Kieron Glennon on the 3rd Northern Division

Great post over at the Irish Story (from Kieran Glennon, author of From Pogrom to Civil War – Tom Glennon and the Belfast IRA) looking at the growth, then the disintegration of the 3rd Northern Division in the early 1920s.

Click here to view the post.

One thing I am not so sure about is the disbandment of the 3rd, 4th and 5th (Engineering) Battalions in the Belfast Brigade of the 3rd Northern Division before July 1922. The existence of (effectively) two 3rd Northern Division command structures by the summer of 1922 is obvious – the reconstructed nominal rolls, collected to identify those eligible for pensions in the 1930s tell a story but clearly not the full story. The rolls contain staff lists for the Battalions that were supposedly disbanded by July 1922 and also, in at least one instance, a list of members of a Company in July 1922, by which time it was supposed to have disbanded. The arms for the 3rd Battalion were not actually dumped until 1st November 1922. I put together a list of Commandants for various Brigade and Battalion structures in Belfast previously (you can see it here).  Buried in the files collected in the Military Archives in Dublin are other references to the restructuring of the Belfast units over the course of 1922. Hopefully, elsewhere in the Military Archives, someone will eventually happen upon a document from 1922 listing the pro-GHQ and pro-Executives forces and their structure in Belfast.

Again here’s the link to view Kieron’s post.


3rd Northern Division staff, July 1921 – Woods, McNally, McKelvey, Crummey

6 responses to “Kieron Glennon on the 3rd Northern Division

  1. Thanks for the kind words John.

    Just on the “ghost battalions”, the following was in the original draft of the article but had to be omitted due to space:

    “Two additional battalions were formed in Belfast in late August 1921, but these had also broken up by July 1922. We know that the O/Cs of the 3rd Battalion were Rory McNicholl, then Joe Murray and that five of its members were later awarded the 1916-21 Campaign medal. Beyond these snippets, it left no trace whatsoever.

    The 4th Battalion was first commanded by Pat Thornbury and later by Leo McGrady, and only fragmentary records of its existence are available. The former E Company of the 1st Battalion was transferred and became A Company of this new formation but we do not know how many other Companies there were, although Thornbury stated in his pension application that he had “organised companies in the Rock, Hannahstown and Randalstown areas.” It would appear that in response to the Military Service Pensions Board threatening to block the pension application of a former officer, the Brigade Committee provided them with a list of men who were members of A Company, 4th Battalion BETWEEN the first and second “critical dates” – comparing this list with the earlier one for E Company, 1st Battalion shows that the Company grew by 23% to 136 members after the Truce.”

    The 3rd Battalion medals thing is a bit baffling: one of the five men had pre-Truce service with D Company 1st Battalion, but the other four weren’t on the pre-Truce nominal rolls. So if they only joined 3rd Battalion after it was set up in August 1921, how did they qualify for medals? Incidentally, the five are listed as variously belonging to A, B, C and D Companies of 3rd Battalion, so that gives some clue as to its structure (although the unit information for the medal recipients can be a little inaccurate).

    That company of 4th Battalion for which a membership list is provided was later transferred again, to become D Company of the Executive’s 1st Battalion; the Executive had merged C and E Companies of that battalion, so there is an overall sense of diminishing numbers.

    This is confirmed by the transcript of an interview with Pat Thornbury, O/C of the Executive 3rd Northern, in his pension file:
    “Q: Were you operating as Divisional O/C?
    A; Yes, until some period about September, I suppose, when instructions from Headquarters were to organise the Unit as one Brigade, on account of the smallness of numbers after the Split.
    Q: You became Brigade O/C?
    A: Yes, I reverted to that.”

    The Engineering Battalion is another odd one. The Engineers were originally F Company, 1st Battalion before the Truce, with 35 men (the nominal roll lists 36 but one of these is double-counted in B Company). The Executive Engineering Battalion lists 107 men, but only 18 of these had pre-Truce service in any unit, F Company or otherwise. My theory is that the Executive “Engineering Battalion” was a kind of composite unit for men who had originally been in either the 3rd or 4th Battalions post-Truce but when those battalions disintegrated in the wake of the failed northern offensive, the few remaining men had to grouped together.

    I think the only way we’ll really get a fuller picture is if future MSPC releases include the files of men who had been members of these “ghost battalions.”

