A century of rebel songs: Ceol Chogadh na Saoirse

Looking for something slightly different to binge watch over Christmas? How about a series looking at political songs and music from 1916 onwards? For the last few weeks, TG4 has been showing Ceol Chogadh na Saoirse which explored the music that grew out of the political events from 1916 until more recent decades. It includes film clips and interviews with musicians, their audiences and political activists.

A theme that flows through the whole series is the importance of songs and music in both forming and articulating many people’s political views. The social role music plays and has played in Ireland probably can’t be overstated. In political terms, unlike the press and broadcast media, songs learned at social gatherings or from records are very difficult to censor and control. Performing political songs, or joining in with them may, for many people, be the closest they get to overt political activism. Anyone who has attended a live music event where they have joined in singing the songs will grasp the emotional significance and sense of belonging and identification that comes with it (whether it is political or otherwise).

In that sense, the series gives an important insight into the dynamics of politics here. Funnily, the series shows the fundamental way that music connects with people and provides a stark contrast to the expensive and often brutally unsubtle ways modern politicians try to persuade voters to support them. While the series focuses on republican songs, the same dynamic can also be found in other political traditions in Ireland. Here’s a good example (the Crumlin Hotel) by ‘The Orangemen of Ulster’, a recording which captures how songs were performed most of the time – for a small audience in a house or bar. Songs, poetry and recitations that were written to be performed are a thread that weaves through most political traditions here (and elsewhere – here is Bella Ciao, the Italian anti-fascist anthem, being sung in Milan).

While Ceol Chogadh na Saoirse has just finished on TG4, you can watch the episodes online here. If you don’t speak Irish – some interviews are in English and English language subtitles are available. You can also watch it on the RTE player here. The series includes interviews with a variety of different people and both archive recordings and new recordings of a range of songs.

If you want some tasters (or are just too damn lazy to click the links above) check out the clips below:

Free delivery on Belfast Battalion book (while stocks last)

Signed copies of the Belfast Battalion book are available with free delivery for the next week or so (or while stocks last). Click the link here to buy a copy. Free delivery only available in Ireland and Britain (see the link for instructions for delivery elsewhere)..

Kindlecover

Map of Belfast IRA members and suspects

Here’s the current map of Belfast IRA members and suspects spanning a period of around 60 years. It includes lists of Cumann na mBan, Irish Volunteer and Irish Republican Army members and suspects from 1916 onwards as well as lists of internees and sentenced prisoners for various periods. As some sets of names did not include addresses, some names are clustered at locations such as Crumlin Road Gaol, Milltown Cemetery and the docks (used for Al Rawdah internees – the Al Rawdah prison ship had been moored in Strangford Lough).

If you are struggling to work out how to view or play with the information on the map (obviously it is easier to view it on a bigger screen than a phone) – here’s some tips: Firstly, click the symbol in the top right and open it in a new window in your browser – on the left it should allow you to see the different sets of names, click them on and off on the map and read a list of names included. There should also be search window at the top to allow you to search for individual names. Remember – some individuals lived in streets that are no longer there and some may have plotted automatically and their location might be slightly incorrect – if you see any – flag it in the comments section.

The maps were put together as part of the research for the Belfast Battalion book about the Belfast IRA – postage is free to addresses in Ireland and Britain on the book from now until Christmas (or stocks run out!) – click here to buy a copy.

New IRA pension files released today

The Military Archives have released their most recent set of pension files today including documents shedding light on the activities of the IRA, Cumann na mBan and Fianna Éireann. While they primarily relate to the years 1916 to 1923, there is a wealth of information buried within them relating to later periods of equally significant historical value. Here is one example to get started with.

One infamous episode in the history of the IRA was the takeover of IRA GHQ by the Belfast Battalion and court-martial of Acting IRA Chief of Staff, Stephen Hayes, in 1941. Hayes wrote a ‘confession’ (under duress) that was transcribed by Pearse Kelly (a future IRA Chief of Staff and later of RTÉ). This was annotated and used in further interrogation of Hayes (before he escaped by jumping out a window). The Kelly transcription survives in the National Library (you can read more about it here). The main accusation made against Hayes was that he was acting in concert with the Fianna Fáil government rather than in line with IRA strategy (there is more detail on this at the link above). I suspect that, if you follow the rationale seemingly applied in Hayes interrogation that the same accusation would likely have been levelled at Sean Russell if he had lived).

