Who’s That Knocking on My Door: 75th anniversary of the death of Rocky Burns.

Today marks the 75th anniversary of the death of Seamus ‘Rocky’ Burns, the only O/C of the Belfast IRA to be shot dead while he was in the role.
Rocky Burns

Seamus ‘Rocky’ Burns in his coffin, from Resurgence, September 1946.

On the 10th February 1944, he and another member of the IRA left the Continental Café on Chapel Lane (now St. Mary’s Repository and the Holy Shop beside the Hercules Bar) and walked along Chapel Lane where they were stopped by two plain clothes RUC men and asked to produce their identification. Burns had previously evaded arrest when he had faulty identification by asking the RUC Sergeant who had challenged him for advice and then sitting through a lecture on how to go about getting the correct identification. On this occasion, Burns and his companion were turned around and told they were being brought back along Chapel Lane to Queen Street RUC Barracks. As they were walking crossing into Queen Street, a uniformed RUC Constable, John Trainor, from the Waterside in Derry, was on the other side of the road. In a later compensation hearing it was stated that Trainor had recognised Burns and was intending to join the others at Queen Street Barracks. Trainor was an ex-British soldier and former Army light heavyweight boxing champion.
After his death, the RUC stated that they had wanted Burns in relation to an attempt to shoot a prison warder, Nathaniel Robinson, on 25th January 1944 (just over two weeks previously). Relations between the republican prisoners in Crumlin Road, Derry and Armagh and the prison staff had rapidly deteriorated following the escapes of January and March 1943. This had culminated in the sentenced prisoners holding a strip strike in the middle of 1943 followed by a hunger strike by women prisoners in Armagh in the winter of that year. Since internment had recommenced in 1938, confrontations between the IRA and prison staff had oscillated wildly between a modus vivendi and a number of violent episodes in which warders had been attacked outside the prison, killing at least one, Thomas Walker, in February 1942. Since 1940, a significant number of republican prisoners had either died in the various prisons or been released when terminally ill only to die at home shortly later (eg see the account of the Al Rawdah here). Indeed, while he had been interned himself, Burns had been vociferous in calls for the Belfast Battalion of the IRA to carry retaliation against prison staff on the outside.
In 1939, Burns, then only 18, was in Derry Gaol when the republican internees took over a wing on Christmas Day. Like the rest, Rocky was subject to indiscriminate beatings by the Specials, RUC and British soldiers when the internees lost control of the wing again. When the B Specials, RUC and fire brigade were trying to break into the wing, they used a battering ram on the barricaded steel door, accompanied by Rocky singing ‘Who’s That Knocking At My Door?’ (click the link below to hear a popular version of the song from the 1930s).
On the 25th January, two men had confronted Robinson as we walked down Alliance Avenue on his way into Crumlin Road prison. One shot was fired at him. While the bullet did hit his hand, Robinson’s belt buckle deflected it, preventing a more serious injury. When he was brought hospital it was widely reported that he had identified one of those involved, following Burns death the press identified one of his attackers as Burns. This may be an incident referred to by Harry White in his own biography (Harry) in which he was involved in an IRA operation against a prison officer and in which he too was identified. In Harry, White doesn’t identify the second man with Burns on February 10th although it doesn’t appear to be White himself.
Whether Trainor had been deliberately positioned to cover Burns or not, according to the statement made at the inquest on 21st February, as the party crossed Castle Street onto Queen Street Burns pulled his revolver and tried to make a run for it. The official account claimed he had shot one of the RUC men then ran along Queen Street for twenty yards and then collapsed.
The reports from the subsequent inquest (on 21st February) are slightly unclear. Burns was shot through the liver and received three other bullet wounds. Bullets hit the window frame of the radio shop, two doors down from Queen Street RUC Barracks, while Burns gun had discharged five rounds, with one remaining in the chamber. The initial RUC statement on the incident, reproduced in the Northern Whig on 11th February, stated that Trainor had already joined the two plain clothes RUC men while they were escorting Burns and his companion to Queen Street Barracks. However, the exact sequence of events is unclear.
Trainor was hit by a single bullet that hit him in the arm, passing through his shoulder and neck which suggested that he had his arm raised and was firing his revolver. Whether he had approached Burns and the others as they walked on to Queen Street and told the others who Burns was, or had pulled his gun to cover Burns on realising who he was, he was the only RUC officer wounded in the exchange. Harry White seems to have believed that all Burns wounds came from one of the plain clothes officers. Burns companion managed to escape in the confusion.
Queen Street

The scene of the fatal shooting today. The spot where Burns tried to break away is the foreground of the image, he collapsed roughly just before where the bus is pulled in. 

