Ok, it’s a work in progress but here is a link to the Mapping the Belfast IRA page:
And the (work in progress) map…
Ok, it’s a work in progress but here is a link to the Mapping the Belfast IRA page:
And the (work in progress) map…
Following on from the previous map I posted of IRA suspects in the 1930s, I’ve a few more that I intend posting over the next few weeks.
Just for starters, here are two maps with the names and address of those from Belfast interned in Frongoch after the 1916 Easter Rising and those interned on the Argenta prison ship in the early 1920s. The former list is from various sources while the latter is taken from Denise Kleinricherts book on the Argenta.
A quick note: As the Irish Volunteers used the Willowbank Huts in 1916 for drilling and as a headquarters, anyone without a suitable address is placed there. As the IRA in Belfast used St Mary’s Hall as its public office in 1921-22, I have placed anyone listed for Belfast by Kleinrichert but who doesn’t have a more detailed address.
The map is below (with some comments underneath)…
Firstly – the slightly more scattered distribution of those interned in Frongoch is interesting as it seems to reflect a slightly broader geographic spread across Belfast than that for the Argenta. This may reflect the presence of cultural nationalists and a higher preponderance of more middle class and educated volunteers in 1916 (certainly that’s my initial thinking). As the addresses for Argenta internees clearly reflect the revised post-1922 landscape of Belfast, the more compact distributions may simply mirror the impact of sectarian violence and the flight of republicans into the safety of areas with higher proportions of Catholic residents. I’ll look at this a bit more with future maps.
In the next week or two I’m going to add a page on Mapping the Belfast IRA. This will include an overall map and individual maps for:
If I get time I may also add a list of sentenced prisoners in Crumlin Road (1938-45).
You can read more on the background to all of these in the new Belfast Battalion book.
The most dangerous place in Belfast, writes Sean Ó Coinn, describing Ballymacarrett in 1920-1922 in his book Defending the Ground published earlier this year. Here Sean gives a flavour of his account of the IRA in Ballymacarrett during that period (the book is available to buy at various places in Belfast).
Amid the closely- knit terrace streets of Ballymacarrett, B Company of the 2nd Battalion, the 1st Belfast Brigade was raised in 1920 and its volunteers fought at times a desperate action of defence to ensure its survival, while having to carry out its own offensive actions. The 2nd Battalion was created in the early months of 1920, under the command of Tom Fitzpatrick with a Company in Ballymacarrett, Carrick Hill and the Low Market.
The first O/C of B Company was Manus O Boyle, who along with his 2 I/C and later O/C John [Sean] Cunningham, succeeded in forming a Company of 120, mostly made up of men who were unemployed and armed with small arms and grenades.
Manus O’ Boyle recorded the following account:
“I know that the heaviest fighting took place in the Ballymacarrett area, where there were about 7,000 Catholics. On the outskirts of that area were about 40,000 Orange men and women St. Matthews church, Convent and Schools were the continuous target of the Orange hordes.
In the early days, it was chiefly a stone-throwing competition, until the Volunteers got organised. I was detailed then by the Brigade to organise a Company of Volunteers for the defence of Ballymacarrett. I succeeded in forming a Company of about 120 men. These were all unemployed. Then the fighting proper commenced as we were now armed with small arms and grenades. It was a continuous street fight in Ballymacarrett.
Our opponents were heavily armed and had the assistance of the Police and Military. This continued all through 1920 and up to the Truce. The nuns were magnificent, Mother Teresa, Sister Eithne, Sister Peter Paul and Sister Bridget are four that I remember particularly…. Mother Teresa could always present us with hundreds of rounds of .45 ammunition that she received from…… [Inspector Mc Connell], a Catholic RIC officer.”
Tom Fitzpatrick recorded one of the earliest actions taken by the 2nd Battalion against Crown Forces :
“Some time about February or March 1920, after the military had taken over a place in the Low Market, where they kept a lot of vehicles, we threw a few bombs into it. That was a Battalion job and it was done very quietly.
There was no sanction from the Brigade for it. At that time, the Brigade were averse to activities in Belfast for fear of reprisals on the Catholic population.
Across the island of Ireland during the period of 1920 and 1921, the guerrilla war being waged by the IRA had spearheaded a political drive to settle the conflict. Negotiations were underway between the Republican Leadership and the British government and on Friday July 9th 1921, an order was dispatched to all IRA divisional areas:
“In view of the conversation now being entered into by our government with the government of Great Britain, and in the pursuance of mutual conversations, active operations by our troops will be suspended as from noon on Monday 11th July” Risteard Ua Maolchatha [Richard Mulcahy], Chief of Staff.
The truce was signed on Friday 9th July and was to take effect from noon on Monday, 11th July. But while the rest of Ireland celebrated, Belfast bled. There was a de-escalation of fighting throughout the 26 counties and the truce was held with effect, but in the northeast, the fighting continued and Belfast was to witness a particularly vicious summer of violence. The Unionists felt that they were being sacrificed on the high altar of political pragmatism and there was a lack of will on the part of the northern Unionist administration to pursue the opportunity for peace.
That weekend in Belfast, the truce was ushered in with “blood letting”. The “Specials” [A part-time uniformed police militia drawn from the Protestant population] backed by Loyalist gunmen, were determined to launch an onslaught on Nationalist districts. The IRA throughout Belfast was mobilized in order to defend their areas, as the Specials and UVF gunmen unleashed sniper fire and moved with armoured cars against the Nationalist areas. The Carrick Hill enclave in the north of the city was near to breaking point and was only one hour short of running out of ammunition when the British military commander in the city organized an implementation of the truce.
Sixteen people died of whom eleven were Catholic and 161 homes were destroyed. Fierce gun-battles, involving machine-gun and rifle fire, as well as handguns and mills bombs were reported along the streets interlinking the Falls and Shankill Roads. Heavy shooting was also reported in the Falls and Cullingtree Road, Millfield and Carrick Hill areas.
Four of the Catholic victims were ex-servicemen. Over the next few days as the Orange marching season reached its climax, shooting occurred around the Short Strand and North Queen Street districts. Two people died and thirty more were wounded on the 14th July, while on the following day as sniping continued in the North Queen Street/York Street area, two RIC policemen were shot and wounded in Little Georges Street. A Unionist politician, William Grant was also wounded by a sniper.
