On Easter Sunday, 5th April, 1942, a unit from the Belfast Battalion’s C Company was to carry out a diversionary attack on the RUC on the Kashmir Road. The unit involved were to fire shots at one of the armoured cars that the RUC used to patrol nationalist districts, withdraw to a pre-arranged safe house, dump their arms, then disperse. If the RUC reacted as usual, it would isolate the district, flood it with reinforcements then carry out raids. Meanwhile, with the RUC busy in Kashmir Road, the IRA would hold its Easter Rising commemorations elsewhere, unimpeded.
Part of the IRA’s own report into what happened next is summarised by a map captured in May 1943 (now in the public records office). Since the streetscape has almost changed beyond recognition, I’ve added a map of the area, as it was in the 1940s, below. The captured diagram shows the positions taken up by the unit O/C, Tom Williams, and the other volunteers, Dixie Cordner, Jimmy Perry, Joe Cahill and John Oliver. Williams and Cordner were on the footpath behind the last air raid shelter before the junction between Kashmir Road and Clonard Gardens, Cahill and Perry between the last two shelters and Oliver between the second and third shelters. After firing shots they were to head back into Cawnpore Street where a sixth IRA volunteer, Pat Simpson, was waiting for them, then dump their arms and disperse. The arms would be concealed and returned to IRA arms dumps by Cumann na mBan. You can get an idea of the size of the air raid shelters in the photo below (you can also check them out in the film Odd Man Out).
What happened next is relatively well documented. The IRA unit fired shots over a passing armoured car, from which the RUC dismounted and then attempted to pursue the IRA unit into Cawnpore Street. In this case, the RUC men involved, including Patrick Murphy, had been involved in previous armed confrontations with IRA units and had attempted to storm houses at gun point in pursuit of IRA volunteers. By mid-1942, though, the IRA’s Chief of Staff, Eoin McNamee, had decreed that armed IRA volunteers who were at risk of arrest, were to use force if they had a chance of escape. So on 5th April, 1942, the C Company unit followed current IRA policy and exchanged fire with the RUC in Cawnpore Street and Murphy was killed, and, Williams wounded. Having been convinced by the authorities that his wounds were fatal, Williams took responsibility for Murphy’s death in the hope that it would shield the rest of his unit from retribution. Instead, when he had recovered, he was hung as a reprisal in September 1942 (even though he had clearly not fired the shots that killed Murphy), while the others barely escaped execution. You can read one account of their reprieve here in the Connolly Association’s paper, Irish Freedom, from September 1942.
And in case anyone is labouring under the mistaken impression that deliberate delays and obfuscations are a recent tactic of the authorities when attempting to resolve ‘legacy issues’: it was to be 58 years after his execution before Tom Williams was handed over to his family and friends and was able to receive a proper burial.
You can read more about Tom Williams and the events surrounding his execution in Jim McVeigh’s book or at some of the links below.
You can also watch a great documentary at the link below (if it is still available).
5 thoughts on “April 5th, 1942: Tom Williams and ‘legacy issues’”
In 1988 Belfast Republican Jimmy Roe (1927-96) who was instrumental in the campaign with the National Graves Association to secure the release of Vol. Tom William’s body from Crumlin Road goal. Gave the lecture to the Tom Williams commemoration in Belfast, on the 46th anniversary of Williams death. https://irishrepublicanmarxisthistoryproject.wordpress.com/2015/03/21/jimmy-roe-lecture-to-the-46th-tom-williams-commemoration/
I take it this is the ballad, Tom Williams, Jimmy Roe is referring to (lyrics below with recording by the Flying Column). Didn’t realise Arthur Corr wrote it. It first appeared anonymously in Resurgent Ulster in July 1954 (Vol 2, No 20). All the other anonymous poems in Resurgent Ulster that later reappeared with an authors name turned out to have been written by Jimmy Steele (who edited the paper). On that basis, I assumed he’d written Tom Williams too but Arthur was a noted singer so that’s entirely plausible. The Flying Column (who knew both Steele and Corr, credit the song to ‘Gilligan’).
Time must pass as years roll by,
But in memory I shall keep
Of a night in Belfast prison;
Unashamefully, I saw men weep.
But a time was fast approaching,
A lad lay sentenced for to die,
And on the second of September
He goes to meet his God on high.
To the scaffold now he’s marching,
Head erect he shows no fear.
And while standing on that scaffold,
Ireland’s Cause he holds more dear.
Now the cruel blow has fallen,
For Ireland he has given his all,
He, who at the flower of manhood
Proudly answered to her call.
Brave Tom Williams we salute you,
And we never shall forget.
Those who planned your brutal murder,
We vow to make them all regret.
Now I say to all you Irish soldiers;
If from this path you chance to roam,
Just remember of that morn
When Ireland’s cause was proudly borne
By a lad who lies within a prison grave.