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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IRA’s Easter commemoration, Belfast, 25th April 1943

On Easter Sunday, 25th April 1943, the IRA’s Chief of Staff and Adjutant-General led a public Easter commemoration at the Broadway cinema in Belfast. The resonances with 1916 were obvious: visible armed resistance in wartime, in a district saturated with armoured cars and the heavily armed British forces. The previous year’s commemoration had also triggered a calamitous sequence of events that had expended much of the IRA’s remaining capacity and saw Tom Williams hung in Crumlin Road prison. In the circumstances, there was significant pressure on the remaining IRA leadership to give some hope to their supporters and imprisoned comrades.

The 1943 commemoration also intentionally signalled a formal shift in the IRA’s centre from Dublin to Belfast, and in focusing on ending partition rather than challenging the legitimacy of government from Leinster House (a continuous ambition of the Belfast IRA since the 1930s and arguably a continuing complication in republican strategy). Similarly, the venue, built on the site of the Willow Bank huts from where the Belfast Volunteers had mobilised in 1916 also suggested a heavily coded challenge to the various competing groups in Belfast such as the Pre-Truce IRA organisation claiming primacy as the authentic inheritors of the Republic declared in 1916 (ownership of the Easter Rising commemorations were to see similar political battles in the 1950s when formal parades were permitted). Few enough may have understood the reference to 1916 and the ‘Old’ IRA association, although those that did were the intended audience. Symbolically, Easter 1943 marks the formal shift in the emphasis of IRA strategy to the north.

The IRA Chief of Staff, Hugh McAteer, writing in 1951 in the Sunday Independent, clearly saw the parallels between 1916 and 1943. By mid-April 1943, he writes that he was acknowledging internally that the possibility of the IRA succeeding was out of the question for the moment. Recognising the propaganda value of his own escape in January that year and the mass Derry escape in March, the IRA leadership realised that the pattern of their work was clear. Their immediate object was now to ‘preserve the spirit of the movement’ and that was to guide how they would plan and execute their next actions.

In 1943 then, the commemoration was to be particularly significant. The leadership of Hugh McAteer and Jimmy Steele (who had taken over as Adjutant-General on Liam Burke’s capture earlier that April) developed the idea of staging a public Easter Rising commemoration. Harry White (in his biography, Harry, written with Uinseann MacEoin) recounts how the idea evolved from a throwaway suggestion from two young IRA Volunteers to an operation involving sixteen Volunteers taking over the Broadway cinema to stage a commemoration. According to Harry White, it was Joe Doyle and Dan Diffin who came up with the idea of using armed volunteers to take over either a cinema or a dance hall and then staging a public Easter commemoration. The idea was dismissed as impractical on security grounds.

In reality, McAteer and Steele were very enthusiastic about the idea and only dismissed it to Doyle and Diffin as they wanted to maintain as much secrecy as possible. Initially, according to White, the plan had been to simply flash up a slide on screen that said “Join The IRA”, but the concept expanded until it became a full dress commemoration. White had been staying at the house of a projectionist in the Broadway Cinema on the Falls Road, Willie Mohan, whose brother Jerry was an internée. Mohan’s uncle, Frank, was also the manager of the cinema. Typically, the projection box was kept locked, but normally the projectionist went for a smoke between films which gave the IRA a short window in which to go and take control of it.
The plan that developed was relatively simple but was loaded with symbolism. The parallels of a public reading of the 1916 proclamation in 1943 in Belfast during a general world war and the reading of the original proclamation in Dublin in 1916, during an earlier war, were no doubt clear. McAteer and Steele had huge sums on their heads following their escape in January 1943 and a public appearance and obvious support would signal the loyalty of their supporters to the unionist government (i.e. that they weren’t going to be paid to betray their leaders).
The RUC were expecting some form of commemoration to take place over the Easter weekend. According to the Irish News, they had turned the Falls Road into an armed camp with hundreds of uniformed and plain clothes police, with armoured cars, whippet cars, patrol cars and cage cars patrolling the district. Still, sixteen armed IRA volunteers accompanied McAteer and Steele to Broadway cinema where they staged the commemoration. Three volunteers went into the projector box and handed over a slide which was flashed up on screen.
Jimmy Steele, in full dress uniform, appeared on stage and was introduced by McAteer. Steele read the 1916 Proclamation of the Irish Republic, then McAteer read a statement from Army Council on IRA policy, the resonances with 1916 are clear. While the “cause had not yet triumphed” he told them, “Ireland is being held within the Empire by sheer force and by force alone can she free herself. Now with Britain engaged in a struggle for her very existence, we are presented with a glorious opportunity.” McAteer finished to applause (according to Fr Kevin McMullan, who was only seven at the time but had by chance been at that screening of Don Bosco, the response was positive and enthusiastic). McAteer then called for two minutes’ silence to commemorate those who had died for Ireland.
In Dublin, The Irish Times even reported that no commemoration took place. In Belfast, though, The Irish News enthusiastically reported on proceedings which were recounted in news bulletins as far away as Germany. The northern government’s Prime Minister, J.M. Andrews, who was already under pressure and perceived as a moderate, resigned on the Friday after Easter.

