Belfast and Nineteen Sixteen book relaunched by National Graves Association, Belfast.

The National Graves Association Belfast are relaunching ‘Belfast and Nineteen Sixteen’ the booklet produced to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the Easter Rising. The original 1966 book has been reprinted along with a new cover and introduction.

You can read more on the relaunch below (by Brónach Ní Thuama in the Andersonstown News):

The booklet was originally produced (along with Antrim’s Patriot Dead) to raise funds on behalf of the National Graves Association in Belfast and defray the cost of erecting the County Antrim Memorial on the Tom Williams plot in Milltown Cemetery. Both were edited by Jimmy Steele, who had previously edited a number of versions of what is now Belfast Graves, a compendium of biographies of republicans who had died while actively involved in various campaigns. Funds from sales we go towards ongoing work on the Belfast National Graves Association.

I have written about Belfast and Nineteen Sixteen and Antrim’s Patriot Dead previously.

You can view the whole book here: Belfast and Nineteen Sixteen (or get a preview below, to whet your appetite).

I don’t have a link for buying it online as yet, but I’ll update this as soon as I get one. In the meantime you can contact the National Graves Association in Belfast via their Facebook page.

 

Some related posts on Belfast and 1916

Mobilising in Belfast for 1916

Disinformation and propaganda: violence in Belfast in 1966

Belfast Easter Commemoration, 1917

Truckling to Treason: Belfast Newsletter reflects on the Rebellion, 4th May 1916

Belfast in 1916

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Undoubtedly She Was Ready to Kill: Constance Markiewicz at St Stephen’s Green

An enduring controversy has raged over the role of Constance Markiewicz in the death of DMP Constable Michael Lahiff at St Stephen’s Green on the first day of the Easter Rising in 1916. The controversy is mostly fuelled by a mixture of uncertain eye-witness testimony and confused timelines. Regardless of whether she did fire the shots that killed Lahiff, a new eye-witness account shows (in the writers own words) that ‘undoubtedly she was ready to kill’.

Interestingly, the exact role of other imdividual combatants hasn’t attracted the same fascination as Markiewicz. In some ways, she has become of one focus of a particular anti-republican critique that deems the declaration of an Irish Republic in 1916 an illegitimate, indeed treacherous, act against the benevolent British Empire in the midst of a war in which that Empire was wasting the lives of hundreds of thousands of its subjects.

I was recently given a copy of a (seemingly previously unpublished) letter which includes the eye-witness account of Markiewicz in Stephen’s Green on the first day of the Rising. The author, Captain Charles Calthrop de Burgh Daly was a doctor attached to the Royal Army Medical Corps who happened to be in the University Club on Stephen’s Green to observe republican forces taking over Stephen’s Green on the first day of the Easter Rising.

Dr De Burgh Daly

The letter, dated 13th June 1916, is written on embossed University Club notepaper. Interestingly the opening tone of the letter suggests de Burgh Daly was responding to a query as to whether he saw Markiewicz kill anyone during the Rising, implying Markiewicz’s conduct during the Rising was already the focus of gossip in Dublin. In his letter, de Burgh Daly wrote “I do not, of my own personal knowledge, know that she killed others but undoubtedly she was ready to kill policemen and combatant officers or men.”

The full text of the letter is below:

71 Park Avenue, Sandymount, 13-6-16

My dear Rebba,

To my certain knowledge the following occurred. About noon on Easter Monday 24th April – Countess Markiewicz drove up to Stephens Green in a motor and got out opposite the University Club. She was dressed in a man’s uniform green and brown belt and feathers in her hat. She apparently was in command or second in command of SF in the Green.

About 1 o’clock she leant up against the Eglinton monument and took a deliberate potshot at me in one of the open windows of the University Club. I was sitting in the window, in uniform, the distance was about 50-60 yards. She could not tell I was a doctor but I suspect considered I was a combatant officer as I had ribbons on. She used a Mauser pistol which fits onto its case as a stock and fired from the shoulder.

