IRA split 1969: unpublished speeches

Here are two unpublished speeches given in July 1969 at an event that later portrayed as central to the split in the IRA later that year 1969. I’ve posted about it previously, so rather than add more to that, I’ll just post the speeches (this is taken from the audio mentioned in those links). The two keynote speeches were given in the order below, the first by Belfast IRA veteran Jimmy Steele on behalf of the committee involved and then, as the official speaker for the republican movement, Cork IRA (and Spanish Civil War veteran) Jim O’Regan.

Jimmy Steele spoke on behalf of the repatriation committee which was chaired by Tomas MacGiolla. His introduction is not included in audio, similarly the very start of his speech is missing. It ends with applause.

Jimmy Steele at Mullingar in 1969 (from Joe Cahill: A Life in the IRA).

Jimmy Steele:

“…who refused recently to march behind the national flag in the Connolly parade has said “The working class of Ireland, both Protestant and Catholic, have nothing to gain from a United Ireland. Partition is quite unimportant.” Of course the British socialists adopted the very same attitude to James Connolly, before 1916, when they told him that Irish freedom was not a cause with which he, as a worker, should concern himself. To which Connolly replied that Irish independence must be won before Irish workers could be masters in their own land. And that without political independence, the way to social and economic progress would never be clear. And away back in 1914 when Redmond and Devlin had agreed to partition, Connolly wrote that to it, Labour should give the bitterest opposition. Against it, Labour and Ulster should fight, even to the death if necessary, as our fathers fought before us. And just a few hours before his death he said to his daughter, Nora, ‘The socialist will never understand why I am here. They all forget that I am an Irishman.” Others too, wearing the tag republican by advocating attendance at Stormont and Leinster House have come to accept the two state situation, thus helping to perpetuate partition.
Barnes and McCormick did not accept this position. They acted as Connolly would have acted and fought to the death against it. That was why they died. There are those who would decry their sacrifice and speak of the futility of martyrdom and cynically refer to glorious sacrifices. I will let Connolly answer those people as he answered the judges at his own court martial, “Believing that the British government has no right in Ireland, never had any right in Ireland and never can have any right in Ireland, the presence in every one generation of Irishmen of even a respectable minority read to die to affirm that truth, makes that government forever a usurpation and a crime against human progress.”
Yes, my friends, just as Emmet and the Manchester Martyrs and Kevin Barry died, so did Barnes and McCormick, in the same cause, in the same way and by the order of the same hangman, the hangman of the western world, England.
I’m sorry to say there has been a strange, if not deliberate silence, among republicans about that period when Barnes and McCormick were active. A period known as the forties. Let there be no glossing over what is, in reality, a glorious page in Ireland’s struggle for freedom. For these republican soldiers kept the idea of a separatist Ireland to the forefront against tremendous odds. Fighting anti-Republican and enemy forces on three fronts, on English soil and in the six and twenty-six counties. These men were not concerned with a man’s creed, whether he was Protestant, Catholic or Dissenter. They knew of only two classes of people in Ireland. Those who wished to maintain the British connection, and those who were determined to break that connection. Those who gave their allegiance to the invader, England, and those who gave their undivided allegiance to the free republican nation proclaimed in arms in 1916, and ratified by the votes of the people of all Ireland in 1918 and 1921.
Their primary aim was the same as Connolly’s. When he marched into the GPO on that Easter Monday to fight. And in his very last testimony of republican faith he bore his martyrdom to emphasise at his court martial why he fought. “We went out,“ he said, “to break the connection between this country and the British Empire and establish and Irish republic.” How can anyone possibly overlook the courage and the suffering of a small dedicated band, many of whom are here today.
A period that cost the lives of twenty-six soldiers of the Irish Republican Army, nine by execution in England, Belfast and the Twenty-Six Counties, five in gun battles with enemy forces and the remainder on hunger-strike or in the prisons. Yet, until recently, there seems to be this deliberate blackout of that glorious period. Could it be that it is so fashionable to be tinged a deep red, to be militantly anti-British in the Forties, as Barnes and McCormick and their comrades were, is now considered to be tantamount to being dubbed fascists. These men were not fascists, nor were they Communists, nor murderers as their enemies allege them to be. They were simply guilty of the unpardonable crime of being Irish patriots, imbued with a deep love of Ireland and her cause of freedom.
Today, in many places, pure and raw patriotism is frowned upon. As is adherence to the policy of non-compromise and force. Indeed, one is now expected to be more conversant with the teachings of Chairman Mao than with those of our dead patriots. Barnes and McCormick were not intellectuals, they were just ordinary working class lads who looked upon it as their duty to right Ireland’s wrong. Can we assume that most of you who are assembled here today consider their cause and their methods just and necessary? Or will you assemble afterwards, in small groups, the more progressive as some of you like to be called, and speak of these poor misguided men and then propagate your ideas as to how Ireland’s freedom can be attained without fighting, without suffering, without martyrdom.
There comes a time in every generation when men try to re-direct the republican movement along a different road to that upon which our freedom fighters trod. When, Liam Mellows a few hours before he faced the firing squad, wrote about that road, he said “The signposts on that road are plain and broad and straight. It is the road on which Tone and all our martyrs are the guides. A road marked by truth, honour, principle and sacrifice.” That was the road upon which Barnes and McCormick trod, even onto martyrdom.
A great deal of propaganda is still being made on the question of unity among all who claim to be working for cause of unity and independence of our country. And Connolly’s words on this matter should give us all food for thought when he said, “Unity is a word used by many with ulterior motives, to achieve political ambition, or ultimately, to seek power and control in a united movement.” Therefore in striving for genuine unity we must be careful that such efforts may not lead to that seizure of power and control by the wrong people as defined by Connolly. Unity was a word used as a means of propagating acceptance of the Treaty of 1921. It was also used by Fianna Fáil as a means of gaining power and control in 1932. To become participants in this unity drive, republicans were urged to vote Fianna Fáil into power in Leinster House. They were expected to compromise just a little as a means to an end. They were expected to tolerate for the time being, political leaders and organisations who had already deserted or betrayed the republic.
Let us take heed of this, before it is too late, because history has a habit of repeating itself. And the Green Tans of 22 and 24, and, 36 to 46, could easily become the Red Tans or the Blue Tans of the future but the victims would still be our Fenian dead, our republican dead, out martyred dead. From the graves of patriot men and women spring living nations, said Pearse. My real hope, is from these graves of Barnes and McCormick, will emanate a combination of the old and new spirit, a spirit that will inspire men and women with the noble idealism of Pearse, the social and economic philosophy and aims of Connolly, and the fighting and courageous heart of Cathal Brugha. A spirit that will ensure the final completion of the task which our martyrs were compelled to leave unfinished. That is how Barnes and McCormick can best be honoured. That is how they would wish to be honoured because that is why they lie in a martyrs grave today.”