Dr Eddie McEntee, who had his practice in King Street, was brought around to attend to the wounded. McEntee was himself a former member of the Belfast IRA and brother of Sean McEntee, then a minister in the Free State government. Burns was brought to the Royal Victoria Hospital where his condition never improved and he died on the morning of Saturday 12th February 1944. Trainor was later discharged from the RUC due to his wound (in September 1944 he was awarded £1,250 compensation).
Burns had first been imprisoned as a seventeen year old Fianna member in April 1938, for possession of a banned publication.  Released that September he joined the IRA, only to get picked up in the September 1939 internment sweep that coincided with the outbreak of World War 2. Interned in Crumlin Road, then Derry Jail, he was one of those who escaped and was recaptured in March 1943, spending time in the Curragh before making a pre-arranged resignation from the IRA, signing out of prison, then returning to Belfast where he took over as Belfast O/C following the arrest of Jimmy Steele in May 1943.
IMG_0974

Burns and other recaptured escapers on a lorry in March 1943.

Burns was such a larger than life figure that his death was keenly felt (you can read more about him here). He is also one of those who Laurie Green based his main character on in the novel and film, Odd Man Out.
Seamus ‘Rocky’ Burns is buried in the Harbinson plot in Milltown cemetery.

 

 

A forgotten child death of the conflict, Joseph Walsh

In 1935, fourteen month old Joseph Walsh died as a result of injuries he received when his family were burnt out of their home in Academy Street. Oddly, histories of the period overlook his death.

During 1935 Belfast saw significant violence, which saw a number of people killed over the period from the 12th July until the end of September. Conventionally, ten fatalities are identified with the conflict that occurred that summer. However, a reading of the press coverage of the period clearly identifies at least two further deaths which should be included in accounts of that summer, that of Joseph Walsh and another, a fifteen year old named Bertie Magowan.

At the end of September, the last major outbreak of the 1935 violence happened over the weekend of the 20th/21st September. On the Friday, two teenage apprenticeships, Bertie Magowan and Bertie Montgomery, were trying to fit an illegally held Webley revolver into a holster while at work in Harland and Wolff. Revolvers had been repeatedly used in street violence throughout that summer. Montgomery discharged the revolver, shooting Magowan in the stomach. He died from the wounds the next day and Montgomery, from Earl Street, was charged with murder. That charge was dropped but Montgomery was still prosecuted for possessing the revolver with ‘the intent to endanger life’ (ie for use during street violence). For that he was fined £5 and bound over to keep the peace. The same day as he shot Magowan, George Clyde was shot dead in trouble in Greencastle and the next day (when Magowan died), in Earl Street a Catholic publican, John McTiernan, was also shot dead in the evening.

Robert (Bertie) Magowan’s death is not typically associated with the conflict in 1935 yet it clearly happened within the context of the violence of that summer.

The story of the second death, of fourteen month old Joseph Walsh, was told by his mother, Rose Ann Walsh, in Belfast Recorders Court at the end of October:

THE WORST CASE
Further stories of mob violence in Belfast during the riots were related to the Deputy Recorder, Mr. ]. D. Begley, K.C., yesterday, when more claims for compensation were heard.

Mrs. Rose Ann Walsh claimed compensation for herself and her infant daughter as the result of a disturbance in Academy Street on I6th July. Mrs. Walsh resided at No. 19, Academy Street along with another lodger, Mrs. Margaret Partington, who also claimed compensation.

Mr. P. A. Marrinan (instructed by Mr. Brian Cosgrove) appeared for the applicant.

