Lightly tap the muffled drum: the stories of Belfast-born Vol. Jack Edwards, killed Kilkenny prison 1922, and his family

These are the epic stories of the Edwards family who lived in the Manor Street area of Belfast at the turn of the twentieth century. Later moving to Waterford, the Edwards had an eldest son in the flying column of the local IRA (and who was shot dead in Kilkenny prison in 1922), a father who had spent years in both the British Army (including the first world war) and prison service, a political activist mother and a brother who fought conservative Catholicism, joined Republican Congress and fought in Spain. This short account of their experiences merely scratches the surfaces of the extraordinary lives that some otherwise ‘ordinary’ people lived in early twentieth century Ireland.
On 19th August 1922 Belfast-born IRA officer Jack Edwards was shot dead by a National Army sentry at Kilkenny prison. A train fireman, he had joined the IRA in Waterford in 1917 and was a member of the city’s D Company and, by 1921 was a full time member of the flying column of the Waterford Brigade’s Active Service Unit. He had returned home shortly after the truce and returned to work only to return to active service in 1922. In the race between the IRA and National Army to take control of key buildings and infrastructure in the middle of 1922, he had led an IRA unit which took control of the GPO in Waterford for several days but was eventually taken prisoner and placed in Kilkenny jail. Having been told someone in the street wanted to speak to him, Edwards went to an upstairs toilet where the small window allowed prisoners to converse with people in the street outside. He was shot through the window by a sentry and died immediately (a handkerchief marked with his blood is in the Kilmainham Gaol Museum).

John Edwards blood-stained handkerchief

Handkerchief reputedly stained with Jack Edwards blood (in Kilmainham Gaol Museum image published at the link)

At the inquest into his death it was reported that the sentry had given three warnings and exchanged words with Edwards before firing what the sentry said was an un-aimed warning shot from thirty yards away (although other, later, accounts dispute whether he gave any warning at all). The lack of any imminent risk of escape and the precision of the wound would give rise to allegations that Edwards had been killed in retaliation for the death of a National Army officer several days beforehand. None of those suspicions were tempered by the fact that the single shot through the forehead that killed Edwards seemed unlikely for an un-aimed shot but had all the hallmarks of the marksmanship the sentry had gained in his twelve years of service with the British Army (you can read more on this in Eoin Swithin Walsh’s account of Edwards death in Kilkenny: in times of Revolution, 1900-23). Edwards’ remains were taken from Kilkenny to the Cathedral in Waterford and from there to Ballygunner for burial. Other IRA prisoners were given parole from Kilkenny to attend his funeral (given this all happens to coincide with Michael Collins death, the unrestricted reporting and paroles would soon be much less likely).
The inquest was reported at length in the Kilkenny People (26th August 1922). It revealed that after his arrest, Edwards had been used as a hostage by the National Army and made to check for mines during its advance from Waterford. The soldiers guarding the prison had also indiscriminately fired shots into cells (from inside the prison) on a number of occasions, badly wounding at least one IRA prisoner (called O’Neill). The cross-examination of the National Army soldiers guarding the jail included a claim that another prisoner had been seen climbing a wall, apparently intending to escape, earlier that evening. He had merely been shouted at by the guards.The other prisoners also testified that as many as twenty prisoners had been at the same windows in full view of the outpost outside that evening without being warned. Earlier that evening, other prisoners testified, the un-named soldier who fired the fatal shot had boasted that he was a crack shot and that the prisoners would find that out that night (Edwards was shot at 8 pm). The prisoners also disputed evidence from the soldiers on guard duty that more than one shot was fired (the soldiers claimed four or five had been fired). The officer in charge and others were unable to produce records to show that more than one bullet was discharged or that, in reference to Edwards’ catastrophic head injuries, explosive bullets had been issued. Jerry Cronin (O/C of the IRA prisoners in Kilkenny Gaol) went as far as to claim that the soldier who fired the shot had been the one who actually called Edwards to the window. The jury still found the soldier had killed Edwards in the course of his duty. The whole proceedings took place in the prison in a room above the apartment containing Edwards remains. Annie Edwards, Jack’s mother who was dependent on her eldest son, had to sit through the whole proceedings.

