade records or other sources for the period, Tommy Geehan, from Carrickhill, was a volunteer in C Company of the 1st Battalion. He also appears in the 3rd Northern Division unit which was relocated to the Free State army’s camp in the Curragh and documented in the November 1922 census. Clearly, Geehan had been moved out of Belfast some time after May 1922. Notably there were a Robert McAleese and F. McAleese in C Company with Geehan, the latter emigrating to Canada.

Geehan then became prominent in the 1930s as the leader of the Revolutionary Workers Groups in Belfast that were involved in organising the Outdoor Relief Strikes. Ironically, Matthews and Turley, who had been suspects in the Twaddell killing, were O/C and Adjutant of the Belfast IRA at the time. While the IRA did not get involved in the Outdoor Relief Strike as an organisation, many, if not most volunteers, got involved as individuals. How far Matthews and Turley’s opposition was coloured by their past relationship with Geehan is not raised anywhere (not even in Monck and Rolston’s excellent 1987 book on Belfast in the 1930s: An Oral History).

Geehan had re-appeared as a trade unionist leading the Court Ward Labour Party in West Belfast in the late 1920s (he also seems to have spent time in Canada). He and William McMullan of Labour reportedly travelled to the Soviet Union in 1929. He was a committed communist by the 1930s, when he was periodically arrested and prosecuted by the northern government (a fine during the Outdoor Relief Strike became a particular cause célèbre). He was to re-appear as chair of various organisations and committees, such as the Unemployed Workers Movement in 1932 (supported by Peadar O’Donnell who was still on the IRA’s GHQ staff at the time) and the Ardoyne Refugee Tenants Committee in 1935. He had also wanted to stand in the Westminster elections of November 1935 for the Communist Party but they refused to back him, as did the Northern Ireland Labour Party (both of whom backed the  IRA candidate, Charlie Leddy).

Although marginalised, Geehan was still on the Communist Party executive committee in 1936. Eventually, he obtained work in the Belfast shipyards and disappeared into obscurity (he also suffered from chronic bronchitis). The journalist James Kelly (who described him as a thin-faced cadaverous figure) recorded finding Geehan sipping a pint in the Monico bar in 1942. By the mid-1930s he had moved to Glenard Park in Ardoyne, then Hoylake Park off the Oldpark Road, not far from the road named after William Twaddell.

Tommy Geehan died of heart failure due to chronic bronchitis in 1964.


2 responses to “The killing of William Twaddell, 22nd May 1922

  1. Thanks for this account of Twaddel’s assasination on 22 May 1922.
    On 26 May 1922 my father was instrumental in the burning of the Model School in Divis Street where St Comgalls now stands.
    I secretly supposed he may have had a hand in Twaddels demise but your article puts that supposition to bed.


  2. Pingback: Interview with John O’Neill from Treason Felony | The Chemical Elements

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