A brief history of Cumann na mBan in Belfast from the 1920s to 1960s

This is a short history of Cumann na mBan in Belfast from the end of the civil war through to the 1960s. Obviously, anyone with information that enhances the story or adds further details is more than welcome to share it in the comments section.

Jack McNally (in his 1989 autobiography, Morally Good, But Politically Bad) names those prominent in Cumann na mBan towards the end of the civil war and into the mid-1920s and later. He includes Mary Donnelly, Sally Griffen, Kitty Hennessy, Kitty Kellet, Maggie Kelly (née Magennis), May Laverty, Margaret McGrath, Sally McGurk (née Ward), Miss McKeever, Mrs McLoughlin, Mrs Muldoon, Bridie O’Farrell, Cassie O’Hara, May O’Neill (née Dempsey), Mary Rafferty, Susan Rafferty and Mrs (Annie) Ward. Annie Ward had succeeded Norah Connolly as head of the Belfast Battalion of Cumann na mBan and led the organisation through into the 1920s.

Cumann na mBan in Belfast, as elsewhere, largely staffed the web that linked the various republican organisations together, collecting and moving intelligence and clandestine communications between IRA, Cumann na mBan and Fianna units and officers, assisting in moving weapons and establishing networks of dumps and safe houses. While Cumann na mBan also fundraised to support prisoner’s dependents and distributed republican newspapers, that was not the limit of its activities. The likes of May Laverty and Mary Donnelly are both known to have participated in IRA operations, such as helping move and plant explosive devices.

As one of the key republican organisations Cumann na mBan attended meetings and participated in restructuring alongside the Belfast IRA and Fianna Éireann in the late 1920s. Generally, as with Fianna Éireann, Cumann na mBan was organised in two units, one covering the Falls and surrounding districts and one covering north Belfast, the Markets and Ballymacarrett. In 1926 a batch of An Phoblacht intended for Cumann na mBan was intercepted in the post. It contained 110 copies which suggests that this was the membership around this time (by the late 1930s the RUC believed membership to be around 60). By the early 1930s, May Laverty and Mary Donnelly were still prominent Cumann na mBan leaders in Belfast. Another was Cassie O’Hara, who had been engaged to Joe McKelvey and her continued support, like that of the likes of Bridie O’Farrell, maintained the Belfast unit’s sense of continuity and legitimacy.

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A reunion of 1920s and 1930s, and later, Belfast Cumann na mBan volunteers (taken in 1971 and reproduced in Ray Quinn’s A Rebel Voice)


Cumann na mBan also prominently supported left wing initiatives (particularly stressed by the likes of May Laverty). In 1932, it held a flag day all over Ireland in October to raise funds to support those involved in the Outdoor Relief Riots in Belfast. The northern government response was predictable as, in the next month, two Belfast members, Mary Donnelly (Unity Street) and Sarah Grimley (North Queen Street), were given prison sentences for posting ‘seditious’ hand bills in Vulcan Street on the eve of a British royal visit in Belfast. Donnelly spent three months and Grimley two months in Armagh Jail (see Irish Press, December 17th 1932). Donnelly also allegedly had Cumann na mBan documents in her possession that stated that its aims were: “…(a) Complete separation of Ireland from all foreign Powers, (b) Unity of Ireland, (c) Gaelicisation of Ireland.” Speaking from the dock after refusing to recognise the court, Mary Donnelly said: “…We will carry on to the end until we get a Republic.

In 1933, under Eithne Ni Chumhail’s leadership, Cumann na mBan reviewed its relationship with the Second Dáil organisation (composed of those members elected to the second Dáil who maintained that it was the legitimate source of authority in Ireland). Up to then, Article 1 of the Cumann na mBan constitution required members to recognise the continued existence and authority of the Second Dáil. This limited it’s capacity to attract new members. Miss MacSwiney and two others resigned when the proposed change that only required members to “…never render allegiance to any Government but a Republican Government for all Ireland…” was passed at the convention in Dublin in June (the IRA had broken its link with the Second Dáil by 1926). At the same convention, the Cumann na mBan executive also announced the formation of Cumann na gCailíní, for girls aged 8 to 16. This facilitated an influx of new members later in the 1930s. The convention additionally agreed to embark on a campaign to propagate social reconstruction on the lines laid down by James Connolly and for an intensive campaign in the north (see Irish Press, June 14th, 1933). May Laverty was prominent in this campaign.

Following the mass arrests of Belfast republicans that October (1933), Cumann na mBan again raised funds to support the dependents of those who had been imprisoned. In June 1934, Belfast contingents from the IRA, Fianna, Cumann na mBan and Cumann na gCailíní had marched in uniform in Dublin prior the annual IRA ceilí in the Mansion House. Leading Cumann na mBan figures like Eithne Ni Chumail had supported Republican Congress but returned to Cumann na mBan when Congress began attacking the IRA.

In 1936, May Laverty again took a lead role in the public protests against de Valera’s government. In June, Cumann na mBan demanded entry to the meeting in St Mary’s Hall where the Anti-Partition League was founded (initially called the ‘Reunion of Ireland Organisation’). The meeting was chaired by ex-Belfast IRA O/C Hugh Corvin and while the likes of Padraig MacLogain attended, Cumann na mBan was refused entry and the IRA did not support the project. In 1937, as part of the Military Pensions Act, an ‘Old Cumann na mBan’ Association was formed in Belfast from members who had been active up to 1922. As with similar associations, it was boycotted by many who refused to endorse the Free State government.

Prominent members of Cumann na mBan in Belfast in the mid to late 1930s included Una Burke, Bridie Dolan, Crissie Dolan, Bridget Hannon, Dorrie Hill, May Laverty, Violet McGowan and Maggie Nolan. A Cumann na mBan and a Cumann na gCailíni contingent had participated in the funeral procession for veteran Fenian and IRB organiser Robert Johnston (also the father of poet and author Eithne Carberry), in March 1937, in Greencastle.

