Odd Man Out: a story about the Belfast IRA?

The film Odd Man Out was released in 1947. Based on Lawrie Green’s novel of the same name which had been published in 1945, Green also adapted it for the screenplay. The film was nominated for an Oscar as well as for the Venice Film Festival’s Golden Lion. It subsequently won a BAFTA award for Best Film in 1948.

The novel sets the scene thus: “This story is told against a background of political unrest in a city of Northern Ireland. It is not concerned with the struggle between the law and an illegal organisation, but only with the conflict in the hearts of the people when they become unexpectedly involved.” While it does not specifically name the place as Belfast, it repeatedly references locations in the city. Similarly, the IRA is never openly named, but rather is referred to as ‘the Organisation’ (neatly mirroring the language of contemporary IRA volunteers who referred to it as ‘the Army’). Both the novel and the screen adaption are actually much richer in historical value than is usually appreciated.

Cover of 1946 Book Club edition of the novel.
Cover of 1946 Book Club edition of the novel.

The plot revolves around an escaped IRA leader who participates in a robbery that goes wrong. He kills a cashier in a struggle, is himself wounded and then accidentally left behind by his comrades. The story then plays out over the remainder of that day and night. Green wrote the novel between October 1943 when he finished On the Edge of the Sea and August 1944, when he produced a full typescript. His depiction of the circumstances in which the IRA found itself in 1943-44 and many of the scenes that play out in the novel are taken directly from contemporary events over the same time. Some slight shifts that take place between when Green wrote the novel and the adaptation for the film also mirror political developments between 1944 and 1947. To that extent, arguably the book and film are about the Belfast IRA to a much greater degree than Green’s own disclaimer, quoted above, suggests.

Spoiler alert: If you haven’t watched the film (never mind read the novel), you can watch the whole thing here on Youtube before reading the rest of this:

The IRA leader Johnny, whose surname is ‘Murtah’ in the novel, and ‘McQueen’ when played by James Mason in the film, is referred to a number of times as the ‘Chief of Staff’ in the novel and is described as a recent escapee (about eight months before the events described). He is also described as having been given a lengthy sentence of sixteen years. After his escape he spends a long time hiding in one particular house, apparently in the lower Falls. While Johnny Murtah appears to be a composite of various IRA figures (including Rocky Burns and Jimmy Steele), the basis is clearly Hugh McAteer, the IRA Chief of Staff who had escaped from Crumlin Road in January 1943 and been recaptured in October 1943. The fact that the novel includes a Chief of Staff who is hiding out in Belfast is in itself revealing. The only times an IRA Chief of Staff was ordinarily resident in Belfast  until the 1970s were in late 1942, most of 1943 and again, briefly in 1944-5. This was not necessarily public knowledge.

The robbery that begins both the novel and film is also based on a real life incident, or rather, incidents. The setting is revealed in the novel as being close to Corporation Street, as that is in the district where Johnny first hides out. In January 1942 an IRA unit had robbed the payroll of the Civil Defence Headquarters in Academy Street, close to Corporation Street. During the robbery a clerk was wounded as was one of the IRA volunteers involved, Bob McMillen. In Odd Man Out, Johnny Murtah falls off the car used to escape, which didn’t happen to McMillen. However, it did happen to Louis Duffin after an attempted arms raid on a Newtownards Road RAF barracks earlier in 1943. Duffin was, literally, picked up the RUC (who thought the car had nearly knocked him down) and brought him to a nearby tram stop. If Green knew of this and used it as an element of the story, it too wasn’t widely known in 1945. More recently, while Green wrote Odd Man Out, another botched robbery at Clonard Mill in Odessa Street in October 1943, led to the death of an RUC constable. The setting, and fatality, are much closer to the robbery in Odd Man Out.

Other scenes in the novel appear to echo actual incidents. In Odd Man Out, the rest of the unit involved in the robbery end up in the home of Teresa O’Brien, whose house was normally off-limits to the IRA as she wasn’t trusted. There are hints here of a widow, Mrs Teresa Wright, who lived in Quadrant Street. Shots had been fired at her house on 1st November 1937 and she said that there had been ill-feeling against her in the district and “…Several people had called me an informer when I was passing them on the street…”. The Teresa portrayed in the reporting of the incident is very similar to the Teresa who appears in the novel and film.