A week later, the IRA GHQ in Dublin sent Eoin O Duffy, the IRA commander in Ulster to Belfast to act as a Liaison Officer with the British military in the city. He set up his headquarters in St. Mary’s hall in the Smithfield area, but found Belfast not to be on the same level as other cities in the rest of the country. The British military seemed content to respect the truce in its initial stages, but the Specials who were acting as the armed wing of the northern administration, which had been officially constituted by the British King in June, continued to act against the Nationalist areas with the full endorsement of the Belfast Parliament.
Reference to the period is made in an IRA divisional report sent by Seamus Woods O/C of the 3rd Northern Division, which covered Belfast, to IRA GHQ on the 27th July 1922, when he states;
“Until the signing of the treaty in London, the perfecting of our organization, training and equipping had been pursued with great earnestness on the part of all officers and men. As both Numbers 2 and 3 Brigades were very much below strength in July’21, a large number of recruits were taken on in these areas”.
The increase in recruits was due largely to the truce and the fact that as Woods states in the same report: “the Catholic population believing for the moment that we had been victorious and that the Specials and UVF were beaten, practically all flocked to our standard, with the exception of the aristocratic minority”.
Throughout Ireland, the IRA used the truce for intensive training. It was important to maintain discipline, as grievances on both sides were still sore.
In the same report Seamus Woods made reference to the fact that the truce was not been adhered to and officers and men were being arrested.
He also stated that: “After the raid on their liaison office, St.Mary’s Hall, Belfast, in which the name of practically every officer in the Division was found, all the Divisional and many of the Brigade officers demanded an inquiry into the circumstances of the raid and were asking the Divisional Commandant to resign.” [Joe McKelvey]
The truce appeared to have little effect on the situation in Belfast. In August 1921, the local RIC Commissioner observed in a confidential report: “Poverty is still rife in the Nationalist Quarters where so many people are existing on charitable donations received from the Expelled Workers Fund, which continues to receive fairly large subscriptions from various sources, particularly White Cross of America”
Training camps were established within the Divisional area at Hannahstown [Belfast], Seaforde and Castlewellan in County Down and Glenariff and Torr Head, in County Antrim.
The IRA in Belfast reached its peak membership during the months of August and September 1921  and would have preferred to now engage in a war against British Crown forces similar to its counterparts in the south, but unfortunately the IRA in the north-east of the country but more especially in Belfast, found itself having to act as defenders of the Nationalist areas against armed Loyalists engaged in sectarian pogroms and the Unionist controlled armed militia in the guise of Special Police. Only in areas such as South Armagh, Tyrone and Monaghan, was the IRA able to operate with a free hand against the Specials and British military.
The need to defend the Catholic community was vital to the Belfast IRA during the 1920-1922 periods, as they struggled not to lose their ideological role as the Army of the Irish Republic. They were also operating in a hostile environment flooded with British troops, Police and Loyalist Specials who targeted the Catholic community in ‘acts of reprisals’ which stretched from merely shooting into Catholic streets during curfew hours in order to prompt a reaction from the military to the inhabitants, to conducting actual murder.
Added to this was the poor social condition in the Catholic working-class districts which was caused in part by expulsions from employment and also the overcrowding due to relatives and friends being forced out of their homes in Protestant districts.
This was a much harsher environment than the ‘fighting ground’ of Roscommon, Mayo, or West Cork. It was for these very reasons that the majority of the Belfast IRA would later remain loyal to the pro-treaty Government GHQ in Dublin, who ensured mainly through Michael Collins that they were financed and armed.
For the Officers of the 1st Belfast Brigade or the 3rd Northern Division overall, it was loyalty to a GHQ that logistically supported them, rather than to a treaty that isolated them from their ‘natural aspiration of a United Ireland’.
Michael Collins stands out as the only Republican leader in the south for whom partition and the plight of the northern nationalists remained a major concern. Yet, it’s ironic that his desperate efforts to assist the latter, led him to adopt a confusing blend of ‘non-recognition’, diplomacy and coercion toward the Unionist Government in the north-east.
Collins death in August 1922 during the civil war and the new policy of Cosgrave’s cabinet in recognising the Belfast Unionist Parliament, spelt the end of Republican resistance in the north as a real potential threat for the next 48 years and one that when it did come, would be launched from the very streets of Catholic Ballymacarrett that Loyalists tried so hard to eliminate from East Belfast during the period of 1920-1922. [It is also important to emphasize that Collins death preceded the atrocities and executions of Republican volunteers carried out during the civil war by Free State forces which were then under the command of Richard Mulcahy].
Added to this, the political divisions in northern nationalism ensured that the Catholic minority in the north was effectively precluded from any say in influencing its own fate at a critical juncture in the historic issue of partition.
Despite the IRA in Belfast being forced into a primary role of defence, it still conducted an offensive policy against Crown forces; on whole this would mainly have been Specials and RIC personnel. The increase in attacks was due to the establishment of ‘Active Service Units’ [ASU], while others were shot during gun-battles that engulfed Nationalist districts. IRA snipers in areas such as Ballymacarrett/Short Strand also fired at trams carrying shipyard workers, while others were bombed as a retaliation for the huge expulsion of the Catholic workforce.
The whole mood of political uncertainty was the signal for a renewed wave of bloody violence at the end of August 1921, during which 21 people lost their lives over a three day period. The worst of the fighting was around the Catholic York Street district, which lay within the 2nd Battalion area. The Loyalist attacks was planned to wipe out the Nationalist streets around York Street and send a message to Britain that no settlement involving the IRA was possible in Ulster. However, Eoin O Duffy mobilised the IRA to defend the area, which broke the siege.
Seven Protestants were killed and the Manchester Guardian reported that the IRA “was retaliating in kind and quite as effectively as the Loyalist gunmen.”