Dorrie Hill and Madge Nolan were present, representing Cumann na mBan, in Pearse Hall in King Street in October 1937 when a Belfast Brigade Council meeting was interrupted by the RUC and all those present had their names taken (despite the Belfast IRA staff being present the RUC thought it was a meeting of Joe McKelvey GAA club).  The likes of Josephine Brady and Mary McAreavey both received significant sentences for possession of weapons or documents in the late 1930s, while Bridie Dolan was badly injured in a premature explosion. Bridie O’Hara and Mary Hewitt were both expelled from Britain during the Sabotage Campaign of 1939. Cumann na mBan was prominent in the very public demonstrations of republican strength in Belfast in the late 1930s, such as the burning of gas masks in May 1939.

In September 1939, there were forty-eight members of the Belfast contingent at the Cumann na mBan conference in Dublin (Eithne Ni Chumail was still the leader at this time). The RUC believed that Cumann na mBan in Belfast was divided into two companies. Peggy Rafferty led the Belfast Cumann na mBan contingent at the infamous 1939 Bodenstown commemoration. At the time, Annie Hamill was in charge of Cumann na gCailíní in Belfast. Many of those involved in Cumann na mBan  were relatives of prominent IRA members, such as Bridget Corr (sister of Arthur), Mary McLaughlin (sister of Chris) and Ellen McCurry (sister of Willie John).

In October 1940, Isobel Murphy, Mary and Bridget O’Hare and Elizabeth O’Toole got two years each for distributing Cumann na mBan leaflets outside a cinema on the Crumlin Road. Cassie O’Hara was one of the first Cumann na mBan member to interned in the 1940s and was soon followed by others. Mary Donnelly, though, was killed when a German bomb destroyed her family home in Unity Street on 16th April 1941. The same night, Bridget Corr’s mother and brother were killed by another bomb at their family home in Vere Street.

Prison conditions in Armagh were very bit as bad as those that the men had to endure. Those imprisoned in Armagh included Madge Burns, Nora McDowell (the only one who had children), her daughter Una, Teresa Donnelly, Bernadette Masterson, Mary McDonald, Nora McKearney, Cassie O’Hara (O/C of the Armagh prisoners) and Nancy Ward. In the autumn of 1943, the Cumann na mBan members in Armagh Jail decided to embarked on a hunger strike. You can read more about the hunger strike here, but briefly, the women joined en masse on 21st November, although by the time Therese Donnelly was given the last rites after twenty-two days it was apparent that the protest was being robbed of publicity and it was decided to call it off (it was a lesson ignored by the men who went on hunger strike the next March). The same pressures and family hardships bore down on the women as the men and inevitably some had to sign out.

The last Belfast Cumann na mBan prisoners were among the eight released in July 1945 (including Cassie O’Hara), but like the IRA itself, the organisation was slow to rebuild in Belfast. Joe Cahill records that, by 1956, Bridie O’Neill was O/C of Cumann na mBan in Belfast (and apparently had been for some time). As in previous eras, Cumann na mBan looked after much of the transportation of weapons to and from dumps. In the lead up to the campaign, O’Neill had organised her units to collect and move weapons from Belfast to the border where they would be used during the campaign. Arrests during the Border Campaign also showed that Cumann na mBan continued to collect funds (officially these were for the ‘Freedom Fighters Fund’ – see Fermanagh Herald, October 18th 1958). O’Neill was the only women interned during the 1956-62 campaign (she interned for seven months). Again, as in 1945, Cumann na mBan was largely intact due to the low number of imprisonments but was slow to re-engage its membership.

By the time the early 1970s, the IRA was directly admitting women as members presenting a different challenge to the rationale for Cumann na mBan to continue to exist (it largely supported Cathal Goulding in 1970 and later).

Text of the IRA report on the Campbell College Raid.

Here is the report by the IRA’s Belfast Battalion Adjutant on the attempted arms raid at Campbell College in December 1935. The text was quoted in full by the Belfast Newsletter in May 1936 after it was captured during the Crown Entry Raid. The Belfast Adjutant was Jimmy Steele, while the IRA’s Adjutant General was Jim Killeen. The report expands significantly on the information given in various other accounts of the raid.