The main argument offered in Hayes defence (including by Hayes himself) was that he was subsequently sentenced by the Military Court to a number of years imprisonment. Other republicans, though, have dismissed the import of that insisting that Hayes was effectively kept in prison for his own safety and was comfortably looked after while there.

After his release Hayes made an application for a pension for his prior military service. Buried within his pension file is a seemingly innocuous memo. Under the terms of the various pension acts, those who had remained active in the IRA were forfeit of a certificate of service and pension entitlements. To facilitate an application for Hayes it was proposed to amend the legislation so that Hayes could receive a pension but, rather than make it specific to Hayes, to make it a more general amendment. It is notable, within the other releases (particularly of Belfast republicans), how many of those who had opposed the treaty and remained active in the IRA subsequently struggled to have their pension entitlements granted (in some cases, due to apparent obstruction by former comrades who had supported the treaty). Largely that appeared to be consistent with a policy of not granting pension entitlements to those who continued to dispute the authority or legitimacy of the southern state. That latter point might seem antiquated, yet given contemporary republican attitudes towards engaging with the authorities on either side of the border, it is significant to see the likes of Belfast IRA staff officers signing and submitting statements to support pension applicants in the 1930s.

Hayes legislation

Memo in Stephen Hayes pension file (MSPC, see link below).

Unlike when Hayes’ case arose, there had been no previous attempt to formally restore pension entitlements. So this may add further weight to the claims that Hayes’ real loyalties had lain with the Fianna Fáil government and as such he then received sympathetic treatment by the authorities as a reward.

I’ll post more on some of the new releases in the near future.

You can read more about the Hayes affair in the Belfast Battalion book.

You can search the Military Service Pensions Collection here.

You can see some of the Stephen Hayes files here.

The Al Rawdah prison ship, 1940-41

Here is a history of the Al Rawdah prison ship. It was in use only briefly (in 1940-41) but falls within a longer history of the use of prison ships as internment camps in Ireland, including the Postlethwaite in 1798, prison ships transporting convicts overseas, the Argenta in 1922-24 and more recently the Maidstone in 1971-72.

Al Rawdah PS
Photograph of the Al Rawdah in use as a prison ship with appears to be the barbed wire enclosures on deck (from 1985 edition of Belfast Graves).
On 2nd September 1940, 140 internees were taken from Derry Gaol at 11 am and split into batches of fourteen. Each fourteen then were handcuffed in pairs and put onto a bus with British soldiers. The buses were driven in a convoy, accompanied by Lancia armoured cars, along roads which were heavily guarded. The first destination was Ebrington Barracks in Derry where the prisoners were inspected by the commander of the British 61st Division, Major-General de Wiart. They were then handed over to the RUC. When the convoy passed through Belfast, the internees reportedly sang loudly.
Their destination turned out to be 130 miles away from Derry, at Killyleagh in County Down. Some newspapers reported that as many as 157 internees were brought on the buses from Derry. The transport from Derry left another 80 internees in on-shore prisons, all in the Belfast Prison (Crumlin Road). When the Derry internees arrived in Killyleagh at 3 pm, the pier was cordoned off by the RUC. There was then a roll call of the first batch of men off the buses. They were dressed in everything from labourers clothes to sports jackets and flannels. The men were then transferred in small groups to two waiting boats. When about thirty internees and RUC men were in each boat a motor-boat towed them out to a ship, the Al Rawdah, which was to be used as a prison ship, anchored two miles off-shore. According to the Belfast Telegraph the internees sang the ‘Volga Boatman’s Song’ on the way out. In all it took until 5 pm to transfer all the internees from the buses to the Al Rawdah. One bus load remained on the quay. It included sixteen men who had applied to sign out from internment plus Jimmy McDonnell, Jack McNally and Jim Nolan (all of whom hadn’t participated in the takeover of Derry Gaol in December 1939). Instead they were taken to Crumlin Road where those applying to sign out were placed in C Wing and McDonnell, McNally and Nolan in B Wing.

