Was a Belfast IRA commander expelled over a pension application?

Was a Belfast IRA commander expelled from the IRA for making a pension application? One of the files included in the latest release of files from the Military Archives is a pension applications made by Davy Mathews starting in 1933 when he was O/C of the Belfast IRA. In January 1934 he was expelled from the IRA. Nominally the reason for his expulsion was that he had allowed prisoners to sign out of Crumlin Road jail for Christmas in 1933 (against IRA standing orders). But now Mathews pension application documents have been published, it looks like the IRA may have had other reasons to expel him too.

Mathews

Davy Mathews (from Jim McDermot’s ‘Northern Divisions’ book)

Mathews formally made his application for a pension on 1st January 1933. In his application letter he recorded that he had joined the Willie Nelson Sluagh of Fianna Éireann in 1914, progressing to join the Irish Volunteers after 1916. He was then a member of the James Connolly Sluagh whose O/C was Joe McKelvey while Mathews himself was First Lieutenant (Fianna officers held dual membership of Fianna Éireann and the IRA). He was arrested and questioned for a day in 1917 after being observed taking charge of Fianna party drilling in the open. Matthews continued active in IRA throughout the War of Independence and was eventually arrested in September 1922 with Belfast Brigade commander, Paddy Nash, and was imprisoned for possession of a revolver. After his release he was pressed to accept a commission in the newly formed (pro-treaty) National Army but instead he agreed to take charge of an (anti-treaty) IRA flying column in Longford. Before he got there, he was arrested at Easter 1923 and spent time on the Argenta prison ship and Larne Camp from where he was sent to Derry Gaol to spend six weeks in isolation before embarking on a hunger strike. A son born while he was imprisoned was a year old before Mathews saw him when he was released in August 1924.

Interned again in 1925 during the collapse of the Boundary Commission, his mother died on Christmas Day but he was refused leave to attend the funeral. The 1925 internees were only released when the Labour government in London put pressure on the Unionists at the end of January 1926.

Mathews remained active in the IRA as well as a prominent member of the Joe McKelvey GAA club. He recorded in 1933 that he had been O/C of an IRA Battalion three times and arrested each time. In September 1933 he submitted a pension application, giving his own rank as O/C Belfast Battalion since 1928 and recording that he had been made O/C Ulster in 1931 on the IRA’s Army Executive. He named some of those who could vouch for his service in his 1933 application including Maurice Twomey (as IRA Chief of Staff) and Joe McGurk, George Nash and Jimmy Steele (as members of the Belfast Battalion staff). Imprisoned in November 1933, he was then dismissed from the IRA in January 1934 for encouraging prisoners to sign guarantees to get early release for Christmas.

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Page from Davy Mathews pension application on 4/9/1933 naming Moss Twomey as IRA Chief of Staff and Joe McGurk, George Nash and Jimmy Steele as members of Belfast Battalion staff (for original see militaryarchives.ie file 1RB1254 David Mathews)

Since the IRA refused to recognise the authority of either administration in Belfast or Dublin in the 1930s, Mathews application for a pension would have been in violation of IRA standing orders at the time. While this may seem a little odd now, even in later decades the IRA, and Cumann na mBan, refused to let member hold service posts in the north (as they had to take an oath of allegiance to the crown) just as members did not recognise the courts, legal systems or electoral assemblies. Not only that, but Mathews names members of his Belfast Battalion staff and the Chief of Staff (Moss Twomey) on his application. While the IRA enjoyed a quasi-legal status in the south at the time, it seems unlikely that either Twomey or others in IRA GHQ would have been happy with Mathews. Mathews was on the IRA’s Army Executive as O/C Ulster from 1931 and so held a very senior post within the organisation. While the pretext given for his expulsion in January 1934 did not mention the pension application it seems unlikely that it would have been approved or gone unnoticed as part of the process was writing out to those named by applicants to get statement corroborating information on the application.

There is much more on Mathews time as Belfast O/C in the Belfast Battalion bookBelfast Battalion book.

The time line of Belfast IRA commanders has also been updated to reflect the dates given by Mathews (I’ll post more on this another day).

Belfast Brigade IRA files, new release by MSPC

Next month will see a further release of pension files from Military Archives in Dublin. The files are scanned copies of the applications made for a pension by individuals who were active in IRA, Cumann na mBan or Fianna Éireann over the period from 1913 to 1923, or the families. While the files contain information about the applicant they often include accounts of their activities, names of commanding officers and other bits of data that help put together a bigger picture of what was happening. I’ve mapped the 1540 files in the new release (see bottom of this post) to make them searchable by area and name (just click on the map to get a search window). The locations are approximate and you can find more on the address listed in the release from MSPC listing the files (you can view that here).

The files related to the Belfast Brigade due to be released in October 2019 are listed below and include some prominent names such as Dan Branniff, Mick Carolan, Rory Haskins, David McGuinness and Davy Matthews and span the period from before 1916 to the 1930s (when Matthews was O/C of the Belfast Battalion). They includes files on the IRA, Cumann na mBan and Fianna Éireann in Belfast and cover districts like Ardoyne, the Bone, the Falls, Hannahstown, Carrickhill, Smithfield and Sailortown. It is possible that other files with addresses outside Belfast will also contain information on Belfast Brigade activities.

The files released with Belfast addresses are listed below the map at the end of this post.

To search files that are currently available go to the Military Archives website (see here) and then use the search fields. Files can be quite large but include applications, transcripts of interviews about military service, administrative information, supporting letters and other information.

I’ll put together some updates based on the information in the files when they are released.

The map on the October 2019 release is below. You can see more maps on the Belfast IRA here (including maps of the Irish Volunteers in Belfast in 1916, Belfast Brigade of the 3rd Northern Division, Argenta internees etc and much more). And you can read some more about a book on the period (Facts and Figures of the Belfast Pogrom 1920-1922) in Belfast written by Fr John Hassan and suppressed in 1922 here.

Belfast files in the upcoming October 2019 release:

Boomer, Robert John 23 Clondara Street, Belfast

Branniff, Daniel 16 New Dock Street, Belfast

Carolan, Alphonsus 4 Chief Street, Crumlin Road, Ardoyne, Belfast

Carolan, Andrew 80 Chief Street, Belfast (Address in 1921)

Carolan, Michael 80 Chief Street, Belfast (Address in 1916 and 1920)

Cunningham, Edward 15 Wine Tavern Street, Belfast

Donegan, Benedict 12 Ardmoulin Street, Belfast

Elliott, George 8 Slate Street, Belfast (address in 1923)

Flynn, Thomas 3 Raglan Street, Belfast

Graham, Robert 73 Belmont Church Road, Belfast

Gray, Thomas 21 Earl Street, Belfast

Haskin, Robert Columcille 12 Glen Crescent, Falls Road, Anderstown, Belfast

Heathwood, Thomas 31 Upton Street, Belfast

Hegarty, William 449 Crumlin Road, Belfast

Keenan, John 28 California Street, Belfast

Matthews, David 70 Bombay Street, Belfast

McAlea, Joseph 42 Falls Road, Belfast

McCorry, William Braefoot, Hannastown/Hannahstown, Belfast

McGeown, Brigid 58 Earlscourt Street, Belfast

McGrattan, Peter 51 Walton Street, Crumlin Road, Belfast

McGuinness, David 42 Leoville Street, Belfast

McWhinney, Charles 61 Mill Street, Belfast (address in 1915)

McWhinney, James 118 Upper Library Street, Belfast

McWilliams, Patrick 121 Falls Road, Belfast

Moan, Owen 36 Glenview Street, Belfast

Moore, James Ardoyne, Belfast

Stewart, Charles McCaull 18 Parkview Street, Oldpark Road, Belfast

A propaganda photo and some Corr family stories (by Dominic Corr)

 


Corrs BT

This is another classic example of propaganda from 1920-1922. The photograph above was reproduced in the Belfast Telegraph on 20th September 1921 with a second photo (see the end of this post for the second photo). The caption said, “So bad have conditions become in Vere St., Belfast, that the loyalists have had to tunnel the walls of their backyards so as to get to and from their business, the street being under continuous fire from a Sinn Fein locality. Here is a man and child standing in the tunnelled back gardens.

This being the Belfast Telegraph, the family in the foreground are actually Catholics and the houses shown were occupied by Catholics in the upper end of Vere Street. The story behind the photo is even more incredible.