The waiter of this Club gave evidence at her trial and acknowledged that she had shot at an officer as described above. I do not of my own personal knowledge know that she killed others but undoubtedly she was ready to kill policemen and combatant officers or men.

She released doctors of the RAMC and wounded officers when captured on the Monday night and mixed up kindness and killing in accordance with her convictions on the rebellion and how to conduct it. I bear her no ill-will and hope one of these day she may use her talents for the real benefit of our country. When driven out of Stephen’s Green on Tuesday morning, she with the rebels, seized the College of Surgeons, and it was from there that she and others surrendered at the end of the week.

I did not give evidence against her as I did not actually see her pull the trigger but when the bullet crashed through the window just above my head I saw at once that a woman dressed in mans clothes had fired it and later on with a pair of glasses, I and several others identified her as Countess Markiewicz.

Ulick has just been operated on for appendicitis and is recovering rapidly and feels quite well. Charlie is still in Mullingar. Emily has been in Monaghan and Armagh for the last 3 weeks. She comes home on Friday. With kindest regards to you and yours, yours very sincerely,

C.C. de Burgh Daly

A few details in de Burgh Daly’s letter are significant in light of the apparent gaps in the details of Markiewicz’s actions on the first day of the Rising. First of all, he places Markiewicz on the north side of Stephen’s Green at noon. Coincidentally, this is around the time Constable Lahiff was reportedly shot. It also places Markiewicz just to the east of the Fusilier’s Arch. At least one shot aimed at Lahiff passed through his left arm and into his lungs as he approached the Arch (implying he was shot from the east). As de Burgh Daly himself states, though, he didn’t see her kill anyone.

[Presumably the bullet fired from Markiewicz’s Mauser is still embedded in a wall inside the University Club – if it was recovered and Lahiff’s remains exhumed, a simple ballistic analysis of the two bullets might put this particular controversy to rest.]

So does her attempting to kill an army officer (a doctor indeed) just add further fuel to the fire of the Markiewicz controversy? Do we need any context to this? Who was de Burgh Daly?

Charles de Burgh Daly had been prominent from August 1914 in calling for co-ordinated medical training and support for the war. He also organised and spoke at public recruiting rallies as a member of the Dublin City and County Recruitment Committee since the start of the war, including the main recruitment campaigns of 1915. As part of his recruiting work he took a commission in the Royal Army Medical Corps, eventually rising to the rank of Colonel, although only ever based in Ireland. Arguably, de Burgh Daly, as an enthusiastic cheerleader for the war, had played his own part in many violent deaths long before the Rising began.

He was married to Emily French, sister of Percy French, who published popular books on their time living in Manchuria (where de Burgh Daly hd been medical officer to the British embassy) and on her brother’s musical work. She was also involved in the likes of the NSPCC. Before the de Burgh name even crops up at some suffragette events. At the time, in 1916, the de Burgh’s two sons were officers in the British Army. And there is a further tragic dimension to the letter.

Their elder son, Ulick, was an army captain and served with the British forces in Dublin that suppressed the nascent Irish Republic in 1916. Their younger son, Arthur Charles (presumably the Charlie in the letter), left Ireland for France in the summer of 1916 and fought during the Somme. He was killed at Ginchy on the 9th September 1916. Agonisingly, his parents received a telegram from the War Office saying that he had been killed in action on the 4th September 1916. The same day they received a letter from him dated 8th September. They then had a tortorous wait while the War Office tried to establish the truth. He is buried in Delville Wood cemetery. Ulick emigrated to the United States in the 1920s.

After his son’s death, Charles de Burgh Daly is noticeably absent from the names of those promoting British Army recruitment. After the war, a memorial to his son was erected by him in St John’s Church in Sandymount. The organist in St John’s, Cecil MacDowell, served in the Boland’s Mills garrison during the Rising. MacDowell also wrote the melody to the Soldier’s Song. After the war and partition, de Burgh Daly was again prominent in management of hospitals in the Dublin region and was one of the founders of the Hospital Sweepstakes. He was also a lead figure and spokesman for the Royal Irish Automobile Club.