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A boat travelling between the shore and the Al Rawdah (the ship shown a couple of miles off-shore in the background). This is identical to the first view the internees got of the Al Rawdah in Killyleagh. This is a still from the 1943 film ‘We Dive at Dawn’ which featured the Al Rawdah.

composite with guns
(Above and below) Close ups of the Al Rawdah from the film ‘We Dive at Dawn’ (1943) showing the gun turrets added with other refurbishments after use as a prison ship.bows.png

The Al Rawdah was a 3,930 ton vessel built in 1911 and requisitioned by the British Ministry of Shipping from the British-India Steam Company in 1940. The decision to bring a prison ship into service for internees had become public knowledge in late July 1940. By August it’s identity and destination in Strangford Lough were both well known with the Belfast Newsletter and Belfast Telegraph referring to it as the ‘Ulster Prison Ship’ and ominously noting that it’s intended capacity was 700-800 prisoners. Significant public criticism followed, noting the experience of the Argenta prison ship anchored off Larne in 1922-24 (early in August it was rumoured that the new prison ship would also be anchored off Larne). The cramped conditions, lack of exercise spaces and even difficulty in removing sick internees had all contributed to a significant number of Argenta internees developing tuberculosis and other diseases and a number being released early when they had become terminally ill. On top of that, several weeks previously some 800 German and Italian internees had been killed when the SS Arandora Star was sank en route to an internment camp in Canada. A number of local authorities and other bodies south of the border passed motions condemning the use of a prison ship.

Nationalist politicians protested that internment without trial on a ship was both against international law and presenting a serious danger given the current threat of attack from air or sea. The Unionist Minister of Home Affairs, Dawson Bates, dismissed the claims stating that “Anyone who attacked the Al Rawdah from above or from under the sea would get an unpleasant surprise.” Dawson Bates also repeatedly avoided answering questions about the cost of the Al Rawdah.

A couple of days later, on 10th September, 72 internees were taken from Crumlin Road prison in Belfast, split into batches of around fifteen and placed on five buses for a similar journey to the Al Rawdah via Killyleagh. The number transferred on 10th September varies in different newspaper reports but a statement in Stormont in mid-October confirms it as 72. This brought the number of internees on the boat to around 212. It was also noted that some internees had previously been interned without trial on the Argenta prison ship during 1922-1924. As far as I can make out Richard Ryan definitely spent time on both the Argenta and Al Rawdah. Jack Gaffney and Thomas O’Malley possibly were on the Argenta but certainly both of them and James Doyle had been imprisoned in 1920-24. Other names that feature on the list of internees on the Argenta and Al Rawdah are James Connolly, Mick Gallagher, John Kearney, Sean Keenan, P.J. O’Hare, Patrick Quinn and James Trainor. Other people may be able to shed more light on whether these are indeed the same individuals.

This immediately presented a problem to the families of internees since Killyleagh was difficult to access. At Stormont, Labour MPs asked whether the Unionist government was prepared to provide financial assistance to the families of internees. Dawson Bates refused stating that he was unaware of any anxiety on the part of the dependents of those interned. He did note that the authorities “…would not interfere in anyway with the disbursement of funds by any body provided it was within the law.” However, money collected by various groups for the dependents of internees was to be repeatedly seized by the Unionists.