Vere Street had repeatedly witnessed serious violence including in the weeks leading up to the shooting of two women Margaret Ardis and Evelyn Blair on 18th September 1921 (the area subsequently had its own curfew imposed). Two other women had been wounded several days previously and the streets had been swept with machine gun fire earlier in September (one judge referred to Vere Street as the ‘toughest street’  in Belfast). The incidents earlier in September appear to have attracted the press interest that saw the tunnelled back yards being photographed. This happened before the 18th September 1921.

The man in the foreground and the woman in the photo are John and Mary Ann Corr. Far from being loyalists, John and Mary Ann were one of the Catholic families that lived at the North Queen Street end of Vere Street (residents at the upper half of Vere Street were mainly Catholic, the lower half mainly Protestants). What is more, on the evening of 18th September, after Margaret Ardis and Evelyn Blair were killed in lower Vere Street by a shot fired from the upper end, the Corrs had their house searched and John was arrested and charged with their double murder (he was refused bail hence the photograph must date to before the 18th September). This is an example of the type of disinformation and propaganda described by Fr John Hassan in his Facts and Figures of the Belfast Pogrom 1920-1922. The subsequent trial fell apart as eye witness testimony that identified John Corr firing the fatal shot from a rifle fell apart as a soldier testified to being served in Corr’s shop by him at the time of the shooting and post-mortem evidence revealed that the fatal shot had come from a revolver.

Here is Dominic Corr on this story along with some more of the Corr family history. This includes some stories from the 1920s, including the tunnelling of the walls shown in the photograph above. In the same week the photo appeared in the press his Grandfather was framed for the shooting dead of two women on Vere Street during a riot. He had ammunition planted on him during a search (this must have immediately followed the publication of the photograph) and was then brought to trial on a double murder charge (he was acquitted). Dominic includes more details on the Corr family in the 1930s and 1940s, including the imprisonment of his father and uncle and the death of his grandmother and another uncle during the blitz. I’ve included some additional links to previous posts which mention the Corr family at the end.

My grandparents John and Mary Ann Corr reared their family in different homes they lived in north Belfast in and around districts such as Little Patrick Street in Little Italy in the Docklands, Hardinge Street off the New Lodge Rd and Vere Street in the Fenian Gut off North Queen Street. I remember my Da telling me he was born in the room of a house when they lived in residences in a house in Little Patrick Street in an area known as Little Italy off York Street
This district was called this due to the amount of Italian families which had emigrated to Belfast and set up home in this area. My Granda John Patrick, Johnny Corr and his wife Mary Anne moved to a room in another house in Hardinge Street and then to a house they got in Vere Street off North Queen Street when they got their own rented house sometime between 1916 and 1919 close to the district known as the Fenian Gut (see map below).

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The Fenian Gut was an area long since gone of a few streets that were nestled in between York Street Mill and North Queen Street close to the top of Henry Street. Just beyond it were Sussex Street, Vere Street, Grove Street and Earl Street with Cross Street running along one end at the North Queen Street end and Dale Street running along the bottom of Vere Street and Grove Street. All in the shadow of York Street Mill.
Between living in Little Italy, Hardinge Street and the Fenian Gut they had a family of eight children four girls Winnie, Bridget, Josie and Debbie and four boys Arthur (Arder), my father Kevin Barry, Johnny and Freddie.
My Granda Corr had four sisters and my Granny Corr had a twin sister who died in infancy and a brother who lived until 1960 when he died in Manchester. Her maiden name was Bloor which had been anglicised from the Belgian name Bleur and her family emigrated to Ireland from Congelton, Cheshire in England in the mid-1800’s though its believed they originally came from Belgium.
What brought a family originally from Belgium who lived in Cheshire to Ireland during a time of poverty and starvation around the time of an gorta mór? Is anybody’s guess. Her father Frederick was registered as a steeplejack while brother Frederick Bloor was registered as having left a workhouse in Cheshire to emigrate to Ireland. He also joined the navy.
The Corr side of the family came to Belfast from Ballnagilly in Cookstown on the Tyrone side of Lissan. Lissan is a townland situated on a borderline  which straddles both county Tyrone and county Derry  and as far as I know it was my Granda Johnny’s father, also called John, who made that move. After he and his wife Bridget Corr nee McAleer had returned to Ireland from Burrow-on-Furness where they had emigrated to from Ballnagilly in Lissan.
They set up home at 9 Pinkerton Street in the New Lodge area of Belfast after they had lived in Union Place and Columbia Street in Belfast. It has been passed down the family in an oral storyline that when they moved to Belfast he and Bridget had separated  around eight or nine years later and that he may have had other families in Burrow-on-Furness and Coalisland. All that I know his my own Da and his brother Arder hadn’t much of a good word to say about their grandfather John after whatever had happened.

Baker Corrs

The Corrs photo as it appears in Joe Baker’s book The McMahon Murders.

