Election headquarters, Barrack St, Belfast, 1925

The photograph below was posted online by Gerry Adams. It is of the republican election headquarters in the former Oceanic Bar, at the corner of Barrack Street and Divis Street at the time of the  April 1925 elections. The photograph neatly tidies up an existing account of that election that was otherwise unclear.

The election campaign is described in Jack McNally’s 1989 memoir Morally Good, Politically Bad although confusion over the dates means it uncertain which actual election it describes:

“In the 1923 elections Sinn Féin in Dublin decided to contest the elections on the abstentionist ticket. Interned men were put up as candidates. A man named McConville from Lurgan was put up in West Belfast. Hugh Corvin was put in North Belfast. I was appointed his agent. The Fianna canvassed the Catholic areas in the North for Hugh Corvin…

In West Belfast Sinn Féin had rented the old Oceanic Bar at the corner of Barrack Street which was lying empty. There was also an old Pawn Shop and a Sales Room, side by side in Divis Street beside the Oceanic Bar. These were rented as Committee and Tally Rooms. Speakers from Dublin began pouring in to help the campaign for McConville. Constance Markievicz, Dr Ida English, Frank Brady and his sister were there; as well as Sean McBride, Donagh O’Donoghue, Sheila Humphries, Tom Daly, Andy Coone and Pat McCormack from the Glens. The lads who had been newly recruited into the IRA worked like trojans alongside the girls and women of Cumann na mBan. Prominently identified were Cassie O’Hara, Bridie O’Farrell, Mary Donnelly, Mrs Ward, Bank Street, Maggie Kelly nee Magennis, May J. O’Neill nee Dempsey, Sally Ward nee McGurk, Kitty Kellet, Sally Griffen, Susan Rafferty, Mary Rafferty, May Laverty, Louis McGrath and sister Margaret, Miss McKeever, Mrs. Muldoon, Mrs. McLoughlin and Kitty Hennessy. These were the girls who carried the banner of Republicanism back to the Falls and little thanks they got for it from some of the locals there. There were also the families who kept open doors for us in the Lower Falls; The Cunninghams of Slate Street, Charley and Brigid Rafferty in Scotch Street, Koitty Hennessy and her mother. Mrs McLoughlin of Galway Street. These were the people we were proud of. If it hadn’t been for their untiring work in spreading a new Gospel of Republicanism in the Falls might never have risen to the challenge it faced in later years.

As it was, the hard line of Devlinite opposition to republican candidates was very much in evidence in 1923. Our election headquarters in Divis Street was attacked, as was also the Oceanic Bar at Barrack Street corner, where the windows were broken. The Craobh Ruadh pipe band was attacked in Cullingtree Road and some of the girl pipers badly shaken. Jim Johnstone, who trained the pipers, came to see us after the attack and agreed to let the band try again, if we gave them protection. We organised a squad of men with hurleys to accompany the band, which paraded from Barrrack Street across to the Loney and side streets;they came back by Albert Street and had no interference. That show of strength was enough for the malcontents and they began to change their ways. The window of the Oceanic Bar was broken one night, after that, but the culprits were caught and beaten. After that they left us alone…

That election in 1923 was a political disaster for Sinn Féin and for us as republicans. McConville was defeated in West Belfast and Hugh Corvin got a miserly 1200 vote in North Belfast, in spite of the fact that he and McConville were still interned on the Argenta prison ship. But the Bone and Ardoyne voted solidly.

After the debacle we settled down to improving the position of the IRA in Belfast and throughout the North.”

The photograph showing the McConville headquarters in the old Oceanic Bar now clears this up. McNally appears to be referring to two different elections here (although neither was in 1923 as there weren’t republican candidates put forward in Belfast in any of the elections that year). Hugh Corvin stood in North Belfast in an election in October 1924 (for Westminster) while Pat Nash stood in West Belfast. Sean McConville then stood in an election to the northern parliament held in April 1925. Corvin didn’t run in that election (there was no republican candidate in North Belfast). Whether it was in use as an election headquarters in October 1924, the photograph shows that the former Oceanic Bar was clearly in use during the April 1925 election. The building had been in use as an engineering works for a short while after the bar had closed. The photograph itself appears to have been taken from an upper storey if St Mary’s Christian Brothers School on the other side of Barrack Street.

Sean McConville had been Commandant of the Lurgan Battalion then vice O/C of the 3rd Brigade of the IRA’s 4th Northern Division, under Frank Aiken. He was nominated in March for West Belfast in the election to the northern parliament that was to be held in April. The other candidates in West Belfast (which was to elect four MPs using proportional representation) were unionists Thomas Henry Burn, Robert John Lynn, Robert Dickson, nationalist Joe Devlin, independent unionist Philip James Woods, Labour’s William McMullen and McConville. Torchlight processions alongside a band in support of McConville (as described by McNally) were recorded in the nights before the election although the press claimed there was ‘not the slightest untoward incident’. However, the photograph of the election headquarters appear to show the boarded up windows on the ground floor which are consistent with McNally’s account of the election. The press reports at the time indicate that there were processions by the Devlinites every night in the lead up to the election. Of the many luminaries listed as speakers during the campaign, Andy ‘Coone’ is Andy Cooney (IRA Chief of Staff by 1926) while Belfast republican Cassie O’Hara had been the fiance of executed IRA leader Joe McKelvey (thanks to Tim McGarry for this information).

At the end of the first count, the quota was declared as 9,897. Devlin had received 17,558 votes and was elected. He was followed by Woods (9,599), Lynn (8,371), Burn (4,805), McConville (3,146), Dickson (3,133) and McMullen (2,269). Devlin’s surplus was then distributed giving Woods 11,071 (+1,472), Lynn 8,507 (+137), McMullan 7,237 (+4,968), Burn 4,878 (+73), McConville 4,456 (+1,310) and Dickson 3,438 (+305). With Woods elected, but his surplus failed to elect anyone so Dickson was elimited, with his transfers then electing Lynn on 10,437 votes with McMullan now on 8,002, Burn on 5,980 and McConville on 4.545. Since Lynn had an insufficient surplus to elect anyone, McConville was eliminated and his transfers elected McMullen who ended on 10,345 (+2,343) to Burn’s 6,515 (+532).

The IRA’s flirtations with politics were to be intermittent and violent electoral clashes with the nationalists were to continue into at least the late 1930s.

[Just to note that the reason McNally has the date wrong may be interesting in its own right – he may have checked the date against an internal IRA document – the IRA obsessively keeping records well into the 1940s. The problem McNally may have overlooked is that in the mid-1920s dates were normally given with the wrong year so they couldn’t be used in a prosecution if the document was captured. Typically this meant 1924 instead of 1926 etc.]

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