By the 19th September the Al Rawdah was joined by a Catholic priest from St Paul’s Retreat at Mount Argus, Belfast-born Fr Enda Elliott, who was to become the chaplain. Four non-Catholic internees were to have their spiritual needs met by the Protestant clergy of Killyleagh. On that day the Unionist mounted a public relations offensive, with Dawson Bates and William Lowry bringing the American Consul in Belfast (John Randolph), the chaplain of Belfast Prison (Fr. McGouran), Nationalist MP Richard Byrne and Labour MP Jack Beattie and some Stormont officials out to the Al Rawdah for lunch and to inspect its newly equipped library, indoor games room and medical and dental equipment. While the press noted their meal did have some delicacies and wine added it claimed that, otherwise, it was the standard fare prepared for prisoners by the ships ‘coloured chefs’ (some of the crew were Indians). The non-unionist visitors to the prison ship declined to make any comment to the press, although the government officials advised reporters that if those visitors were to make any comment ‘it would be favourable’.

By October, there were repeated protests at the inability of families to visit internees on the Al Rawdah (notably media reports were by then using the figure of 180 for the number of internees). Internees were permitted one visit per week from two family members (the Ministry of Home Affairs only allowed visits from two out of a panel of six close relatives which had to be vetted in advance). The authorities only provided facilities and transfers to the Al Rawdah for a limited number of visits per week meaning that after six weeks some prisoners had yet to receive a visit. The remoteness was believed to be a deliberate ploy and it often proved impossible to get internees off the ship for compassionate reasons – when Patrick Doyle’s widower father James was ill in December, although he was an only son, it proved impossible to get home to Colligan Street in time to see him before he died.

Some internees families remembered the difficulty of getting out for visits including the frightening climb up steps to get to the deck of the Al Rawdah. Even before they got there they had to brave the hostility of the locals in Killyleagh who resented the nearby presence of the Al Rawdah and the on-shore presence of armoured cars and barbed wire in their village (Frank McGlade quoted in John McGuffin’s Internment). Turlach Ó hUid (in his 1985 memoir of internment, Faoi Ghlas) says that, at the quay side, Killyleagh resident shook their fists at families visiting internees as they board the boats to take them out the Al Rawdah, shouting “Scuttle the Fenian gets.

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Climbing the steps to board the Al Rawdah, from ‘We Dive at Dawn’ (1943).
Al Rawdah with subs
This photograph gives a sense of the height of the Al Rawdah (for those having to climb up steps from a boat at sea level), from when it was in service with surrendered German submarines at the end of the second world war (Wikipedia).

In mid-October it was already rumoured in the press that the Al Rawdah was costing £1 per internee per day (again citing a daily cost of £180). Despite the reputed cost, the food on board was described by internees as abominable. According to Frank McGlade even when braised gosling and dry biscuits were given as a supposed treat, they were so bad even the seagulls wouldn’t eat them. The seagulls did help some internees to occasionally relieve the boredom. Bobby Devlin recounts a story about internees on the Al Rawdah. According to Devlin (in his 1982 memoir An Interlude with Seagulls), “A ploy of some men on the ‘Al Rawdah’ was to tie bits of food scraps onto cord and fling it skywards into a frenzied mass of gulls. A poor gull would grab a mouthful triumphantly then it would have its head nearly jerked off by the rigorous pulling of the men on the ship.” Another story often told about the Al Rawdah was how internees trained a mouse to bring messages between cells (as it knew it would be rewarded with food).

There was quickly speculation (and clearly briefings from Unionist government figures) that the Al Rawdah was only a temporary facility, that the Ministry of Shipping wanted it put back into service and that the internees would be moved an internment camp with the former RUC depot at Newtownards being suggested as the likely location. It was also suggested that the internees could be relocated to Belfast Prison (Crumlin Road) for a short time while a new internment camp was established.

The question of whether the Ministry of Shipping knew in advance that the Al Rawdah was to be used for internees under the Civil Authorities (Special Powers) Act was the subject of a heated debate in Stormont on 15th October. It was claimed that the Ministry of Shipping had demanded the return of the Al Rawdah on discovering that it was to be used for internees (the Unionist government’s uses of the Special Powers Act had been the focus of significant criticism in Britain in the 1930s).

