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:
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
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 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.
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.
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.
British troops on patrol off York Street (Illustrated London News, 20/7/35).
Who was in charge of the Belfast I.R.A. from the 1920s to the 1960s? Formally, the I.R.A. designated Belfast as either a Battalion or Brigade from 1922 through to the late 1960s with it’s commander usually listed as O/C Belfast. As a clandestine organisation, the identity of it’s leadership was not usually transparent. Occasional arrests and seizures of documents by the R.U.C., particularly internal I.R.A. correspondence, strongly suggests the roles different individual held within the I.R.A., such as when correspondence addressed to the Belfast Adjutant was found in Billy McAllister’s house in January 1937.
Individual memoirs provide much more substance, corroborating some of what is known from court reports and documents. In many cases, though, they tend to roughly pinpoint in time who led the Belfast I.R.A. rather than provide a clear picture of who was in charge, how they came into the post and how they left it. Theoretically the O.C. was elected, where practicable, and many held the role until arrested. As I.R.A. posts were vacated on arrest, someone else typically acted in the role until the previous holder was either released or a formal appointment made in their place. The value in knowing who was in charge, how stable their leadership was and what direction it took the I.R.A. all contributes to a better understanding of how the organisation developed and how it impacted and influenced the course of events.
The list below is based on a variety of sources. I’ve highlighted where there are gaps and, obviously, there may well be significant errors of omissions, given the nature of the source material (and some of this is just guess work).
As ever any corrections or suggestions can be added in the comments section.
1922-23 Hugh Corvin
Former Quartermaster of the IRA’s 3rd Northern Division, he had replaced Pat Thornbury as O/C Belfast which had by then been re-organised as a Brigade in October 1922. Corvin had supported the Executive against GHQ over the Treaty in 1922. Subsequently interned in April 1923, he was elected leader of the I.R.A. prisoners and was involved in various prison protests. Corvin was involved in the Irish Volunteers prior to 1916.
1923-24 Jim O’Donnell
O’Donnell replaced Corvin as O/C while Corvin was interned. When Corvin was released from internment at the end of 1924 O’Donnell appears to have stepped back and Corvin took over again as O/C.
1924-26 Hugh Corvin
When Corvin returned as O/C of the Belfast Brigade it was during the re-organisation that followed after Joe McKelvey’s re-burial in Milltown on 30th October 1924.
1925-1926 Jim Johnston
When the Belfast I.R.A. shot Patrick Woods in November 1925 the R.U.C. arrested one individual for questioning but detained a further fifty men, more than twenty of whom were interned until January 1926 including most of the Battalion staff. This included Hugh Corvin. Barely a week after the arrests the outcome of the Boundary Commission was leaked into the press. Judging by correspondence recovered in his house in February 1926, Johnston seems to have acted as O/C while Corvin was interned.
1926 Hugh Corvin
Corvin returned as O/C but only stayed in the position until April 1926 when he resigned citing business reasons (he had set up an accountancy firm). He had been arrested in November 1925 and held until the end of January 1926 along with twenty others following the shooting of an informer.
He was to remain a prominent public figure, through involvement in the G.A.A. and as secretary of the Gaelic League in Belfast. He publicly participated in fund-raising for Fianna Fáil in Belfast in the early 1930s and when he stood as an ‘independent republican’ in West Belfast in February 1943 he was largely portrayed by the IRA as a proxy for Fianna Fáil. His later political activity and the coincidence of the Fianna Fáil split suggest it may have been a motive in his resignation.
1926-7 Dan Turley
In Belfast I.R.B. Circle with 1916 leader Sean McDermott as early as 1907, Turley mobilised at Easter in 1916, was director of elections for Sinn Féin in Belfast at the 1918 elections and was Head of Intelligence in 3rd Northern Division. He was interned on the prison ship Argenta. He took over from Corvin but, apparently clashing with personalities at GHQ, he was portrayed as being difficult to get on with and unpopular. He remained active as Belfast Adjutant and in other staff posts, although he was a recurring target in clashes between the Belfast IRA and GHQ. The RUC used this tension to conspire against him and he was court-martialled and expelled from the IRA in 1933, then later shot dead in 1936 (his innocence was effectively admitted by the IRA in 1944-45 when it pursued those involved in allegations made against him in 1933).