Adjutant, No. 1 Area Ulster to Adjutant-General, I.R.A., Headquarters
The Report of the Campbell College Raid
On 27th December arrangements were made to seize 200 rifles lying in the armoury of the college. Around the front of the college three gate-lodges are situated, whilst at the rear is another gate-lodge. The gate of the rear gate-lodge is a wooden gate, about 12ft or 14ft high and is always closed, except during the day, when it is used as a goods entrance, &c. The lodge itself is a fairly good distance away from the armoury. The three front lodges however, are about 200 yards from the armoury and are linked up by telephone to the main building and armoury. It was found necessary to take and hold these lodges in order to carry out the raid successfully.
Three squads of men, with six m each squad, were selected to take over each lodge. Three of them would enter each lodge, tie up the occupants, dismantle the telephone, &c. This done, two of them would remain on guard, whilst the other four of each squad would close in on the armoury, surround it and, having got into it, seize the rifles and tie up anyone who may be in same.
The squads were to report at the different lodges at 8-10 p.m., and, all well, to make into the lodges at a given signal at 8-15. Numbers 2 and 3 Squads would arrive on foot at No. 2 and 3 Lodges, No. 1 Squad were to arrive in a commandeered car and turn up a road almost opposite to No. 1 Lodge. A check-up car had been arranged also to be hovering around the vicinity.
Immediately it noticed the arrival of No. 1 Squad it was to proceed to Nos. 2 and 3 Squads and inform them that everything was ready.If in the event of any one of the squads not arriving it was to inform the other squads.
The check-up car, on everything being right, was then to proceed to a road leading out of the college, and await the coming out of the commandeered car with the rifles.
After the armoury had been seized, the commandeered car, which was to have been lying handy inside No. 1 Lodge, having moved in after the lodge was taken, was to move up to the armoury and there transport the rifles to their future destination.
The officer in charge of this car was then to exchange places with the officer in the check-up car, proceed around the lodges, dismiss the squads, and lift their guns. So much for the plans.
The check-up car arrived at the appointed place at 8-8 p.m. and patrolled the lodges.
No. 3 Squad arrived at 8-15 p.m., and the officer in charge, being inattentive during the time instructions were given, at once proceeded to take over No. 3 Lodge. The check-up car had passed the spot a minute previously.
Three men entered the gate. One knocked at the door: a woman came to the door and, seeing the masked man. she screamed. The men entered, however, and lined the occupants up. This done, the officer came to the door to inform the other three that everything was all right.
He was met by a policeman, who rushed into the house firing. The three men inside replied to the fire and succeeded in getting past him.
His first shot, however, knocked the gun completely out of the hands of one of the men.
The three men outside, thinking they had been trapped, retreated down the road. The whole six of them escaped, and in the evidence given by each of them at the subsequent inquiry, all were unanimous in stating that not more than one policeman was there, and that if there had been more they would never have got away. No. 2 Squad arrived at their place at 8-35 p.m., twenty minutes late and after the shooting had taken place. The officer in charge, along with two other men, stopped at No. 2 Lodge to await the checkup car. He instructed the other three men to move off down the road and be readv to follow him into the lodge as soon as they noticed the check-up car.
They moved off down the road and stopped at the corner where No. 3 Lodge is situated. One of them noticed about four policemen, and he informed the other two men. The officer in charge said: ‘Don’t run; walk on quietly.’ Immediately they moved they were seen and called on to halt.
They then began to run, McCartney, the captured man, being one of them. The three men at the lodge also retreated, firing as they retreated. All got away safely except McCartney.
Each of these men stated at the inquiry that they never at any time saw more than four policemen; that it would have been impossible for any of them to escape had there been more, or had they been waiting on them.
Their late arrival was due to the late arrival of the guns for the job.
No. 1 Squad commandeered a car, but owing to a misunderstanding as to the place of meeting, the volunteer to drive same turned up at the wrong place. They waited until 8-30 p.m., when they reported to the battalion adjutant and the battalion commanding officer.
These staff officers, under the changed circumstances, decided to call off the raid, and immediately they proceeded by tram to Campbell College, arriving there at 9-5 p.m., having to wait fifteen minutes on a car.
On arrival there they noticed about four police outside No. 3 lodge. They also met one of the men of No. 2 Squad, who seemed to have lost himself, and who informed them of the shooting. They directed him how to get home. On their way home they noticed tenders of police going- out to the scene.
The check-up car hovered about the scene until 8-30 p.m. in the hope of picking up some of the men. They stated also that the first tender of police to arrive, arrived at 8-50 p.m., also that if there had been information beforehand they never would have’ got patrolling around from 8-8 p.m. until 8-50 p.m. without being stopped.
According to information received from a reliable source by the battalion intelligence officer the 200 rifles alleged to have been shifted were not shifted; that it is the usual procedure to have a small guard on the armoury at holiday times.
That the Press reports of the raid, especially ‘the information beforehand’ and the ‘shifting of the rifles’ statements were only published with a purpose to cause suspicion and distrust among the members of the organisation.
This has had a bad effect on the outside public. The ‘Irish Press’ was very prominent with this publication. ‘An Síol‘ has published a leading article on the matter this week.
We have decided to defend Second-Lieut. B. Rooney, D Company, as this is purely a frame-up so far as he is concerned, and considering there is a police notice published in the Press concerning eight young men who were supposed to have boarded a Belmont tram that night, there is every possibility that further frameups may take place if no effort is made to comhat them.
A large number of houses have been visited by the police, the persons wanted interrogated, and all volunteers, of course, refused to make statements.
There is still the possibility of a round-up, and so most of the men are sleeping out of their houses. The Battalion O.C. and Adjutant and a number of other volunteers have managed so far to elude the police. Battalion and company work is going on as usual, and shadow staffs have been arranged in the event of any arrests.

Lodge No 3.

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p style=”text-align:justify;”>This report now gives a much clearer picture of the organisation and sophistication of the Campbell College raid. More than twenty IRA volunteers participated in the operation, including eighteen volunteers in three squads, a mobile unit in a patrol car and the Battalion O/C and Adjutant back at a command post.
The raid itself involved the three squads (number 1 to 3) of six IRA volunteers. Each squad would assemble at a gate lodge at 8.10 pm (only the rear gate lodge was not be seized). Squad 1 (which was to commandeer a car and seize Lodge 1). They were to park up in the Old Holywood Road (roughly opposite Lodge 1). Squads 2 and 3 were to arrive on foot at Lodge 2 (at the junction of Hawthornden Road and Belmont Road) and Lodge 3 (on Hawthornden Road). A second car was going to be present patrolling the perimeter of Campbell College from 8 pm. Once it had observed that Squad 1 was in position, it would move down Belmont Road and signal to Squads 2 and 3 to proceed.
Three volunteers would then seize each lodge at 8.15 pm, secure the occupants and dismantle the telephone line. Two volunteers would remain to guard each gate lodge while the other four volunteers were to proceed to the Campbell College armoury. The assembled twelve volunteers were then to surround the armoury and remove its contents in the commandeered car. The officer in charge of the commandeered car was then to exchange places with the officer in charge of the patrol car, he would then advise Squads 1, 2 and 3 to withdraw.
When Squad 3 arrived at the Hawthornden Road at 8.15 pm, it immediately took over Lodge 3. As the squad leader left the gate lodge to join the rest of Squad 3 he met an RUC constable coming into the gate lodge. After the exchange of fire in the gate lodge, the three volunteers escaped and all of Squad 3 managed to leave the scene.
Due to the late arrival of their weapons, Squad 2 didn’t arrive at Lodge 2 until 8.35 pm where it awaited the patrol car to give the signal, sending three volunteers ahead to be ready to take Lodge 2. The three volunteers who had awaited the patrol car, headed down towards Lodge 3 only to encounter the RUC following up the shootout with Squad 3 at Lodge 3. The RUC gave chase, exchanging fire with Squad 2, and pursued all six of the squad back towards Belmont Road capturing Eddie McCartney.
Squad 1 commandeered a car but the intended driver missed their rendezvous and the Squad had to report to Tony Lavery (Belfast O/C) and his Adjutant Jimmy Steele at 8.30 pm to advise them of the problem. Deciding to call off the raid, they took a tram to Campbell College. Meantime the patrol car withdrew from the scene as RUC tenders began to arrive. Lavery and Steele then arrived at 9.05 pm at Campbell College. Noting the RUC presence at Lodge 3, they met one of Squad 2 who was disorientated by the shooting but informed them as to what had happened. McCartney was to be the only IRA volunteer arrested at the scene.