That debate was against the backdrop of internees in Crumlin Road and the Al Rawdah failing to get release after submitting an appeal and sureties to an Advisory Committee that had refused 37 of the 62 applications (applying to the Advisory Committee also caused significant tensions among internees as it was seen as giving in to the Unionist government). Twenty-five had been released. Some of the failed applicants had began a hunger strike by 15th October leading to the release of William Barrett from the Springfield Road in Belfast. He had been interned since May (1940) and his family believed it had seriously damaged his health. He and the other hunger strikers appear to have been in D wing in Crumlin Road rather than on the Al Rawdah.

During the Stormont debate William Lowry revealed that, on that date, there were 268 internees (with 193 of those on the Al Rawdah). Apparently there were roughly 70 in the Belfast Prison and the remainder on the Al Rawdah, it is implied that those in Belfast Prison were engaging with the Advisory Committee (it is possible some were also in the prison hospital there). It was also insisted that, far from being unaware of the intended use of the Al Rawdah, the British military had offered it specifically for that purpose. Not only that, it was claimed that, on hearing that they were to be moved from the Al Rawdah, William Lowry claimed the internees had unanimously petitioned to be allowed to stay. He also took the opportunity to dismiss criticisms of the use of internment, stating that “There are thankful parents in Belfast and all over the Six Counties tonight because steps were taken at the proper time and a lad was checked on a course that could only have ended in a long term of imprisonment or on the scaffold.” Many of those interned on the Al Rawdah had been arrested in December 1938 and did not get released until the summer of 1945.

On the 18th October, Nationalist Senator Thomas McLaughlin visited the ship and also declined to make any comment to the press. In Stormont a few days later he challenged the Unionist government to admit that pressure from Washington had forced London to demand the return of the ship. This was put down to a warning about the negative impact on American public opinion if the ship was attacked from the air or sea. The Unionist leader of the Senate, John Robb, instead claimed that the British authorities had asked for the ship to be evacuated once they realised they were being asked to carry the full cost themselves. The debate revealed that there had been disagreement among the Unionist government over whether to use the Al Rawdah. It transpired that the pretext for abandoning Derry Gaol had been instructions from the military to remove any internees from the prison population, meaning citizens of hostile powers (eg Germany and Italy) and prisoners of war. The Unionists had sought to use this directive to have the cost of internment transferred to the military authorities. The only cost to Stormont, as it emerged in October, were the salaries of the prison staff (one of whom, Thomas Walker, was shot dead by the IRA in February 1942 although he was mistaken for another warder).

McLaughlin also challenged Robb to read out the actual petition received from the internees on the Al Rawdah to show that they had never requested that they remain on board the ship (the internees were obviously irked by the suggestion that, as a body, they were giving in to the Unionist government). Robb first placed the petition on a table in the Senate but eventually had to read out the wording of the petition for the record: “We, the Republican internees, desire to renew our protests against the injustice of the being detained without charge or trial. We learn with resentment that, in addition to the injustice of our detention, we are to be removed from a place where at least we have the status of political prisoners to a civil prison, where there are no conveniences or amenities for political prisoners and where, we feel, the restrictions and regulations governing convicted prisoners might even, in part, apply to us.

In the Stormont Senate McLaughlin described the circumstances on board for the 183 internees. He said that it did not conform the image of a ‘luxury ship’ given by the likes of Lowry. The only available recreation space was a 160 foot walkway which could only be walked, with care, in single file as there was so much barbed wire sticking out on either side. On the 28th October, the Unionists again announced that arrangements would soon be made to transfer the internees from the Al Rawdah to an on-shore internment camp. However, it was noted that it was unlikely, with winter coming, that any new internment facility would be ready (implying they would likely be moved to a prison instead).

Despite raising the issues on the Al Rawdah, the internees were often suspicious of the motives of Nationalist politicians. The authorities regularly read the internees mail (and raided their homes to intercept any correspondence sent out illicitly). They intercepted one letter which was read out in Stormont in July 1942 to embarrass some of the Nationalists. It was written by a prominent republican, Joe McGurk, to his wife Sally when he was on the Al Rawdah and very blunt in it’s criticism of the likes of McLaughlin, Campbell and Byrne.