Anyone who wants to retrace Markiewicz’s footsteps today will struggle to locate the Eglinton monument mentioned by de Burgh Daly as the statue to the Earl of Eglington was blown up in August 1958. It was located almost directly opposite the University Club (to west of the gate almost directly opposite 17 Stephen’s Green where the University Club was based).

Eg Plin

The Eglinton monument mentioned in de Burgh Daly’s letter. The University Club wndow are on those on the right hand side of the street lamp in the photo (phot is from the Irish Indepdent on 27 August 1958 after the statue was blown up).

Big go raibh maith agat to Stan Ó Caírbre for the copy of the letter.

Winnie Carney at the GPO, via #Herstory

Last night, the image of Winifred Carney was one of those projected onto the GPO as part of #Herstory, to coincide with Nollaig na mBan (literary, ‘the women’s Christmas’, the traditional Irish name for the Christian feast of the Epiphany in Ireland).

You can check out more text and images via the Herstory social media and website.

Carney, born in Bangor but brought in Belfast, was a trade unionist, suffragist and republican activist. Living at Carlisle Circus, she was active in the textile unions, Gaelic League and nationalist organizations and was prominent in highlighting the dreadful conditions faced by workers in Belfast, particularly women and children.

She worked closely with James Connolly, particularly throughout the Easter Rising where she was the first woman into the GPO and last to leave. The other Belfast republicans active in Dublin during the Rising was mainly women (eg see Nora Connolly’s account here). Afterwards she stood for election for Sinn Féin and continued to be active in the likes of the TGWU and, later, the NILP. She married George McBride in 1928 (below, with Carney, image held by District Trades Union Council), who had been in the UVF and Orange Order but was by then a committed socialist.

Carney died in 1943, ages only 56, and is buried in Milltown.

James Connolly 150th anniversary

The 5th June 2018 will mark the 150th anniversary of James Connolly’s birth in Edinburgh of Monaghan parents. I’m sure the year will include various events and discussions of Connolly, his life and legacy.

One area that interests me and, I think, seems wholly under-explored, is Connolly’s time as a British soldier. Not just in how it must have contributed to Connolly’s own political and intellectual formation but also in how it provides an example of that tradition of service in Britain’s armed forces by Irish Catholics. Connolly’s military experience is very much suppressed in the post-1916 twentieth century hagiography and biographical treatments of his life (Greaves being the obvious pioneer of reintroducing his years as a soldier into the substance of the Connolly legend). That’s a thread I’m going to try and continue to pick up in 2018.

During this year, I’m hoping to start adding contributions from other people. The guiding principle will be that I’ll add anything relevant: memoirs, old historical news items, ephemera, songs/ballads etc. It doesn’t need to be academically written or of any particular length. The only requirement is that it adds something new, not well known or interesting. Easiest way to let me know you’ve something of interest is to message me via the Facebook page or by email (jjconeill at gmail.com works best).

In the meantime, best wishes for 2018 and thanks for continuing to read and comment on the blog and Facebook and here’s some Connolly reading from the blog to get your new year started.

https://treasonfelony.wordpress.com/2017/11/11/learn-all-he-can-and-put-his-training-to-the-best-advantage-irish-republicans-in-the-british-army/

https://treasonfelony.wordpress.com/2017/07/31/james-connollys-time-as-a-british-soldier-some-new-evidence/

https://treasonfelony.wordpress.com/2015/04/01/nora-connolly-obrien-on-her-father-belfast-and-1916/

https://treasonfelony.wordpress.com/2016/04/04/they-told-me-how-connolly-was-shot-in-the-chair/

Frances Brady, Belfast Cumann na mBan on hunger strike, 1921

Found this interesting photo online of a Belfast Cumann na mBan member, Frances Brady, on hunger strike in 1921.