Steele and McAteer’s wanted poster

Fian Sean Doyle, died 10th April 1944

April 5th, 1942: Tom Williams and ‘legacy issues’

Diagram showing positions of IRA unit, Kashmir Road diversionary attack, 5th April 1942. In possession of IRA Adjutant General Jimmy Steele when he was captured in May 1943 (now in PRONI).

On Easter Sunday, 5th April, 1942, a unit from the Belfast Battalion’s C Company was to carry out a diversionary attack on the RUC on the Kashmir Road. The unit involved were to fire shots at one of the armoured cars that the RUC used to patrol nationalist districts, withdraw to a pre-arranged safe house, dump their arms, then disperse. If the RUC reacted as usual, it would isolate the district, flood it with reinforcements then carry out raids. Meanwhile, with the RUC busy in Kashmir Road, the IRA would hold its Easter Rising commemorations elsewhere, unimpeded.

Part of the IRA’s own report into what happened next is summarised by a map captured in May 1943 (now in the public records office). Since the streetscape has almost changed beyond recognition, I’ve added a map of the area, as it was in the 1940s, below. The captured diagram shows the positions taken up by the unit O/C, Tom Williams, and the other volunteers, Dixie Cordner, Jimmy Perry, Joe Cahill and John Oliver. Williams and Cordner were on the footpath behind the last air raid shelter before the junction between Kashmir Road and Clonard Gardens, Cahill and Perry between the last two shelters and Oliver between the second and third shelters. After firing shots they were to head back into Cawnpore Street where a sixth IRA volunteer, Pat Simpson, was waiting for them, then dump their arms and disperse. The arms would be concealed and returned to IRA arms dumps by Cumann na mBan. You can get an idea of the size of the air raid shelters in the photo below (you can also check them out in the film Odd Man Out).

Kashmir Road as it was in the 1940s.

Air raid shelters on the side of the road at the corner of Donegall Street and York Street.

What happened next is relatively well documented. The IRA unit fired shots over a passing armoured car, from which the RUC dismounted and then attempted to pursue the IRA unit into Cawnpore Street. In this case, the RUC men involved, including Patrick Murphy, had been involved in previous armed confrontations with IRA units and had attempted to storm houses at gun point in pursuit of IRA volunteers. By mid-1942, though, the IRA’s Chief of Staff, Eoin McNamee, had decreed that armed IRA volunteers who were at risk of arrest, were to use force if they had a chance of escape. So on 5th April, 1942, the C Company unit followed current IRA policy and exchanged fire with the RUC in Cawnpore Street and Murphy was killed, and, Williams wounded. Having been convinced by the authorities that his wounds were fatal, Williams took responsibility for Murphy’s death in the hope that it would shield the rest of his unit from retribution. Instead, when he had recovered, he was hung as a reprisal in September 1942 (even though he had clearly not fired the shots that killed Murphy), while the others barely escaped execution. You can read one account of their reprieve here in the Connolly Association’s paper, Irish Freedom, from September 1942.

And in case anyone is labouring under the mistaken impression that deliberate delays and obfuscations are a recent tactic of the authorities when attempting to resolve ‘legacy issues’: it was to be 58 years after his execution before Tom Williams was handed over to his family and friends and was able to receive a proper burial.


You can read more about Tom Williams and the events surrounding his execution in Jim McVeigh’s book or at some of the links below.






You can also watch a great documentary at the link below (if it is still available).



Belfast O/Cs: a bit of tidying up

Having published a revised list of Belfast IRA O/Cs from 1924 to 1969, I’ve had a chance to look at one of the gaps, in the mid-1940s thanks to prompts from a number of people such as Niall Ó Murchú.

The period when information becomes unclear coincides (unsurprisingly) from when Harry White, O/C of the IRA’s Northern Command, took over as Belfast O/C after Seamus Burns‘ death. White was on the run continuously and was to become the last member of IRA’s GHQ at liberty. He seems to have taken on the role of O/C Belfast for much of the time and, in the memoir, Harry, he published with Uinseann MacEoin he seems to indicate that he also delegated the role (fairly casually) to Harry O’Rawe in particular.