It read: “The common sense of the people outside would’ve told them, at any rate, that, irrespective of our Republican outlook and principle in the matter, it was very unlikely that we would petition this Northern Junta for anything after the persecution which we had to undergo several months ago, and also that we don’t give a damn where we go. We had Senator McLaughlin of Armagh on board on Friday and he was placed in a very embarrassing position, as we would not speak to him about conditions, or much more else for that matter, as he probably would have used his official position to perhaps do himself a lot of good. What takes me to the fair is the concern which T.J. Campbell and Dead-Head Byrne have for our welfare now. The ship is a Godsend for them, from a propaganda viewpoint, to ingratiate themselves with the people. It’s about time that Campbell and Byrne and that Ilk ceased to block the road of the young generation and die a natural death. They did not show much concern when we were interned in Belfast and removed to Derry. We would rather they kept away from us. as we look upon them with contempt.

The same day, some of the Indians in the crew of the Al Rawdah got into a fight that ended up in court at the Killyleagh Petty Sessions. It was claimed that Mohammed Essack had been drunk and hit Mohammed Esmail on the collar bone with an iron poker. Essack had been drunk and it had occurred during a special holy season (this isn’t specified). It was claimed that subsequently Essack had also produced a knife and told Esmail that “You kill me, or I will kill you.” Reportedly, Essack was fined £1. Court proceedings were translated into Hindi by one of the crew and some of those present were permitted to swear on the Qu’ran rather than the bible.

It was believed by the internees that the Indians were chosen to staff the ship to minimise communication between them and the internees. But contact was inevitable. Turlach Ó hUid (Faoi Ghlas 1985) records how the internees and Indian crew engaged in good natured banter, with internees typically telling the Hindus among the Indians that “Gandhi man no good. Moslem good.” and telling the Muslims among the crew that “Gandhi man good. Moslems no good.” Overall, despite the confined space, both sides got along well.

The Indians weren’t the only Al Rawdah crew members to face the courts. On the weekend of 9th-10th November, an Al Rawdah storeman, Sylvester Longstaffe, was arrested and charged with the theft of £3 worth of stores from the ship. It was claimed in court that he had just been dismissed from the ship. Evidence given during his arraignment stated that the financial arrangements under which the ship had been chartered it was still being managed by the British-India Steam Navigation Company. The Al Rawdah’s chief steward, Patrick John Connolly, was also charged with theft from the ship. As it was at an agreed rate per person, the cheaper it was run the more profit there was for the company. According to statements made by Longstaffe’s solicitor, there was a monetary incentive for the company to only provide starvation rations. However the case was never brought to court and the charges were dropped in March 1942.

Longstaffe was a married father of five from Liverpool who had been at Dunkirk. By 1943 he had been on boats that had been torpedoed three times. The charges over the Al Rawdah appear to have been dropped due to the difficulty in locating the defendants and witnesses. Longstaffe had taken on a post as a steward on ships to South Africa during 1941 and met and – bigamously – married another member of the crew in Durban for which he was prosecuted in 1943. His 4,000 mile dash to be by the bedside of his wife, Patricia, in hospital in 1947 made the newspapers. The newspapers then had to publish a clarification from his wife, Elizabeth, stating that it was not her in the photo. Neither was it Irene who he had married in South Africa. He was to feature in the press one more time, in 1958, when an Australian woman he met while working as a ship’s purser, Jean Cook, became pregnant and then tried to procure an abortion. The procedure led to kidney failure and she died a week later. Longstaffe was named as the father during the trial of two Harley Street doctors for carrying out the abortion. He gave a statement claiming he and Cook had ‘just been friends’.
Sylvester Longstaffe
Sylvester Longstaffe in the Liverpool Echo, 22nd September 1947 after his 4,000 mile dash to at the beside of Patricia.