1927-33 Davy Matthews
From Albert Street. A former O/C of C Company, 1st Battalion in the 1920-23 campaigns, including the Raglan Street ambush, and a former internee on the Argenta. Took over from Dan Turley who remained as part of his staff. Instigated re-organisation of the Belfast IRA in 1929, including training camps, Irish language classes and recruitment to Na Fianna. Described by Bob Bradshaw as having a ‘heart of gold and head of ivory’. Also active in Sinn Féin at a time when there were internal divisions within the IRA over whether to co-operate with Sinn Féin, Fianna Fáil or a left-wing political project (or if they were to co-operate with anyone at all). In November 1933, Matthews was arrested in possession of IRA documents and received a short sentence. So many other senior Belfast staff were arrested, including Jimmy Steele, Charlie Leddy, George Nash, Tom O’Malley and Jack Gaffney that a temporary staff was formed, including Jack McNally, Jim Johnstone and Sean Carmichael.
1933-34 Jack McNally
From the Bone. Another 1920-23 campaign veteran. Appears to have taken over as O/C while Davy Matthews served a short sentence in 1933-34 (this is implied but not explicitly stated in his memoir Morally Good, Politically Bad). While he was in prison Matthews decided to sign an undertaking that he would cease his IRA membership if he was released just before Christmas. So too did another veteran, George Nash. Whether Matthews intended to honour the commitment or not, he was courtmartialled in January 1934 and dismissed from the IRA. McNally only stayed as O/C for a number of months but remained active on the IRA’s GHQ staff until his arrest at Crown Entry in 1936. He was interned in December 1938 and was to later be active in the Anti-Partition League.
1934-36 Tony Lavery
From Balkan Street, a Fianna veteran of the 1920s, took over role as O/C Belfast (at the time designated Ulster Area No 1). Despite an order from Army Council not to, he instructed those charged by the northern government over the Campbell College raid to be defended in court. After they were acquitted, the Army Council charged Lavery with disobeying a direct order and was to be court-martialled in Crown Entry on 25th April 1936 (although it was expected, unlike Matthews, he would merely get a slap on the wrists). Crown Entry was raided just as the courtmartial was to take place and all those present were arrested including the IRA’s Adjutant-General, Jim Killeen, GHQ staff and senior members of the northern and Belfast leadership of the IRA including Lavery’s Adjutant, Jimmy Steele, and other staff members like Liam Mulholland and Mick Traynor.
Took on role of O/C Belfast after the loss of Lavery and other Belfast staff members at Crown Entry. In October 1937, the R.U.C. raided what appears to have been a battalion staff meeting in Pearse Hall in King Street. McArdle was arrested and sentenced to six months in Crumlin Road for having I.R.A. documents in his possession.
1937-38 Chris McLoughlin?
While McArdle was in prison for three or four months, Chris McLoughlin may have acted in the role as O/C Belfast (he may have attended at least one I.R.A. convention in that capacity).
1938 Sean McArdle
On his release, McArdle returned as O/C Belfast until he was interned in December 1938.
1938-39 Charlie McGlade
Arrested in Crown Entry, Charlie McGlade was not long out of Crumlin Road when he was sent as an organiser to England as part of the S-Plan campaign. He took over as O/C Belfast from Sean McArdle following McArdle’s internment in December 1938. Apparently influenced by Jim Killeen, McGlade was responsible for developing the Northern Command concept that was put in place in late 1939, with McGlade as Adjutant and Sean McCaughey as O/C. He edited the Belfast edition of War News and remained as O/C Belfast until 1940 (Jimmy Steele was also to be simultaneously Adjutant Northern Command and O/C Belfast).
1940 Jimmy Steele
A Fianna and IRAveteran 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 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.
1941 Pearse Kelly
When Rice left for Dublin, Bowyer Bell states that Pearse Kelly took over as O/C Belfast in May. Kelly too left for Dublin in July to take part in the investigations into Chief of Staff Stephen Hayes. Kelly was eventually to become Chief of Staff himself and ended up in the Curragh. Afterwards he went on to a senior role in RTE as Head of News.
1941-42 Hugh Matthews
During 1941 Hugh Matthews, brother of Davy Matthews and another 1920-24 veteran, took over as O/C in Belfast, and was O/C during the Army Conference in Belfast in February 1942 (according to Bowyer Bell in The Secret Army). Ray Quinn (in A Rebel Voice) says he took over from Jimmy Steele but dates it to a later Army Convention in Belfast in February 1943. It is not particularly clear from surviving accounts, but Matthews appears to have been O/C as further disputes arose about disciplinary practices of his Belfast staff members (but not direct criticism of Matthews himself).
1942 John Graham
Prior to 1942, Graham had been O/C of an independent unit, mostly made up of Protestant IRA men. Graham took on the role of Director of Intelligence for the Northern Command and (according to Joe Cahill), was also O/C Belfast. He presumably after Hugh Matthews some time after February 1942 although the timing is unclear. He was arrested along with David Fleming in the Belfast HQ on Crumlin Road on 3rd October 1942, where printing presses and radio broadcasting equipment were also recovered. Graham, a divinity student in the 1930s, on his release he was to become a noted professional golfer.