List of commandants of Belfast IRA, 1924-1969 (updated)

The following is an updated version of the previously posted list of officers commanding the IRA’s Belfast battalion (the name normally given to its structures in the city for most of this time) from 1924 to 1969. The list is based on a variety of sources. Despite the revisions and corrections there are still gaps and may well also contain omissions since those listed are those named in accounts of different events over 1924-1969. Some of the published also contain (eg Anderson, in Joe Cahill: A Life in the IRA names Jimmy Steele as O/C in 1969 when it was Billy McMillen), in others an inference is taken, such as in 1934 when Jack McNally had to form a staff (it is implied he was O/C but not stated). I have also noted where the commandant was arrested or imprisoned since IRA volunteers automatically lost rank on imprisonment. In each instance, presumably, someone was O/C of Belfast in an acting capacity.

As ever any corrections or suggestions can be added in the comments section.

1924-26 Hugh Corvin

Former Quartermaster of the IRA’s 3rd Northern Division. As a Belfast Brigade IRA delegate Corvin had supported the Executive against GHQ over the Treaty in 1922. Subsequently interned, he stood for election in North Belfast for Sinn Féin in 1924. Corvin acted as O/C of the Belfast Brigade during the re-organisation that followed after Joe McKelvey’s re-burial in Milltown on 30th October 1924. He continued as O/C 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 GAA 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.

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Hugh Corvin

1926-7 Dan Turley

In Belfast IRB Circle with 1916 leader Sean McDermot 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 courtmartialled 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).

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Dan Turley

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.

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Davy Matthews

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.

Jack McNally

Jack McNally

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 courtmartialled 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.

1936-38 Sean McArdle

Took on role of O/C Belfast after the loss of Lavery and other Belfast staff members at Crown Entry. By early 1937, McArdle had also been arrested and sentenced to a brief term in Crumlin Road. It is not clear from existing sources as to who took on the role of O/C Belfast while McArdle was in prison. On his release he remained 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).

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Charlie McGlade

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.

Jimmy Steele

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.

Liam Rice

Liam Rice

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.

Pearse Kelly

Pearse Kelly

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).

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Hugh Matthews

1942 John Graham

There was a confrontation between the IRA’s Northern Command staff and the Belfast staff in November 1941, again over the disciplinary practices of the Belfast staff. Graham was O/C of an independent unit, mostly made up of Protestant IRA men. This unit was mobilised by the Northern Command staff during the confrontation and ultimately the Belfast staff stepped back in line. Graham took on the role of Director of Intelligence for the Northern Command and (according to Joe Cahill), was also O/C Belfast. This was presumably after Hugh Matthews 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. He died in 1997.

John Graham playing golf in the 1930s.

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.

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Seamus ‘Rocky’ Burns

I’ve since revised the next sections (see here)

1944-45 Harry White

Harry White was O/C of the Northern Command at the time of 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 like Harry O’Rawe, Albert Price and Patsy Hicks on an intermittent basis. By the end of 1944, White was Chief of Staff of the IRA but living under an assumed name in Altaghoney on the Tyrone/Derry border. He had first gone to Altaghoney in March 1944. He returned to Belfast briefly, then went back to Altaghoney from around April to August 1944 when he again returned to Belfast (his memoir Harry seems to imply that he had O’Rawe act as Belfast O/C in his absence). From the spring of 1945 White moved for good to Altaghoney. His cover was eventually blown in October 1946 and he was driven to the border and handed over to the Free State government who (it was assumed) would quickly try him in a military court and execute him. White’s luck held and he avoided execution, only to be sent to Portaoise for a number of years. On his release, he was active in the Wolfe Tone Socieites in the early 1960s.

Harry White

Harry White

1945-4? There are gaps here for the years around 1945-47 that have yet to be filled in. A profile of Seamus Twomey (in The Irish Press on 15th July 1972) states that he was O/C Belfast in 1945 after his release from internment. Johnny Murphy, John Bradley and Barney Boswell are also believed to have served on the Battalion staff at this time, from 1945 to 1947 and Murphy may have also been O/C Belfast for a time. Based on Harry White’s movements, it seems likely that White took on role as Belfast O/C in February 1944 following Burns’ death. O’Rawe acted as O/C from in White’s absence and may have taken over the role from then until his arrest on March 6th 1945 (this appears to have prompted White’s final move to Altaghoney). It is possible that Johnny Murphy, having been told to sign out from internment in late 1944, then took over as O/C, followed later that year by Seamus Twomey. It may be more likely that Twomey took over in October 1946, while Murphy replaced White as O/C Northern Command.

Johnny Murphy


194?-49 Seamus McCallum

Richard English names McCallum as O/C when Des O’Hagan joined the IRA in 1949 (it is unclear if this is meant to be Seamus ‘McCallum’ or the Seamus ‘McCollum’ who was arrested in England in the 1950s). As Frank McKearney was O/C when Joe Cahill was released in November 1949, I’m listing them in that order. As noted above, it is unclear who (if anyone) was in charge of what was left of the Belfast IRA between early 1945 and 1949.

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. Cahill was to remain an active republican for the rest of his life.

Joe Cahill

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

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.

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Billy McKee

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. 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. As part of the fallout over the failure of the Belfast IRA to adequately prepare to defend areas during the pogrom, McMillen was forced to restructure his staff and withdraw its supports for the Goulding leadership on 22nd September 1969. Later killed during an internal feud.