To further infuriate the Unionists, Michael Collins made a visit to County Armagh and told a 10,000 strong gathering, which included a large force of the IRA, that the Dail would not desert them. [Unfortunately after his death in August 1922, the Dail not only deserted the Nationalists of the north, but it betrayed the Northern Divisions]
The IRA also had an extensive stock of Mills bombs [grenades] and a large stock of home made bombs, which were used against mobs attacking Catholic districts. One example of this was when a large Loyalist crowd firebombed the Sextons house close to St. Matthew’s Church on the 24th November 1921. The densely packed mob assembled in the vicinity gloating over their deed, when a bomb was hurled over into their ranks from Seaforde Street killing two and injuring forty-five others. The Irish News described the scene of the injured ‘laying in heaps of twos and threes‘.
On the same date, 24th November, a shipyard tram travelling along Corporation Street at 5.45pm was attacked when the IRA threw a bomb from Little Patrick Street. The device, which was hurled through a window of the lower part of the tram, blew a section of the tram apart and killed two of the passengers on board. That particular day ended with a death toll of 14 killed, ten of which were Catholic. The following evening, Shipyard trams were again fired on at around 7.30pm in the York Street/ North Queen Street area.
Two days later, on the 26th November, amid nightly gun-battles around York Street, North Queen Street and the Short Strand, another tram was attacked in Royal Avenue killing two of its passengers. The Shankill Road bound Shipyard tram was attacked at 6pm as it passed by the Grand Central hotel in the city centre. The two IRA Volunteers involved in the attack were prominent members; one from the Dock area, the other from Carrick Hill. They escaped along Berry Street into Francis Street and safety. These attacks usually resulted in retaliation against innocent Catholics; vulnerable targets in a bid to take revenge.
A pattern had developed through the month of September into November 1921 with snipers concentrating their fire into and around Seaforde Street, while mobs attacked St Matthews church and the Cross and Passion convent close by in Bryson Street. Both the church and convent were vulnerable to the tightly bound Protestant Streets opposite. The IRA remained active across the district with its own snipers firing into the Protestant streets and at the Shipyard trams.
An extract from the 2nd Battalion operations report to O/C No.1 Belfast Brigade around this time summarises the situation: “During the month there were constant outbreaks by the hostile population in the Battalion area and obviously organised attempts were made by armed gangs of men to invade the Catholic districts. The hostile element was extremely well equipped and in the Ballymacarrett district appeared openly carrying full bandoliers and service rifles. A determined and long threatened invasion of Seaforde Street, Ballymacarrett was attempted.
On the 22n – [September], B Coy. Were obliged to take up firing positions for its defence. On Sunday 24th large numbers of armed men were observed at the Newtownards Road and Seaforde Street and the position was so threatening that a Mills bomb had to be thrown by one of our men. The grenade was very effective and two of the Orange mob were killed and 34 wounded.”
The IRA defence of the Seaforde Street area infuriated the northern authorities to the point that on the 21st September 1921, prior to another weekend of attacks, one of the most extensive raids to be seen in Belfast by the Crown forces was carried out by the RIC and British military in the Short Strand. For nine hours, they engaged in searches for weapons. Houses and yards across the district were searched by the RIC as the military were posted on the streets. No weapons were unearthed, but the huge presence of Crown forces prevented access to the area for 24 hours by IRA ASUs to reinforce any defensive measure in place by the local company.
During the week period of the 19th-25th November 1921, 27 people died and 92 were wounded across Belfast.
December 1921 continued much in the same vein with snipers active on a daily basis. But it was the weekend of Friday 17th and Saturday 18th December around the Short Strand that saw the worst shooting in the city since York Street at the end of August when the IRA was mobilised .
There had been the usual sporadic shooting leading up to the Friday and on the Wednesday; a Police lorry was raked by machine-gun fire in Seaforde Street. Then on the Friday evening the Seaforde Street area was attacked with unparalleled vigour by Loyalist gunmen and Specials. Barricades were now erected at the top of Seaforde Street and Young’s Row on the Newtownards Road entrance to the district.
The Irish News reported in its columns: “Driven to desperation by the intensity of the onslaught at so many points, the Catholics to maintain their lives and property were compelled to reply and a regular gun battle was in progress.”
In reality, it was the IRA replying with gunfire as the district was coming under attack from every end. B Company was now engaged in the worst period to date of shooting to occur since the outbreak of the conflict.
There was no truce or treaty in effect on the streets of Ballymacarrett as the ritual of the snipers bullets swept the tightly bound streets. The shooting began at 5am and continued throughout the morning. A member of the Loyalist Ulster Imperial Guard was shot by the IRA close to Young’s Row on the Newtownards Road. The UIG was an organization made up exclusively of Protestant WW1 veterans.
An elderly Protestant man was also caught in the shooting as he made his way home from his job as a Night Watchman. He was shot in early morning crossfire between B Company and Loyalists in the Seaforde Street/Newtownards Road area. British troops at Seaforde Street also opened fire during the shooting. The 71 year old man sadly died in hospital twelve days later on 1st January, 1922.
By the following evening B Company and those supporting non-members, were engaged in returning fire across the district until the attacks were repelled and faded out. Four people died two from each community and once again raids were carried out in the Short Strand by the military and RIC on the Sunday in a search for weapons. The year ended with the death of 109 people across Belfast. The new year, 1922, continued much as 1921 had ended, with daily shooting through out the Catholic districts of Belfast. February’s death toll reached 47, with up to 100 wounded. Worst was to come as the spring and summer months would boil to a bloody climax.
The killing of five-year-old John Devlin on February 16th in Seaforde Street when a Loyalist gunman fired a single shot through the barricade at the Newtownards Road entrance at children playing, caused anger in the district despite such shootings being a part of life in a city torn apart by civil war. The same day, Special Constable Mc Adam based at Mountpottinger barrack was shot and wounded in a B Company attack
The shooting of Specials was to increase as the IRA across the city stepped up its offensive actions and in particular began targeting Specials who would have been seen in the same manner in Belfast and the north, as the Black and Tans would have been in the south of the country. Two were shot and wounded on the 4th March, one of whom, Special Constable Henderson was shot by B Company in the Mountpottinger area.
