Early in the morning of 2nd September, 1942, seventy five years ago, prison staff moved a cupboard aside in Tom Williams’ cell in C Wing of the Belfast Prison, on the Crumlin Road. It revealed a door that led into the execution chamber. Williams was led into the chamber where he was hung at 8 am. Visitors to the prison today can visit the cell and are walked through the same doorway into the execution chamber. However, even after his execution, Williams remains were effectively imprisoned in Crumlin Road for nearly sixty years until his reburial in 2000.
Williams was executed as a reprisal for the death of an RUC Constable, Patrick Murphy, in April that year in Cawnpore Street (you can read the full story in Jim McVeigh‘s Execution: Tom Williams). Williams and Murphy were two of a handful of fatalities during the low intensity conflict between the IRA and northern government between 1938 and 1944. This included four other RUC officers, a prison warder and three IRA volunteers (a greater number died from the poor conditions in the prisons over the same period).
Only a matter of days before the execution Williams five co-accused had saw their own death sentences commuted. But a broad-based reprieve campaign (in the south) for Williams fell on deaf ears. The day of the execution was fairly chaotic. Crowds of nationalists who had gathered to pray for Williams outside the prison were jeered by unionists who sang songs and taunted them. A subsequent protest march into the city centre after the execution had led to small disturbances but these paled into significance alongside the trouble that followed a large scale swoop by the armed forces of the northern government. Large numbers of Catholics were detained, many eventually served internment notices (having no charges proferred against them). The subsequent violence and, weeks later, a number of reprisals for Williams execution led to a protracted curfew in the Falls.
There were over one hundred sentenced republican prisoners in Crumlin Road at the time of Williams’ execution and several hundred internees. They fasted on the day of Williams’ execution. Mass was to be said at 8 am and the chaplain had arranged to time a key point in the service, when he was to raise the communion host, would coincide with the exact time of Williams execution. The resonance of the symbolism of sacrifice in Catholic theology was easily understood and it broke up many of those present. One of those present, Jimmy Steele, later published a poem called ‘The Soldier’ which was dedicated to Williams. Either Steele or another sentenced prisoner who was in A wing the morning of the execution, Arthur Corr, wrote a song called ‘Tom Williams’ (early versions of it in print appear anonymously and neither were later credited with song). It was published in the Belfast IRA newspaper, Resurgent Ulster, in 1954. Steele edited the paper and usually included his own poems without any credit. Jimmy Roe, though, believed Corr, a noted singer but not known as a songwriter, composed the song. It has been subsequently recorded by various people without assigning credit to either. I’ve linked a version recorded here by the great Eamon Largey who knew both Steele and Corr and would have learned it from them (it is uncredited on the Flying Column album ‘Folk Time in Ireland‘). I have also reprinted it in full below.
Whether it was Corr or Steele (both of whom came from North Queen Street), when hearing the opening lines “Time must pass as years roll by, But in memory I shall keep, Of a night in Belfast Prison, Unshamefully I saw men weep…” it should be born in mind that both were present in A wing and in the prison chapel at the time of the execution.
Time must pass as years roll by
But in memory I shall keep
Of a night in Belfast Prison
Unshamefully I saw men weep.
But a time was fast approaching,
A lad lay sentenced for to die,
And on the 2nd 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 boyhood
Answered proudly to her call.
Brave Tom Williams we salute you.
And we never shall forget
Those who planned your cruel murder
We vow to make them all regret.
Now I saw 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.