The photograph shown above was taken from a book a while ago after two old New Lodge residents Annie Kelly and Josie Wiggins RIP had brought it to a family members attention and confirmed that the man with the moustache in the front was my Grandfather John Patrick (Johnny) Corr and the woman was his wife my Granny Mary Ann. The picture is said to have been taken in the back yard of a house in the Vere Street, Earl Street, Grove Street and Sussex Street area sometime around 1920/22. When residents dug holes in back yard walls to use as access and escape routes during the unionist/British military  pogroms and sectarian terror attacks which paved the way for the establishment of the six county Stormont state.
My Granda Johnny and his family like many other Irish Catholic families in Belfast had witnessed and been on the receiving end of unionist state violence, harassment and injustice. My Granda Johnny was at one point arrested and charged with a double killing in North Queen Street. Two women, Margaret Ardis aged 22 years old and Evelyn Blair aged 22 years old, who were part of a unionist crowd attacking Vere Street were both killed by a single bullet as a sniper shot them on the 18th of September 1921.
Local folklore had it that both women were dressed in a provocative manner as Mary and Joseph one on a donkey and the other walking the donkey on a leash shouting anti-Catholic profanities at the time of the shooting. The bullet is said to have struck Miss Ardis on the head killing her instantly  passing through her and striking Miss Blair who  died a short time  later in hospital.
My Granda John (Johnny) Patrick  was arrested after the British military raided the family home in Vere Street. My aunt Winnie, who was his oldest daughter, told him not to touch his coat and to register a complaint right away as she had seen a soldier attempting to place ammunition in the pocket of her fathers coat. Johnny asked to speak to whoever was the officer in command of the search telling him to take the soldier who placed the ammunition in his pocket aside.
He explained what Winnie had seen and asked that the commanding officer search both his coat and the soldier to ascertain if he had any missing ammunition. This was done and the bullets found in the coat pocket matched the same number of bullets missing from the magazine of the soldiers rifle. John was still arrested and charged.
The death knell for the case came when another British soldier said that at the time of the shooting he had seen Johnny Corr working in a shop in Garmoyle Street which was around a quarter of a mile away serving someone tobacco.
Johnny maintained his innocence from the time he was arrested right through the trial on charges of this double murder for which he would’ve been hanged if found guilty. This soldier who gave evidence that wrecked the crown case had been involved in an incident in Clonard in which a priest had been shot dead the year before. In July 1920, a Redemptorist member, Brother Michael Morgan, aged 28, was shot dead by a British soldier as Brother Michael was looking out from an upper-storey window of the monastery adjoining the church.
Johnny was released as the crowns case against him collapsed. Family members have gained access to the actual charge sheet and witness statements which contradicted each other and some made little or no sense. Despite several attempts  to gain access to documents relating to this actual trial and acquittal from PRONI public records office by members of our family we have yet to have any success.
In the years later he moved between Belfast, the south of Ireland and England to work as the candy and tobacco shop he ran in Garmoyle Street closed. In 1928 Johnny and Mary Ann had a young son Johnny he died as an infant a year later as a result of cardiac failure due to chronic bronchitis and pneumonia. In the mid 1930’s onwards Arder, Kevin Barry and Bridget were involved in the IRA and Cumman na mBan in Belfast.
Arder was sentenced in the late 1930’s to seven years in Belfast prison Crumlin Road Gaol. It was during this term of imprisonment as a republican political prisoner that his mother Mary Ann and youngest brother Freddie, who was 11 years old, both died on Easter Tuesday 1941 during the Luftwaffe blitz on Belfast.
They were killed when bombs dropped by the Luftwaffe exploded on York Street Mill which was said to have been the biggest spinning mill in the world at that time. The main side wall of the six storey mill collapsed on top of their home and many other houses in Vere Street and Sussex Street off North Queen Street killing and injuring many of the residents.
Their bodies along with many others were brought to the Falls Road bath’s which at the time was turned into an emergency morgue. When my Granny Corr died she was 48 years old along with her youngest child Freddie who was 11 years old. She left behind her husband Johnny Patrick, four daughters Winnie, Bridget, Josie and Debbie and two sons Arthur and my father Kevin Barry who was 19 years old at the time.
My aunt Josie received burns to her arm and chest in a different house in Vere Street as she was blown onto the hearth of the open fire and my aunt Debbie was found in another house in Vere Street trapped inside the chimney as in the panic they couldn’t make it to their own family home at the time the bombs were being dropped. People had been running in and out of houses in panic as the Luftwaffe planes dropped the bombs.
My father was at a dance in St Marys Hall off Chapel Lane and they were locked in as the bombs dropped.
When the air raid had finished and word spread of the houses demolished in Sussex Street and Vere Street my father was told his mother and younger brother had been killed and were taken to the Falls Rd baths. My Da who at that time was an active republican made his way to the baths and was shown in by a friendly attendant where he was able to unofficially identify his mother and brother. My Granda Johnny Patrick  had been working in England at the time. As a result of this the coroner said the oldest son would have to identify my Granny and Freddie’s bodies.
My uncle Arthur (Arder) was the eldest son at 25 years old but was a sentenced republican prisoner in Crumlin Road Gaol at the time. He got compassionate parole to identify his mother and brother. He was brought from the Gaol to the Falls baths in handcuffs which he wore throughout the process of identification and his return to the Gaol.
I watched a documentary programme from the 1990’s about the blitz. When a man who had worked in the Falls baths as an attendant at the emergency morgue almost cried as he recounted how Arder was handcuffed and a detective stood between him his mother and brother making sure he couldn’t touch them or have any physical contact with either of them.
After Arthur was returned to Crumlin Road Gaol the Catholic Bishop at the time had to intervene on the family’s behalf so Arder could get paroled a second time for his mother and brothers joint funerals. My Granda was contacted in England and told of the deaths of his wife and their youngest child. He returned to his family to bury his wife and son.
A year later our Granda Johnny died on the 17th of July 1942 from throat cancer and his son Arder was refused compassionate parole to visit his father yards away in the Mater hospital next door to Crumlin Road Gaol or go his father’s funeral.
Less than two months later my father Kevin Barry and Arder were to lose their friend and comrade Tom Williams a nineteen year old political prisoner and IRA member hanged in Belfast prison Crumlin Road Gaol.
Tom was hanged as a result of being involved in an IRA operation in which an RUC constable Patrick Murphy was shot dead. My uncle Arder who was a fellow Irish republican political prisoner at the time wrote a song in tribute and honour of Tom, The Ballad of Tom Williams, while he was in his cell in Crumlin Road Gaol shortly after Tom Williams was hanged on the 2nd of September 1942.
Within months Arder was to get a pleasant surprise, well all depending at what way you look at it. A screw opened his cell door to tell him he had a special visitor, and it would be a long visit, as his younger brother, my father Kevin Barry, was pushed into his cell.
He had been arrested after months on the run when he was found in a warehouse in Belfast docks having taken ill with pneumonia.
He was brought under armed guard to the Mater hospital where he was held under guard for almost a fortnight and then brought to the Gaol next door. On his introduction both my father and Arder started a protest in refusing to share a cell as it meant the prison authorities were attempting to double men up in cells. Meaning they could make room to bring more Irish republican political prisoners into the Gaol. Arder had a habit of protesting and annoying the screws and governor so much so that he was whipped with the cat-o-nine-tails.
In this instance the governor and a screw called Witherspoon who were trying to act clever. Saying as they were brothers and due to all they and their family had been through, they should be glad to be reunited and share a cell together. Both refused and in an act of vindictiveness the governor moved Arder to Derry Gaol and kept my Da in the Crum. He was escorted to Derry gaol by the screw Witherspoon who took great joy in telling him what he was going to do to his younger brother now he was in the Crumlin  Road Gaol without Arder. The screw’s joy ended in a wisely judged silence as Arder recounted to him a lot of personal details about himself and other members of the Witherspoon family.
Arder received a sentence within Derry Gaol which resulted in him being forcibly tied to a rack and flogged with a whip which was known as the cat-o-nine-tails. It was a whip which had nine strands which had weights on the end of each one. It was a brutal method of torture inflicted on political prisoners who the prison authorities deemed as dangerous and problematic figures who posed a threat to the status quo within a prison.
By that stage their sisters had moved in with aunts and Bridget in particular came under serious harassment from the RUC as she was in Cumann na mBan in Belfast. My father was released after being interned for three and a half years and Arder was released after serving his sentence.

You can read more about Arder Corr and the Ballad of Tom Williams here and the Corr family, including Dominic’s aunt Bridget are mentioned in this account of the violence in the area in 1935. The trial of Margaret Ardis (22) and Evelyn Blair (22), eye witnesses claimed two men, one of them they claimed was John Corr, had come out of a house close to the Corr’s house, went to the corner of Dale Street and fired two shots, the second hitting both Ardis and Blair as they leant out of the doorway of 6 Vere Street. In court, it was stated that the two women were killed with a revolver bullet, not a rifle bullet, and military witnesses testified that they were exchanging fire with a single gunman further up Vere Street when the two women were hit. None of the military witnesses could identify the gunman and John Corr’s alibi was sufficient to prove his innocence.

The second of the two photographs that features in the Belfast Telegraph on 20th September 1921 is online in Getty Images and was taken by George Rinhart (see below). The photo on Getty Images shows the same tunnelling between backyards in Vere Street with John Corr’s left arm appearing (out of focus) in the foreground on the left of the picture. In the top left, just over the yard wall, you can just make out the chimneys of houses on Sussex Street. Behind them, you can see the upper storeys of the York Street Mill looming over Sussex Street and Vere Street. On 16th April, 1941, German bombers brought the six storey high mill wall down on top of Sussex Street and Vere Street killing at least 35 people including the Corrs and my own grandfather’s first cousin, James O’Boyle.

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Facts and Figures of the Belfast Pogrom

This is the story of one of the most curious books in Ireland.

Facts and Figures of the Belfast Pogrom 1920-1922‘ by G.B. Kenna is a book very much shrouded in mystery. Written and printed in 1922, thousands of copies were printed for distribution but only eighteen ended up in circulation. The rest were apparently pulped to prevent the book reaching the shops. It is, of course, well known that the author wasn’t actually ‘G.B. Kenna’ but the name of the publisher, the ‘O’Connell Publishing Company, Dublin’ similarly appears to be fictitious. So, what was going on?

Cover of the original edition of Facts and Figures of the Belfast Pogrom 1920-1922

The book began in the work of the Publicity Committee of the Provisional Government in 1922 (as the early Free State government was known). Michael Collins had sent Cork man Patrick O’Driscoll to Belfast in mid-February 1922 to gather statements on the intense violence that had been happening in the city. Northern IRA units had been sending a stream of intelligence reports to Dublin with accounts of the violence since 1920. It had always been assumed by Collins, IRA GHQ and others, that these accounts exaggerated not just the extent of the violence, but Craig and the Unionists’ role in inciting it, and the behaviour of the B Specials and others that had led Belfast Catholics to label it as a ‘pogrom’ (the use of the term ‘pogrom’ is discussed further below). Given the disputes over the Anglo-Irish Treaty he signed in December 1921, at the very least, Collins now needed the northern IRA units to not openly oppose the treaty. O’Driscoll being sent was likely part of the same trust-building exercise by pro-treaty supporters in Dublin that had included a promise of arms and ammunition to the northern IRA units if they backed the treaty. Highly regarded by Collins, O’Driscoll (later a Dáil reporter) was to explore the truth of the ‘pogrom’ claims.

The statements and information O’Driscoll collected began to be appear in Provisional Government bulletins during March 1922. Collins likely sought to use the revelations as leverage during his own negotiations with the northern Unionist leader Sir James Craig (these negotiations led to the Craig-Collins Pacts). O’Driscoll also advised Collins that the Catholic bishops and community leaders were demanding that someone publish a detailed exposé to counteract the propaganda the unionist press had been printing since 1920. This included funerals of Catholics being wrongly reported as IRA victims, attacks on Catholics being wrongly ascribed to the IRA and photographs of damaged ‘Protestant’ homes that had actually been owned by ‘Catholics’. [You can read more about a typical example, Weaver Street, here.]