The 12th of March began a week long series of sniping and bomb attacks in and around the Short Strand during which raids were carried out by the Military and Specials on the 15th in a search for weapons. Their presence did not prevent a murder gang penetrate into Thompson Street in the early hours to throw a bomb into the bedroom of a house killing a woman as she slept in bed. Later that morning, two Protestants were shot and wounded as they entered the Glavin stables at the corner of Thompson Street, while a third was shot and wounded in the Corporation Yard on the Short Strand.
That same weekend on the 19th of March, a B Company sniper shot dead a member of the Loyalist Ulster Protestant Association during a gun-battle around the Seaforde Street area of the district, while four days later on the 23rd of the month, an IRA ASU shot and killed two Specials at the corner of May Street.
This date-[23rd March] is synonymous with the brutal slaughter of the Nationalist Mc Mahon family in north Belfast by an in-famous RIC [Police] murder-gang led by District Inspector John Nixon operating from Brown Square barrack in the Peter Hill area. The following day 24th, another murder atrocity was attempted in Altcar Street within sight of Mountpottinger barrack. Three men, alleged to be Specials, entered a house and proceeded to shoot anyone they found there. Peter Murphy aged 61, was the first to be shot followed by Sarah Mc Shane aged 15, before they turned their guns on three years old Mary McCabe. As they ran from the house they fired at, and wounded Nellie Whelan. It was nothing short of a miracle that all those shot survived the ordeal. As with so many murders of that period, proof of identity or justice was not forthcoming.
A week later on the night of April 2nd 1922 similar style shootings were carried out in succession at three houses in the Carrick Hill district again by the Nixon led RIC gang resulting in a further atrocity during which five people died including a seven-year-old boy, Michael Walshe who was shot along with his young sister Brigid aged 2, while laying in bed having just witnessed their Father, Joseph a former soldier, been dragged from the bed and cudgelled to death. Michael’s sister survived as did his fourteen-year-old brother Frank who was beaten and shot in the small kitchen. Joseph Walsh’s baby son Robert aged 8 months died the following day. This was one of the worst atrocities of the period. The other victims who died that night were Joseph Mc Crory, aged 40 [15 Stanhope Street], Bernard Mc Kenna [26 Park Street] and William Spallin aged 70 [16 Arnon Street].
The Walshe family lived just two doors from the Spallins in Arnon Street. William Spallin had just buried his wife that day and his murder was witnessed by his twelve years old Grandchild who was found gazing in horror at the murdered man.
On the night of the Carrick Hill murders, Volunteer Sean Montgomery, an officer in D Company, 1st Battalion was in the area and later gave the following account: “Outside [the house], were the RIC, so I went out through the window to put our revolvers on the spouting of the roof. Then I heard a boy shouting that his daddy was shot. I came down the stairs and out we went. We were in an end house. When we got outside an officer of the Norfolk regiment had the driver of a Police Car against the wall, and three soldiers with rifles at the ready to fire. He said to the Special that if he did not tell him [who had killed the Catholics] he would give the order to fire. He [the Special] said he had nothing to do with it, but that DI Nixon was in charge and the Police had told the army they were going to raid.
Within a week of the attempted Short Strand massacre in Altcar Street, once again in the Mountpottinger area, two Specials were shot and wounded by B Company, one of whom-Special Constable Hale died. In the west of the city on the 14th March, the IRA also shot and killed RIC Sergeant Christy Clarke on the Falls Road as it was strongly believed he was involved with an RIC murder gang which had operated from Springfield Road barrack in 1920. Clarke, a Catholic, is buried within a short distance of the Mc Mahon family in Belfast’s Milltown Cemetery. A year earlier in May 1921, another Catholic RIC member, District Inspector Ferris based at Springfield Road barrack was cut down in a volley of shots fired by three IRA volunteers as he left St. Pauls Presbytery on the Falls Road.
Ferris was one of several men Rodger Mc Corley of the IRA’s Brigade Staff had marked for execution because of their links to the Springfield barrack murder gang. Ferris survived the shooting, but was seriously wounded. Not so fortunate was Sergeant Glover who was implicated in the killing of Republicans Liam Gaynor and Eamon Trodden both of whom were murdered in their homes. Sergeant Glover was shot and killed on the 10th June 1921 as he patrolled in Cupar Street along with Constables Sullivan and Sharkey, both of whom were wounded.
Following the shooting carried out by volunteers of the 1st Battalions D. Company, Auxiliaries carried out indiscriminate shooting around the Falls Road area as they patrolled in trucks prior to curfew hours.
The months of April and May 1922 saw the ferocity of attacks upon the Nationalist areas reach a bloody climax. But while the IRA were stretched to the limit in defending the Short Strand and trying to fight off attacks across the Lagan in the north of the city, they were also called upon through out May into June to engage in a series of offensive actions which included a ‘Burning Campaign’ against Unionist owned business premises.
Supplies of rifles much needed by the Belfast IRA began to arrive from GHQ in Dublin during April, as the 3rd Northern Division found itself at the core of a rapidly changing policy being conducted by the Pro-treaty GHQ, which played out as part of the internal politics being conducted in a bid to avert a total split within the IRA and on which side Divisional loyalties would emerge, should, what appeared inevitable, happened.
The week of April 17th to the 23rd 1922 was one when shooting reached great intensity around the Short Strand and Oldpark districts. Antigua and Sanderson Street in the Catholic Marrowbone area of the Oldpark were burned as casualties mounted amid pitched gun-battles.
The following month as the IRA stepped up its attacks, the final intimidation of Catholic families from the Protestant area of York Road in the north of the city commenced on Thursday 18th May when any Catholic families still living in Mountcollyer Street were forced to leave their homes. The following day, Friday the 19th, the small Catholic enclave around Weaver Street on York Road found itself at the mercy of Protestant attackers who armed with revolvers forced 148 families from their homes. The little enclave had suffered in previous shooting and bomb attacks and now a final purge was being made to clear Catholics from the York Road area. Within the following few days’ nearly 1,000 penniless refugees reached Glasgow. The let up in intimidation did not end, as more families would be evicted in the first week of June, 436 families in total.