Mr. Marrinan said that of all the things that occurred in Belfast the facts connected with the present case were probably the worst. The climax of the attack in Academy Street led to a most terrible tragedy, one of Mrs. Walsh’s three children, who was aged two, dying as a result, he submitted, of the knocking about and trouble that the family sustained. It appeared that the funeral of one of the victims of the riots was in progress along York Street, and was entering the junction of Royal Avenue and Donegall Street when there was a panic among the crowd, following the firing of a shot. The crowd broke into Academy Street, which was off Donegall Street. They entered the house of Mrs. Walsh who had had a baby only two days before, and of Mrs. Partington, who had children, aged three and five years.

SET FIRE TO THE HOUSE

The crowd appeared to have armed themselves with fire-raising material, for they throw paraffin about and set fire to the house. The applicants, with their children, ran upstairs. Mrs. Walsh returned downstairs on realising the danger 6hc was in from fire, and the crowd set upon her and threw her into the street. She- was only 6aved by the arrival of police and soldiers. Mrs. Partington endeavoured to escape by the back of the house from an upstairs window by lowering her children out and jumping herself. Mrs. Walsh” had to so to the Union, and Mrs. Partington, who was the wife, of an English ex-Serviceman, after treatment went to Dublin, where she was attended at St. Stephen’s Hospital. Mrs. Walsh later got shelter in an old empty house, and there her child of two years died from the shock. The other child suffered from debility and inflammation from the suffering which the mother endured. Mrs. Walsh herself was still in a dangerous state of health. Mrs. Walsh being called stating her age was 22, Mr. J. Craig (for the Belfast Corporation) said counsel’s story was substantially correct, and the evidence could be confined to the question of damage. Mrs. Walsh, said she had three children at the time of the occurrence, Catherine being only two days old, Catherine was still in bad health, as the result of witness’s condition. Joseph, her second boy, died mainly from the knocking about that he received. Mrs. Partington said she was lodging with her husband in Academy Street. When the fire was started in the kitchen she ran upstairs. She lowered the children from a window three storeys high on to a scullery roof, and jumped out herself. They went to the Mater Hospital, and later to Dublin. She had not yet recovered her usual health.

After medical evidence-—including that of Colonel Mitchell, who said that while Mrs. Walsh bore no marks, she had evidently come through a very tragic time—judgment was reserved.

[Belfast Newsletter, 1st November 1935]

 

Academy Street

Irish Press, 17th July 1935

The Recorder subsequently award £60 to Rose Ann Walsh, £10 to Catherine Walsh and £40 to Margaret Partington. Walsh and her husband, Francis, had lived at 19 Academy Street for a number years in the house where Francis had grown up. His father had worked as a bill poster, and Francis followed him into the same trade. Rose Ann, whose maiden name was Boland, had grown up in Ballymacarrett, later moving to the Market district. After being burned out of Academy Street the empty house they moved into was a former hostel at 42 Frederick Street. It was there that Joseph died on the 5th September, six weeks after the attack on their house. His official cause of death was given as gastro-enteritis but the Recorder’s Court didn’t challenge the statement that his death was a direct result of injuries received during the attack on the house. The Walsh family subsequently moved to Ormond Place (off Raglan Street) in the Falls Road.

For some context on the deaths, below is the recent talk I gave in St Josephs, Sailortown, on the 1935 violence as part of the launch of the new Belfast Battalion book about the Belfast IRA from 1922 to 1969 (which you can order here).

Sailortown and the violence of 1935

Last weekend, as part of the launch for the Belfast Battalion book, I gave a talk in St Joseph’s Church in Sailortown in Belfast. The talk looked at the experience of residents during the violent, summer of 1935 (rather than at the broader politics of what happened). A couple of themes that emerge from it are, particularly when viewing the press coverage, is the number of children who were eye witnesses (if not actual participants). I think they provided a physical link to the later violence in 1969 which has strong parallels with that of 1935.

While putting the talk together, I also came across a couple of fatalities not usually included in the death toll of 1935, including two year old boy called Joseph Walsh. Among the darkness, though, there was one positive. In 1935, residents recognised that erecting ‘peace walls’ did more harm than good as it actually heightened a sense of siege and perpetuated division.

I re-recorded the audio for the talk over the same slides and you can watch it below or on YouTube.

