An IRA arms dump, an RUC raid, a dead informer and mass arrests: Belfast, 1925

Confrontations between the Belfast IRA and the northern government settled into a rough pattern as early as 1925. This included mass arrests by the RUC, the involvement of an informer and the loss of a substantial arms dump. In many ways this was to set the tone for how the Belfast IRA and the northern government would clash in the 1920s and 1930s.

Early in the morning of 19th September 1924, a large detachment of the RUC and B Specials put a cordon around the Short Strand and carried out searches from 2 am until 9 am when they found an arms dump that included six Mills bombs, detonators, a Verey pistol, two rifles and one hundred rounds of ammunition.

But the press immediately reported that the RUC believed that a number of people had managed to escape their cordon with weapons. In reality, John Walsh had managed to get a taxi, driven by Patrick Woods, to move it from the Short Strand to Currie Street off the Cullingtree Road. It seemed clear that the RUC were acting on a tip-off.

Map showing Irwin Street, the unnamed streets off the left hand side are Christian Place (in line with Nail Street), Currie Street and Jude Street (running between Irwin Street and Albert Street)

The RUC then began another targeted raid on what was called a ‘dance hall’, known locally as the ‘Currie Institute’. They then searched houses in Currie Street where they uncovered the large dump of arms that had been moved from the Short Strand in a shed in the entry to the rear of number 18 Currie Street. The RUC found twenty-four service rifles, a Thompson, eight Mills bombs, detonators, ‘cheddar’ (explosives), thousands of rounds of ammunition and literature on weapons, including use of the Thompson. Dan O’Kane, who lived in number 18 was arrested. The RUC also detained twelve men found in the ‘Currie Institute’ including O’Kane’s stepson John McAstocker as well as Michael Mervyn, James Leonard, John McKay, John Leatham, Bernard Mervyn, Joe Barnes, William McAuley, Patrick Kelly, David Walsh, Thomas Morris and John McRory. In 1922, Bernard Mervyn had been a 1st Lieutenant in C Company, 1st Battalion of the Belfast IRA, John Leathem was a volunteer in E Company, 1st Battalion, John McKay is also probably the IRA volunteer of the same name in F Company, 1st Battalion (see MA-MSPC-RO-403 in Military Archives). The men were detained but not formally charged and eventually released.

Layout of Currie Street.

Layout of Currie Street

In court a couple of days later, O’Kane and McAstocker recognised the court and were defended, pointing out that there was public access to the building where the arms were found and so it could not be shown that they could have had any knowledge that the arms dump was there. McAstocker made a statement saying that a man had gone through the house to the rear with two parcels at 10.30 pm on the night before the raid (ie 3 or 4 hours before the RUC cordoned off the Short Strand). The musical instruments from the dance hall were also typically left in the house. The RUC reported that O’Kane was known to have been in Ballymacarret the same night the arms were moved from there to Currie Street. Despite protesting their innocence, O’Kane and McAstocker were held until October.

Dan O Kane

Dan O’Kane (reproduced from here)

It had been clear from the press reporting that the RUC had a tip-off that an arms dump was being moved to Currie Street but how they knew wasn’t clear until the next summer.

In July 1925 John Walsh of Chemical Street (off the Newtownards Road), was arrested and charged with possessing the explosives, arms and ammunition discovered in Currie Street in 1924. Evidence was given against Walsh by Patrick Woods who had driven the taxi. Woods himself was from Beechfield Street in Ballymacarret. Immediately Woods business suffered after he gave evidence in court and he ended up working for his father-in-law, Hugh Donnelly, who was a coal merchant. He did remain living in Ballymacarret.

The IRA, though, took revenge on the evening of 19th November. Woods was walking down Seaforde Street in Ballymacarrett when he was approached by a single gunman who shot him three times, including twice in the heart. Woods was shot for giving evidence against John Walsh in September and possibly giving away the arms found in Short Strand and Currie Street. He was brought into a shop where he died before he could be given medical assistance.