Jim O’Regan was then announced as official speaker for the republican movement.

Jim O’Regan, while serving with International Brigade in Spain (see

Jim O’Regan:

“A chairde on the morning of the 7th of February, in the dark year 1940, two gallant soldiers of the Irish Republic, James McCormick from Mullingar and Peter Barnes of Banagher, stood on the gallows in Winston Green jail in Birmingham. They were about to die at the hands of their enemies, surrounded by their enemies, in the gloomy atmosphere of an English prison. It is easy to visualise the thoughts that must have been going through their mind in those last hard moments of their lives. They knew now that never again would they see their native land. They knew now that never again would they see all those who were dear to them. They knew now that never would again would they meet their comrades in the fight for freedom. And now a generation has passed and twenty-nine years later, we stand at the grave of Peter Barnes and Joseph McCormack [sic], who at last have been laid to rest in the land that they loved and served so well. On behalf the republican movement, and indeed of the entire Irish people, I thank the committee who have been responsible for this wonderful achievement. They worked hard and long. They met with many disappointments. They overcame many obstacles. At times they must have almost despaired. But perseverance was their motto and in the end they succeeded. I know they do not want their names mentioned but I feel that what they did they did for Ireland and they did it well. But I think that one name should be mentioned and that is Caitlin Ni Muimhneachain, who has been a driving force behind this campaign in the last few years and who has [speech drowned out by applause]…that campaign.
I have spoken of the obstacles they overcome, overcame. I will mention only one. That of finance. A very large sum of money was needed for the repatriation. They could only appeal privately to members of the republican movement, with our sympathisers and supporters. In the republican movement, the members have never been known for their worldly wealth. For the vast majority of their lives they had struggles for existence and they have many burdens on them. And in addition, the veil of silence drawn by the organs of publicity and the establishment over the sacrifice by the men whom we honour today will no doubt give them the impression that the youth of Ireland had forgotten those heroic men and that alas their memory perhaps too had faded in the minds of the older people. But then the money came. From the north, the east, the west and the south. From our exiles abroad. Not alone sufficient to cover expenses. But to cover them five and six times over. It came from the hidden Ireland. The Ireland of Barnes and McCormick. That unconquered Ireland that has handed on the torch of freedom down through the generations and has never surrendered and never will surrender.
I thank all those who subscribed. I know that once again the many hard working sub-committees that do not want any thanks or do not want their names mentioned. But I think that one outstanding area will have to be mentioned and that is Belfast. Not alone did they set themselves a very high target but they exceeded it. Perhaps it is because they are face-to-face with the imperialism that murdered Barnes and McCormick and so, better than most of us, know the evils these men died fighting.
Peter Barnes and James McCormick grew up in the Ireland of the late 20s and early 30s. It was a difficult time. A time of world recession. Unemployment was widespread and those who were lucky enough to have work were exploited by long hours and low wages. But yet, at that time, there was hope in the land because immigration, our greatest evil, has ended and the youth were filled with a revolutionary fervour. But alas, by this situation, led to great developments in other countries. But in Ireland this revolutionary fervour was absorbed by other parties for their own personal advancement. Peter and James saw through this and they in the ranks of the republican movement worked hard and quietly for the achievement of our republican ideals. It is common today to give writes up in our newspapers to people who are well known in public affairs. But let us remember that these people are paid and paid well for every hour of service they give anywhere, whereas the men we honour, received no payment, never asked for any payment, risked their lives, risked their liberty, lost their jobs and in the end made the supreme sacrifice for the cause they believed in.
I have known men who knew James McCormick in those days. Both men and women have told me that he always impressed them with his neat and tidy appearance. The fine way he kept himself despite long spells of unemployment and lack of money to buy clothes. He was a person of pride arising from his idealism. Both volunteered for the campaign in England. I have known many volunteers who operated with James in the midlands at that time. They were all deeply impressed by him. They called him an outstanding volunteer, extremely reliable and very efficient.