Frances Brady

(Credit – see post from @Is_Mise_Fiona added above – given MacEvilly)

Brady was from Earlscourt Street in the Falls. Her father, Hugh, was a builders clerk and he and Frances’ mother, Maggie, had seven daughters and one son. She became an active republican while working in the War Office in London where she had been censoring soldiers letters home. In 1917, Michael Collins made contact with her while she was on her summer holidays in Donegal. From then, she carried out espionage for him. She also collected money for the Irish Republican Prisoners Defendants Fund (IRPDF) and carried dispatches.

Brady worked under Collins in London until July 1919 when she returned to Belfast and continued her republican activism as a member of Cumann na mBan in the city, assisting in operations and carrying dispatches as well as continuing to do work for the IRPDF. The Brady house in Belfast was used as an office by GHQ and dispatches to and from Dublin routinely passed through it. From December 1920, Brady also worked with Ernest Blythe and Joe McDonagh in the Belfast Boycott (of unionists business that expelled Catholic workers). Usually she worked out of her sisters address in Lower Leeson Street in Dublin, which was often used for meetings by Collins, Richard Mulcahy and others.

On the 3rd June, secret instructions* were sent from Captain Hudson in Kilmainham to raid 46 Lower Leeson Street as it was known to be used by a republican courier, Kathleen Brady (Frances’ sister who lived at the address). Hudson directed that a female searcher was to be picked up at Room 2 in City Hall and brought on the raid, while anything found was to be returned directly to Kilmainham.

[*you need a subscription to view this link]

Frances Brady and Joe McDonagh were in the house with its other occupants – Professor, Madame Chauvire and their daughter – when a raiding party of the 2nd Battalion, Worcestershire Regiment appeared on the road outside at 7.30 pm the very same day. Lieutenants Barton and Bone and Sergeant Hurrel went straight to Brady’s top floor flat. When they burst in they found her undressed and she told them to wait a minute. Barton then sent for the female searcher to come up. When she arrived they entered and found Brady had used the time to burn papers in an otherwise empty grate. During a search of the room they found a revolver in an attaché case, binoculars, her Cumann na mBan membership card and badge, copies of An tÓglach, and, Dáil Éireann (and other) papers. McDonagh, who had remained downstairs dressed as a priest, made his excuses to the raiding party, then left the house via the back door and escaped. The military took Brady from Lower Leeson Street to their barracks then the Bridewell, which refused her entry until Barton (much to his annoyance) slowly managed to acquire the appropriate papers from the Chief of the Dublin Metropolitan Police.

On 15th June Brady was tried at a general field court martial in Kilmainham. While refusing to recognise the court, she noted that it included reference to the ‘Irish Volunteers’ in the charges, pointing out that the organisation no longer existed as it had been replaced by the Irish Republican Army. She also noted that the order referred to in the charges against her wasn’t in force at the date on the documents mentioned in the same charges (the press do not record the courts response, eg see Freeman’s Journal 16th June 1921). Her sentence was promulgated and a couple of days later she was given two years hard labour and taken to Mountjoy.

On the 30th October, four of the women prisoners in Mountjoy (including Eithne Coyle, Linda Kearns, Aileen Keogh and Mae Burke) used a rope ladder to escape while a football match was taking place. The authorities were acutely embarrassed by the escape and placed the remaining women prisoners under the guard of the Auxiliaries from the next day. The response of the women prisoners, including Frances Brady, was outrage. They were also equally annoyed at the escapees for not informing them of the plan (Eileen McGrane, in charge of the Cumann na mBan prisoners, had refused Coyle and the others permission to make an escape attempt).

On the Tuesday (1st November), the women prisoners inside Mountjoy – Brady, Eileen McGrane, Kate Crowley, Madge Cotter and Lily Cotter – went on hunger strike in protest at being guarded by the Auxiliaries (see Freemans Journal, 10th November 1921). The hunger strike lasted until the 9th November, by which date Cumann na mBan had sent in instructions to come off the protest, presumably since the hunger strikers had not asked for permission to mount the protest from the Cumann na mBan leadership.