Thanks to everyone who came to the talk and launch in St Josephs on the Saturday morning and the launch in the evening in the Felons Club.

 

I mentioned Ronnie Monck and Bill Rolstons 1987 book on Belfast in the 1930s (Belfast in the Thirties: An Oral History), but here’s some more reading:

http://cain.ulst.ac.uk/othelem/chron/ch1800-1967.htm

http://www.theirishstory.com/2013/01/09/belfast-riots-a-short-history/#.XA-0k_Z2uXY

…the minority, whom we consider rebels to the British Throne, the British flag, and to Protestant Ulster

Attacks on the press, calls for unionist unity, warnings that their heritage and Protestantism had been sold out. Not 2018, but 1935 and a meeting of the Ulster Protestant League (UPL) in the Ulster Hall. Many of the issues raised appear to be timeless, though, as you could find them echoed in similar meetings in the likes of 1969, the 1980s, the 1990s or the present.

A couple of weeks before the meeting, speaking in Bessbrook, the Unionist Prime Minister, Craigavon, had “…emphasised the duty of all loyal citizens to support the defence organisations upon which, more than upon anything else, Ulster relies — the Ulster Unionist Council, the Orange and Black Institutions, the Ulster Women’s Unionist Council, the Apprentice Boys of Derry, and the Ulster Unionist Labour Association. These, he says, suffice for the purpose, and his advice to Loyalists generally is to avoid other so-called, defence organisations, of mushroom growth, which serve no useful purpose, and are, in fact, a source of danger.

Craigavon’s criticisms of the likes of the UPL are significant as it hints at it’s political distance from the senior Unionist leadership, albeit a difference measured in nuances rather than real variations in policy. Ultimately, despite a growing base of knowledge on the Belfast IRA in the 1930s, we still are limited in what we know about who directed non-state violence on the unionist side, such as the likes of the UPL. The following account of the UPL meeting appeared in the Belfast Newsletter on Thursday 10th October 1935.

ULSTER HALL RALLY

Call for Sir Dawson Bates Resignation

SUGGESTED PLEBISCITE

LIVELY scenes were witnessed at a meeting in the Ulster Hall, Belfast, last night, under the auspices of the “Maiden City Protestant League.” Mr. S. Thompson presided and there was a large attendance. Several bands were on the platform.

The meeting was opened with prayer and the singing of “O God, our help in ages past,” but in a short time there was shouts to put out the reporter of a Nationalist newspaper.

Disorder occurred and a rush was made towards the Press table. Stewards and ‘members of the platform party  intervened, however, and Mrs. Hartnett one of the speakers, pleaded for fair play. Order was then restored and the proceedings were continued. Subsequently the reporter left, being escorted out of the hall by stewards.

The Resolutions

The following resolutions, which were proposed by Mr. R. Ritchie and seconded by Mr. J. McBurney, were passed amid applause:

(1) “We, the loyalists of Belfast, assembled in the Ulster Hall, wish to protest against the speech of Lord Craigavon made at Bessbrook. promising protection to the minority, whom we consider rebels to the British Throne, the British flag, and to Protestant Ulster.

(2) We loyalists wish once again to voice our demand for the resignation of Sir Dawson Bates, Minister of Home Affairs, and, Sir Charles Wickham, Inspector General of the R.U.C., and if the Prime Minister continues to ignore our resolution we will proceed to have a plebiscite taken all over the City of Belfast and the rest of Ulster.”

Mr. McBurney alleged that Protestants had been waylaid in Greencastle, where he came from, and no action had been taken by the police.

“Mushrooms”

The Chairman expressed his pleasure at presiding over such a vast meeting both inside and outside the hall, and in the name of their common Protestantism he called on all to join in this great movement for their beloved cause. This had been described as a unity meeting, because they had on the platform representatives from virtually every Protestant organisation in Belfast and throughout the Province. Last, but not least, once again Derry Walls come closer to them that night, for they bad a representative there from the Maiden City.