Several thousand people from across Belfast poured into Dublin and Glasgow, while many others absorbed in some way into the already congested Catholic districts.
The same day as the purge against the Catholics of York Road was underway; [May 19th] the IRA in a desperate act of retaliation entered Garretts Co-Operative in Little Patrick Street off Nelson Street in the Dock area and proceeded to line the workers up against a wall. Only one was a Catholic and he was singled out to be placed against another wall. This man must surely have thought he was about to be shot, but the guns were not turned on him but on his workers as a hail of bullets struck down the unfortunate men resulting in four dying.
Three days later the week beginning Monday 22nd May, will not be remembered or recorded in the annals of the conflict for the daily cross divide sniping around the Short Strand which saw two Protestants killed and two B Specials shot and wounded on the Albert Bridge, but more for an event that occurred earlier that morning that was sending shock waves through the Unionist hierarchy. William Twaddell, a member of the Northern Parliament and an outspoken Loyalist was shot dead in the city centre as reprisals by the IRA continued.
The killing of Twaddell prompted the Northern Parliament to introduce Internment without trial.
In Belfast, the death toll for May reached 75, [42 Catholics and 33 Protestants], while the following month, 25 people died, [18 Catholics and 7 Protestants]. Despite the campaign of shooting and intimidation by Loyalists taking its toll on the Nationalist areas, the IRA continued its attacks against the Specials across Belfast and the north.
On the same day, William Twaddell was shot; six Specials were wounded across Belfast in sniping, two of those on the Albert Bridge. Two days later, Wednesday, 24th on the Mountpottinger Road, a tram carrying Protestant workers was fired on and a Special wounded when a bomb was thrown at a patrol.
The following day Thursday 25th May, three young children were wounded in gun and bomb attacks in the Seaforde Street area and two Specials, Constables Murphy and Connor died one in the Market, the other in the Falls Road area. That same week, the Marrowbone, Ardoyne and Market districts were subjected to having their streets raked by machine-gun and rifle fire from Specials prior to the nigh time curfew. As was the familiar pattern the IRA returned fire when and where possible. The month of May ended with the deaths of two more Specials, one on the 29th of the month and another two days later on the 31st.
The introduction of Internment in the north, coupled with the poor economic and low moral situation in the Nationalist areas along with the outbreak of a civil war in the south of the country over the acceptance of the treaty terms with Britain, all combined to erode the IRA in Belfast as an effective fighting force.
By July 1922, B Company was depleted with a skeleton membership. Volunteers had moved south for integration into the Free State Army, while others had been arrested and interned. The final blow came with the death of Michael Collins in August 1922 and the resulting underhand politics from the new Free State government that resulted in a change of policy toward the north. This effectively spelt the end of the northern IRA.
Only the 4th Northern Division that operated in the South Armagh and County Louth areas remained as an effective fighting group and in a good state of strength.
Despite a new resurgence in the mid-thirties by the IRA in Belfast, it would be 48 years before they would once more be able to strike at the heart of the Unionist State. This time it would not be a short sharp campaign reliant on Dublin support, but an all out assault of guerrilla warfare that would spell the end of Unionist domination of the north. That assault would begin on the streets of the Short Strand during the night of the 27th June 1970, the very district that Loyalists had tried to erase from the geographical landscape of East Belfast during the 1920-1922 years of conflict and pogroms.
Here are a couple of photos I found recently. The first is of an arms dump being displayed for the cameras by the RUC. The dump was captured in Currie Street on 19th September 1924 in a hall known locally as the ‘Currie Institute’. A group of men arrested in the hall appear to be the members of the local IRA company. More of the story is told here.
The photo was published during the following week in the Belfast Telegraph. The format, with police officers posing with the captured arms on display, is relatively unusual for the 1920s or 1930s, certainly in an Irish context. The find included twenty-four service rifles and a Thompson submachine gun (probably the gun set slightly in front with its stock at a right angle to the others).
The second photo, above, is Patrick Woods. He was shot dead by the IRA on 19th November 1925 and his photo published a couple of days later in the Belfast Telegraph. Woods had given evidence over IRA activity in court and had been involved in moving the weapons to Currie Street in his taxi the previous year (see link above). Again, at the time, it was unusual to see published portrait photographs of individuals other than major figures in politics, sport and entertainment. Although fatalities involving the IRA were rare after the mid-1920s and into the 1930s, violent deaths during 1920-22 were common although it was also very unusual, then, to see published portraits of the dead.
Woods’ death provided the Unionist government with a pretext for the mass round up of the Belfast IRA, many of whom were interned for several months in one of those episodic internments between 1922 and 1969 that are often overlooked. After the arrests, with the Belfast IRA leadership mostly interned, the failure of the Boundary Commission to end partition was confirmed in public. The internees were not released until the end of January 1926.
(You can read more about all of these in Belfast Battalion).
….you can read the rest of the article here (I’ll post it in full in a week or two).
You can read more about Stephen Hayes here.
You can order the book here!
The 3rd of May 2021 will see the 100th anniversary of the partition of Ireland. In recent weeks this has come into focus with the DUP taking offence at the Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald stating that the party would not be participating in celebrations of the centenary of partition.
In 2016, the DUP’s Arlene Foster was forthright in her refusals to take part in any commemoration of the 1916 Easter Rising. According to the Irish Times, she had told the BBC: “Easter 1916 was a very violent attack on the state. And it wasn’t just an attack on the state. It was an attack against democracy at that time. Anyone that knows me knows that I believe in democracy and I believe in the democratic will, and therefore I just do not believe that it would be right for me to go and to commemorate such an occasion. When you look at the history of commemorations of Easter 1916 it is only relatively recently that the government of the Republic of Ireland have commemorated that occasion because actually it gave succour to violent republicanism here in Northern Ireland over many years. It would be wrong for me as the leader of Northern Ireland to give any succour to those sorts of people.”
Ironically, as 2021 approaches, there will be an ever increasing engagement with partition, the events that led up to it and all that flowed from it. And not just by unionists. I’d expect that republicans, nationalists, trade unionists, various socialist, communist and anarchist groups, feminists and others will engage with the events around partition. The difference will be that they will critically engage with partition rather than ‘celebrate’ it.