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Billy McMillen

Thanks to all those who have supplied further information, photographs etc.

#McGurks Bar: a brief prehistory of disinformation

Forty-five years on from the McGurks Bar bombing there is much that is yet to be understood not only about the bombing itself, but also the context in which it happened. Mindful that the human legacies of such a tragedy may never be mitigated by any amount of revelations, a full and accurate account of events is required if broader societal and political aspirations towards achieving genuine conflict transformation are to be realised.

McGurks Bar (officially known as the Tramore Bar).

McGurks Bar (officially known as the Tramore Bar).

The last point is significant, though. Much of what we know about McGurks Bar have been painstakingly pieced together by Ciaran MacAirt, in the face of considerable and sustained obstruction on the part of the British government and its security forces.  Key to understanding what actually happened on 4th December 1971 is having a meaningful insight into the  roles played by the northern government (and its armed forces), it’s interactions with those that planned and planted the bomb, and also those of the British army. To date, it seems inconsistent to argue that there is any evidence in the actions of the British government to suggest that it is actually seeking real conflict transformation in Ireland.

A number of key themes emerge in reviews of the bombing, in particular the actions of the RUC and the British Army, including Frank Kitson who has become a lightning rod for attention due to his documented lead in counterinsurgency and disinformation strategies. Kitson’s previous career in Kenya and Malaya identify him and his staff as potential sources for the campaign of disinformation that followed in the aftermath of the bombing. However, there is also an intersection here with a deep native capacity for disinformation and black propaganda amongst the RUC and northern government. A brief exploration of incidents predating the 1970s shows that the RUC were already adept at the strategies applied at McGurks Bar.

Many parallels can be seen as far back as the 1920s. On 13th February 1922, a bomb had been thrown into children playing in Weaver Street, killing four children, two adults and wounding many others. The actions of Special Constables before, during and after the attack (and their role in it) were never to be disclosed or explored by the northern government. At the time, the RUC issued erroneous statements implying they had come under attack. Subsequent comments by James Craig and reporting by the press even gave the impression that the IRA may have thrown the bomb after shots were fired at an armoured car. This deliberately blurred culpability. In fact there was no armoured car present and the bomb had been thrown by men in the company of Special Constables. Not only that, two Special Constables had forced the children into a crowd so the bomb, thrown at a distance of thirty yards, would inflict maximum damage. To compound matters, the RUC had refused to take statements from witnesses at the scene or collect forensic evidence such as bullet casings and bomb fragments. All of these were subsequently produced by residents at the inquests before the City Coroner.

There are many echoes in the Weaver Street bombing in attacks that took place decades later: the acquiescence (if not direct participation) of security forces, the failure to investigate and the deployment of disinformation. Notably, much of this was exposed and reported on during the inquests, which may have influenced official attitudes towards such process at a later date.

The need to control legal proceedings is shown by another example, from 1935. On 12th July, during violence in Lancaster Street, John McKay, a cattle drover who lived in Great Georges Street, was shot dead. The inquest was perfunctory, but his wife lodged a compensation claim with the Belfast Recorder. During the hearing before the Recorder, RUC headquarters sent instructions that the two reports by RUC Constables into McKay’s death were not to be disclosed to the court. The Recorder inspected the reports and then declared them covered by privilege despite the fact that such a right was only available to a cabinet minister.

Even today we know very little about the unionists who carried out the bombing in Weaver Street in 1922 or the likes of those who shot John McKay in 1935. Who was responsible, how they were organised and who ultimately directed their violence is not clearly understood. Nor are these minor details of historical dilettantism. There was no intention on the part of the northern government to work towards any meaningful societal reconciliation after 1922. The net effect was that violence against Catholics (in the sense that that was who was understood to be the target) was never deconstructed away from having a sort of monolithic ‘unionism’ as it’s source. Despite all the subsequent protests to the contrary, a failure to divest an understanding of who the real protagonists were, the motivations and modus operandi amounted to a continued co-option of the moral responsibility for all those actions onto the ‘unionist’ body as a whole. An unraveling of this, faced with scrutiny by the print and broadcast media, can be seen in the events of 1966.

In May that year the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) publicly threatened that “…known IRA men will be executed mercilessly and without hesitation.” On the 27th of that month, UVF members shot John Scullion in Oranmore Street. The RUC immediately reported that Scullion had been stabbed and that they believed he knew the name of his attackers. The emotional framing around Scullion is classic black propaganda. Not only did Scullion ‘knowing his attacker’ detach the incident from contemporary unionist violence, it also very subtly (and unsympathetically) profiled him as associating with a man who would stab someone. It was reported months later, following Scullion’s inquest, that the RUC had been given a bullet that had hit Scullion the night he was shot and that they had been told by witnesses that they heard the two shots.

Against a backdrop of increasing violence in Belfast (with significant exposure across the broadcast and print media), John Scullion died of his wounds on 11th June. The RUC continued to perpetuate the myth that he had been stabbed, repeatedly reporting that he knew his attacker and that were merely awaiting him to regain conscious and give them the name. They then reported that he had passed away without divulging the name (even though an exasperated UVF had been claiming responsibility and rang the press to confirm their claim). The State Pathologist in Belfast had to subsequently order that John Scullion’s remains be exhumed to review the cause of death. That revelation and further deaths in UVF violence over the same weekend forced the northern government’s Prime Minister, Terence O’Neill to climb down on a refusal to proscribe the UVF. Arrests and convictions then followed.

A mere five years later, the UVF planted the bomb that destroyed McGurks Bar. As early as 8 am on the morning after the blast, despite being briefed following forensic examination of the scene, the RUC were providing politicians with disinformation that identified the bombers as the IRA and cast doubt on the innocence of some of those caught up in the blast. The RUC persisted with this false version of events for many years even though they had been immediately exposed by eye witness testimony and a telephoned claim of responsibility by unionists. In 1966, Terence O’Neill (unlike the RUC) had been unable or unwilling to continue to providing political cover for the UVF. By 1971, the intersection of RUC, unionist and British Army (and indeed Gerry Fitt’s) interests coalesced sufficiently that no public unraveling of the disinformation was permitted.