After Woods death on the Thursday evening, RUC then carried out a series of raids from 1am on the Saturday night detaining fifty men across Belfast. They were brought to the Central Police Barracks in Chichester Street then around twenty were released and the remainder moved to the Belfast Prison on Crumlin Road where they were detained. One man, from North Queen Street, was specifically detained for questioning about the shooting of Patrick Woods. Many of those detained were former internees, some had also served in the Free State forces during the Civil War. Effectively, they could be held for three weeks before they had to be released (or either formally charged or given an internment order). In the end some spent the full period on detention and then were released. In the end, no-one was ever convicted by the northern government for Woods death. The whole episode, too, has been largely forgotten, despite the fact that all the ingredients of the confrontations between the IRA and northern government were present. This appears to be the first killing by the IRA in Belfast after the end of the violence of 1922,

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Across the space we have sometimes exchanged shots, or missiles or hard words

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In July 1932, the IRA issued an address to the men and women of the Orange Order, trying to appeal directly to northern Protestants. IRA volunteers in Belfast delivered it door to door in districts like Sandy Row.

The text of the address, below, was also published in An Phoblacht on 16th July 1932:

Fellow Countrymen and Women,

It is a long call from the ranks of the Irish Republican Army to the marching throngs that hold the 12th July Celebrations in North East Ulster. Across the space we have sometimes exchanged shots, or missiles or hard words, but never forgetting that on occasions our ancestors have stood shoulder to shoulder. Some day we will again exchange ideas and then the distance which now separates us will shorten. For we of the Irish Republican Army believe that inevitably the small farmers and wage-earners in the Six County area will make common cause with those of the rest of Ireland, for the common good of the mass of the people in a Free United Irish Republic. Such a conviction is forming itself in an ever increasing number of minds in North East Ulster.

Working-farmers and Wage-earners of North East Ulster! You surely must see that your future is bound up with the mass of the people in the remainder of Ireland. To preserve yourselves from extinction, you and they must combine and go forward to the attainment of A Free Irish Nation within which life and living will be organised and controlled by you to serve your needs and thus end the present economic and social injustices for ever. The industrial capacity, and training of you industrial workers, of North East Ulster ensure you a leading influence and place in the economy and life of a Free Irish Nation.

The IRA’s ‘Northern Campaign’

Did the IRA mount a ‘northern campaign’ in 1942-43? According to some historians the IRA began a campaign against the northern government in 1942, which most call the ‘Northern Campaign’. Oddly, though, there is no evidence to suggest that the IRA ever formally began such a campaign.

In early 1942, under Sean McCool then Eoin McNamee, the IRA’s Army Council had debated its policy towards the northern government and the possibility of a northern campaign. The context of this was the long-standing conflict both within the IRA and between the IRA and the southern government over whether the IRA could endorse, passively accept or even just merely tolerate the legitimacy of the southern government. The real issue was whether the IRA should cease any form of military activity against the southern government and concentrate its efforts against the northern government. This was an ongoing bone of contention between the IRA structures north of the border, and, the IRA centre and GHQ in Dublin.

In the sequence of events that led up to the Belfast IRA removing Stephen Hayes as (Acting) IRA Chief of Staff in 1941, two major command meetings had been raided at which there was to be a decision  on whether to mount a formal northern campaign. The removal of Hayes is probably best understood in the context of a Belfast-Dublin dynamic within the IRA and northern frustration at IRA GHQ’s perpetual inability, or unwillingness, to engage in a northern campaign. Apart from brief spells under Kerrymen Sean Harrington and Charlie Kerins, the IRA Chief of Staff after Hayes was normally a northerner, with Pearse Kelly, Sean McCool, Eoin McNamee, Hugh McAteer and Harry White all filling the role up to 1945.

Not that the IRA hadn’t actually considered a ‘northern campaign’. Tom Barry, as Chief of Staff in 1937-38, had gone as far as preparing a plan (basically to seize Armagh in the hope that it would force the Free State to intervene on the side of the IRA). The plan, such as had been put together, was the subject of gossip in Cork then quickly abandoned. Barry hadn’t really consulted with the northern IRA leadership on the plan, though. The IRA Command meeting in Crown Entry in 1936 also appears to have been intended to consider a northern campaign but it too was raided. That it was to double up as a command conference would be the reason why many more senior commanders were present than required for a court martial (the meeting’s stated purpose). Arguably, the sabotage campaign in England, proposed by Sean Russell, was partly a compromise to avoid focusing the IRA’s efforts solely against the northern government (and by doing so, tacitly accepting the hegemony of the southern government south of the border). By 1942 the IRA’s internal debate had still progressed no further than a general proposal to relocate as much weaponry as possible to where it would be used in such a campaign. Much of this is related in Bowyer-Bell’s The Secret Army (although it is presented as part of a formal ‘northern campaign’).