In the following day’s Press reports they would probably read that instead of a unity meeting being held in the Ulster Hall representative of all the Protestant societies and organisations they were simply a gathering of mushrooms. A voice — Lord Craigavon. The most eloquent reply they could give to that, was that they were the most virile mushroom he had handled. They knew what they did with mushrooms They had to rise early in the morning to get mushrooms, but they would have to get up very early before they could sell Protestantism. (Applause) They were determined that the result of that meeting that a question would arise for all Protestants in Belfast and throughout Ulster to have a form of unification, and they were hopeful that not only would there be unity of Protestant organisations and Protestant societies but as a result a new Protestant Party would come into being. (Applause.)

A Protestant Party

The Protestant party that they visualised would require no labels. It used to be quite sufficient for them, as Protestants, for a man if he were the right kind of label to get their votes. But that, was not going to take place any longer because under that system their cause, their heritage, and their Protestantism had been sold daily to the enemy by those in whom they had put their trust. They called upon Protestant men and women to rally round in that endeavour to bring Protestants together in one united body so that they could ask Protestant people defy every politician who would betray them.

The object of their meeting was to do away with Popery, whether in Stormont or in Dublin. Their purpose was the unification of all Protestant organisations in a central committee that would decide on a policy acceptable to all. In the hands of the Central Committee Protestantism would always have first consideration. (Applause.)

Lord Craigavon Criticised

Councillor Gallagher, Derry, began by thanking Lord Craigavon for being more or less responsible for that night’s meeting. It was due to his remarks a few weeks ago at Bessbrook regarding “mushroom organisations”. After that the officers of the various societies represented there that night thought the time would come when they should be amalgamated into one big mushroom—or rather Orange Lily. Lord Craigavon had also said that the Orange Order and the Apprentice Boys of Derry were behind him and behind Sir Dawson Bates and Sir Charles Wickham in everything they had done during the last twelve or thirteen years. (Cries of “Shame.”)

Councillor Gallagher then asked the meeting if they agreed with everything that Lord Craigavon and the other two men had done.

There was a thunderous shout of ” No!” and an outbreak of applause.

What, asked Councillor Gallagher, had come over their old leaders after fighting so loyally years ago? Why was it that Protestants who were supposed to have guns in their possession were sent to prison for six months or a year while Roman Catholics actually found with guns were fined 40s, with time to pay. If some disloyalist met with an accident seven or eight young Protestant men were arrested probably to satisfy the Roman Catholic Press.

Rush to Press Table

At this stage there was much commotion as some members of the gathering made a rush towards the Press table. Members of the platform party and stewards, however, appealed for fair play and the situation became calmer.

Continuing, Councillor Gallagher, referred to the Roman Catholics demand for an inquiry into the Belfast riots, and said that he could not understand why the Government did not grant the inquiry. They all knew who started the trouble and who suffered most. Was it because he Government knew that proper police protection had not been given to the Orangemen on 12th July.

Mrs D.G. Hartnett said that she was working for the amalgamation of Protestants in Belfast and Ulster. Their object was to keep Ulster in the Empire. They should press upon the Government to have some form of Protestant defence force so that the terrible occurrences of July last could not happen again. That force should be properly armed and equipped, ad if possible be under the Government. They were going to have it, and had decided to have it. They wanted the old Ulster Volunteer Force back again.

Talking about leaders, Mrs. Harnett said that there must be hundreds and thousands of men who could take the wheel as well as the old gang. (Loud applause) They should not be afraid of a big name. (Laughter) There were just as good men in the Shankill district and East Belfast who could be their leaders. (Applause.) They were determined to have a disciplined Protestant force to protect their homes. There were in Ulster as good men as their forefathers were. (Applause)

A number of other speakers addressed the meeting in similar terms.

Police Precautions

A large force of police on foot and in cars escorted the bands and their followers to and from the hall. Those who came from the Shankill Road area were accompanied by a very strong detachment of Constabulary on account of their having to pass through the fringe of a Roman Catholic quarter at Peter’s Hill. The services of the police, however, were not required, the marching and singing throng passing along unmolested.

The speeches in the hall were relayed by means of loud speakers to the large crowd which was unable to gain admission to the building.