Jack

Jack Edwards, from Nioclas de Fuiteoil (1948) Waterford Remembers

Jack Edwards had been born in 1899 in Bandon Street in Belfast, the eldest child of Patrick and Annie Edwards. Annie was originally from Kilkenny (neé Houlahan) and was sitting part of her final exams to become a maternity nurse when she was told Jack had been shot dead. She had become active politically (as early as 1918 she is known to have signed the anti-conscription petition) and subsequently got involved in Cumann na mBan. Described as a ‘die hard’ republican, was constantly watched by the new Free State authorities (eg see Clark, Everyday Violence in the Irish Civil War, p168). While men were more likely to be arrested or interned (and attract the headlines), women like Edwards were providing the continuity and administrative and logistical spine of local IRA organisations. They retained the knowledge of membership, the location of dumps of weapons, documents, contacts and other assets (money, informants etc) during constant changes of the male leadership through arrest and disruption. As Annie Edwards also typified, they simultaneously had to manage grief over losing sons and partners and taking a lead role in organising and attending public protests as well as collecting and distributing supports to dependents of the dead and imprisoned.
Neither was Jack the first child Annie Edwards lost. Her and Patrick had had Jack (1899), Willie (1901), Mary (1906), Frank (1907), Josephine (1909), Teresa (1912) and George (1914). Willie died of tuberculosis in September 1918 ushering in a harrowing year for the family. Four year old George died early in 1919 (and is largely omitted in later accounts of the family). Patrick himself died in April 1919. Five months later, ten year old Josephine died of tuberculosis in August 1919. In the 1930s, Annie also described Teresa as having been ‘delicate’ since birth and still requiring the care of her mother (although Teresa did get married the year after Annie died).
Patrick had been born in Mary Street Limerick in 1865. He was working as clerk and was a member of the Royal Artillery’s militia battalion in 1887 when he went full-time into the British Army. He joined up in Limerick and was sent to Aldershot where he had completed the Medical Staff Corps school in October 1887. He subsequently spent most of his service in Ireland at various postings in Belfast, Cork, Dublin, Enniskillen, Fermoy and Youghal. He had completed his 4th class (1887), 3rd class (1888) and 2nd class education (1892) while in the army (calling to mind James Connolly’s famous quote about using army service to ‘learn all he can and put his training to its best advantage’). Patrick left the service in 1899 and then took up a post in the Belfast prison as a hospital prison warder (he and Annie had married in November 1898 in Belfast).
Patrick worked in Belfast prison until around 1908 when he then was transferred to Clonmel Gaol. In May 1913 the family moved again, this time from Clonmel to live at Long Avenue in Dundalk, where Patrick took up a post in the local prison. After the outbreak of war in 1914, he re-enlisted in June 1915. He was stationed in Cork where he served in the Royal Army Medical Corps. In April 1916 he reported ill and after several months was discharged as permanently unfit for duty in July 1916 (there is no suggestion that, like Tom Barry, he was reacting to the Easter Rising). On leaving the army, Patrick returned to his post in Dundalk prison and, in January 1917, was transferred to Waterford prison. The whole family then moved to Waterford. By mid-1918 Patrick was unable to work and he died of organic brain disease in April 1919. Annie later recorded that he had been an invalid for a year before his death. She began training as a maternity nurse after her death. Despite Patrick’s long military service and subsequent career in the prisons, the successive deaths of Willie, George, Patrick and Josephine all seem to point to a life lived in near, if not actual and crushing, poverty.
The family’s move to Waterford in 1917 coincided with a sudden political awakening in Jack Edwards as he got involved with the Gaelic League, Sinn Féin and the Irish Volunteers. He had got trained and worked as a fireman (an engine driver) with the Great Southern Railways. As he progressed from D Company to the Waterford Brigade’s flying column he is recorded as being involved in a number of incidents. A Waterford IRA officer, Moses Roche, recorded how Edwards halted a train he was driving near Kilmacthomas. It was carrying jurors to Waterford and the local IRA intended drawing out the RIC and military into an ambush (instead they forced Roche to walk in front to draw any fire, which never came). Edwards was one of the original members of the local flying column when it was formed in April 1921. Michael Ryan recalled Edwards being involved in a raid of the County Club in Waterford. He reportedly carried IRA units from Dublin down to Munster at the start of the Civil War in 1922. When the IRA took control of the GPO in Waterford in July 1922, Jack’s younger brother Frank arrived to join him. Frank was a member of Fianna Éireann but was only fifteen at the time. Jack told his younger brother to “Go home to hell” (as told by Frank in Uinseann MacEoin’s 1980 book Survivors, the account below is based on that a more recent article in Journal of the Waterford Archaeological and Historical Society and a lengthy article on Frank here by David Smith).