1942-43 Rory Maguire
Maguire was O/C Belfast in the autumn of 1942, apparently following Graham’s capture in October.
1943 Jimmy Steele
Escaping from Crumlin Road prison on 15th January 1943, Steele re-joined the Northern Command staff as Adjutant and took over the role of O/C Belfast from Rory Maguire (Maguire’s brother, Ned, had escaped with Steele). He remained O/C Belfast when he took over as IRA Adjutant General after Liam Burke’s arrest.
1943-44 Seamus Burns
Following Jimmy Steele’s arrest in May, Seamus ‘Rocky’ Burns took over as O/C Belfast. Burns had been imprisoned as a 17 year old in 1938, interned in 1939. He took part in the mutiny in Derry jail and was moved to Crumlin Road prison, only to be returned to Derry from where he escaped with 20 others through a tunnel in March 1943. Recaptured in Donegal, he was interned in the Curragh. Harry White had Burns resign from the IRA, sign out of the Curragh, then rejoin the IRA and return north (when he took over as O/C Belfast). He was shot trying to escape from RUC officers in Chapel Lane in February 1944 and died the next day.
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.
1944-45 Harry O’Rawe?
By April 1944, Harry White went underground to Altaghoney in County Derry seemingly leaving O’Rawe as O/C Belfast. In his memoir, Harry, Harry White implies that he and O’Rawe may have alternated in the role of O/C Belfast.
1945 Johnny Murphy?
When Harry O’Rawe was arrested in March 1945, it seems likely Johnny Murphy took over as O/C Belfast. Murphy was one of a number of I.R.A. volunteers that were induced to sign out of internment by Harry White. White himself had resigned from the I.R.A. then signed out of internment in the Curragh and then was reinstated in the I.R.A.. He later got others to do the same to replenish the Belfast Battalion staff. An organiser sent by the I.R.A. in Dublin, Gerry McCarthy, visited Belfast in April 1945 and that may have prompted the reorganisation of the various roles.
1945 Seamus Twomey?
In reality the identities of the O/C Belfast after Rocky Burns’ death are repeatedly unclear. A profile of Seamus Twomey (in The Irish Press on 15th July 1972) states that he was O/C Belfast in 1945. As he was only released from internment in the summer of that year, if this is true, it would have to be in the latter half of the year. Since arrests tended to be the catalyst that lead to a changes in O/C, it is possible that Twomey took over in October 1946 and Murphy replaced White as O/C Northern Command.
194?-49 Seamus McCallum
Richard English names McCallum as O/C when Des O’Hagan joined the IRA in 1949. Frank McKearney had taken over as O/C when Joe Cahill was released in November 1949, by which date McCallum may have moved to Liverpool (where he became O/C of the an I.R.A. unit). As noted above, it is not always clear who was in charge of what was left of the Belfast IRA between early 1944 and 1949, so the date that McCallum took on the role is unknown.
1949-50 Frank McKearney
By the late 1940s, Frank McKearney had taken over as O/C Belfast. He had received a six year term for possession of a revolver in 1939. He appears to have taken over as O/C during 1949, at least until the release of Jimmy Steele in 1950.
1950-56 Jimmy Steele
On release from Crumlin Road in 1950, Jimmy Steele again returned to active service with the IRA and once more took over as O/C Belfast while remaining prominent in other organisations such as the National Graves Association and also Sinn Féin. Stayed as O/C until 1956, when he stepped down (Steele was to remain an active republican until his death in 1970).
1956 Paddy Doyle
Took over as O/C in Belfast in preparation for the coming campaign in December, dubbed Operation Harvest. Doyle was highly thought of at GHQ but, due to suspicions about an informer, did not disclose planned operations in Belfast to his own Belfast staff. Doyle spent his time in Crumlin Road completing his education, later qualifying as an accountant, and didn’t get involved in republican activities again on his release.
1956-57 Joe Cahill
Cahill, who had a death sentence commuted in 1942, had been released in 1949 from Crumlin Road. He took over from Paddy Doyle on his arrest in December 1956 until Cahill himself was interned in July 1957.
1957-60 There is a gap in available information from mid-1957 until about 1960. Jimmy Steele may have taken over again from Cahill until his own internment that summer.