After repeated changes of Chief of Staff in Dublin in 1941 and 1942, Hugh McAteer had taken over from Eoin McNamee and, by July 1942, relocated the IRA’s centre to Belfast where an IRA Executive was to be put together to oversee future activity. Sean Russell’s campaign in England had been the final realisation of a long-proposed strategy going back to the Irish Republican Brotherhood and Fenians. It had been viewed with significant skepticism by the Belfast IRA who had supported it and enthusiastically built up the Northern Command created as part of the campaign, but was then very quick to declare Russell’s campaign as over. Some in Belfast even suspected that the IRB itself had been reactivated behind the scenes as part of the campaign (and that it included both activists on the Free State and IRA side). The relocation of the IRA’s centre to Belfast was equally the manifestation of a twenty-year long northern lobby within the IRA that wanted the organisation to concentrate on removing partition over any confrontation with the southern government. It was thought that all the intrigue, rumour and calamity that seemed to whirl around the IRA’s centre in Dublin would be removed by relocating that centre to Belfast.

As events then unfolded in late August 1942, the now Belfast-centric IRA intended to make a violent response to the six proposed executions of IRA volunteers in Crumlin Road prison (one being Tom Williams). These were to be carried out on 2nd September and this response is often what is described as the ‘northern campaign’. In IRA parlance, though, it had no official standing as a distinct campaign. Indeed, when Russell’s campaign was formally called off by the IRA’s Army Council in 1945, there was no mention of a ‘northern campaign’. However, as part of the preparations for an as yet unplanned future campaign, arms dumps were being assembled at various strategic locations, some close to Belfast. The northern IRA was also using this window of opportunity to get control of whatever weaponry the IRA had available, which would allow it to plan and execute a campaign at its own choosing.

As posted previously, on Sunday 30th August, the IRA issued a ‘Special Manifesto’ that restates the ‘…National principles actuating the Irish Republican Army…’. Again, nowhere does this declare that the IRA is embarking on a northern campaign. The previous day Tom Williams five co-accused had been reprieved meaning only Williams was to be hung. The IRA still intended to make some form of violent response. Politically and among civic society the very active reprieve campaigns continued to try and halt Williams’ execution.

At one of those assembled arms dumps, on the 31st August, at Budore near Hannahstown, an IRA volunteer, Gerard O’Callaghan, was surprised by an RUC search party and shot dead (allegedly finished off while wounded, although there was no inquest or autopsy to confirm the details). Another volunteer that was arrested at the scene, Charles McDowell, appeared to be suffering from shell shock afterwards, such was the volume of gunfire from the RUC during their raid. This happened against the already grim backdrop of Williams’ imminent hanging.

When the RUC raided two farms at Budore, the full inventory of what was recovered is extensive but gives an idea of the weaponry available to the Belfast IRA and its Northern Command. It included eight Thompsons (plus magazines), eight Lee-Enfields, forty revolvers, fourteen automatic pistols, a tear gas pistol, two older pistols, ten revolver barrels, ten revolver butts, twelve revolver cylinders, three automatic pistol barrels, five automatic pistol butts, four automatic pistol magazines, two rifle nose caps, one hand guard for a rifle, a .22 sporting rifle, a round of .40 rifle ammunition, four hundred and ten rounds of .45 Thompson ammunition, eight thousand six hundred and sixteen rounds of .303 ammunition, one thousand three hundred and seventy-eight rounds of .45 revolver ammunition, eight hundred and one rounds of .380 automatic pistol ammunition, thirty-five rounds of .380 revolver ammunition, one hundred and fifty-five rounds of .22 rifle ammunition, forty-one 12-bore shotgun cartridges, a sling grenade, two gas shells, a 3 inch shell, seven holsters, five leather webs/bandoliers, twelve cotton bandoliers, cleaning rods and rifle chargers.

There were also explosive materials including three barrels of potassium chlorate, one hundred and twenty-five grenade cases, eight grenade detonators, three hundred and five detonator sleeves, two hundred and ten grenade detonator screws, forty tear gas grenades, fifty-one tear gas grenade fuses, a coil fuse, an electric firer, three galvanometers, a box of percussion caps, one hundred and sixty sticks of gelignite, four 3-lb tins of gunpowder and an additional bag of gunpowder.

lRA Vol. Jerry O’Callaghan

 