Collins asked the Catholic Bishop of Down and Conor, Joseph MacRory, to release Father John Hassan, the administrator in St Mary’s, Chapel Lane in the centre of Belfast, to work on gathering suitable material for a book. Hassan had previously been the parish priest in St Joseph’s in Sailortown and was familiar with, and well known in, the districts which had seen the most violence. He had also been recording the details of events since 1920. Hassan set out to gather information to address the black propaganda issues (sometimes at the expenses of completeness in his statistics).


Fr John Hassan (courtesy of his great grand nephew, Niall Hassan)

Hassan, however, told O’Driscoll that he personally didn’t feel up to the task of writing a book on the subject and it was agreed with Collins that it be entrusted to a member of the Publicity Committee, Alfred O’Rahilly, who would be supplied with the necessary information by Hassan. O’Rahilly, a noted mathematician and theologian, was the Registrar of University College Cork and had been the constitutional advisor to the treaty delegation in 1921. He had helped draft a constitution for the new Irish Free State earlier in 1922 and was very much a Catholic intellectual, having initially trained as a Jesuit. O’Driscoll said that O’Rahilly was going to write “…one of the most powerful indictments of Orangeism ever published” (see J. Anthony Gaughan’s biography of O’Rahilly).

Special Branch photo of Alfred O’Rahilly who it labels as Director of SF Propaganda

After the Provisional Government’s North East Advisory Committee met on 11th April 1922 to review events, O’Rahilly met with Collins on the 20th and agreed to write the book. In early May he sent an outline to Kevin O’Higgins’ secretary (Patrick McGilligan) but O’Rahilly was then busy with university business until June. As Kieron Glennon has pointed out (in From Pogrom to Civil War), the dire reports from the north at the 11th April meeting and O’Driscoll’s eye witness accounts surely alarmed Collins and Richard Mulcahy over their capacity to retain the confidence of northern IRA units. Mulcahy had been Chief of Staff of the IRA and was now Chief of Staff of the new Free State’s ‘National Army’. They then agreed to an abortive, disorganised and ultimately futile northern offensive by the IRA in mid-May 1922. That offensive eroded most of the northern IRA’s remaining resources and capacity to no obvious purpose (other than perhaps diverting their attention from events further south).

In early June, O’Driscoll wrote to O’Rahilly to advise him that all the necessary material was now available. He also told O’Rahilly that Fr Hassan was starting to get uneasy as he hadn’t yet heard from O’Rahilly. By now, though, the outbreak of hostilities between pro- and anti-treaty supporters had taken centre stage in the south. The Provisional Government set-up a new North East Policy Committee without Collins but including the likes of Ernest Blythe, a republican with a northern Protestant background. Hassan continued to work on collecting information for the book. O’Rahilly’s public standing, though, meant that he was caught up in attempts to broker peace between pro- and anti-treaty supporters in Cork and he seems to have been unable to commit to completing his part of the work at the time. According to Gaughan it was then decided that, as an interim report, Hassan would publish the information he had gathered to date as a book. This was to be funded by Collins and O’Rahilly would follow it with his own devastating polemic in due course.

So Hassan pulled together the material he had gathered to date. He appears to have finished up at the start of August as the book contains details of sentences handed out in court in Belfast on the same date that he wrote the foreword, 1st August 1922. The foreword explicitly set out the motivation behind writing the book: “…to place before the public a brief review of the disorders that have made the name of Belfast notorious… A well-financed Press propaganda… has already succeeded in convincing vast numbers of people, especially in England, that the victims were the persecutors… What the Catholics of Belfast would desire most of all…is an impartial tribunal set up by Government to investigate the whole tragic business… considering the magnitude of these outrages…?

But by the 1st August 1922 Michael Collins had only three weeks left to live.

The timing seems to be quite significant. On 2nd August Collins and the northern IRA units had agreed to cease offensive operations in the north and were instead to adopt a policy of passive resistance and non-recognition of the Northern Ireland government. The 3rd August issue of the Irish Bulletin from the Publicity Committee included a summary of some of the information gathered by Hassan. The next day the Freeman’s Journal called it a “…an admirable antidote to the lying propaganda which has been flooding this country for many months past.

However, Ernest Blythe made very different proposals to the North East Policy Committee a few days later on 9th August. Instead, Blythe suggested that they should push the IRA and northern Catholics to recognise the authority of the Northern Ireland government and actively support it. However Blythe’s rationale was that the current policy (non-conciliation) was supported by the (anti-treaty) IRA and so the Provisional Government should reverse its position on the north as a way of “…attacking them [the IRA] all along the line.” Furthermore, Blythe wrote, “The ‘Outrage’ propaganda should be dropped in the Twenty-Six Counties. It can have no effect but to make certain of our people see red which will never do us any good.” Blythe effectively proposed sacrificing the book, details of the Belfast pogrom and revealing the truth of what had happened in Belfast since 1920 for tactical reasons during the civil war. Perhaps to test the public reaction, Blythe’s proposals were clearly leaked to some newspapers, such as the Donegal News, which reported them on 12th August as ‘rumours circulating in Dublin’. The leaks claimed they were actually proposals that had been agreed between a northern bishop and a leading British cabinet minister (this may have been mischievous as Blythe, at least, knew that Bishop MacRory had recently met Lloyd George in London). On 19th August the Provisional Government endorsed Blythe’s proposals.

Ernest Blythe

Presuming Hassan had immediately given his manuscript to the printers, it seems unlikely that it had been composited, printed and bound before either the 19th August when Blythe had the Provisional Government agree to drop it or Collins’ death on 22nd August (Collins was apparently to meet with Alfred O’Rahilly the night after he was killed). As such, it seems likely that the book was literally in the printers when Collins died. Since Collins hadn’t yet challenged other members of the Provisional Government over endorsement of Blythe’s proposals, or had a chance to argue they should be dropped, Blythe’s policy stood and that was the end of Facts and Figures of the Belfast Pogrom 1920-1922. For now.

Hassan’s own obituary in the Irish Independent (5/1/1939) confirms the story but adds a different spin to the reason why the book was censored, “By order of the Provisional Government an edition, running into many thousand copies, was printed for distribution on a world-wide scale, but before the time of publication things in the North took a better turn, and it was decided not to proceed further with it.” Hassan being from Banagher in Derry, he had a lengthy obituary in the Derry Journal (6/1/1939) which also confirms that “…when printed, the publication had been withdrawn…” although the Derry Journal implied that had happened earlier in 1922, during the Craig-Collins talks (which is clearly incorrect based on the content of the book). In a 1970 article in the Irish Examiner (9/9/1970), historian Andrew Boyd was closer to the truth in suggesting that the Provisional Government thought publication of the book “…was more likely to incite war than promote peace.

While Boyd’s phrasing suggests slightly more altruistic motives, failure to publish the book may have had much more longer term repercussions. Many of the issues raised throughout the book, and much of Hassan’s language, finds dark echoes in the violence in Belfast in 1935 and again from 1969 onwards. Given that between January 1919 and June 1922, around 20% of all War of Independence fatalities occurred in Belfast, the almost absolute absence of meaningful histories of the period in Belfast, until ‘Facts and Figures’ was eventually made widely available in 1997, is still astonishing. A moment, which could have possibly seen some sort of coming to terms with the immediate past in 1922, was entirely missed. Failing to quickly unpack the legacy of 1920-1922 may also have been crucial to creating the type of long-term dynamics around ‘dealing with the past’ that we still see today. While the Provisional Government effectively censored reporting on the violence in Belfast after 19th August 1922, the likes of Belfast Newsletter and Northern Whig could continue, unchallenged, to dismiss accounts of the violence as shameless propaganda.

A final key point, here, is in the use of the term ‘pogrom’ in the books title. In recent decades, historians like Robert Lynch and Alan Parkinson have been at pains to dismiss the use of the term. However, contemporary commentators who had witnessed the violence in Belfast in 1920-1922, had absolutely no qualms about using it. Ironically, the current accepted definition of ‘pogrom’, used by the likes of Werner Bergmann and David Engels, is “…a unilateral, non-governmental form of collective violence initiated by the majority population against a largely defenseless ethnic group”. That collective violence generally manifests as riots and is directed at the minority group collectively rather than targeting specific individuals. There is also an the implication that officials have connived at it, but not directly organised it. This is exactly how Hassan uses the term, but not Lynch or Parkinson [Lynch claims, for it to be a pogrom, victims should be mostly women and children, Parkinson that it should be state organised. Neither interpretation is consistent with current accepted definitions of a ‘pogrom’]. Kieron Glennon, though, thought it appropriate and used the term in the title of his From Pogrom to Civil War.