1961-63 Billy McKee
On his release from internment in 1961, Billy McKee took on the role of O/C Belfast re-building the battalion effectively from scratch. He had been imprisoned in the 1930s and 1940s and was to remain active in republican circles ever afterwards. During the Wolfe Tone commemorations of 1963 he got involved in a dispute with Billy McMillen, eventually resigned first as O/C Belfast and then from the IRA.
1963-69 Billy McMillen
Following the argument over the Wolfe Tone commemorations in June 1963, McMillen took over as O/C Belfast. Having earlier been associated with unofficial bombings in 1950, McMillen had left the IRA in the mid-1950s following an argument and linked up with Saor Uladh. After his release from internment in 1961, he first went to England then returned to Belfast and rejoined the IRA. He remained O/C through the 1960s and was interned just before the pogrom in mid-August 1969.
1969 Jim Sullivan
When McMillen was interned from mid-August to late September, Sullivan acted as O/C Belfast in his place. He was imprisoned for a number of brief periods, such as 1966, when he was presumably replaced by an acting O/C by the likes of Jim Sullivan, who was his Adjutant.
1969 Billy McMillen
As part of the fallout over the failure of the Belfast IRA to adequately prepare to defend areas during the pogrom, on release from internment McMillen called a Battalion staff meeting to seek confirmation that he would continue as O/C. When he was forced to restructure his staff, he was also asked to withdraw supports for Cathal Goulding as Chief of Staff on 22nd September 1969.
Thanks to all those who have supplied further information, photographs etc.
If you want to read about the IRA in Australia (or more strictly, official attitudes to the IRA in Australia), there is an interesting post here on the Irish Diaspora Histories network by Evan Smith and Anastasia Dukova. It notes that the Australian security services had monitored Irish republicans there since the Easter Rising. But in the early 1970s, fear that conflict in Ireland could spill over to Australia saw an increase in focus on Irish republicans in Australia.
The post reminded me of a throw away comment about the IRA and Australia reported in a court case in 1939. Hugh McCluskey, Thomas Magill and Robert McCann were IRA volunteers from Belfast who were involved in the sabotage campaign in England which began in January 1939. On 18th February 1939, a police raid in Wheelys Road in Edgebaston in Birmingham found all three in a house with magnesium, metallic sodium, magnesium scrapings and detonator wire. These were basic bomb-making equipment as IRA volunteers had been trained to use them to manufacture detonation charges to use with ‘paxo’ explosives (made by mixing potassium chlorate and paraffin wax). Other incriminating items were also recovered from the house, but no guns.
McCluskey and McCann had both been imprisoned in Belfast previously for offences under the Civil Authorities (Special Powers) Act. In court, on 20th March, they received ten year sentences, while Magill received seven years. During the trial a detective claimed under oath that, when he was being arrested, McCluskey admitted to having been a member of the Belfast Battalion and said “It’s all right. We have not got a gun. If we had we should have put a bullet through all of you. You caught us napping. I am better off inside. I am shutting up, as one of our fellows went to Australia and they got him there.”
The press reporting, including many Australian newspapers such as the Sydney Morning Herald, highlight the reference to Australia. Unfortunately, none actually explore the implications of what McCloskey is reported to have said (any speculation is obviously predicated upon the police officer truthfully repeating something that McCluskey said).
There are a number of instances of the Belfast IRA, or individuals connected to the Belfast Battalion of the IRA, killing former members or others connected to the IRA in the 1920s or 1930s, such as Patrick Woods, Joe Hanna and Dan Turley. However, there doesn’t appear to be any reference to a former member being tracked to Australia and killed there over the same time frame. A review of the Belfast Brigade lists compiled in the 1930s identifies four from Belfast with addresses in Australia in the 1930s. These are George Fitzsimons (Engineering Battalion), Henry McCollum, Thomas Corry and John Myles (all A Company, 2nd Battalion). There doesn’t appear to be anyone of the same names who died in suspicious circumstances reported in the Australian press up to 1939. The RUC suspect list from the 1930s doesn’t note anyone as having emigrated to Australia during this time.
While it may be a reference to an IRA volunteer from somewhere other than Belfast, again, this doesn’t appear to be mentioned anywhere else that I have noted up to now. One possibility is that it is a garbled version of the story of James Carey, the informer whose evidence had led to the execution of five Invincibles in 1882. Carey was spotted on a ship while emigrating to South Africa and killed by another Invincible, Patrick O’Donnell, who was subsequently executed (O’Donnell was a great grand uncle of Patsy Dougan).
The Invincible, Patrick O’Donnell
Anyone who knows of any cases where someone from Belfast died in suspicious circumstances prior to 1939 could add some details in the comments below.