Post-partition unionist rule will inevitably become bound up in that engagement, particularly the structured and sustained abuse of civil rights and curtailment of any meaningful form of political or social opposition.
Another, and in the light of Arlene Foster’s rejection of involvement in 1916 commemorations, perhaps more pertinent issues will be an increasing exploration of the violence which led to partition. In that regard, the synergy between unionist violence and partition will become a dominant aspect of that centenary, largely because for so long it has remained relatively unexplored.
An example in point, that I’ve looked at previously, is the bombing of Weaver Street in February 1922. Weaver Street and the a cluster of adjoining streets such as Shore Street, Milewater Street, North Derby Street and Jennymount Street, contained a concentration of Catholic families who worked in nearby mills. Enclosed by a district largely inhabited by Protestants all within the docks area of Belfast which was the scene of intense violence in 1920-22.
The elements of the tragedy in Weaver Street are uncomfortably familiar. You can read more here, but, in brief, a police constable moved Catholic children from Milewater Street into Weaver Street where they then congregated around a skipping rope near the end of the street. A number of men, possibly including the same police constables, observed the children then, from short range, threw a grenade into their midst. After the explosion, they opened fire on people trying to leave the houses and assist those injured in the explosion. In the aftermath of the explosion, the Unionist administration attempted to mislead the press into believing it was carried out by the IRA (rather than unionists). Subsequent evidence at the coroners inquiry exposed how the police made no attempt to gather evidence or investigate the incident. Four children and two adults died, with at least a dozen more badly injured.
The remaining residents of Weaver Street fled their homes in May 1922 never to return (a comparison of street directories shows a near total change in the names of heads of households between 1918 and 1924). In subsequent decades Weaver Street was incorporated into a factory and now has been wiped off the map.
Weaver Street might seem like an extreme example, but it stands as a metaphor for the types of history that will be explored by people engaging with the centenary of partition. A centenary that will simply not become the celebration that Unionists might want it to be.
Who was in charge of the Belfast I.R.A. from the 1920s to the 1960s? Formally, the I.R.A. designated Belfast as either a Battalion or Brigade from 1922 through to the late 1960s with it’s commander usually listed as O/C Belfast. As a clandestine organisation, the identity of it’s leadership was not usually transparent. Occasional arrests and seizures of documents by the R.U.C., particularly internal I.R.A. correspondence, strongly suggests the roles different individual held within the I.R.A., such as when correspondence addressed to the Belfast Adjutant was found in Billy McAllister’s house in January 1937.
Individual memoirs provide much more substance, corroborating some of what is known from court reports and documents. In many cases, though, they tend to roughly pinpoint in time who led the Belfast I.R.A. rather than provide a clear picture of who was in charge, how they came into the post and how they left it. Theoretically the O.C. was elected, where practicable, and many held the role until arrested. As I.R.A. posts were vacated on arrest, someone else typically acted in the role until the previous holder was either released or a formal appointment made in their place. The value in knowing who was in charge, how stable their leadership was and what direction it took the I.R.A. all contributes to a better understanding of how the organisation developed and how it impacted and influenced the course of events.
The list below is based on a variety of sources. I’ve highlighted where there are gaps and, obviously, there may well be significant errors of omissions, given the nature of the source material (and some of this is just guess work).
As ever any corrections or suggestions can be added in the comments section.
1922-23 Hugh Corvin
Former Quartermaster of the IRA’s 3rd Northern Division, he had replaced Pat Thornbury as O/C Belfast which had by then been re-organised as a Brigade in October 1922. Corvin had supported the Executive against GHQ over the Treaty in 1922. Subsequently interned in April 1923, he was elected leader of the I.R.A. prisoners and was involved in various prison protests. Corvin was involved in the Irish Volunteers prior to 1916.
1923-24 Jim O’Donnell
O’Donnell replaced Corvin as O/C while Corvin was interned. When Corvin was released from internment at the end of 1924 O’Donnell appears to have stepped back and Corvin took over again as O/C.
1924-26 Hugh Corvin
When Corvin returned as O/C of the Belfast Brigade it was during the re-organisation that followed after Joe McKelvey’s re-burial in Milltown on 30th October 1924.
1925-1926 Jim Johnston
When the Belfast I.R.A. shot Patrick Woods in November 1925 the R.U.C. arrested one individual for questioning but detained a further fifty men, more than twenty of whom were interned until January 1926 including most of the Battalion staff. This included Hugh Corvin. Barely a week after the arrests the outcome of the Boundary Commission was leaked into the press. Judging by correspondence recovered in his house in February 1926, Johnston seems to have acted as O/C while Corvin was interned.
1926 Hugh Corvin
Corvin returned as O/C but only stayed in the position until April 1926 when he resigned citing business reasons (he had set up an accountancy firm). He had been arrested in November 1925 and held until the end of January 1926 along with twenty others following the shooting of an informer.
He was to remain a prominent public figure, through involvement in the G.A.A. and as secretary of the Gaelic League in Belfast. He publicly participated in fund-raising for Fianna Fáil in Belfast in the early 1930s and when he stood as an ‘independent republican’ in West Belfast in February 1943 he was largely portrayed by the IRA as a proxy for Fianna Fáil. His later political activity and the coincidence of the Fianna Fáil split suggest it may have been a motive in his resignation.
1926-7 Dan Turley
In Belfast I.R.B. Circle with 1916 leader Sean McDermott as early as 1907, Turley mobilised at Easter in 1916, was director of elections for Sinn Féin in Belfast at the 1918 elections and was Head of Intelligence in 3rd Northern Division. He was interned on the prison ship Argenta. He took over from Corvin but, apparently clashing with personalities at GHQ, he was portrayed as being difficult to get on with and unpopular. He remained active as Belfast Adjutant and in other staff posts, although he was a recurring target in clashes between the Belfast IRA and GHQ. The RUC used this tension to conspire against him and he was court-martialled and expelled from the IRA in 1933, then later shot dead in 1936 (his innocence was effectively admitted by the IRA in 1944-45 when it pursued those involved in allegations made against him in 1933).