I’m going to give a talk on what happened to some local residents of Belfast’s Sailortown during the riots in the summer of 1935 (rather than the political context). Some 643 compensation cases came before the Belfast Recorder’s Court that autumn. In these, individuals gave personal accounts of their injuries and how they occurred. Sometimes brief, sometimes in more detail, but all likely reflecting what later formed the substance of how local people on all sides of the community framed their own experiences of the events of 1935. The talk will take place in St Joseph’s Church in Sailortown on 8th December (starting at 11 am) and any and all are welcome. The talk is to help launch my book on the Belfast IRA, 1922-1969.

York Street 1935.png

British troops on patrol off York Street (Illustrated London News, 20/7/35).

Andersonstown News article on new Belfast IRA book

Here’s an extract from an article by Michael Jackson on the new book in the current edition of the Andersonstown News (you can read the original article in full here).

….you can read the rest of the article here (I’ll post it in full in a week or two).

You can read more about Stephen Hayes here.

You can order the book here!

Who was in charge of the Belfast I.R.A.?

Who was in charge of the Belfast I.R.A. from the 1920s to the 1960s? Formally, the I.R.A. designated Belfast as either a Battalion or Brigade from 1922 through to the late 1960s with it’s commander usually listed as O/C Belfast. As a clandestine organisation, the identity of it’s leadership was not usually transparent. Occasional arrests and seizures of documents by the R.U.C., particularly internal I.R.A. correspondence, strongly suggests the roles different individual held within the I.R.A., such as when correspondence addressed to the Belfast Adjutant was found in Billy McAllister’s house in January 1937.

Individual memoirs provide much more substance, corroborating some of what is known from court reports and documents. In many cases, though, they tend to roughly pinpoint in time who led the Belfast I.R.A. rather than provide a clear picture of who was in charge, how they came into the post and how they left it. Theoretically the O.C. was elected, where practicable, and many held the role until arrested. As I.R.A. posts were vacated on arrest, someone else typically acted in the role until the previous holder was either released or a formal appointment made in their place. The value in knowing who was in charge, how stable their leadership was and what direction it took the I.R.A. all contributes to a better understanding of how the organisation developed and how it impacted and influenced the course of events.

The list below is based on a variety of sources. I’ve highlighted where there are gaps and, obviously, there may well be significant errors of omissions, given the nature of the source material (and some of this is just guess work).

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

1922-23 Hugh Corvin

Former Quartermaster of the IRA’s 3rd Northern Division, he had replaced Pat Thornbury as O/C Belfast which had by then been re-organised as a Brigade in October 1922. Corvin had supported the Executive against GHQ over the Treaty in 1922. Subsequently interned in April 1923, he was elected leader of the I.R.A. prisoners and was involved in various prison protests. Corvin was involved in the Irish Volunteers prior to 1916.

AOC

Hugh Corvin

1923-24 Jim O’Donnell

O’Donnell replaced Corvin as O/C while Corvin was interned. When Corvin was released from internment at the end of 1924 O’Donnell appears to have stepped back and Corvin took over again as O/C.

1924-26 Hugh Corvin

When Corvin returned as O/C of the Belfast Brigade it was during the re-organisation that followed after Joe McKelvey’s re-burial in Milltown on 30th October 1924.

1925-1926 Jim Johnston

When the Belfast I.R.A. shot Patrick Woods in November 1925 the R.U.C. arrested one individual for questioning but detained a further fifty men, more than twenty of whom were interned until January 1926 including most of the Battalion staff. This included Hugh Corvin. Barely a week after the arrests the outcome of the Boundary Commission was leaked into the press. Judging by correspondence recovered in his house in February 1926, Johnston seems to have acted as O/C while Corvin was interned.

1926 Hugh Corvin

Corvin returned as O/C but only stayed in the position until April 1926 when he resigned citing business reasons (he had set up an accountancy firm). He had been arrested in November 1925 and held until the end of January 1926 along with twenty others following the shooting of an informer.

He was to remain a prominent public figure, through involvement in the G.A.A. and as secretary of the Gaelic League in Belfast. He publicly participated in fund-raising for Fianna Fáil in Belfast in the early 1930s and when he stood as an ‘independent republican’ in West Belfast in February 1943 he was largely portrayed by the IRA as a proxy for Fianna Fáil. His later political activity and the coincidence of the Fianna Fáil split suggest it may have been a motive in his resignation.