Whether the Auxiliaries continued guarding them isn’t clear, but within weeks Frances, along with Eileen McGrane, Lily and Madge Cotter and Katie Crowley, were release from Mountjoy (on 9th December 1921). After her release, Eileen McGrane had charges brought against Eithne Coyle and Linda Kearns for escaping without seeking approval from Cumann na mBan but the charge was eventually dropped (clearly, when it comes to giving/taking orders, Cumann na mBan didn’t mess around).

On her release, Frances Brady continued to work as secretary to the IRPDF in Belfast and carried dispatches from Dublin to Belfast, between the likes of Ernie O’Malley and Oscar Trainor and the Belfast IRA and Cumann na mBan leaders like Annie Ward, Pat Thornbury and Hugh Corvin. After the outbreak of the civil war, she continued in this role, along with escorting IRA volunteers and carrying arms between Dundalk and Belfast.

After the 1920s she remained and married in Dublin where she died in 1977.

Belfast IRA commandants from 1916 to 1969

Previously, I’d published a chronology of the Belfast IRA commandants from 1924 to 1969, including some revisions and a look at gaps in the list. As more files, mainly pension applications, have been released by the Military Archives in Dublin, it has been possible to put together a picture from the Easter Rising in 1916 through to 1969.

I’ve arranged this into a table following a rough chronology based on the main organisational unit. Since the scale varies from a Battalion to a Brigade to a Division, I’ve tried to retain the relevant information for battalion commandants after Belfast was structured into a Brigade, and I’ve added both brigade and battalion commandants when it was formed into the 3rd Northern Division.

The officer commanding each particular formation has mainly been taken from the 3rd Northern Division files, supplemented by individual pension files and witness statements. The most recent release of pension files includes a number of later applications made by republicans who had, up to that stage, refused to engage with what they saw as a Free State administration with no legitimacy. These make it possible to clarify a number of points.

Firstly, the command of the 3rd Northern Division itself is disputed after Joe McKelvey left for Dublin in March 1922. Pat Thornbury is recorded as Divisional O/C in the Belfast records reconstructed in the 1930s by the Pensions Committees (these records are indicated as representing the ‘Executive Forces’, meaning the IRA who opposed the 1922 treaty). According to his own pension applications and the accounts of other former Belfast IRA officers who had supported the treaty, Seamus Woods was the Divisional O/C. But Woods own applications show that he had already taken a commission as a Colonel in the Free State Army from 1st February 1922 and was mainly based in Dublin after that date. That the command structures in the Division were contested was publicly flagged as early as April 1922 (in an edition of An tOglach). Many of the Belfast IRA staff who supported the treaty remained in Dublin with the former GHQ staff of the IRA while holding what (to some extent) became nominal command roles in Belfast where actual command (such as existed) was exercised by IRA officers, loyal to the IRA Executive, who opposed the treaty.

The withdrawal of IRA volunteers from some Belfast units to the Curragh at the end of the summer in 1922, for a period of rest and training prior to a return to action in the north, saw the formation of a separate 3rd Northern Division Reserve, under the command of Roger McCorley and other Belfast IRA officers who had remained in Dublin with GHQ. This unit in the Curragh was disbanded in November 1922 and the Belfast IRA volunteers who wished to stay and join the Free State forces were formed into the 17th Battalion of the Free State Army. To those who had gone with the Free State side, they take this date in November as the time at which they formally relinquished their IRA commands, although even then there appear to be competing claims as to various roles (eg, both Sean O’Neill and Thomas Fitzpatrick appear to have recognised service as Belfast Brigade O/C to this date).