Today, pretty much no-one will want the term ‘pogrom’ used. But as pointed out earlier, the real moment for coming to terms with all this likely passed with the original suppression of ‘Facts and Figures’ in 1922. Yet Hassan himself makes the most important point of all in his own dedication at the start of the book. Proportionally, very few people took an active part in the pogrom, and of those many were likely caught up in it rather than instrumental in making it happen. Hassan makes that point explicitly at the start of the book, dedicating it to that vast majority who took no hand or part in it: “The many Ulster Protestants, who have always lived in peace and friendliness with their Catholic neighbours, this little book dealing with the acts of their misguided co-religionists, is affectionately dedicated.

Facts and Figures of the Belfast Pogrom 1920-1922 by G.B. Kenna, in its original cover, is available again now via Amazon.

Kieron Glennon’s From Pogrom to Civil War is published by Mercier Press. The details of Ernest Blythe’s proposals to the North East Policy Committee are included in his papers in UCD (IEUCDAP24) and quoted at length by Glennon.

J. Anthony Gaughan’s biography of O’Rahilly, Alfred O’Rahilly is published by Kingdom Books.

The appropriateness of the term ‘pogrom’ is discussed by Robert Lynch (in his 2008 paper in the Journal of British Studies, “The People’s Protectors? The Irish Republican Army and the “Belfast Pogrom,” 1920-1922”) and Alan Parkinson in The Unholy War (published by Four Courts).

For a discussion of Werner Bergmann’s definition of a pogrom see Heitmeyer and Hagan’s survey paper in International Handbook of Violence Research, Volume 1. David Engels views are reviewed in Dekel-Chen, Gaunt, Meir and Bartal’s Anti-Jewish Violence. Rethinking the Pogrom in East European History.

Thanks to Martin Molloy and Niall Hassan for the photograph of Fr Hassan. Father John Hassan was born in Coolnamon, near Feeney in Derry in 1875 and went to school first at Fincairn, then Ballinascreen, then St. Columbs in 1892. In 1894 he went to Maynooth and then Rome the following year where he was ordained in St John Laterans by Cardinal Respighi on 9th June 1900. He was fluent in Italian, French and German as well as Irish and English. He returned to the Down and Conor diocese in Ireland, serving in parishes in Ballycastle, Castlewellan, Downpatrick and Kilkeel before he was transferred to Belfast, firstly to St Josephs in Sailortown in1910. He moved to St Mary’s, Chapel Lane in 1916 where he was involved in the events described above, staying there until 1929 when he moved as parish priest to Ballymoney were he died in 1939 (from Derry Journal, 6/1/1939). 

Billy McKee, 1921-2019

The death of veteran Belfast republican Billy McKee has been reported this morning.

Born in 1921, he had joined Fianna Éireann in his teens against the backdrop of intermittent violence in the 1930s. He was then arrested in the McKelvey Club in Rockmount Street in November 1938 along with twenty-three others. The McKelvey Club was the base for the GAA club of the same name. Membership of the club was confined to IRA and Fianna members and provided them with an opportunity to bypass the Special Powers Act restrictions on political activity to hold meetings. All twenty-three arrested in the McKelvey Club were charged with illegal drilling and got several months in prison or fines. McKee spent a few weeks in Crumlin Road and, when I had the opportunity to meet him in researching the Belfast Battalion book a few years ago, he told me of how cold he was in that first night in prison after being roughed up. He remembered lying in the cell and looking up to see a figure with his head in his hands sitting on the pipes that ran along the wall. McKee was in the cell on his own, though, and thinks he then passed out.

After his release he joined the IRA but was again arrested when the RUC raided a meeting of the Belfast Battalion’s D Company in Getty Street on 15th August 1940. Fifteen IRA members present were charged under the Treason Felony Act and sentenced to seven years in November that year. McKee, like other long term sentenced prisoners (there were around 130 by 1943), was confined in A wing in Crumlin Road. The Unionist government had never developed facilities suitable for long term prisoners and previously had sent them to Peterhead in Scotland instead. To avoid paying a subsidy for Peterhead, minor modifications were made to A wing although it still lacked any of the facilities required for prisoners with tariffs above two years.

There were significant tensions in the prison at the time. A major escape then took place from A wing on 15th January 1943, when former IRA Chief of Staff, Hugh McAteer, Northern Command Adjutant Jimmy Steele, Pat Donnelly and Ned Maguire accessed the roof, climbed down over three storeys on a rope made of blankets then scaled the prison wall. A second team was to follow. According to McKee, he had been advised by John Graham (one of the second team) to take his chances after they had gone. As it happened, the last of the first team was spotted (although he got away). McKee recalled the moment he knew his chance was gone when the chief prison officer on duty, a Cork man named Ríordan, strode into the circle of Crumlin Road Prison shouting “Lock them up! Lock them up!”. Even in his 90s, McKee’s memory was extraordinarily sharp, as was his story telling, particularly when discussing the 1940s (as I was only interested in the period up to 1969-1970, we didn’t really discuss anything later). At one point, as he reminisced about individuals from that time, he waved his arm at the sofa in his living room and said that time in his life was so vivid that when he talked about it, it was like he could see the men he mentioned all just sitting in the room.

The response to the January 1943 escape was ‘rough treatment’ (Joe Cahill had called it a ‘reign of terror’). That included constant searches and beatings. Prison protests including a strip strike and hunger strikes followed. The tactics employed in the 1943 and 1944 hunger strikes in Armagh and Crumlin Road were learnt from when McKee went on hunger strike himself, much later, in 1972. On the latter occasion, McKee also was reflecting a similar concern from 1945 when internees were released while sentenced prisoners often had to serve several more years prior to their release. McKee eventually got out on license in 1946 and returned to the IRA (less than 20% of those imprisoned in the 1940s did so).

Front cover, Republican News during McKee’s hunger strike (4th June 1972)

The next phase for the Belfast IRA, and McKee, was more political than military, with the Belfast Battalion remaining small in size (in part as a reaction to the security problems with informers that had come with expansion in the 1930s). A rapprochement with Sinn Féin by 1950, was followed by some electoral successes although mainly outside Belfast. The border campaign that followed was viewed in Belfast (according to McKee), as a fiasco from the start. McKee, like many of the Belfast Battalion, was rapidly interned in Crumlin Road. Back in prison he acted as a key figure in sourcing and operating linesmen (prison staff and others who would carry message in and out of the prison) and was a central figure in networking between the sentenced prisoners in A wing, internees in D wing and the IRA outside the prison.

On his release from internment McKee became Belfast OC (in IRA parlance meaning ‘officer commanding’ or ‘oifigeach ceantair’) and had to rebuild the Belfast Battalion from scratch. He described himself to me as a socialist but said that it was clear even in the early 1960s that Cathal Goulding, then IRA Chief of Staff, just didn’t understand the sectarian dynamics in Belfast and that there was this bizarre belief that organisations like the Orange Order, Apprentice Boys or B Specials were simply ripe to be infiltrated and converted to hotbeds of Irish republicanism. Much of the Belfast Battalion’s energy and meager resources were taken up with publishing a newspaper, Tírghrá, edited by Jimmy Steele, while he, McKee and others established and maintained physical memorials for dead republicans through the National Graves Association. A dispute over flying the tricolour at a Wolfe Tone commemoration in Belfast in 1963 saw McKee abruptly resign from the IRA leaving Billy McMillen to take over as OC (McMillen had defected to the more militant Saor Uladh group in the mid-1950s and only returned in 1962 to become McKee’s Adjutant).

McKee spent the remainder of the 1960s active in the likes of the National Graves Association and former republican prisoners groups, like the Felons. The large Belfast network of former republican activists from the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s and 1950s monitored political developments closely and critically, fearing the language and street violence and then deaths arising from contemporary unionist opposition to the civil rights campaigns presaged more intense violence as in 1920-22 and 1935. It was felt that the IRA and Belfast Battalion were intent on disregarding this threat.