So what was the difference between 1966 and 1971? Certainly the scale of the human loss at McGurks would suggest that it should have been less likely that political cover would be provided for the UVF. The only additional participant between 1966 and 1971 is Frank Kitson and the British Army. As Kitson has become something of a bête noire or pantomime villain it is perhaps too easy to see him as the key difference.

At the same time, it is clearly consistent with Kitson’s known methods that the British Army seamlessly grafted itself onto well established practices within the RUC and northern government and, by doing so, assimilated itself into that violent unionist monolith. Subsequent understandings of any events after the McGurks Bar bombing, who directed them, how and why, were and still are completely compromised by the internal dependencies created by that monolithic entity.

Armed confrontations between the IRA and RUC in Belfast

Armed confrontations between the Belfast IRA and RUC were not commonplace. While IRA volunteers engaged the RUC in 1932 during the Outdoor Relief riots and again during the attempted pogrom of 1935, in the former case they were not acting under IRA orders while in both instances it occurred during more general violent clashes. During the 1930s and into the early 1940s, there were numerous occasions on which the IRA and RUC exchanged fire in Belfast. While two RUC fatalities occurred in 1933, otherwise anyone wounded during the exchanges generally survived including both RUC and IRA personnel. By the late 1930s, though, IRA volunteers could expect at least ten years in prison if arrested. Tactically, by early 1938, the RUC also appeared to be showing more bravado in armed raids on houses they believed were occupied by the IRA, starting with the aftermath of the shooting of William Smyth, when an RUC party including Constable Patrick Murphy tried to storm a house in John Street. The IRA’s Northern Command O/C (later Chief of Staff), Eoin McNamee, had also directed volunteers to resist arrest if armed, where they could practicably expect to escape.

This was all to come to a head in 1942, starting with Cawnpore Street where Constable Patrick Murphy was shot dead at number 53, for which the O/C of the IRA unit involved, Tom Williams, was later to be hung. This was to establish a pattern over the next two years which saw more fatalities in Belfast including several more members of the IRA and RUC.

The main confrontations up to 1942 are detailed below. After 1944, confrontations between the IRA and RUC did not really occur again until 1969.

One of the first direct, armed, confrontations occurred in December 1932, when the RUC ran into a group of IRA volunteers being drilled in Finaghy (the RUC claimed seventy to eighty men were present). The men scattered when the RUC appeared and while at least two IRA volunteers, John Turley and Chris McLaughlin, appear to have been armed, there was no exchange of fire.

On the 28th February 1933, during the railway strike, the Belfast O/C ordered an IRA unit to the Great Northern’s lorry exit at the corner of Durham Street and Grosvenor Road. There, at the request of the unions, they were to fire warning shots at strike-breaking lorry drivers. The drivers were being guarded by about twenty-five RUC men.

IRA volunteers Bob Bradshaw and Joe Pimley went down the Grosvenor Road and took up positions in the darkness at eleven o’clock. Bradshaw opened fire on the lorries as they emerged. Meanwhile Pimley discovered that his pistol was defective and couldn’t provide covering fire. After three shots, Bradshaw’s firing position was identified and an RUC sergeant came at him firing (the RUC reported they had come under fire from six gunmen). Once Bradshaw counted off the RUC sergeant’s six bullets he made a break for Stanley Street followed by Pimley.

Two RUC Constables, Lally and Ryan were going along Albert Street when they heard shots. Realising that other RUC men on duty at the goods yard on the Grosvenor Road must be under fire, they headed towards Stanley Street. When they turned into Stanley Street, they saw two men (which must have been Bradshaw and Pimley) firing revolvers. The two RUC constables were quickly forced to duck as they too came under fire from other RUC men firing from the Grosvenor Road. As Bradshaw and Pimley came up Stanley Street, they realised they were cut off and ducked down Cullingree Street where they were joined by Jack Crosskerry (who had been one of the lookouts and had presumably escaped into Cullingtree Street via Trelford Street).

Lally and Ryan then ran back into Albert Street intending to get down to Durham Street and cut the three off again. Bradshaw had also managed to reload his gun. At roughly the same time, they all reached the junction of Albert Street and Durham Street, where the three IRA volunteers had crossed the road and were walking in front of the Queen Victoria Public Elementary School (now demolished).

MapBradshaw

The scene of the shooting on 28th February 1933.

As Ryan rounded the corner he saw three men on the other side of the road rather than the two he had saw in Stanley Street. As Cullingtree Street was joined to Albert Street by Fox Row and Grosvenor Road by Trelford Street, the three IRA volunteers could have easily bypassed Ryan and Lally. Presumably Ryan was unsure if they were the same men as he pointed his revolver at them and shouted “What are you fellows up to?” as he crossed over the road. Ryan, Pimley and Bradshaw were now within five yards of each other. Lally appears to have been a little behind Ryan and was carrying his revolver in his hand.

Ryan, Lally and Bradshaw all opened fire.  Ryan got off three shots but was hit by four bullets fired by Bradshaw, two in the stomach, one in the chest and one in the face. He collapsed to the ground immediately. Lally fired but hit nothing. Pimley again tried his gun but, as his ammunition was dozed, it was to no effect. Lally then fired several wild shots, emptying his revolver after Bradshaw, Pimley and Jack Crosskerry as they ran up Albert Street. Several girls who witnessed the shooting said they kept glancing back at the scene as they fled.

Ryan was brought to the Royal Victoria Hospital but his wounds were fatal. He was the first RUC man to die in action against the IRA since 1922. Bradshaw, Pimley and Crosskerry all fled to Dublin (despite RUC reports, none were wounded in the incident). The strikers, who were mostly Protestant, were not put off by the fatality and the strike continued (there was another bomb attempt on 2nd March at Adelaide locomotive sheds). Meanwhile the RUC tore the Grosvenor Road apart searching for the gunmen. The northern government offered a reward of £1,200 for information.