Obviously some of the lists of commandants in the 1916 to 1923 table below, just as for those from 1923 to 1969, are incomplete and some are surely incorrect. For instance, I have taken Thomas Fitzpatrick’s claim to recognition as the pro-Treaty Brigade O/C over Sean O’Neill’s as O’Neill’s own pension application isn’t actually clear on this point (perhaps he is simply being accorded the rank, for pay/pension purposes, rather than the formal command). There was also genuine confusion over the status of the various Battalions after March 1922, typified by the Brigade pension files that state that the 3rd and 4th Battalions were disbanded before 30th June 1922, but list Battalion staff’s (and include pension applications and witness statements) that run to November 1922. There is also a depth of animosity evident across the records, both in comments in individual witness statements (just to take one example – here is Seamus McKenna doing a hatchet job on Joe McKelvey, Jim McDermott and others) and the treatment of applications for pensions and awards from former opponents of the treaty (for instance check Patrick Thornbury’s two files here and here). This has also surely clouded some people’s memory.

After the table for 1916 to 1923, I’ve added the list of commandants from that date up to the split in the IRA in 1969 (you can find further information here on various individuals included the list).

As ever, any suggestions to fill in gaps, pointers for additional source material or corrections are most welcome.

Overall organisation and commandants of Belfast republican forces from 1916 to 1923.

1923-24 Jim O’Donnell?

1924-26 Hugh Corvin

1926-27 Dan Turley

1927-33 Davy Matthews

1933-34 Jack McNally

1934-36 Tony Lavery

1936-38 Sean McArdle

1938-40 Charlie McGlade

1940 Jimmy Steele

December 1940 to May 1941 Liam Rice

May to July 1941 Pearse Kelly

July 1941-42 Hugh Matthews

1942 John Graham

1942-43 Rory Maguire

February to May 1943 Jimmy Steele

May 1943 to Feb 1944 Rocky Burns

Feb 1944 to March 1944 Harry White

March 1944 to March 1945 Harry O’Rawe

March 1945 to October 1946 Johnny Murphy

October 1946 to ?? Seamus Twomey

?? to early 1949 Seamus McCollum 

1949-50 Frank McKearney

1950-56 Jimmy Steele

1956 Paddy Doyle

1956-57 Joe Cahill

1957-60 There is a gap in available information from mid-1957 until about 1960.

1960-63 Billy McKee

1963-69 Billy McMillen

Learn all he can and put his training to the best advantage: Irish republicans in the British Army