1927-33 Davy Matthews
From Albert Street. A former O/C of C Company, 1st Battalion in the 1920-23 campaigns, including the Raglan Street ambush, and a former internee on the Argenta. Took over from Dan Turley who remained as part of his staff. Instigated re-organisation of the Belfast IRA in 1929, including training camps, Irish language classes and recruitment to Na Fianna. Described by Bob Bradshaw as having a ‘heart of gold and head of ivory’. Also active in Sinn Féin at a time when there were internal divisions within the IRA over whether to co-operate with Sinn Féin, Fianna Fáil or a left-wing political project (or if they were to co-operate with anyone at all). In November 1933, Matthews was arrested in possession of IRA documents and received a short sentence. So many other senior Belfast staff were arrested, including Jimmy Steele, Charlie Leddy, George Nash, Tom O’Malley and Jack Gaffney that a temporary staff was formed, including Jack McNally, Jim Johnstone and Sean Carmichael.
1933-34 Jack McNally
From the Bone. Another 1920-23 campaign veteran. Appears to have taken over as O/C while Davy Matthews served a short sentence in 1933-34 (this is implied but not explicitly stated in his memoir Morally Good, Politically Bad). While he was in prison Matthews decided to sign an undertaking that he would cease his IRA membership if he was released just before Christmas. So too did another veteran, George Nash. Whether Matthews intended to honour the commitment or not, he was courtmartialled in January 1934 and dismissed from the IRA. McNally only stayed as O/C for a number of months but remained active on the IRA’s GHQ staff until his arrest at Crown Entry in 1936. He was interned in December 1938 and was to later be active in the Anti-Partition League.
1934-36 Tony Lavery
From Balkan Street, a Fianna veteran of the 1920s, took over role as O/C Belfast (at the time designated Ulster Area No 1). Despite an order from Army Council not to, he instructed those charged by the northern government over the Campbell College raid to be defended in court. After they were acquitted, the Army Council charged Lavery with disobeying a direct order and was to be court-martialled in Crown Entry on 25th April 1936 (although it was expected, unlike Matthews, he would merely get a slap on the wrists). Crown Entry was raided just as the courtmartial was to take place and all those present were arrested including the IRA’s Adjutant-General, Jim Killeen, GHQ staff and senior members of the northern and Belfast leadership of the IRA including Lavery’s Adjutant, Jimmy Steele, and other staff members like Liam Mulholland and Mick Traynor.
[By the way – you can read more about all of this in a new book on the Belfast IRA]
1936-37 Sean McArdle
Took on role of O/C Belfast after the loss of Lavery and other Belfast staff members at Crown Entry. In October 1937, the R.U.C. raided what appears to have been a battalion staff meeting in Pearse Hall in King Street. McArdle was arrested and sentenced to six months in Crumlin Road for having I.R.A. documents in his possession.
1937-38 Chris McLoughlin?
While McArdle was in prison for three or four months, Chris McLoughlin may have acted in the role as O/C Belfast (he may have attended at least one I.R.A. convention in that capacity).
1938 Sean McArdle
On his release, McArdle returned as O/C Belfast until he was interned in December 1938.
1938-39 Charlie McGlade
Arrested in Crown Entry, Charlie McGlade was not long out of Crumlin Road when he was sent as an organiser to England as part of the S-Plan campaign. He took over as O/C Belfast from Sean McArdle following McArdle’s internment in December 1938. Apparently influenced by Jim Killeen, McGlade was responsible for developing the Northern Command concept that was put in place in late 1939, with McGlade as Adjutant and Sean McCaughey as O/C. He edited the Belfast edition of War News and remained as O/C Belfast until 1940 (Jimmy Steele was also to be simultaneously Adjutant Northern Command and O/C Belfast).
1940 Jimmy Steele
A Fianna and IRA veteran of 1920-23, Steele had been imprisoned since the Crown Entry raid, only being released in May 1940. For some time there had been unease at reports that were coming in to the IRA prisoners in Crumlin Road about disciplinary procedures being applied by the Belfast IRA staff. On his release, Steele was appointed to the IRA’s Northern Command staff. He had a dossier on the activities of the Belfast staff and following an investigation they were courtmartialled and reduced to the ranks. No-one names the staff involved (and Tim Pat Coogan, who recorded the episode, does not remember if he was ever told). It may be that McGlade was O/C but was busy elsewhere and this was his staff who were reduced to the ranks. Either way, Steele took over the role as O/C Belfast until his arrest in December 1940.
1941 Liam Rice
Bowyer Bell (in The Secret Army) implies Liam Rice was O/C Belfast in May 1941, when he then left for Dublin to assist in the investigation into Stephen Hayes. Rice had been arrested in Crown Entry and also spent time in prison in the south. He was wounded and arrested in Dublin and spent time on the blanket in Portlaoise during the 1940s. It seems likely that Rice took over from Steele as O/C in December 1940.
1941 Pearse Kelly
When Rice left for Dublin, Bowyer Bell states that Pearse Kelly took over as O/C Belfast in May. Kelly too left for Dublin in July to take part in the investigations into Chief of Staff Stephen Hayes. Kelly was eventually to become Chief of Staff himself and ended up in the Curragh. Afterwards he went on to a senior role in RTE as Head of News.
1941-42 Hugh Matthews
During 1941 Hugh Matthews, brother of Davy Matthews and another 1920-24 veteran, took over as O/C in Belfast, and was O/C during the Army Conference in Belfast in February 1942 (according to Bowyer Bell in The Secret Army). Ray Quinn (in A Rebel Voice) says he took over from Jimmy Steele but dates it to a later Army Convention in Belfast in February 1943. It is not particularly clear from surviving accounts, but Matthews appears to have been O/C as further disputes arose about disciplinary practices of his Belfast staff members (but not direct criticism of Matthews himself).
1942 John Graham
Prior to 1942, Graham had been O/C of an independent unit, mostly made up of Protestant IRA men. Graham took on the role of Director of Intelligence for the Northern Command and (according to Joe Cahill), was also O/C Belfast. He presumably after Hugh Matthews some time after February 1942 although the timing is unclear. He was arrested along with David Fleming in the Belfast HQ on Crumlin Road on 3rd October 1942, where printing presses and radio broadcasting equipment were also recovered. Graham, a divinity student in the 1930s, on his release he was to become a noted professional golfer.