On Monday 18th November, Jack Gaffney fell from his bunk and apparently injured his head. While the crew had a doctor, Dr John Moody, there was no doctor available for the internees. Moody examined Gaffney and he was left in his bed, then apparently brought to the ship’s hospital. He died the next day having received no treatment beyond a heart stimulant when his condition worsened. The official cause of death was described as a cerebral haemorrhage brought about by high blood pressure. In her book on the Argenta prison ship, Denise Kleinrichert lists the name ‘John Giffney’ as a prisoner on the Argenta. The surname Giffney is confined to a handful of people in Dublin and Wicklow in the 1911 census so it is possible that it should read ‘John Gaffney’ and that he spent some time on the Argenta (he was definitely imprisoned from 1921 to 1923). Gaffney’s funeral was well attended in Belfast and included the Catholic Bishop of Down and Connor, Mageean.

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I’d not been able to track down a photo of him, but I think this him in a photo of the McKelveys gaelic football team dating to 1931-32 (courtesy of Donal McAnallen).

Neil Gillespie, O/C of the internees on the Al Rawdah, delivered an oration to the internees at the time of Gaffney’s funeral on 20th November. “One of our number has been released, released with honour, released unconditionally into the hands of God who made him. We mourn his passing with that natural sorrow which strikes to the heart of anyone when someone dear to him, someone with whom he ahs been closely associated is suddenly called away, but we’re proud of Jack Gaffney. He was faithful and true to the end. He died for the cause for which he stood, for which he worked, struggled, planned and fought throughout his life, just as truly as if he had fallen on the hillside. At this moment his remains are being brought to their last resting place in a Belfast Graveyard. We gather with those around the grave, we salute the passing of our comrade as a true soldier of Ireland and all humility we pray that God, in his mercy, may have mercy on his soul.” (Oration as quoted by Ray Quinn in A Rebel Voice, 1998).

A Sean Gaffney GAA club was later founded in Belfast in his memory. A 1920-22 IRA veteran, he was well known in GAA circles having played for Kevin Barrys and Morans before joining the Joe McKelvey GAA club in 1927. He played a prominent role in McKelveys’ on field football successes in the late 1920s and early 1930s. The club (which was specifically a club for IRA members) had been highly political in its sponsorship of motions at Antrim and Ulster GAA conventions. Similarly, Sean Gaffneys and other GAA clubs founded by ex-internees and ex-prisoners, like Tom Williams GAC and Seamus Burns GAC promoted political motions, such as in 1947, when they demanded that existing bans by the GAA on ‘foreign games’ and dances be strictly enforced. The years around 1947 were the peak years for Sean Gaffney GAC as it was playing senior football in Antrim. By 1949 the club had been relegated to the Intermediate League and was back playing junior football by 1950.

After Gaffney’s death republicans described the Al Rawdah as the ‘ship from hell’ mimicking British depictions of the German ship Altmark in contemporary propaganda. The Altmark was a German ship carrying three hundred British prisoners of war that was intercepted and the prisoners freed in February 1940. The hardships the Altmark prisoners endured were popularised during the relative lull in the war in early 1940 and were well known to the public and those on the Al Rawdah. According to Turlach Ó hUid (in Faoi Ghlas), Gaffney’s death was compared to the experience of those on the Altmark and that this, more than the threat of any German torpedo or dive-bomber sealed the fate of the Al Rawdah’s use as a prison ship.

At the end of December 1940 it was again announced that the internees would be taken off the Al Rawdah, although in this instance it was reported that the destinations would be Derry Gaol and the Belfast Prison (Crumlin Road). However this move still didn’t transpire and at the start of February (1941) there was an attempt to escape from the Al Rawdah. There are stories about internees on the Al Rawdah making keys out of nails when they were doing arts and crafts. However the escape attempt actually involved an escape onto another boat. Three internees managed to slide down a hawser in the dark and get on to the deck of a collier which had drawn alongside and was unloading coal on to the Al Rawdah (some versions state that it was five internees, such as in McGuffin’s Internment). One of the internees that tried to escape was James O’Hagan. They were discovered trying to lower a lifeboat and after first being mistaken for Germans, there was a scuffle and all but one managed to get back to their cells. The sole internee captured by warders was quickly released when the internees advised they would set the ship on fire if he wasn’t. As it was clear that the internees would be leaving soon, Jimmy Drumm (quoted by John McGuffin in Internment) said that the captain, Watt, told the internees would have had to go soon anyway as they nearly had the ship destroyed stripping it for souvenirs.