See here for a link to a story in the Irish Echo about the unveiling of headstone at the New York grave of Patrick Dougan, a volunteer in D Company, first Battalion, of the IRA’s Belfast Brigade during 1919-1921. On 30th May 1937 he died of pneumonia and had been buried in an unmarked grave in St Raymond’s Cemetery in the Bronx.
Patsy Duggan (see Irish Echo article linked at the start of the post)
Dougan was one the Belfast IRA volunteers who was arrested in Lappanduff in Cavan on 8th May 1921 while serving in a flying column. The flying column had been recruited through Seamus McGoran who had transferred from the Belfast Brigade to become O/C of the East Cavan Brigade. The thirteen strong flying column was led by Joe Magee and included Patrick Dougan, Sean McCartney and Johnny McDermott from D Company. They arrived in Cavan between the 3rd or 4th of May and the 6th (when McCartney arrived) and were to be reinforced by a further 10-12 men before going in to action. In the meantime they had cleaned up the cottages in which they were staying and began cleaning and sorting their arms and ammunition. Several of the men, including Patrick Dougan and Sean McCartney, were experienced ex-servicemen who had served in the first world war. Dougan had served under an assumed name (William Cairns).
On the night of Saturday 7th May, Magee gave permission for three of the men to visit a pub McCartney had spotted around a mile from where they were staying. According to Seamus McKenna (Magee’s second in command), the sudden appearance of Belfast men in the pub would have aroused suspicion. He also noted that two of the three were ex-servicemen saying they “…were anything but discreet and I have no doubt that their tongues wagged.” At 1 am that night McGoran arrived with another former Belfast IRA volunteer, Tom Fox, who was his Brigade engineer while some locals delivered further supplies to the flying column. They were accompanied by two local Cavan IRA leaders. Further reinforcements were also expected.
Two sentries had been posted for two hours watches through the night and at 4 am, one spotted some movement at the foot of the hill below the house. When another member of the flying column went about fifty yards from the house to get water he also some movement and waved, thinking it was the reinforcements. A number of shots fired at him made him realise it was a military party. The shots also awakened the rest of the flying column. Magee ordered the men to take up defensive positions and sent McCartney and McDermott out to reconnoitre the foot of the hill. According to the British record of the incident, soldiers and RIC constables searching for an IRA organiser stumbled upon the flying column outside a house on Lappanduff mountain.
As the British took cover around a farmhouse and the flying column took cover around the house they had been using and both sides exchanged rifle fire. McKenna observed McCartney and McDermott under heavy fire running across a field at the foot of the hill to return to their position. McCartney was shot dead and McDermott, realising he couldn’t help him, continued up towards the flying column’s position. Around their position, men began to move out and several escaped the net of soldiers, RIC and Black and Tans. McGoran, Seamus Heron and Patrick Dougan had taken up a position to the rear of Seamus McKenna. Just below him, Seamus Finn collapsed, having been wounded. Patrick Dougan volunteered to go down to assist Finn. Despite heavy gunfire he managed to crawl down to Finn who could be clearly heard moaning. With the flying column separated into groups and pinned down, eventually Seamus McKenna offered to surrender as they were unable to return fire. The gun battle had lasted around two hours. Nine of the Belfast men and two of the Cavan volunteers were captured but the others, including McGoran, Heron and Magee, had managed to escape. Patrick Dougan would probably have escaped had he stayed with Heron and McGoran rather than go to the aid of Seamus Finn.
After the surrender there was some ill-treatment as the prisoners were beaten by the RIC and Black and Tans, with Peter Callaghan received a head injury after being struck with a rifle butt. However, the British soldiers removed the prisoners who were brought to Victoria Barracks in Belfast where they were all sentence to death on 11th July 1921. As the truce came in to force the sentence wasn’t carried and Patrick Dougan was moved first to Mountjoy then released in 1922.
The Dougans had lived at Panton Street and Cupar Street but by the 1930s they had moved to Peel Street. This was the address used for Patrick when the Belfast Brigade records for 1916-1922 were compiled. His brothers Dan and James were also active in the IRA, his father John had been in the IRB and the family had a long history of involvement as republicans.
In April 1930, Patrick emigrated to the United States, taking ship to New York. His emigration papers give his occupation as ‘coal merchant’ (by this time he was living in Kane Street). As the Irish Echo article notes, he died of pneumonia on the 30th May 1937. His death wasn’t overlooked in Ireland as some of the newspapers did report it, such as the Leitrim Observer (15th May 1937).
This is merely scratching the surface of Patsy Dougan’s life. You can read more about him here in a great piece by Michael Jackson (based on research by Dougan’s nephew Tomás Ó Dubhagáin).