In that regard, the reaction to events in mid-August 1969 was remarkably muted. While McMillen and much of his Battalion staff were briefly interned, McKee, Steele, Cahill and others organized makeshift IRA units and defences and used former connections to try and source arms from old IRA dumps. When McMillen was released, McKee and John Kelly led a delegation to the next Battalion staff meeting (which had to officially sanction McMillen’s reinstatement as OC). McKee dismissed that idea that the meeting was fractious (he says it was just a conversation) although he said that when he arrived McMillen wasn’t there but his Adjutant, Jim Sullivan, was and that Sullivan “…couldn’t do anything without shouting.“. When McMillen arrived they settled down to business – McKee asked for four people to be nominated to the Battalion staff, based on the units put together in McMillen’s absence. They requested that monies that had been donated for arms (and now under Goulding’s control) be used for that purpose – Goulding seemingly wanted the money used for political projects instead. The main request, as a response to the failures of the IRA that summer, was that Goulding be replaced by Sean Garland (another prominent left republican in the IRA) and other senior figures loyal to Goulding step down (but not McMillen). The Belfast Battalion, they believed, should refuse to recognise the authority of IRA GHQ until this was done.

The subsequent fallout over the IRA’s performance in the summer of 1969 led to two competing IRA Army Council’s being formed, with McKee assuming the role of OC of the now expanded Belfast Brigade loyal to the ‘provisional’ Army Council. While I hadn’t explored any details of McKee’s subsequent career, one point we did discuss was Jimmy Steele’s sudden death in August 1970, only weeks after McKee himself had been shot and badly wounded. He had just returned to Belfast and said Steele had been working on a profile to use to restrict IRA membership as they believed that the experience of the 1930s and 1940s had taught them that the Belfast IRA was more effective when small and less prone to security issues or those motivated more by sectarian intent than republicanism. McKee had arrived at Steele’s Clondara Street home and sat down, not realising Steele had died that morning. He said Steele’s wife, Anna, had come in to him and had to tell him. We were sitting in McKee’s own living room, some forty years later. McKee suddenly stopped talking. He then ran his left hand down his right arm and stopped at the elbow and said “It was like losing my right arm.” The remainder of McKee’s career as OC of the Belfast Brigade will likely dominate reports of his death. Yet McKee, like the post-1969 political and conflict landscape had been closely shaped by the experience of the preceding decades.

McKee was one of the last senior figures linking the pre-1969 IRA (which was the subject of the Belfast Battalion book) and events from 1970 onwards. Time had made him a reluctant historical subject which was a great pity both from the point of view of his own story telling abilities and his sharp memory. The conflict that intensified from 1969 hadn’t simply appeared from nowhere, nor had the different influences within the IRA that shaped the 1969-1970 split, the longer term impact of sectarian violence in Belfast in the decades before the 1960s or even the methodologies and tactics of the civil rights campaigns (which were mainly rooted in long term republican opposition to the abuses under the Special Powers Acts). McKee’s life and career spanned many of these events and everyone would have benefitted from a better understanding of each other in learning how history unfolded if we could create an environment in which history telling itself was less contested.

You can read a report on McKee’s death here in The Irish News: http://www.irishnews.com/news/northernirelandnews/2019/06/13/news/provisional-ira-founder-billy-mckee-dies-1640479/?param=ds441rif44T

Billy McKee, 1921-2019

The 1944 IRA hunger strike

Seventy-five years ago this week, IRA sentenced prisoners in Crumlin Road ended a hunger-strike that had begun just over forty days earlier, on the 22nd February 1944. The hunger strike was the latest in a sequence of prison protests that had included a strip strike in mid-1943 and an earlier hunger strike by the female prisoners in Armagh Gaol in the winter of 1943. After the IRA finally began its long delayed campaign in England in January 1939, it had failed to reinvigorate the campaign by transferring its focus to the north. By the middle of 1943, in the face of the loss of key personnel and lack of resources and with no imminent prospect of a Versailles style post-war conference, the emphasis shifted to the prisons and publicity coups in what IRA Chief of Staff Hugh McAteer later described as an attempt to ‘preserve the spirit’ of the movement.

The circumstances of the IRA in the north, at this point, were now considerably removed from that of the generation who were active from 1916 to 1922. From the Easter Rising onwards, conflict with the British authorities and then Free State and Northern Ireland authorities had indeed seen many republicans interned or sentenced to terms in prison. Despite the widespread republican experience of internment and imprisonment between 1916 to 1924, the typical period of incarceration was more often measured in months than years and few faced extended periods in prison. Only a handful of republicans were imprisoned for longer periods, some serving terms in prisons in Britain for a number of years after the general amnesties that followed the signing of the treaty in 1921.

The existing sentencing policy applied in the north from the mid-1930s onwards saw republicans given prison terms for offences that only warranted a fine for others. This discrepancy increased wildly after 1936, first when Eddie McCartney was given a ten year sentence and then when the Treason Felony Act was invoked to hand lengthy prison sentences to the northern IRA leadership. That Act hadn’t been used since the 1880s, which was the previous period in which republicans experienced similarly long terms of imprisonment with the likes of Tom Clarke serving fifteen years in jail.

Long term prisoners create a particular set of circumstances. Using ‘criminalisation’ as a tactical response to present insurgency as illegitimate isn’t exactly new but it does bring its own complications. It may not be explicit state policy but long term insurgent prisoners are designed to be hostages with the prospect of early release held out as an incentive to ending an active insurgency campaign. While the immediate benefit to the state is removing key insurgents from active involvement for extended periods of time that has to be balanced against other factors. Once imprisoned they are able to take part in in-depth internal debates on strategy and tactics with other imprisoned leaders, are able to engage with an audience outside the prisons and often attract support as a prisoner from individuals and organisations who wouldn’t otherwise openly support the insurgency itself. As had happened in the 1890s, the publicity attracted by long term prisoners began to far outweigh any tactical purpose in holding them in jail.

By early 1944, the republican prisoners in A wing in Crumlin Road included the likes of Jimmy Steele and Hugh McAteer who had been imprisoned on multiple occasions and already spent six or seven years each in jail (Steele had first been in prison in 1923). Many others had served various short terms prior to receive lengthy sentences since 1940. Internees, housed in D wing in Crumlin Road, Derry Gaol, Armagh Gaol and (in 1940-41) on the Al Rawdah, had to contend with the uncertainty of internment – no trial or charges also meant no defined period of imprisonment. The internees’ only (vague) salvation was that political pressure or events would eventually bring their release. The fear for sentenced prisoners was that they would not get released in the same way. The creation of two separate prisoner communities (interned and sentenced) created the potential for internal dissent and conflict over strategy and tactics inside and outside the prisons that might bring their release.

In March 1943, the IRA’s Adjutant-General Liam Burke issued an edition of An t-Óglach for the first time in many years (it’s circulation was confined to IRA members). This included an article on ‘Unity’ with the prisons specifically mentioned: “Too often in the past we have allowed ourselves to be divided by some petty grievance or worse still by some false rumour manufactured by enemy agents. In order to satisfy personal spites or ambitions we have allowed that element of disunity to creep in among us. This is very often obvious in the Prisons where Volunteers, living together in confinement for long periods, find too much time to brood on every petty grievance that arises.” There is also an article on Guerilla Warfare that pointed out the legitimate status accorded to ‘Guerillas’ since the 1899 Hague Conference.

AntOglachMarch1943

Burke (who had escaped from Crumlin Road in 1941) was re-arrested and returned to Crumlin Road in April 1943. There were of course IRA prisoners and internees held at various locations on either side of the border and a number of long-term sentenced prisoners from the sabotage campaign in British prisons. By 1943, the IRA’s leadership had mostly relocated to the north and, from early summer, became increasingly focused on the prisons.

Both the 1943 strip strike and Armagh Gaol hunger strike had delivered sharp lessons in terms of mobilising political support outside the prisons. The key focus on the prison campaigns was to obtain political status (eg see Republican News, July 1943 below). So in February 1944 a hunger strike began, with teams of three joining in stages, first beginning with McAteer, Liam Burke (by now O/C of the republican prisoners) and Pat McCotter. The prison authorities delivered food and milk to their cells every day, hoping to tempt the prisoners to come off the strike by leaving the food there in front of them. The will power required to continue the strike, in the cold cells of Crumlin Road, with food in easy reach, must have been formidable.