1926-7 Dan Turley

In Belfast I.R.B. Circle with 1916 leader Sean McDermott as early as 1907, Turley mobilised at Easter in 1916, was director of elections for Sinn Féin in Belfast at the 1918 elections and was Head of Intelligence in 3rd Northern Division. He was interned on the prison ship Argenta. He took over from Corvin but, apparently clashing with personalities at GHQ, he was portrayed as being difficult to get on with and unpopular. He remained active as Belfast Adjutant and in other staff posts, although he was a recurring target in clashes between the Belfast IRA and GHQ. The RUC used this tension to conspire against him and he was court-martialled and expelled from the IRA in 1933, then later shot dead in 1936 (his innocence was effectively admitted by the IRA in 1944-45 when it pursued those involved in allegations made against him in 1933).

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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 court-martialled in Crown Entry on 25th April 1936 (although it was expected, unlike Matthews, he would merely get a slap on the wrists). Crown Entry was raided just as the courtmartial was to take place and all those present were arrested including the IRA’s Adjutant-General, Jim Killeen, GHQ staff and senior members of the northern and Belfast leadership of the IRA including Lavery’s Adjutant, Jimmy Steele, and other staff members like Liam Mulholland and Mick Traynor.

[By the way – you can read more about all of this in a new book on the Belfast IRA]

1936-37 Sean McArdle

Took on role of O/C Belfast after the loss of Lavery and other Belfast staff members at Crown Entry. In October 1937, the R.U.C. raided what appears to have been a battalion staff meeting in Pearse Hall in King Street. McArdle was arrested and sentenced to six months in Crumlin Road for having I.R.A. documents in his possession.

1937-38 Chris McLoughlin?

While McArdle was in prison for three or four months, Chris McLoughlin may have acted in the role as O/C Belfast (he may have attended at least one I.R.A. convention in that capacity).

Chris McLoughlin

Chris McLoughlin

1938 Sean McArdle

On his release, McArdle returned as O/C Belfast until he was interned in December 1938.

1938-39 Charlie McGlade

Arrested in Crown Entry, Charlie McGlade was not long out of Crumlin Road when he was sent as an organiser to England as part of the S-Plan campaign. He took over as O/C Belfast from Sean McArdle following McArdle’s internment in December 1938. Apparently influenced by Jim Killeen, McGlade was responsible for developing the Northern Command concept that was put in place in late 1939, with McGlade as Adjutant and Sean McCaughey as O/C. He edited the Belfast edition of War News and remained as O/C Belfast until 1940 (Jimmy Steele was also to be simultaneously Adjutant Northern Command and O/C Belfast).

Embedded image permalink

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 1940

Jimmy Steele in 1940

1941 Liam Rice

Bowyer Bell (in The Secret Army) implies Liam Rice was O/C Belfast in May 1941, when he then left for Dublin to assist in the investigation into Stephen Hayes. Rice had been arrested in Crown Entry and also spent time in prison in the south. He was wounded and arrested in Dublin and spent time on the blanket in Portlaoise during the 1940s. It seems likely that Rice took over from Steele as O/C in December 1940.

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

Prior to 1942, Graham had been O/C of an independent unit, mostly made up of Protestant IRA men. Graham took on the role of Director of Intelligence for the Northern Command and (according to Joe Cahill), was also O/C Belfast. He presumably after Hugh Matthews some time after February 1942 although the timing is unclear. He was arrested along with David Fleming in the Belfast HQ on Crumlin Road on 3rd October 1942, where printing presses and radio broadcasting equipment were also recovered. Graham, a divinity student in the 1930s, on his release he was to become a noted professional golfer.

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John Graham

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

1944 Harry White?

In February 1944, Harry White apparently took over as O/C Belfast after Burns’ death. He was also on the run continuously. He seems to have taken on the role of O/C Belfast for much of the time and also delegated it to others.

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Harry White
Harry White

1944-45 Harry O’Rawe?

By April 1944, Harry White went underground to Altaghoney in County Derry seemingly leaving O’Rawe as O/C Belfast. In his memoir, Harry, Harry White implies that he and O’Rawe may have alternated in the role of O/C Belfast.

