The Belfast Tunnels 1920-22

Tunnelled yards in Vere Street, Belfast

In the summer of 1922, police and soldiers carrying out raids in the Grove Street area (off North Queen) reported that “…the search revealed that the yards on the Grove Street side were tunnelled the whole length of the street, and access to Grove Street could be made from Vere Street through another tunnel.” (Belfast Newsletter, 21/8/1922). The photograph above and below shows some of those yard walls in Grove Street and Vere Street (the next street over – note the same man in the cap in both photos), and appeared in the contemporary press coverage. In each case the brickwork was removed from the walls that separated the back yards of houses from each other. By doing so, people could move from back yard to back yard while hidden from view by the exterior walls.

By the summer of 1922, the discovery of these ‘tunnelled yards’, as they were called, shouldn’t really have been too much of a surprise anymore. In September 1921, the Norfolk Regiment reported that the backyards of houses in Cross Street (which linked Sussex Street to the ends of Grove Street and Vere Street and across to Earl Street) were tunnelled to allow access to and from York Street (see Northern Whig, 26/9/21, the photos above first appeared in the Belfast Telegraph on 20/9/21 – you can read more on how they were reported here). That issue of the Northern Whig was reporting on a court case where a number of men were seen leaving and entering a house during curfew hours. When the house was searched by the military and some of the men were chased into the adjoining streets, the holes in the walls of the yards were found in a follow-up raid. When the men were prosecuted for breaching curfew, the defence offered by their solicitor, Mr J. Graham, included that “…the passages through the walls had to be made so that the Protestant workers living in these houses could get into York Street to go to their work without having to go through the dangerous streets… It was as much as a man’s life was worth to go into the open street, and finally the people had to tunnel passages from their back yards to get out and in in safety.” This was echoed by John Steele in a report to the Irish Examiner in January 1922: “Belfast. Jan. 19.—I have spent a day visiting tlie little houses and mean streets of Belfast where women and children live in terror, and men crawl to work through tunnels cut in backyard walls, out of reach of snipers who lie in wait for those whose only offence is a different religion.

An alternative explanation for the tunnels is given by Roger McCorley, an officer in the Belfast Brigade of the IRA’s 3rd Northern Division in 1920-22. In his account of events recorded in a Witness Statement for the Bureau of Military History in 1950, he states that “…the men defending an area would have to move from point to point and in the initial stages this was generally done by climbing across the backyard walls when the post they were firing from was no longer reasonably safe. The danger about the backyard wall was that if the enemy succeeded in getting to the rear of the house and were first up over the level of the yard walls, movement was impossible. On two or three occasions some of our men were killed when attempting to cross walls. In order to cover this, the idea of breaking holes through yard walls was generally practiced in border line areas like Raglan Street. This left complete freedom of movement throughout the rows of houses which in Belfast are generally built back to back.

In a court case taken in 1923 by the Northern Banking Company, mention is made of Ballymacarrett tenants having to leave then return to houses in Seaforde Street and the Newtonards Road only to find that there were tunnels knocked through the adjoining yard walls. The implication here was that the tunneling was not by the residents themselves (see Northern Whig, 1/5/23).

The existence of similar tunnelled yards is mentioned in various parts of Belfast in 1921 and 1922. They appear to have been more typically found in the Belfast districts which were mainly Catholic and examples were reported from almost all such areas.

Press coverage of violence in Arnon Street and Stanhope Street (in Carrickhill) in March and April 1922, described how armed men used the tunnels against the residents as they gained access to the tunnelled yards and entered houses killing both adults and children (Ballymoney Free Press, 5/4/22). Other streets in Carrickhill, such as Wall

Street and the Old Lodge Road are described as being similarly tunnelled. At one trial that April, the prosecutor, Mr Moorehead, called for houses that had their back yards tunnelled to be leveled to the ground (Belfast Telegraph, 8/4/22).

In May 1922, in another case, it was reported that yards to the rear of houses in Chatham Street and Herbert Street (in Ardoyne) were tunnelled. Another Ardoyne street, Havana Street, was also tunnelled and was mentioned during a case in which two men were charged with breaching curfew regulations. From comments made in the court on that occasion, it appears that householders who had had their yards tunnelled were expected to report this to the police (see Belfast Telegraph, 23/5/22). In the east of the city, on 25th May, James Sloan was arrested and charged that his house in Arran Street (in Ballymacarrett) had been tunnelled with his knowledge, thus enabling people to move from Arran Street to Thompson Street while staying within the back yards.

The press in mid-June reported that Sloan was charged with an offence under the Civil Authorities (Special Powers) Act as being the occupier the house 17, Arran Street, which had been “adapted by the opening of large holes in the walls to facilitate the escape of persons from arrest and the commission of acts prejudicial to the maintenance of law and order.” This was noted to be the first such prosecution under the act although it’s unclear if it made it to court as it never gets referred to again by the press. Sloan was also cited in a linked case over movement of weapons (see PRONI HA/5/628).

In June 1922, it was reported that houses were burned so that the ruins could be used as a base by gunmen to fire along the tunnels that had been made through the yards to the rear of Vere Street. The press also reported that houses in Cullingtree Road (including Brook Street and Quadrant Street) and in the Shore Street/Weaver Street district had their yards tunnelled. In July that year, tunnels were clearly still in use in the Marrowbone district as Eneas McGibbon and Peter Cosgrove were reportedly chased through tunnels by police before being arrested (see Northern Whig, 15/7/22). According to The Scotsman (24/7/22), military and Special Constables searching the Marrowbone discovered, “The whole district was found tunnelled underground presenting all the features of a huge rabbit warren.” Like a report in the Liverpool Daily Post the previous month (12/6/22) which talked about tunnels and burrows, some press coverage clearly misunderstood the nature of the ‘tunnels’, although the Post does not that, in one street, attic walls were breached to allow movement through roof spaces as well.

Effectively, every area in Belfast that saw significant violence in 1920-22 is recorded as having back yards that were linked up by opening holes in the brickwork. Do any such yards survive today? A review of a modern map and aerial photographs of the city illustrates how little of the housing stock in those areas survives from 1920-22 with many streets in those districts laid out since 1922. In north Belfast, two terraces survive at the junction of Kent Street and Stephen Street. This area was the scene of repeated gun battles, sometimes involving armoured cars and Lewis guns (and so likely to have had tunnelled yards to avoid the gunfire and snipers). Many of the back yards and walls have been completely replaced and rebuilt in recent decades. One, just off Kent Street is shown below.

Yard wall to rear of Kent Street
Section of discoloured brick – evidence for the yard off Kent Street having been tunnelled in the past (presumably 1921-22).

The yard wall of red brick off Kent Street appears to be relatively old and has survived by chance as it is propped with more recent brick at the far end. It has been redone with newer cement pointing but clearly has a substantial area of discoloured brick that forms a deep U-shape from the top of the wall (see area marked in yellow above). The brick work is in courses that follow different bonds or patterns although the pattern appears disrupted in the discoloured section in places, suggesting it may have been rebuilt. Is this a last vestige of a tunnelled yard from 1920-22, or are there other examples out there to be found?

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