As it happened, just over a week later, on Tuesday 11th February 1941, 100 internees were finally transferred out of the Al Rawdah to Belfast and Derry. Motor launches were used to take the men from the ship and then they were escorted in six buses to Crumlin Road by heavily armed RUC men. The remaining 90 internees were transferred to Crumlin Road on the Thursday. Sally McCann, whose husband James was one of the internees, was arrested for waving a handkerchief at a bus transferring internees from the Al Rawdah as it passed on it’s way into Crumlin Road. She was charged with conduct likely to lead to a breach of the peace although it was thrown out of Belfast Custody Court the next day and her arrested was described as “… it savours of nothing if it does not savour of Gestapo methods“.

The physical toll of internment on the Al Rawdah was never really fully documented. Bobby Devlin’s An Interlude with Seagulls account of internment, like many other similar memoirs, clearly highlight a recurring concern among internees about their mental health. Much of this was a clear result of being interned without trial and without a defined period of incarceration, with no actual release date to look forward to. Many euphemisms were used for depression and apathy, like the big ‘D’, the ‘bonk’ and ‘Bangor Reserves’ as it rhymed with ‘nerves’, with ‘bad with their nerves’ being a typical Belfast term for mental health problems. Apart from psychological scars, the constant stench of stagnant sea water and fumes that rose up through the ship created what many on the Argenta, Al Rawdah and Maidstone recalled as an unhealthy atmosphere to even have to breathe in. Given that the internee population was males, mostly in their late teens, twenties and thirties, post-internment mortality was significantly high. Joseph Rooney died in May 1941, John (Seán) Dolan died on 25th October 1941. Dolan was well known in music and Irish language circles in Derry and had been the secretary of the Derry County Board of the GAA and a playing member of the Patrick Pearses club. When it was clear that he was terminally ill, he was released into a relative’s home in July 1941. Some were interned for several more years only to die from ill-health soon after release including Dickie Dunn, Richard Ryan (who had also been interned on the Argenta), Bernard Curran, James Doyle, Michael McErlean and Henry O’Kane. In some cases, such as Michael McCaffrey, the legacy of internment on the Argenta at the age of 26 was continuous ill-health and an early death at the age of 43 in 1957.

The exact number of internees who spent time on the Al Rawdah isn’t clear but, based on the available names, is at least 207 and maybe at least 217. While only a subgroup of those who experienced internment between 1938 and 1945, the fact that ten internees died due to ill-health out of just over 200 on the Al Rawdah does seem inordinately high. This doesn’t account for non-fatal impacts on physical and mental health in the short term, where internment on the Al Rawdah is believed, like in Michael McCaffrey’s case, to have contributed to an early death years later. A number of other internees and sentenced prisoners (including those imprisoned in England) are also known to have died prematurely due to either tuberculosis of what would appear to be otherwise innocuous complaints after their release.

A list of recorded Al Rawdah internees is included on the Mapping the Belfast IRA page, in Belfast Lough (for convenience rather than off Killyleagh). As I don’t have addresses for most of them, I’ve not filtered them for Belfast/non-Belfast and so all internees are included. Anyone who knows of other internees not listed here could add the information in the comments section. Of the 217 names, 177 have assigned prisoner numbers. The highest available prisoner number is 207 (the numbers are sequential), this may mean some internees were to be transferred to the Al Rawdah but never made it that far – again some readers might be able to shed some light on this as they might recognise a name on the list as someone who was never on the Al Rawdah.

Thanks to Brendan Harper, Ciarán Ó Fearghail, Cliodhna Ní Baoghaill, Paul Tinnelly, Cathy Kelly and Gabriel McCaffrey for sharing stories about the Al Rawdah.

You can read more about the background to the Al Rawdah in Belfast Battalion.
An earlier version of this post was originally published on 1st February 2019.

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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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