Peter, who was older, had joined the Fianna in 1921 and was a mere youth a few years later when he joined the Irish Republican Army. He was a very careful operator. In actual fact his presence in England was completely unknown to the police. But alas he was betrayed by an informer, an Irish one at that. He was searched, his lodging searched and nothing whatever was found on him but they knew they had their man as a result of an informers information. And they found shampoo powder in his room and they said that that was an explosive substance and they held him on that charge.
The following morning three of my comrades and myself were betrayed by the same informer and brought to Brixton prison. Again, on numerous occasions during the following weeks both Peter and the four of us were brought to court and remanded. I had many opportunities of having conversations with him. It was I who told him of the informer. On a number of occasions when we were going to the police courts, the police informed us that one of us would be hanged for the explosion at Coventry. I discussed this with Peter and pointed out that though it would be more than difficult for them to prove because all five of us were in James’ [indistinct] two hundred miles from Coventry. But Peter said…[indistinct]….
And one night…came the tramp of many feet coming up the iron staircase in Brixton where we were, it was a large wing and they had cleared it out of ordinary prisoners to keep about a dozen of us who were there. We were closely watched and there was a large number of unoccupied cells, on each one of the ones we occupied. But yet we knew the actual situation of each of the cells of our comrades. And one night we heard the stamp of heavy feet coming up the iron staircase of police and warders coming up the stairs and then I knew they were going in the direction of Peters cell. I heard the door open, a few minutes passed and then they moved on. I knew Peter….. Their time began at the end of that year and on the 14th December they were sentenced to death.
Peter said, “As I am condemned to death and going before my God. I must say I am innocent. Later, I am sure, it will come out that I had neither hand nor act nor part in it.” On being asked the same question, James McCormick replied (and this is from the same pamphlet), “Before you pass sentence, I wish to thank sincerely the gentlemen who have defended me during my trial. As a soldier of the Irish Republican Army, I am not afraid to die, for I am dying in a just cause. God bless Ireland and God bless the men who have fought and died for her.”
The death sentences and their brave stand in a hostile court amidst the enemies country caused a great upsurge in national feeling in Ireland. As we hope their burial will cause a similar surge. Widespread protests were held. Mass meetings attended by tens of thousands people. At that time, coercion reigned against republicans and it took moral courage from people in public life to come forward, to stand on a platform and ally themselves with Barnes and McCormick. But they did so and I am glad to see many of them here today and we thank them for their efforts.
But alas, all efforts failed. Barnes, Peter Barnes, 32 years of age, and James McCormick at 29 years of age, laid down their lives for the people of our land. On the night before he died Peter wrote his last letter. And here it is, exactly as he wrote it to his brother. “If some news does not come in the next few hours, all is over. The priest is not long gone out, so I am reconciled to what God thinks best. There will be mass for each of us that morning before we go to our death. Thank God I have nothing to be afraid of, I am an innocent man. And as I said before, it will be known yet that I am. The only thing that worries me now is the thought of my poor father and mother. But I know God will comfort them. I will write my last few lines to mother tomorrow, Tuesday, I will know by then. Say a prayer for me. God be with you all.”
On the same night, James McCormick wrote his last letter to his sister in Mullingar. “This is my farewell letter as I have just been told that we have to die in the morning. I know that I will have to die so news did not come as a great shock to me. But thank God I am prepared and I know that I am dying in a just cause. I shall walk out in the morning smiling as I shall be thinking of my God and the good men who went before me in the same cause.”
And the next morning, in an English prison, surrounded by hundreds of armed soldiers and police, they marched proudly out to die. And their names will forever be linked with Allen, Larkin, O’Brien, Barrett, Casement, O’Sullivan and Dunne. In every generation, our noblest sons and daughters have laid down their lives for the freedom and independence of our country. It is calculated in the year of 1798, over sixty thousand Irishmen made the supreme sacrifice on the field of battle, before the firing squad and on the gallows. In 1803, Emmett and twenty-eight of lieutenants died on the scaffold. In the War of Independence from 1916 to 1921 over seven hundred Irishmen laid down their lives. And in the war in defence of the republic in the following two years, 1922 and 23, hundreds more died.