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    • Yeah, I think we are still missing way too much information. I think there is a political dimension evident in flagging the July 1922 return as ‘Executive Forces’ that might need teased out a bit more.
      I found a reference to B Company, 3rd Battalion as being based in the New Lodge in (I think) a document in PRONI (seized by RUC in St Marys Hall raid) or captured elsewhere. That might explain discrepancy in July 1922 return for D Company, 2nd Battalion.
      There is an odd lack of geographic coherency to the Battalion areas that the two added Battalions might have been intended to even out. Given 4th Battalion clearly encompassed area from Falls out to Hannahstown, 1st Battalion covered Lower Falls across to Carrickhill, 2nd covered Ardoyne, the Bone, Markets and Ballymacarrett. Maybe 3rd stretched from North Queen Street and Half Bap and included likes of New Lodge, Sailortown, Weaver St etc out to Greencastle in distinct company areas. There is at least one reference (somewhere) to Randalstown as if it was in Belfast Brigade area in May 1922, maybe it was attached to 3rd Battalion. Since the accounts from 1922 regard almost all of the districts I’m suggesting were covered by 2nd and 3rd Battalion as ‘storm centres’ acted more or less independently. The re-organised Belfast Brigade by 1923 just had a West Battalion (the former 1st and 4th Battalions) and an East (presumably what had been 2nd and 3rd). Clearly the Engineering Company (F Company, 1st Battalion) was just elevated to Battalion status – it still operated an explosives factory in Belfast up to at least April 1923.
      From about 1926 onwards Belfast was organised as independent geographic companies – possibly reflecting how these Battalion areas really functioned in 1921-22.
      The structure of the 1922 return for Belfast looks like it was devised by the 1922 pro-GHQ officers (albeit in the 1930s) to fit the narrative as perceived by them at the time. This didn’t fit exactly to the IRA structure the 1922 pro-Executive officers considered to have been in place. For some reason the former didn’t want 3rd/4th Battalion included as they believed they had reorganised the units by then.
      Hopefully there is a file of returns they didn’t include for that reason, but they have survived and will be released.
      And surely, somebody wrote an intelligence report on all this and it will eventually turn up!!!

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      • God forbid we have to rely on the RUC to fill in the gaps!
        I wouldn’t overstate the politics behind the July 1922 nominal rolls, after all they named William Ward as Brigade O/C rather than Roger McCorley. Plus the Brigade Committee that drew up the nominal rolls included men from both sides of the split e.g. Hugh Corvin, Executive QM, and Joe Cullen, O/C Engineering Battalion, were both on the committee, as was Sean Keenan who was ex-FS Army.
        I think you could be right about the battalion areas, 3rd especially makes sense, although that one company from 4th that there is a record for complicates the issue as they’re mainly from the Falls rather than the suburbs. E Company from the pre-Truce 1st had the most members from Hannahstown, the Glen Rd, Suffolk etc but the Executive C&E Company seems to be mainly Lower Falls.
        Your point about the “storm centres” tallies with what I said in the book about it being the areas where the IRA was less well-established, i.e. Ballymacarrett and the whole of the north city from the docks across to Ardoyne, that bore the brunt of the nationalist fatalities. Geography and there being more interfaces would have contributed to that, but IRA organisation being in a state of constant flux flux, as is apparent from the records we have, wouldn’t’ve helped.

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      • I do think there is an (inescapable) element of politics in the whole pensions process, and a reluctance to engage in the north on ideological as well as security grounds. There may be some who simply wished to erase their past too. What I was thinking of here, though, was that the original Brigade Committee was mostly Dublin-based current or ex-National Army officers and the others were added later. Later they obviously reached a pragmatic consensus – the likes of Seamus Woods was commissioned into the National Army as a Colonel in Febuary 1922, so supplying the Executive forces officers enhanced their pension entitlements while not diminishing that of the likes of Woods. In between, though, the paper trail on the unit structure of 3rd Northern may have got confused over the status of Battalions and Companies in mid-1922. Until all papers are published, we’ll not know for certain.
        By the way – I’m hoping Woods or someone wrote a summary for Mulcahy and it survives, rather than relying on the RUC.

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  2. The nearest thing of that nature that I came across was a report from Woods to O’Duffy (Chief of Staff) on 7th July 1922 – it’s in the Mulcahy Papers in UCD (P7/B/77). Woods is extremely critical of the Executive forces, highlighting two incidents in particular:

    – Disarming of Specials in Millfield on 31st May, during which one of them was killed (this is the incident I mentioned in the article, where George McCaughey was killed); following this, the Specials ran amok in Millfield and Carrick Hill, 11 catholics were killed and this was also when Roger McCorley was wounded

    – An attempted hold-up of Hughes Bakery on the Springfield Rd in mid-June during which a catholic employee was shot and killed; this led to a bout of mutual hostage-taking between the Executive and pro-GHQ Belfast Brigades

    There’s an attachment to Mulcahy’s report which is a report from the 2nd Battalion O/C (by then Seamus Timoney?) to the Brigade O/C (Sean O’Neill, after McCorley was wounded?) and specifically deals with the Executive. It’s interesting in two respects:

    1. It’s dated 26th June, yet according to the Brigade Committee in the 1930s, only five days later on 1st July there was no functioning 2nd Battalion staff…? Mar dhea! This goes back to the element of politics you mentioned above.

    2. He says in his Battalion area, there’s only two Executive companies – one in Ballymacarrett, led by Charles (Chuck ) Burns who he says was put out of the IRA for eight months before the formation of the Executive, having been “sent to jail in Co Tyrone by Comdt. McKelvey in October 1921.” The other Executive company is in the Markets, but he describes it as “A Company”, whereas in the pro-GHQ 2nd Battalion, the Markets was C Company; he says this company is led by Charles Connolly, who apparently was put out of the IRA by McCorley.

    Any of Woods’ other, almost weekly, reports to GHQ between the start of the northern offensive in May and a meeting between 2nd and 3rd Northern Divisions and Collins and O’Duffy on 1st August focus only on the situation facing the pro-GHQ 3rd Northern, this report of 7th July is the only one where he talks about the Executive.

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