RepNewsJuly1943

The prison staff also continued to subject the strikers to two to three searches a week, including strip searches, despite the fact they were no longer allowed out of their cells. On day four of the strike (26th February), David Fleming and Jimmy Steele joined the hunger strike with the second team, Steele had participated in previous hunger strikes including in 1936, Fleming was to participate in later hunger strikes. The first of the hunger strikers had already been moved to the prison hospital by the 16th March, by which time eighteen men had joined the strike, including Joe Cahill on the 9th March. On the 16th March, William Lowry, the Home Affairs Minister in Stormont, reported to Stormont that the “…condition of these men is only what could be expected after such a prolonged period without food. The Government cannot accept any responsibility for the actions of these men whose present condition is solely due to their own voluntary abstention from food“. He described hunger striking as a malignant and criminal practice and insisted that the medical treatment the prisoners were receiving was entirely satisfactory. Lowry went on to say, “…Their own relatives at an appropriate time, for example when death is imminent, will be duly notified.

The hunger strikers were joined for a week by 100 internees in Derry prison in mid-March. By the 22nd March, the Irish Times was reporting that Liam Burke, Pat McCotter, Hugh McAteer and Jimmy Steele were all weak after 30 days on hunger strike and had abandoned the strike. That story was not true but, as it was the latest in a series of inaccurate reports on the strike, it was becoming painfully obvious to the IRA prisoners that the censorship was preventing the strike having any impact on public opinion. When the forty day mark was passed, the IRA staff debated the futility of continuing when the chance of fatalities was now growing ever higher. On the forty-fourth day (6th April), the strike was called off. It seems, from Joe Cahill’s account in his biography A Life in the IRA, that the decision was not made by the hunger strikers themselves, as he puts it that a decision was “…taken to bring them off.” One key failure of the hunger strike was to secure parallel political status for internees and sentenced prisoners as there was no concurrent release of internees and sentenced prisoners in 1945. It wasn’t until 1950 that the last three sentenced prisoners, McAteer, Burke and Steele, were released.

The 1944 hunger strike may well never be commemorated or receive any significant attention yet it marks a significant stage in the development of republican tactics. A number of those involved in hunger strikes and prison protests of the early 1970s, such as Billy McKee and Prionsias MacAirt, had been in Crumlin Road at the time of the 1944 hunger strike. Others prominent activists in the early 1970s were also veterans of the 1940s, like Jimmy Drumm, Joe Cahill, Albert Price, Charlie McGlade and Harry White. The 1943/44 protests were Irish republicans first real experience of long term imprisonment in the twentieth century. They contain the roots of later republican thinking and experience that provides a context for prison protests, including the structure of hunger strikes and the role of publicity that became central to events in the 1970s and 1980s.

Thanks to Dr Breandán Mac Suibhne for the discovery of the March 1943 edition of An t-Óglach.

The start of the peace lines: Belfast, 1969.

Fifty years ago this summer peace lines were erected across parts of Belfast, most famously along a line that roughly follows the course of the River Farset from Divis Street to the Springfield Road. Here, I look at how it was first built in September 1969 and some of its predecessors in Belfast. I also take a look at the coincidence of its location and the River Farset.

It is often overlooked that the British Army had been deployed in Belfast before August 1969. It had initially been used to guard infrastructure and key installation in April 1969 in the face of an ongoing unionist bombing campaign. That deployment was then extended in mid-August due to the rapidly intensifying violence which led to the widespread erection of barricades by residents in various districts in Belfast (a book on the violence that summer – Burnt Out – has just been published by Michael McCann).

1969 knife rests


Military barrier of ‘knife rests’, 16th August, 1969 (Getty Images)

Immediately troops were on the streets, many public figures pressed for the removal of the barricades as a symbol of a return to normality. A short term solution to this was to replace the physical barriers with soldiers, what was described in conversation between Irish diplomat K. Rush and Sir Edward Peck of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office as a ‘human barricade’. While the Irish representatives made it clear that it believed that the ‘human barricade’ was preferable to physical alternatives, Peck implied there was a need for a physical barrier due to British soldiers being a ‘scarce commodity’. Photographs from 15th and 16th August 1969 show the interim measures put in place along side the military – mainly portable wire obstacles, such as knife rests, in place at various locations. After discussions over the replacement of barricades between community leaders, the IRA and the British Army there were tentative moves to start dismantling and replacing the residents’ ad hoc barricades. These took many forms, including everything from burnt out vehicles to solid barriers of broken paving stones to shuttering erected on scaffolding. Immediately the British Army was to replace the ad hoc barricades with knife rests, which in ‘Catholic’ districts, were to be jointly guarded by the British Army and Citizen’s Defence Committee.

On 9th September, the Unionist Prime Minister Chichester Clarke met with his Joint Security Committee at Stormont Castle, including the Ministers of Home Affairs, Education and Development, the Army GOC and Chief of Staff and various RUC, Army and Civil Service figures. The conclusions from the meeting noted that “A peace line was to be established to separate physically the Falls and the Shankill communities. Initially this would take the form of a temporary barbed wire fence which would be manned by the Army and the Police. The actual line of fence would be decided in consultations with the Belfast Corporation. It was agreed that there should be no question of the peace line becoming permanent although it was acknowledge that the barriers might have to be strengthened in some locations.” That opening phrase ‘peace line’ now entered the security lexicon, although ‘peace wall’ was occasionally, if more rarely, used (prior to 1969 the phrase ‘peace line’ was generally just associated with the demarcation line from the end of the Korean War).

That evening, Chichester Clarke made a broadcast that was televised on the news on BBC, UTV and RTE (you can watch it and other footage of the peace lines being constructed here). He stated that: “We have now decided that the army will erect and man a firm peace line to be sited between the Divis Street area and Shankill Road on a line determined by a representative body from the city hall. In conjunction with this action, barricades will be removed in all areas of Belfast, both Protestant and Catholic.” The initial reaction from representatives of the ‘Catholic’ residents was very negative.

The knife rests and residents’ barricades were thus to be replaced with wire entanglements straight out of the British Army’s Manual of Fields Works (All Arms). The first to be erected were constructed of barbed wire strung between multiple bays of pickets. The pickets were placed in holes drilled through the road surface and then hammered into place (as shown in the photos below). Wire was then strung between the pickets to create the required obstacle. As they were solely composed of pickets and wire, they controlled movement but did not create a visual barrier. The construction of the peace line at the corner of Cawnpore Street and Cupar Street on 10th September 1969 is shown below (taken as stills from television footage).

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The ‘representative body from city hall’ that was going to determine the route was to be chaired by the Lord Mayor, Alderman Joseph Cairns. It included all the councillors from the wards involved (this is based on reporting in the Irish Press 11/9/1969 and contemporary television footage and interviews). This body was to identify where to locate the ‘peace line’ street by street. The start and end points were largely self-defined by flashpoints and the rioting of the past weeks. However, negotiating the exact position often involved arguing over (literally) which individual houses it needed to accommodate on the Falls Road/Divis Street or Shankill Road side of the line.

The actual construction works were undertaken by British Army Engineers escorted by the 2nd Grenadier Guards and began at about 4.30 pm at either end, starting in the east at Coates Street (which was closest to the Millfield/Divis Street end) and in the west from the Springfield Road end of Cupar Street. In theory, work was to progress towards a centre point on the route agreed by the working group. Initially installing the peace line seems to have stopped at 9 pm on the 10th September and then resumed again at 8 am on 11th (these times are quoted in the press on 11th September). Despite the intention of the western and eastern sections converging, progress at the eastern end was obstructed by a failure to agree the position of the wire entanglement on Dover Street and it was the last to be completed. According to The Irish Press (11/9/1969), on the first day work had begun with rival crowds singing “Go home you bums, Go home you bums…” to the soldiers involved.

Photos of the peace line just after it was constructed on 10th/11th September at Cupar Street and Lucknow Street are shown below (from Irish Independent 11th and 12th September 1969).

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The immediate impetus for the erection of the ‘peace line’ was presumably as preparation for violence that was expected to accompany the imminent release of the Cameron Report (on the circumstances that led to violence the previous year). There had been leaks since early September that signalled that the report would be critical of the Unionist government and the RUC. This was confirmed when it was published and widely discussed in the media on the 11th and 12th September. However, reactions to the Cameron Report, in particular recommended changes to the RUC meant that the ‘peace line’ did not stop violence continuing.