1942-43 Rory Maguire
Maguire was O/C Belfast in the autumn of 1942, apparently following Graham’s capture in October.
1943 Jimmy Steele
Escaping from Crumlin Road prison on 15th January 1943, Steele re-joined the Northern Command staff as Adjutant and took over the role of O/C Belfast from Rory Maguire (Maguire’s brother, Ned, had escaped with Steele). He remained O/C Belfast when he took over as IRA Adjutant General after Liam Burke’s arrest.
1943-44 Seamus Burns
Following Jimmy Steele’s arrest in May, Seamus ‘Rocky’ Burns took over as O/C Belfast. Burns had been imprisoned as a 17 year old in 1938, interned in 1939. He took part in the mutiny in Derry jail and was moved to Crumlin Road prison, only to be returned to Derry from where he escaped with 20 others through a tunnel in March 1943. Recaptured in Donegal, he was interned in the Curragh. Harry White had Burns resign from the IRA, sign out of the Curragh, then rejoin the IRA and return north (when he took over as O/C Belfast). He was shot trying to escape from RUC officers in Chapel Lane in February 1944 and died the next day.
1944 Harry White?
In February 1944, Harry White apparently took over as O/C Belfast after Burns’ death. He was also on the run continuously. He seems to have taken on the role of O/C Belfast for much of the time and also delegated it to others.
1944-45 Harry O’Rawe?
By April 1944, Harry White went underground to Altaghoney in County Derry seemingly leaving O’Rawe as O/C Belfast. In his memoir, Harry, Harry White implies that he and O’Rawe may have alternated in the role of O/C Belfast.
1945 Johnny Murphy?
When Harry O’Rawe was arrested in March 1945, it seems likely Johnny Murphy took over as O/C Belfast. Murphy was one of a number of I.R.A. volunteers that were induced to sign out of internment by Harry White. White himself had resigned from the I.R.A. then signed out of internment in the Curragh and then was reinstated in the I.R.A.. He later got others to do the same to replenish the Belfast Battalion staff. An organiser sent by the I.R.A. in Dublin, Gerry McCarthy, visited Belfast in April 1945 and that may have prompted the reorganisation of the various roles.
1945 Seamus Twomey?
In reality the identities of the O/C Belfast after Rocky Burns’ death are repeatedly unclear. A profile of Seamus Twomey (in The Irish Press on 15th July 1972) states that he was O/C Belfast in 1945. As he was only released from internment in the summer of that year, if this is true, it would have to be in the latter half of the year. Since arrests tended to be the catalyst that lead to a changes in O/C, it is possible that Twomey took over in October 1946 and Murphy replaced White as O/C Northern Command.
194?-49 Seamus McCallum
Richard English names McCallum as O/C when Des O’Hagan joined the IRA in 1949. Frank McKearney had taken over as O/C when Joe Cahill was released in November 1949, by which date McCallum may have moved to Liverpool (where he became O/C of the an I.R.A. unit). As noted above, it is not always clear who was in charge of what was left of the Belfast IRA between early 1944 and 1949, so the date that McCallum took on the role is unknown.
1949-50 Frank McKearney
By the late 1940s, Frank McKearney had taken over as O/C Belfast. He had received a six year term for possession of a revolver in 1939. He appears to have taken over as O/C during 1949, at least until the release of Jimmy Steele in 1950.
1950-56 Jimmy Steele
On release from Crumlin Road in 1950, Jimmy Steele again returned to active service with the IRA and once more took over as O/C Belfast while remaining prominent in other organisations such as the National Graves Association and also Sinn Féin. Stayed as O/C until 1956, when he stepped down (Steele was to remain an active republican until his death in 1970).
1956 Paddy Doyle
Took over as O/C in Belfast in preparation for the coming campaign in December, dubbed Operation Harvest. Doyle was highly thought of at GHQ but, due to suspicions about an informer, did not disclose planned operations in Belfast to his own Belfast staff. Doyle spent his time in Crumlin Road completing his education, later qualifying as an accountant, and didn’t get involved in republican activities again on his release.
1956-57 Joe Cahill
Cahill, who had a death sentence commuted in 1942, had been released in 1949 from Crumlin Road. He took over from Paddy Doyle on his arrest in December 1956 until Cahill himself was interned in July 1957.
1957-60 There is a gap in available information from mid-1957 until about 1960. Jimmy Steele may have taken over again from Cahill until his own internment that summer.
1961-63 Billy McKee
On his release from internment in 1961, Billy McKee took on the role of O/C Belfast re-building the battalion effectively from scratch. He had been imprisoned in the 1930s and 1940s and was to remain active in republican circles ever afterwards. During the Wolfe Tone commemorations of 1963 he got involved in a dispute with Billy McMillen, eventually resigned first as O/C Belfast and then from the IRA.
1963-69 Billy McMillen
Following the argument over the Wolfe Tone commemorations in June 1963, McMillen took over as O/C Belfast. Having earlier been associated with unofficial bombings in 1950, McMillen had left the IRA in the mid-1950s following an argument and linked up with Saor Uladh. After his release from internment in 1961, he first went to England then returned to Belfast and rejoined the IRA. He remained O/C through the 1960s and was interned just before the pogrom in mid-August 1969.
1969 Jim Sullivan
When McMillen was interned from mid-August to late September, Sullivan acted as O/C Belfast in his place. He was imprisoned for a number of brief periods, such as 1966, when he was presumably replaced by an acting O/C by the likes of Jim Sullivan, who was his Adjutant.
1969 Billy McMillen
As part of the fallout over the failure of the Belfast IRA to adequately prepare to defend areas during the pogrom, on release from internment McMillen called a Battalion staff meeting to seek confirmation that he would continue as O/C. When he was forced to restructure his staff, he was also asked to withdraw supports for Cathal Goulding as Chief of Staff on 22nd September 1969.
Thanks to all those who have supplied further information, photographs etc.
You can read more about the Belfast IRA in the new book.