Over that same weekend, the reach of the reprieve campaign gives some indication of the breadth of public sentiment the IRA hoped a northern campaign might ultimately be able to harness as a source of political support. Ironically, many of those involved were not to publicly oppose the six executions of IRA volunteers carried out by De Valera’s government. But that reflects how much deeper was the emotional resonance of IRA action in the north over the south. There were Belfast and Dublin Reprieve Committee’s. Tom William’s solicitor, D.P. Marriman had tried to get an interview with the northern government’s Prime Minister, Andrews, but instead got a meeting with Grandsen, Secretary to the Cabinet. Marriman was accompanied at the meeting by the Dublin secretary of Irish Licensed Vintners’ Association who, in turn had tried to get ex-Belfast Lord Mayor Sir Crawford McCullagh to use his influence (Marriman also wrote to the Governor of Northern Ireland). There was sufficient support in high places for pleas to be made to King George of England and the British Home Secretary, plus a message by Sir Hubert Gough to Mr. Churchill, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Cardinal Hinsley and the moderator of the Free Church Federal Council saying a reprieve would be timely and appropriate. There were also pleas sent to the Duke of Abercorn from former political rivals. The National Union of Seamen wrote to the head office in England, the British TUC was asked to intervene.

IRA Vol. Tom Williams

The Dublin Reprieve Committee made a call for all businesses, shops, manufacturers, offices and transport companies to close from 11 am to 12 pm on the day of the execution. Those that announced their members would close included the Licensed Grocers’ and Vintners’ Association, the Irish Newsagents’ Association, the Irish Retail Tobacconists Association, the Fruiterers’ and Confectioner’s Association, as did the Dublin Trades Union Council.  The Committee also asked people, where possible, to go to churches and other places of worship to pray for the repose of Tom Williams’s soul (which many did). The 11 o’clock mass in the Pro-Cathedral in Dublin was to be offered for that intention. Similar calls were made in Limerick, Galway, Tipperary, Cork, Waterford and smaller provincial towns like Sligo, Portlaoise, Listowel and Portarlington. Some buildings, including public buildings, flew flags at half mast. One shop which did not close on O’Connell Street in Dublin had its front window broken. Most Dublin cinemas did not open until 6 pm.

In Belfast, pubs and shops closed for the day in nationalist districts. Transport workers and dock workers also downed tools for the day in Belfast in protest. Many factories and businesses close to nationalist districts also closed for the day, more in anticipation of trouble than out of sympathy. The RUC patrolled the Falls Road and other nationalist districts in armoured cars.

There was surprisingly little trouble in Belfast on the day of the execution. From 7 a.m., the Crumlin Road for a quarter of a mile on either side of the jail was closed by the police. Trams bringing workers to factories were prevented from stopping. Crowds, mostly women, began to gather at Carlisle Circus and the Old Lodge Road. The atmosphere inside Crumlin Road itself was dreadful. The republican prisoners had agreed to fast for the day and the Catholic prisoners were to attend mass at 8 am to coincide with the time set for the execution.

Out in front of the prison, by ten minutes to eight Catholics among the crowd knelt on the streets and recited the rosary. Women who had gathered at the relatively ‘mixed’ Old Lodge Road junction with Crumlin Road began singing loyalist songs like ‘Dolly’s Brae’ ‘The Sash My Father Wore’ and ‘God Save the King’ and shouted abuse at those kneeling in prayer. The RUC evenutally pushed the crowds back. At the corner of Cliftonpark Avenue and the Crumlin Road a group of kneeling women were ordered by baton wielding RUC men to to move on.

After 8 am when Williams’ was led through the adjoining door of his cell into the execution chamber. The Catholic chaplain had arranged that a key point in the mass, when he raises up the communion host, would coincide with the exact time of Williams execution.

It broke up many of those present.

Outside, as the crowds then moved on from the prison, a group of mostly young women with black scarves marched down the Crumlin Road into the city centre, singing ‘A Soldier’s Song’ and ‘Kevin Barry’. In Wellington Place, near the City Hall, the RUC charged and scattered the crowd (which by then numbered around three hundred), who, in turn, responded by throwing bottles and other missiles taken from dust bins. By the time things were calmed, two men and a few women were arrested. Two of those arrested, James O’Hara and William O’Sullivan got three months for riotous behaviour. All the while the RUC was intensely patrolling the Falls Road and other districts in armoured cars and broke up any groups of people that gathered to prevent crowds forming.

Under these circumstances, that was surprisingly little violence.

It turned out that the RUC patrolling in nationalist districts was largely the prelude to a massive wave of arrests in Belfast and elsewhere that began the next day. After the relative calm in Belfast, the RUC detained over two hundred people on the morning of the Thursday including both men and women. The RUC chased a number of people through the streets before arresting them.