The number of those who died in the time of Barnes and McCormick was not very large. But each and every one of them was an equal in every way of the heroes who went before them. Shortly before Barnes and McCormick died, Jimmy Joe Reynolds and comrades Kelly and McCafferty died on the border, Peter McCarthy was shot in Dublin, Christy Bird died in Dublin, Sean Glynn of Limerick died in Arbour Hill Prison on hunger strike as a result of attempting to go to Bodenstown commemoration. Within two months of Peter and James death, those two gallant heroes from the west, Tony Darcy from Galway and Jack McNeela of Mayo died on hunger strike. And in September that year, Paddy McGrath of Dublin, an outstanding hero of the Tan War, Civil War, 1916 died with his comrade Tommy Harte of Armagh, who had been in England with Barnes and McCormick. They died before a firing squad. In 1942 the hangman who executed Peter and James returned to Ireland, to Belfast to execute young Tommy Williams. In 1944, two years later, he came to Mountjoy to execute Charlie Kerins of Kerry. Others died too. Rocky Burns with short arms in a Belfast street. Jackie Griffith in a Dublin street, Sean Kavanagh in Cork, Sean McDermott* in Cavan [here O’Regan corrects himself] Sean Dermody* in Cavan. And in the Curragh concentration camp, Barney Casey was shot down. And Jackie O’Callaghan* was shot in Antrim. And there were others. Sean McCaughey who died on hunger strike. Terence Perry of Belfast and Tom Malone* of Belfast who died in Parkhurst Prison when we were there. Bob Clancy of Waterford who died in the Curragh, John Hinchy of Louth who died in Mountjoy. And that great hero of the Tan and Civil Wars, George Plant of Tipperary, who’d been active in the English campaign and who died before a firing squad in that infamous prison not so far from here. So too died before a firing squad, Maurice O’Neill of Kerry and Dick Goss of Louth.
It will be said they were a minority. But Pearse and Clarke and Connolly when they marched in the streets of Dublin in 1916 were a minority. And as Sean McDermot a great leader and patriot had said when told a majority of the people are against you, “We represent the unconquered soul of Ireland.”
One will say today, “What did Peter and James and their comrades die for?” They were members of the rank and file of the republican movement. I served with them and I am a rank-and-file member of the republican movement too, so I can answer on their behalf. They died so that the Irish people could become complete masters of their destiny in their own country. They died for the complete liberation of our land, for the abolition of the accursed border and rule by a foreign government and laws. They died to end all the evils that afflict our race. Alone of all the nations of the world our population has been declining for over one hundred and twenty years. And this is caused mainly by the fact that during that whole long period we have had the greatest immigration rate of the entire world. We have the world’s, Europe’s highest unemployment rate. We are the only nation whose finances are controlled by another. To abolish this unnatural state of affairs, to give the Irish people the right to live in their own land, that is what Peter and James died for.
We leave these honoured graves to the care and to the protection of the people of Offaly and Westmeath. Let them come here every year, on the day of national commemoration. Not alone to honour their two noblest sons but to grow from their lives and their sacrifices, inspirations to continue their fight for freedom. The republican movement is determined to win and to win in this generation. McSwiney said “It is not with those who inflict the most but with those who suffer the most that the ultimate victory lies.” And God knows the republican movement has suffered enough. So let us swear by these martyrs graves that will end the fight in our lifetime. And when that day comes, the day of victory, let us return here to honour the men who made that victory possible. For here lie the real architects of Irish freedom. And by their graves promise to build a state worthy of their noble sacrifice. Welcome home Peter. Welcome Home James. May God give eternal rest to your most gallant souls.”

[Note: these names should be Paddy Dermody, Gerry O’Callaghan and Joe Malone, I listened to the audio a few times to be sure and these are the versions of the names O’Regan gives.]

This is then followed by instructions to those who wished to come forward to lay wreaths and for the colour party.

You can watch some video and hear some audio from the speeches here:


You can read more on the background to the 1969 split in the Belfast Battalion book.

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