Newspapers reports on 26th and 27th September show how the night of the 25th September had quickly exposed the limitations of the wire entanglements as a ‘firm peace line’. In Coates Street, a crowd from the Shankill Road side simply threw petrol bombs over the ‘peace line’ and burned out a number of houses. Repeated violence in Coates Street and Sackville Street also saw crowds breach the wire entanglements to attack houses on the other side of the peace line.

The failure of the ‘peace line’ had clearly been noted by the military. The Belfast Telegraph had reported on Wednesday 24th September that the British Army had been removing residents’ barricades by agreement and only a handful were left. The paper noted that “As far as West Belfast is concerned, some of the heavy steel ones are remaining for a few days until the Army replaces them with special corrugated iron affairs that will foil snipers and stop cars speeding up and down the streets.” By the weekend of 27th-28th September it was abundantly clear that the tactics employed by crowds attacking from the Shankill Road side were exposing the frailty of the ‘peace line’. Just as the wire entanglements were merely being pushed aside, soldiers were carrying rifles with live ammunition and, at this date, simply stepped back rather than open fire on the crowd. Contemporary accounts clearly show that the troops had been deployed without either training or suitable equipment for crowd control (apart from CS gas). Similarly, the wire entanglements were completely ineffective as obstacles when it came to snipers and missiles.

By Monday 29th September British Army engineers had begun to erect ‘concertina-type’ barriers in Coates Street/Sackville Street (eg see Belfast Telegraph 2/10/1969). The authorities also announced tactical changes in how the British Army would deal with rioters, including an acknowledgement of the passive role taken by the Army to date, such as when soldiers stood aside while rioters entered and burned houses in Coates Street. It claimed that some soldiers would now be deployed without guns but with two foot batons instead. The ‘concertina-type’ barriers that were to replace the wire entanglements would be fifteen feet in height and would completely seal off the ends of individual streets (the same reports in Belfast Telegraph dismiss claims that the peace line was to be extended to fifty feet in width). The new barriers were constructed from corrugated iron sheeting erected on wooden studding. Photographs from Coates Street show the first of these being constructed (Getty Images). They appear to be closer to around ten feet in height that the proposed fifteen feet.

Coates Street concertina type

The completed concertina-type barrier, with a reinstated wire entanglement obstacle in front of it, is visible in this photograph taken in December 1969 (Getty Images).

Sackville Coates

Questions to the Unionist Minister of Home Affairs at Stormont, Robert Porter, from Unionist MP Norman Laird indicated that it was the Minister of Home Affairs who had the authority to close roads (Stormont Hansard, 2/10/1969) and that the concertina-type barriers were erected by the Army with Porter’s agreement (see Stormont Hansard 7/10/1969). In the latter debate, Porter stated that the corrugated iron barricades were intended to be purely temporary. Fifty years later the peace line and many others still remain. Ironically, though, none of the current peace-line appears to contain any surviving sections of the first ‘concertina-type’ barrier.

The practice of physically segregating districts and individual streets in Belfast was not new in 1969. When intermittent violence throughout the early 1930s peaked on 12th July 1935, British soldiers were deployed to act, initially, as a ‘human barricade’. As that violence continued to escalate quickly, in particular in York Street and Sailortown, on 16th July the RUC began erecting physical barriers by closing off the end of streets with hoardings including New Andrew Street, New Dock Street, Marine Street, Ship Street, Fleet Street and Nelson Street. This was then extended to streets in the Old Lodge Road by the 19th July (eg see Belfast Newsletter 17/7/1935, Northern Whig 19/7/1935). These were ‘concertina-type’ barriers, made of corrugated iron and seven feet in height (eg see description in Irish Times, 30/4/1936). Despite continued protests from businesses in the area, they were only taken down in the middle of June 1936 (see Northern Whig, 13/6/1936). Notably, some residents claimed that the barriers had been unwanted as they simply prolonged and reinforced division (eg the likes of Jackie Quinn, quoted in Munck and Rolstons’ Belfast in the Thirties: an Oral History).

The barrier on New Dock Street is shown below (from Irish Press 19/7/1935, for more see here).

irish-press-19.7.35.png

Prior to 1935, the same ‘peace line’ structures had been also used during 1920-22. This included all the same elements that were to be found in 1969: human barricades, knife rests, wire entanglements and hoardings. The latter two are recorded in Ballymaccarrett in particular. The Belfast Newsletter reported on 24th July 1920 that Seaforde Street and Wolff Street had been closed with wire entanglements the previous day. Two days later the paper reported that sandbagged and wire barricades had been put in place at Seaforde Street, Short Strand, Middlepath Street, Lackagh Street, Harland Street and Wolff Street. Timber barriers were then erected at the Newtownards Road end of Seaforde Street and Young’s Row in early March 1922 (see Belfast Newsletter 13/3/1922). Despite continued opposition, the barriers at the end of Seaforde Street and Youngs Row were only taken down towards the end of 1923 (newspaper reports in the summer of 1923 clearly show the barriers were erected on the authority of the Minister of Home Affairs). The sequence of wire entanglements, knife rests and timber barriers being put up and taken down at Seaforde Street is shown below (from various sources: Illustrated London News 4/9/1920; cartoon from Illustrated London News 31/7/1920; Sunday Independent 4/12/1921; construction timber barrier, March 1922, from here; timber barrier being removed in 1923 from Snapshots of Old Belfast 1920-24, by Joe Baker, 2011).

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There were also sandbagged military posts and wire entanglements at various other locations around the city. A Dáil Publicity Department Communication published by the Irish Independent on 22nd June 1922 described how “There is now a fort or blockhouse on the Sth African system along every 100 yards of Falls Road. The windows are sandbagged and wired.” A still from a Pathé newsreel of Belfast in 1922 is shown below. The reference to the South African system was clearly intended to invoke a tactical comparison with the blockhouses and concentrations employed by the British Army during the Second Boer War and other newspaper reports make reference to the tactics deployed then in Transvaal.

Pathe Falls

The picture below (from Getty Images) shows a sandbagged blockhouse in Belfast at an unspecified location (possibly opposite Falls Park) in 1920. While the file is dated 1st January 1920, it says on ‘Orange Day’ which seems to mean 12th July 1920.

blockhouse

Finally, it is interesting to look at the physical location and course of the peace line (see map). Belfast in Irish is usually rendered as Beal Feirste and which is assumed to derive from its location at the mouth of the River Farset which enters the Lagan at High Street (the Farset seems to take its name from sandbanks where it enters the Lagan). A fourteenth century borough was founded where the Farset, Lagan and various routeways converged, with the layout of High Street, Ann Street and the various entries likely dictated by the layout of the medieval borough’s property boundaries. An earlier church site at Shankill lay alongside a ford over the Farset as it flowed down towards the Lagan (at today’s Lanark Way/Shankill Road junction). The name Shankill (Sean Cill or ‘old church’) shows it predates a later church, known in the seventeenth century as the Corporation Church, that lay close to where St George’s is today on High Street. Pre-seventeenth century documentation of Belfast is so inadequate that a handful of reference to a ‘chapel of the ford’ are usually taken to mean another church that predates the Corporation Church, but the ‘chapel of the ford’ but could equally be referring to Shankill (given that it also sat on a ford over the Farset).

peacelinefarset

Map (based on 3rd Edition OS Map), showing course of River Farset (blue), peace line (red) and Shankill Church (green with white cross).

Where north and west Belfast slope down to the Lagan there are various streams and rivers that could be damned to power mills and factories, attracting industry and drawing workers in from the countryside. This led to the growth of industries and residential areas for the workers on this side of the city. The Shankill Road and Falls Road, which converge along the Farset, drew in workers to the factories, mills and foundries that established in an industrial district along the banks of the Farset itself. Religious and ethnic tensions were constantly preyed upon, arguably to the benefit of the factory and mill owners who could play on sectarian fears to deflect from poor work and housing conditions. The communities that then grew along both the Shankill and Falls Road, on either side of the River Farset, tended to have greater proportions of Protestants (Shankill) and Catholics (Falls) as intermittent violence throughout the nineteenth century often lead to sporadic increases in segregation (and thus perpetuated the tensions). The final expression of this appears to be the tracing of the ‘peace line’ in September 1969 along a route that mirrors that of the Farset itself.

You can read more about the summer of 1969 in Michael McCann’s bookBurnt Out and about the wider background (for free for the next few days) in Belfast Battalion.

A current project by James O’Leary of University College London is documenting the peace walls at http://www.peacewall-archive.net which can be viewed here.