Immediately after the execution, on the Wednesday evening, the IRA had mounted a botched raid on the border in Armagh, in which a number of Belfast IRA volunteers had participated. Outside Belfast a small number of IRA attacks took place in the days after the execution, mostly in the first 48 hours including attacks in Randalstown, Belleek and Clady (where two RUC constables were shot dead).

In Belfast IRA actions were almost confined to the same time frame but all appear to be relate to the continuing RUC raids rather than a formal response to Williams execution.  One young IRA volunteer, Gerry Adams (who was sixteen), was wounded by the RUC when he opened fire at them with a revolver in Sultan Street. Another direct confrontation between the IRA and RUC occurred in Leeson Street where a B Special patrol encountered an IRA unit. During an exchange of fire, Special Constable Cochrane, firing from behind the cover of an air-raid shelter, shot James Bannon who had been armed with a Thompson sub-machine gun. Bannon collapsed to the ground and the IRA unit had to carry him away from Leeson Street with two providing covering fire with their revolvers. Bannon was taken in an ambulance from a house in Sultan Street and later arrested, he had wounds in his arm and stomach. In Servia Street, a follow up search by the RUC after more shots were fired, recovered a revolver that had been dropped in James Lynam’s house. Both Lynam and John McNally were arrested, although Lynam wasn’t an IRA volunteer. Gerald Hodgson (Grosvenor Road) was picked up and charged with possession of illegal documents, while Joe Quinn and Tom Collins were arrested over the finding of a revolver, ammunition and three Mills bomb in Distillery Street. Patrick Tolan and Michael Morris were also charged with possession of arms. Given the number of arrests made by the RUC, the number of formal charges is low (most of those arrested were simply interned without charge).

A week later, on the afternoon of 10th September 1942, the RUC raided the publicity HQ of Northern Command at 463 Crumlin Road in Belfast. After a brief stand-off in which some shots were exchanged, John Graham and David Fleming were both arrested. The RUC recovered six revolvers and ammunition, a full print run of the September edition of Republican News (which the IRA pointedly had re-printed that night and issued the next day, regardless), a duplicator, typewriter and radio broadcasting equipment and more literature. This included booklets on the Constitution and Governmental Programme of the Republic of Ireland, the Constitution of Óglaigh na hÉireann, fifty copies of the Special Manifesto, a memo on the Hannahstown Arms Raid, a Report of Northern Command Convention held in March 1942, one hundred recruiting posters and headed notepaper entitled ‘IRA, Northern Command Headquarters, Belfast‘. There was no ‘northern campaign’ plan found.

Despite all the evidence to the contrary, the term ‘northern campaign’ is still used by some to describe this period after Williams’ execution, when there was literally a handful of IRA operations, no plan and no sustained activity. While, arguably, the loss of the dumps at Budore and the raids in the forty-eight hours after the 2nd September may have stopped a campaign from taking place, there was no operational plan for such a campaign beyond a general assault on the armed forces of the northern government as a response to Williams execution.

The next issue of Republican News, the first following Williams’ execution, stated that “…neither the passions of the people, nor the fiery demand for action of the Volunteers, will make the Army authorities enter into hasty or unplanned action.” This seems to confirm that there was no formal ‘northern campaign’ planned for the immediate future.

Militarily, in 1942, the IRA still lacked the depth of resources to achieve its goals. The main focus of its campaign by the start of 1943 was to generate publicity and win support for the cause of Irish unity and independence to feature in the political shake-up that would come with the end of the world war. The real target, in that sense, was Irish-America. There had been considerable pressure among Irish-Americans for any US support for the British war effort to be contingent upon concessions from the British over Irish unity. Even after US entry into the war on the allied side, this strategy made a certain amount of sense while the outcome of the war was still in doubt and there was the prospect of a negotiated settlement. It was only really in early 1943, as the Allies moved towards demands for an unconditional German surrender, that the prospect of an international peace conference receded. In that regard, the IRA’s policy, as such, by late 1942 and then in 1943, was not a ‘northern campaign’ but rather to attempt to stage set-piece operations intended to garner publicity with a view to appealing to a broader political constituency that might support the achievement of Irish unity and independence. By the end of 1943, though, the main footprint of IRA policy was dictated by the need to address prison issues north, south and in Britain and any thoughts of a formal campaign were pushed out into the future.