It is probably not coincidental that the passing of the very last of the generation who fought in the first world war has coincided with a rise in overt nationalism centred around displays of the poppy as a symbol of British military commemoration. With the second world war generation, too, now dwindling rapidly, an aggressively vocal lobby insistently equates both generation’s sacrifice, as individuals and units, with a celebration of British imperial policy and militarism. This is conducted at such a volume that it drowns out any nuanced discussion of the experience of serving in the British forces. This is maybe most acute for those, particularly in Ireland, whose relatives were more likely driven into the British Army by circumstances than any political conviction.
You can get a clear, and unapologetic, sense of what the poppy, as a symbol, is intended to commemorate from the British Legion. Under its pages on remembrance, it specifically stipulates that it includes the recent conflict in the north (one in which the British army was allowed to use violence with impunity). The Legion also pointedly includes…those who fought with them and alongside them”, which would obviously cover the local unionist militias, the RUC and UDR, which were both discredited and then disbanded. Arguably it also extends to the unionist paramilitary groups like the UDA and UVF who fought ‘alongside them’, given the British government’s continuing refusal to open up its archives on the extent to which it operated those groups as local counter-gangs.
There is peculiar lobby among the likes of Fine Gael and the Irish Labour party that try and promote the poppy. The kindest thing that can be said about it is that they appear to barely have a surface knowledge of what the British Legion actually tells us the poppy is meant to commemorate. Ironically, the leader of the Irish government probably wore a British Legion poppy in Leinster House the other day simply to provoke Sinn Féin members present (in the hope that he could use a backlash to retrospectively validate his embarrassing car crash comments about sexism in an interview the previous day).
What we are seeing there, really, is the long term impact on censorship in the south. After Section 31 of the broadcasting ban lapsed, media censorship, and the world view it had promoted, have more or less persisted in a voluntary form. No real attempt has been made in the south to either revisit events or explore other perspectives on the conflict in the north and, in reality, most people who formed their views, values and opinions under Section 31 have no sense of having been exposed to heavily censored media coverage. That pretty much extends to any genuine understanding of the typical Irish experience in the British military which many seem to completely blur with a broader anti-republicanism sensibility.
Ex-servicemen (and indeed some still enlisted in the British army) appear to have always been a component of republican organisations. IRB leader William Harbinson’s life is illustrative of how young men typically ended up in the British Army. Driven from his birthplace in Ballinderry to Liverpool at the height of the famine, he enlisted underage. Perhaps unsurprisingly, his army service was punctuated with bouts of ill-health. Yet, through the likes of Harbinson, the IRB organisation appears to have relied upon serving British soldiers for access to military capability and arms.
The year after Harbinson’s death, James Connolly was born – brought up in great poverty, he too enlisted underage in the British Army and was one of a number of those who participated in 1916 that had a military background. It is notable, now, how the input of ex-servicemen surely contributed to the overall tactical view of the IRB. It embraced using some form of conventional standing army to establish an Irish republic, either using serving soldiers (as in 1867) or the Irish volunteers and Citizen’s Army (as in 1916). After 1916, and the formation of an Irish Republican Army, ironically, the tactical remit instead shifted to guerrilla actions (even though it still had many members who were former British soldiers).
In Belfast in 1920-22, ex-servicemen were prominent in the ad hoc defence of districts that came under attack from unionists. Joseph Giles, a former soldier killed when the military opened fire in Bombay Street on 22nd July 1920 is noted as an IRA volunteer in Jim McDermot’s Northern Divisions. Other former soldiers, like Daniel Hughes and Freddy Craig, were killed when unionists attacked their home districts or, as in the case of Malachy Halfpenny, were abducted, tortured and killed by B Specials. In some districts, like Ballymacarret, many ex-servicemen were believed to have joined the IRA and provided the spine of the republican forces that defended the district from attack. Certainly, in most IRA units, former British soldiers provided the technical support to maintain weapons and train in their use. Even in the 1950s, the IRA was able to place members inside British Army barracks in preparation for arms raids. In the 1970s, again in the face of unionist violence, ex-servicemen (this time, formally) grouped themselves under the banner of the Catholic (later ‘Local’) Ex-Servicemen’s Association.
In areas of high socio-economic deprivation (across Ireland), the needs of the British for servicemen offered an opportunity for the paid work (and pension) and a trade that were often denied to them in their own districts. How far the economic necessity that drove them into the services was underscored by political support is difficult to disentangle.
One hundred years ago, Charles O’Neill, my great-grandfather, a veteran of both India and the Boer War, was serving on the Italian front. He also had a brother at sea with the British Navy. After the war he was still burnt out of Ballyhackamore and driven from his work by ‘loyalists’. Whether he was political at all, never mind supportive of British imperial policy, he was to be brutally schooled in the value placed on his military service. Yet economics also dictated that two of his sons (my granny’s brothers, Andy and Charlie) also fought in the British Army during the second world war (my granny also had one brother-in-law in the US Army and another as Adjutant-General of the IRA). Charles, Andy and Charlie’s experience was probably typical. Political or not, they chose not to serve in the likes of the RUC or UDR that the British Legion now commemorate as having fought alongside the British Army. I suspect the current flag-waving poppy celebrations of the British Legion would be completely alien to them.
The traditional inclusion of ex-servicemen within Irish republican organisations is often overlooked and has probably yet to be fully explored. Opening it up may provide some rich insights. While a British soldier in Dublin, James Connolly likely participated in war games that included defending Dublin city. Given that he was one of a number of former servicemen who took part in the Rising, was the often derided military plan for the Rising based on an insight into the British defensive strategy practised in war games in which the likes of Connolly took place?
Connolly may also have provided the most succinct rationalisation of the motivation behind a young Irish man joining the British Army “…let him make the best of it and learn all he can and put his training to the best advantage he can when he comes out. A well-trained soldier will always find his allotted place in the community.