Even the two older Protestant women who shelter Johnny Murtah for a while may reflect a reality as Hugh McAteer is known to have used a safe house off the Shankill Road in 1943 after his escape. Despite not being in the public domain in 1944, as with the Louis Duffin story, it may have been that Green had heard these stories and so incorporated them into the fabric of Odd Man Out. Green’s depiction of an under pressure IRA in 1943-44 also appears quite accurate and he alludes to episodes of recent history in passing, such as the 1942 curfew, in a way that seems quite correct.

How would Green have reproduced such details, particularly those elements not in the public domain? He had married Margaret Edwards, daughter of a senior tax inspector from Belfast and the couple had moved to to the city, living in Ulsterville Avenue. While there, Green regularly went to Campbells, a coffee house opposite City Hall. In ‘Culture, Northern Ireland, and the Second World War’, Guy Woodward records that a 1961 BBC documentary included former patrons who descibed Campbells as frequented by the likes of Green, William Conor, Joseph Tomelty (who appears in the film), Denis Ireland and Sam Hanna Bell. It was also remembered as a forum for political, literary and artistic debate in the 1930s and 1940s.

This is equally evident in Green including caricatures of John Hewitt (Griffin) and John Luke (Lukey) in Odd Man Out. Hewitt, in particular, was irked at being heavily satirised by Green as Griffin: “There was hardly a platform he could prevent himself from taking, and from which he theorised in a robust, crisp, fashion…“. In reference to Odd Man Out, Green also reputedly chastised his contemporaries in the arts community in Belfast that “…I’m writing what you and your friends should be writing about, the drama’s that are going on here. You people are ignoring what is going on on your own doorstep.” (recorded by W.J. McCormack in his 2015 biography Northman: John Hewitt 1907-1987 – An Irish Writer, His World and His Times).

Denis Ireland’s presence among the Campbell’s set is significant. Ireland had served as an officer in the First World War and had subsequently founded the ‘Ulster Union’ club, a republican debating group (which you would never guess from the name). A number of members of the Union had gone on to join the IRA, including John Graham, a key figure on McAteer’s IRA staff. Johnny Murtah’s deputy in the IRA may even be named ‘Denis’ as an homage to Denis Ireland while simultaneously alluding to John Graham.

Repeatedly throughout the novel, as published in 1945, Green was very critical of the IRA and what he presents as the utter futility of its most recent campaign. This is very much toned down by 1947, in the film. In a very early scene, he has Johnny McQueen (James Mason) after much time thinking in his safe house, muse on whether the IRA would be better off pursing a political course: “…we could throw the guns away … make our cause in the parliaments instead of in the back streets.” This too reflects a certain amount of reality. According to Hugh McAteer, the IRA was privately debating the futility of its own campaign in the first half of 1943, largely in the safe houses in which he and Jimmy Steele were hiding. By the time the film was made, Denis Ireland himself was on his way to becoming a Clann na Poblachta nominee to the Seanad in 1948. Johnny McQueen’s speech about the parliaments directly reflects the thinking behind Clann na Poblachta, which was founded in July 1946 by ex-IRA Chief of Staff Sean McBride. This modification of the politics between the novel and film suggests that Green was concerned with the authenticity of his depiction of the IRA, which strengthens the argument that his work has considerable historical value.

Denis Ireland’s presence in Green’s life may have been his source on details of the IRA in Belfast at the time, some of which were not available in the public domain. That political transition evidenced in McQueen’s speech in the 1947 also suggests Ireland as an influence. But not everyone was happy with the depiction of the IRA in the film. One criticism, by Nichevo (Bertie Smylie), in ‘An Irishman’s Diary’ in The Irish Times has a wonderfully contemporary air of hysterical outrage that wouldn’t be out of place in today’s Sunday Independent or Irish Times:

There is no doubt that it is a really good film. There equally is no doubt that, in essence, it amounts to a glorification of the IRA! If I had been a youth, emerging from the Theatre Royal on Sunday night, and saw on the walls of Trinity College the slogan “Join the IRA”, I have not the least doubt that I should have been sorely tempted to do so! All the romance is on the side of the “the Organisation”. James Mason gives a magnificent performance as Johnny McQueen; and, although the name of the IRA never was mentioned, nobody who knows anything about this country in general, or of Belfast in particular, can have the least doubt concerning the “Organisation’s” identity. So much for that!


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