1945 Johnny Murphy?

When Harry O’Rawe was arrested in March 1945, it seems likely Johnny Murphy took over as O/C Belfast. Murphy was one of a number of I.R.A. volunteers that were induced to sign out of internment by Harry White. White himself had resigned from the I.R.A. then signed out of internment in the Curragh and then was reinstated in the I.R.A.. He later got others to do the same to replenish the Belfast Battalion staff. An organiser sent by the I.R.A. in Dublin, Gerry McCarthy, visited Belfast in April 1945 and that may have prompted the reorganisation of the various roles.

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Johnny Murphy

1945 Seamus Twomey?

In reality the identities of the O/C Belfast after Rocky Burns’ death are repeatedly unclear. A profile of Seamus Twomey (in The Irish Press on 15th July 1972) states that he was O/C Belfast in 1945. As he was only released from internment in the summer of that year, if this is true, it would have to be in the latter half of the year. Since arrests tended to be the catalyst that lead to a changes in O/C, it is possible that Twomey took over in October 1946 and Murphy replaced White as O/C Northern Command.

Seamus Twomey

Seamus Twomey

194?-49 Seamus McCallum

Richard English names McCallum as O/C when Des O’Hagan joined the IRA in 1949. Frank McKearney had taken over as O/C when Joe Cahill was released in November 1949, by which date McCallum may have moved to Liverpool (where he became O/C of the an I.R.A. unit). As noted above, it is not always clear who was in charge of what was left of the Belfast IRA between early 1944 and 1949, so the date that McCallum took on the role is unknown.

1949-50 Frank McKearney

By the late 1940s, Frank McKearney had taken over as O/C Belfast. He had received a six year term for possession of a revolver in 1939. He appears to have taken over as O/C during 1949, at least until the release of Jimmy Steele in 1950.

1950-56 Jimmy Steele

On release from Crumlin Road in 1950, Jimmy Steele again returned to active service with the IRA and once more took over as O/C Belfast while remaining prominent in other organisations such as the National Graves Association and also Sinn Féin. Stayed as O/C until 1956, when he stepped down (Steele was to remain an active republican until his death in 1970).

1956 Paddy Doyle

Took over as O/C in Belfast in preparation for the coming campaign in December, dubbed Operation Harvest. Doyle was highly thought of at GHQ but, due to suspicions about an informer, did not disclose planned operations in Belfast to his own Belfast staff. Doyle spent his time in Crumlin Road completing his education, later qualifying as an accountant, and didn’t get involved in republican activities again on his release.

1956-57 Joe Cahill

Cahill, who had a death sentence commuted in 1942, had been released in 1949 from Crumlin Road. He took over from Paddy Doyle on his arrest in December 1956 until Cahill himself was interned in July 1957.

Joe Cahill

1957-60 There is a gap in available information from mid-1957 until about 1960. Jimmy Steele may have taken over again from Cahill until his own internment that summer.

1961-63 Billy McKee

On his release from internment in 1961, Billy McKee took on the role of O/C Belfast re-building the battalion effectively from scratch. He had been imprisoned in the 1930s and 1940s and was to remain active in republican circles ever afterwards. During the Wolfe Tone commemorations of 1963 he got involved in a dispute with Billy McMillen, eventually resigned first as O/C Belfast and then from the IRA.

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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.

Billy McMillen

Billy McMillen

1969 Jim Sullivan

When McMillen was interned from mid-August to late September, Sullivan acted as O/C Belfast in his place. He was imprisoned for a number of brief periods, such as 1966, when he was presumably replaced by an acting O/C by the likes of Jim Sullivan, who was his Adjutant.

Jim Sullivan


Jim Sullivan

1969 Billy McMillen

As part of the fallout over the failure of the Belfast IRA to adequately prepare to defend areas during the pogrom, on release from internment McMillen called a Battalion staff meeting to seek confirmation that he would continue as O/C. When he was forced to restructure his staff, he was also asked to withdraw supports for Cathal Goulding as Chief of Staff on 22nd September 1969.

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

You can read more about the Belfast IRA in the new book.