In October 1933, two RUC Constables, Anderson and Fahy, were on protection duty guarding George Gibson at his Roumania Street home. Three men carrying revolvers, their faces masked by handkerchieves, approached them from the Servia Street corner and told the two RUC men to put their hands up. Anderson drew his revolver and at least one of the gunmen opened fire. Anderson was hit in the wrist and staggered out into the road where a second bullet hit him in the stomach. Fahy threw himself on the ground. He then fired off a few shots from his revolver but didn’t manage to hit anyone. The gunmen escaped back down Servia Street. The next day a revolver, with two chambers empty, was found inside the railings of Dunville Park, five hundred metres away. One eyewitness reported that the three young men involved were followed by four youths, suggesting this was an organised IRA operation. During the night Anderson died from his wounds in hospital. It is not clear now whether the attack on the RUC in Roumania Street was planned, although it has echoes of the attack carried out on orders from the Belfast O/C in Durham Street the previous year (as described above). George Gibson reportedly moved out of the house to an unknown destination the next day.

In response, the RUC flooded the district with Lancia cars and carried out a series of raids over the next couple of days, mainly between 4 am and 5 am in the mornings. They swooped and arrested suspected IRA volunteers in Belfast, including most of the Belfast staff. In the early morning of Friday 13th alone, they detained thirty-three men across the city. By the Friday evening the RUC had served detention orders on forty-nine men who had been moved into Crumlin Road Prison. At one stage sixty men were detained but no prosecution was ever made.

While the December 1935 Campbell College raid had led to a running gun battle in which the IRA and RUC blazed off shots at each other to little real effect. At one stage this included an RUC Constable Ian Hay and three IRA volunteers firing revolvers at each other in a kitchen which measured about three and half metres by three metres in which there were also Billy and Cassie Hope, Jean Getty and her two children. Remarkably only Hay was hit, being wounded by four bullets (although he made a full recovery). IRA volunteer Eddie McCartney, who exchanged shots with the RUC elsewhere that evening was captured and sentenced to ten years.

Two months later, an IRA party drilling off the Glen Road on the night of 9th February was observed by an RUC sergeant who tried to use cover to get close and observe them. The IRA look-out had spotted him though and jumped out brandishing a revolver. In the ensuing struggle, the look-out fired off two shots but lost the revolver.  As the look-out ran off the sergeant fired two shots after him but was knocked to the ground by the other IRA volunteers who also made good their escape.

In the week after De Valera’s new constitution came into force in January 1938, a pressure group within the IRA carried out an unauthorised attack, on this occasion trying to kill an ex-prison warder, called William Smyth, who Harry White says had a reputation for beatings when he worked in Belfast prison where he had been a warder between 1927 and 1936. Smyth now worked as a night watchman on Divis Street in the stables of Wordie and Company. While he had worked in Belfast prison he was believed to be under threat and had been placed under RUC protection, but that had been withdrawn. On the night of 5th January, six IRA volunteers entered the yard, all carrying revolvers at 8.20 pm. They confronted Smith and one opened fire, wounding Smith four times, with one wound just above the heart.

When they were leaving the scene, four of the IRA volunteers ran into RUC Sergeant Latimer and Constable Patrick Murphy in a patrol car. In court the RUC were to claim to have been unaware of the shooting and had merely observed four men ‘jaywalking’ on Divis Street. Latimer and Murphy had decided to intercept them after they headed into John Street across the waste ground at the corner of Divis Street and John Street. They seem to have intended to check out the ‘jaywalkers’ as they rejoined the footpath at other side of the waste ground in John Street. When the IRA volunteers observed the RUC car turning into John Street, they presumed that the RUC were aware of the shooting that had just taken place. The IRA volunteers had barely rejoined the footpath when the RUC patrol appears to have passed them. Thinking that the RUC were aware that the shooting had just taken place, one IRA volunteer opened fire at the car. Even though the range was short the shots missed and one passed through the window of Theresa McNally’s house, number 20 on the other side of John Street, smashing a flower pot on the windowsill and then hitting the fire place. A chaotic chase by the RUC followed.

The patrol car’s attempt to cut off the escaping IRA volunteers in John Street was now delayed by a children’s bonfire that stopped the car going any further along the street. With the patrol car now in their way, one volunteer had to roll under the side of car and out the other side then run off. Latimer and Murphy had to dismount the car and follow the men on foot along John Street. They thought they had one IRA volunteer cornered where he had ran through the front door of a house close to the end of John Street. Latimer and Murphy then burst into the house with their weapons at the ready only to find he had ran straight through and disappeared over the yard wall. In the end all six IRA volunteers escaped.

Map Wordle

The stables of Wordie and Co was located roughly opposite the end of Barrack Street (on Divis Street). The IRA unit escaped across the road into John Street.

Another IRA volunteer (one of the two who hadn’t tried to escape along John Street) left his revolver on a windowsill as they left the scene. A local girl picked it up only for the IRA volunteer to return, take it off her and put it back on the windowsill (this appears to have been pre-arranged – the weapon was being left to be picked up and returned to an IRA arms dump). It had disappeared by the time the RUC heard the story and turned up looking for it.  Smyth’s wounds were almost fatal, but he managed to make a full recovery.

Another attempt to storm a house was then made in August 1940 when the RUC got suspicious of a man who ran into a house in Baker Street. Up to five RUC constables drew their revolvers and then tried to storm the house. A crowd then formed at the house which the RUC tried (and failed) to disperse by firing shots in the air. But then IRA volunteers, who had gathered at the top of the street, opened fire on the RUC constable who had been left to guard the door. More RUC constables then joined in and up to sixty shots were exchanged. In the end RUC reinforcements arrived to extract the party from Baker Street. Further raids were then carried out in the area leading to twelve arrests.