Frank did but he remained active in the Fianna and joined the IRA in 1924. Jack’s death, his mother’s activism and the loss of so many family members in 1918-19 provided Frank’s political formation and he was to remain committed to the IRA through most of the 1920s although he had become inactive by the end of the decade. He had trained as a National School teacher and by 1931 he was well known for his involvement with rowing and rugby in Waterford. By 1932 he was teaching in Mount Sion and a member of the INTO.
He had also been an early member of Saor Éire, an attempt to push the IRA in a political direction in 1931. In the late 1920s and into the 1930s the IRA struggled to define a political strategy and was more often concerned with calibrating its behaviour to not inflict political damage on Fianna Fáil (believing that, on assuming power, Fianna Fáil would finally realise the republic declared in 1916). Into the 1930s, Edwards was involved in republican and left wing politics in Waterford and wider afield, including unionisation. Having achieved a high profile in protests against the forming of the right wing reactionary Cumann na aGaedheal party put Frank Edwards on a collision course with his employers at Mount Sion in the shape of Archdeacon William Byrne and local Bishop Jeremiah Kinane, both staunch anti-communists who had no qualms about using the church to suppress left wing politics. In 1932 Byrne met with Edwards to try and persuade him to split from the IRA (on the grounds that it was too left wing). Edwards refused to give in to Byrne’s demands.
Just as Catholic anti-communist doctrine was being promoted in Waterford, by 1932 various left wing activists and study groups coalesced around Waterford’s embryonic branch of the Irish Revolutionary Workers Group (many of the former or disaffected IRA members like Frank Edwards). In 1933 the IRWG became the Communist Party of Ireland and, by March 1934, some of the left republicans in the IRA split and formed Republican Congress. Frank Edwards was among the first to join and he also wrote for its newspaper (also called Republican Congress).
By 1934 Congress in Waterford was active in tackling slum landlords. Edwards was so prominently identified with the campaign that his erstwhile employers, Byrne and Kinnane (in effect the Catholic Church in Waterford) gave him an ultimatum that he would be sacked from Mount Sion if he attended Republican Congress’ Convention that September. After he attended and spoke at the Convention, on 2nd October Edwards was advised that his employment was under review. In mid-October he received three months notice of his dismissal. When the local INTO protested and then its national executive got involved, Edwards was advised that the INTO had agreed with Bishop Kinnane’s proposal that the dismissal be rescinded once Edwards sign an undertaking that he would not be involved in any organisation that did not have the approval of the Catholic Church.
The dispute escalated on to the front page of national newspapers and, when the Bishop was to read a pastoral in the Cathedral on 6th January 1935 it was expected to condemn Republican Congress, the IRA and even anyone who hadn’t recanted opposition to the 1922 treaty. He had only mentioned Republican Congress by the time some of his congregation walked out (Gardaí had been positioned inside the church in case of a demonstration). As the day of Edwards’ dismissal drew close there were other public protests including a strike observed by a small number of pupils in Mount Sion itself. However, despite public opinion being hugely in Edwards favour the Catholic church exerted pressure everywhere, with even the local Dockers branch of the ATWGU offering unqualified support to the bishop. At one protest both Frank and Annie Edwards spoke publicly to protest at the treatment of her son. Afterwards, the bishop sent a priest to Annie to advise her that if she didn’t withdraw her statement she would be refused the Catholic sacraments. She then issued a statement saying that despite the injustice the family would remain good Catholics. According to the family she was deeply distressed by her treatment.
As more public bodies issued statements of support for the bishops, the IRA staged a huge protest parade in support of Edwards in Waterford. But the Catholic church sought to close down reporting and public discussion of the case and Frank Edwards ending up moving to Dublin to assist Frank Ryan in editing and producing Republican Congress. In October that year Annie died of acute nephritis at the age of 62. She was buried with Jack in Ballygunner with the IRA, Cumann na mBan, Republican Congress and other republican and left wing organisations represented at her funeral which was described as one of largest seen in Waterford for some years.
Frank Edwards was now blacklisted from Catholic schools (literally so, as a letter was circulated saying he wasn’t to be employed) and couldn’t get any teaching work. Instead he took jobs such as pipe laying in Dublin. In December 1936 he left with the Irish contingent to join the International Brigade fighting against the fascists in Spain. Within a couple of weeks they were in action in Lopera. Ten days there saw the Irish Company of the Abraham Lincoln Battalion reduced from 150 effectives to 66. They were then pulled out and put into the Madrid front at Las Rozas, ten miles north of Madrid. On 12th January 1937, the day after being deployed at Las Rozas they advanced in the fact of artillery fire as part of a blocking action to prevent Franco encircling Madrid. A shell fell between Dinny Coady and Frank Edwards wounding both. Edwards managed to struggle back down the hill to a first aid station despite losing a lot of blood. Stretcher bearers tried to bring Coady down but he quickly died. Frank Edwards was transferred to a hospital in Madrid. It was to be the end of March before he was scheduled to leave hospital. He returned to Ireland in August 1937.

