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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