In July 1941, the Belfast IRA made an attempt to raid the head office of McAleveys bookmakers in Berry Street. A six-man IRA unit took part, gaining entrance to the office at around 7 pm when the takings were being counted. Staff managed to raise the alarm and two B Specials appeared as the IRA unit were about to leave empty-handed. The Specials opened fire on the IRA unit in the doorway of the bookmakers. Only one volunteer got clean away, despite having the B Specials fire a shot after him. Of the remaining five, Robert Dempsey sustained stomach wounds, while Thomas Marley, Gerry Watson, Gerry McAvoy and Bobby McGuinness were all arrested. None of the IRA unit fired a shot during the incident. All five were given ten years in prison a couple of weeks later.

The Belfast IRA and politics, up to 1969

The recent release of the film 66 Days about the hunger strike of IRA Volunteer Bobby Sands in 1981 has attracted considerable publicity. One of the notable things about the commentary around the film is the received wisdom that the 1981 hunger strike set the IRA on the road to politicisation (or words to that effect). Yet repeatedly, in the period from 1922 to the 1960s, the IRA had participated in a variety of political projects. The 1980-81 hunger strike and the blanket protest that began with Kieran Nugent in 1976 started barely twelve years after Billy McMillen, then Belfast Battalion O/C, stood in West Belfast in the 1964 general election (the ‘Tricolour Riots’).

Republican election headquarters, Belfast, 1964

Political projects supported by the IRA didn’t usually extend to officially supporting candidates in elections to either local authorities or the northern parliament. Yet, paradoxically, the IRA usually stood candidates in elections to the Westminster parliament (which it explicitly wasn’t going to attend). After 1981, the IRA extended the range of elections in which it participated and ultimately loosened its abstentionist policy, however, the impetus was no different to previous initiatives where the concern within the IRA was that political gains would be made by others attempting to cash in on momentum achieved by what it saw as the sacrifices made by IRA volunteers.

In 1933, in the aftermath of the Outdoor Relief and rail strikes of 1932-33, the IRA had supported four candidates in the general election to the northern parliament. Again, in the aftermath of the violence of 1935, the IRA stood (among others) a Belfast Battalion staff officer, Charlie Leddy, in the Westminster election that November (while Leddy was imprisoned in Arbour Hill in Dublin). Leddy polled more than 20,000 votes in West Belfast but still lost to his unionist opponent. Leddy’s Director of Elections was the Belfast Battalion Adjutant, Jimmy Steele, while in 1933 it had been the Belfast O/C Davy Matthews. Prior to 1933, while officially supporting IRA initiatives like Saor Éire and Comhairle na Poblachta, the IRA didn’t stand a candidate in Belfast after the 1924 election (when Hugh Corvin and Paddy Nash stood in Belfast).

The departure of serial political intriguers like Sean McBride from the Army Councill and GHQ in the late 1930s, coincided with both the expansion of the Belfast IRA and a disengagement from electoral politics. During this same period, in 1936 and the mid-1940s, the Belfast IRA absorbed key lessons in the interaction of publicity and prison protests such as hunger strike. These lessons were to be applied with increasing effectiveness from 1972 onwards, with 1940s prisoners like Billy McKee and Joe Cahill now in senior command positions within the IRA. Again, by the late 1940s, perceiving advances being made by various left and ‘republican’ candidates, the IRA co-operated with Sinn Féin in contesting (and outside Belfast), winning electoral contests. During this period, the Anti-Partition League (to some extent a McBride vehicle), the Nationalists (loosely aligned with Fianna Fáil) and a variety of left republicans created a series of dynamics that gave added imperative for the IRA to support candidates in elections. Senior IRA figures, like Jimmy Steele, Frank McGlade and Billy McMillen, continued to be put forward as candidates in Belfast.

Although candidates were stood in Westminster elections up to 1964, no real inroads were made in Belfast. Again, little has been made of the limited military capacity developed by the Belfast Battalion in this period particularly given it’s apparent indifference to the 1956-62 ‘Border’ campaign. Arguably, the Belfast IRA, through a focus on publicity and some limited electoral activity, was beginning to explore political alternatives in the 1950s and 1960s. Mostly, conventional histories view IRA strategy through the prism of its Dublin-based leadership. A recurring friction, though, is almost always evident in the relationship between the Belfast IRA and Dublin throughout this period. The failure of this dynamic was probably more important in 1969 than any dispute over politicisation, militarisation or a leftward trend in IRA strategy and policy. No candidate was put forward in 1966 or 1970, while Albert Price and John Brady (Republican Clubs) stood in 1974. While the Republican Clubs continued to run candidates, the IRA did not support candidates again in Belfast until the 1982 Assembly election.

By the late 1970s many influential voices within the IRA and wider republican community would have been keenly aware of lessons learnt about politicisation, publicity and prison protests in the previous decades. Subsequently the role this learning played in the development of strategy in 1981 seems to have been forgotten or overlooked.

Across the space we have sometimes exchanged shots, or missiles or hard words

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In July 1932, the IRA issued an address to the men and women of the Orange Order, trying to appeal directly to northern Protestants. IRA volunteers in Belfast delivered it door to door in districts like Sandy Row.

The text of the address, below, was also published in An Phoblacht on 16th July 1932:

Fellow Countrymen and Women,

It is a long call from the ranks of the Irish Republican Army to the marching throngs that hold the 12th July Celebrations in North East Ulster. Across the space we have sometimes exchanged shots, or missiles or hard words, but never forgetting that on occasions our ancestors have stood shoulder to shoulder. Some day we will again exchange ideas and then the distance which now separates us will shorten. For we of the Irish Republican Army believe that inevitably the small farmers and wage-earners in the Six County area will make common cause with those of the rest of Ireland, for the common good of the mass of the people in a Free United Irish Republic. Such a conviction is forming itself in an ever increasing number of minds in North East Ulster.

Working-farmers and Wage-earners of North East Ulster! You surely must see that your future is bound up with the mass of the people in the remainder of Ireland. To preserve yourselves from extinction, you and they must combine and go forward to the attainment of A Free Irish Nation within which life and living will be organised and controlled by you to serve your needs and thus end the present economic and social injustices for ever. The industrial capacity, and training of you industrial workers, of North East Ulster ensure you a leading influence and place in the economy and life of a Free Irish Nation.