Frank Edwards

Frank Edwards in Spain with the International Brigade (last man on the right, back row). Peter Daly (from Monageer in Wexford and later killed in action) is third from left in the back row, with Frank Ryan to his left. The man in white shirt at the back (two to the right of Edwards) is Jack Nalty who was also killed in action (for more on the photo see CLR here).

Frank eventually found a teaching job in Mount Zion (the Dublin Jewish school). He remained active in the friends of the Soviet Union and was one of those subsequently thanked by the Soviet ambassador when diplomatic nations between the Republic of Ireland and Soviet Union were finally normalised with the establishment of embassies in 1974. Frank died in 1983 and was cremated. The oration at his funeral was given by veteran Irish communist Peadar O’Donnell.
Frank’s own obituary in the Irish Democrat (July 1983) still noted that he had been born in the north although he had been raised in Waterford. So how strong were Jack Edwards Belfast connections? In Rebel Heart (about George Lennon – Edwards former IRA commander in the flying column), Terence O’Reilly describes Edwards as having come from Belfast in 1918 although this is inaccurate since he had been in Waterford since 1917 and had come there from Dundalk. One story about Edwards time in Belfast recalls how he had been beaten up by an ‘Orange mob’ on the way home from school. As the family left Belfast when he was around 8 or 9, it is plausible. They had lived in a unionist-dominated area off Manor Street, close to the Belfast prison on the Crumlin Road where Patrick Edwards worked. In the 1901 census Catholics made up on only about 1 in 10 of residents of Bandon Street or adjoining streets such as Avoca Street where the nearest school was located (street directories show that living in the area was popular with prison staff). Possibly a sectarian attack on Jack precipitated the family move which coincided with the arrival of Patrick’s nationalist-minded mother into the household to become a formative political experience that led him to wholeheartedly engage in republican activities once he arrived in Waterford in 1917. Whatever his own motivations, it was a seminal moment in his brother Frank’s life. Frank’s own memoir, published by Uinseann MacEoin in Survivors, he quotes the following lines about his brother Jack:

March with stately step and solemn,
Lightly tap the muffled drum,
For the gloom around is now cast
There’s a soldier coming home.
Make this grave upon the hillside,
Where our soldier lad will lie.
Let us wipe out fault and fashion
And when Freedom’s day will come.
We will prove ourselves in action
As Jack Edwards often done.

‘We will prove ourselves in action’ is certainly a phrase that rings true for the Edwards family.

[Thanks to Aaron Ó Maonaigh, John Dorney and Kieron Glennon for drawing my attention to Jack Edwards and his family, and Aaron for the image in de Fuiteoil’s book]

You can read an extract from Belfast Battalion: a history of the Belfast IRA, 1922-1969 by clicking this link.

The story of John Collins, a Belfast IRA volunteer killed in Mayo in May 1921 is here.

2 responses to “Lightly tap the muffled drum: the stories of Belfast-born Vol. Jack Edwards, killed Kilkenny prison 1922, and his family

  1. Why give this scum legitimacy by calling them the National Army they were and are the Freestate army No Republican will ever recognise the 26 County statlet

    Like

    • The ‘National Army’ is how they described themselves in 1922 – for anyone trying to research more on likes of Jack Edwards death, they need to know that to be able to google or search for ‘National Army’ to get more information.

      Like

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