By the end of 1944, White was Chief of Staff of the IRA and started spending some of his time living under an assumed name (Harry McHugh) in Altaghoney on the Tyrone/Derry border. He had first gone to Altaghoney for a few weeks in March 1944 after Burns’ death. White then returned to Belfast briefly but went back to Altaghoney from around April to August 1944 when he once again returned to Belfast. The rough dates for White’s stays in Altaghoney were given during the trial of his hosts, the O’Kanes, in 1946. An IRA hunger strike in Crumlin Road prison had ended on 6th April, seemingly on instructions from the IRA leadership on the outside (presumably White). His memoir Harry seems to imply that he had O’Rawe act as Belfast O/C in his absence, and this may have started when he left for Altaghoney, which must have been after the ending of the hunger strike on 6th April 1944.


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Harry White

Harry White

So based on Harry White’s known movements and his own memoir, it seems likely that White took on the role as Belfast O/C in February 1944 following Burns’ death, with O’Rawe taking over in April. He  (O’Rawe) may have taken over the role from then until his arrest on March 6th 1945. A combination of O’Rawe’s arrest and Paddy Fleming taking over as Chief of Staff in Dublin in March 1945, appear to have motivated White to move to Altaghoney and go into semi-permanent hiding (although still as O/C Northern Command). While Albert Price remained free until his arrest at the end of September 1945, there are no references to him acting as O/C Belfast in the interim period.

White had returned to Belfast in August 1944 after Charlie Kerins’ arrest in June left him as the only member of IRA GHQ at large (this also now left him as Acting Chief of Staff). As it became more obvious that De Valera was going to have Kerins executed, White moved to resupply his own staff by directing individuals, such as Johnny Murphy to sign out of Crumlin Road. Murphy and the likes of John Bradley and Barney Boswell are also believed to have served on the Belfast Battalion staff at this time, from 1945 to 1947 and Murphy is believed to have also acted as O/C Belfast. The sequencing of this isn’t entirely clear but it may be that Murphy took over as O/C Belfast after O’Rawe’s arrest.

Seamus Twomey (in 1972)

There are other suggestions that might fill some gaps here for the years around 1945-47. 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 may be more likely that Twomey took over in October 1946 and Murphy replaced White as O/C Northern Command.

White’s cover had been blown in October 1946 and, after being questioned in Derry and briefly held in Crumlin Road he was driven straight to the border and handed over to the Free State government who (it was assumed) would quickly try him in a military court and execute him. White barely avoided execution and was sent to Portaoise for a number of years.

May 1943 to Feb 1944 Rocky Burns

Feb 1944 to March 1944 Harry White

March 1944 to March 1945 Harry O’Rawe

March 1945 to October 1946 Johnny Murphy

October 1946 to ?? Seamus Twomey

?? to early 1949 Seamus McCollum 

So roughly, I’d now guess this is the sequence of Belfast O/Cs from Rocky Burns death until Seamus McCollum who is named by Dessie O’Hagan as O/C in 1949. But there is still some uncertainty as to the overall accuracy of this and the period before just Seamus McCollum took over. That this is all still a little vague is kind of appropriate since it is the period that overlaps with the novel and film versions of Odd Man Out.


The Great Escape: Derry, 1943

On the 20th March 1943 the IRA staged a mass escape through a tunnel from Derry Jail. The escape was one of a series of high profile actions by the IRA in the north in the first half of 1943.

The escape itself is well covered by an episode of the TG4 series, Ealú: To Hell and Back (currently not available online but worth a look if you can find it). There is a longer account of the escape on the blog here, so this article looks more at the wider context of the escape in terms of the IRA in 1943.

Planning for the Derry escape had begun in October 1942 when a tunnel was started in the cell of Harry O’Rawe and Jimmy O’Hagan (there are also accounts of the escape in Uinseann McEoin’s Harry and The IRA in the Twilight Years). The prospects for the IRA at the time looked bleak. After IRA Chief of Staff Sean Russell’s sabotage campaign in Britain failed to put much pressure on the government in London, the IRA had not articulated a clear change in strategy. The outbreak of the world war in September 1939 had also dramatically altered the wider political context. Northern irritation at the IRA’s Dublin-centric leadership had culminated in the removal of Stephen Hayes as Acting Chief of Staff (deputising for Russell), ostensibly for betraying the IRA. Hayes, like Russell, actually appeared to be intent on recalibrating IRA actions to coalesce with the political ambitions of Fianna Fail, as it had done up to at least 1932. Sean McCaughey, the IRA Adjutant General who led the investigation of Hayes, suspected that this was somehow being facilitated by a resuscitated IRB.

The world war had presented the IRA opportunities on two fronts. Firstly, the Allies desire for the USA to enter the war increased dramatically as the toll of their early setbacks mounted over 1940. Irish-America sensed an opening to leverage Ireland into the debate and countered some Allied propaganda by flagging parallels between the German’s treatment of other European territories with that of the British Empire, particularly Ireland. The presence of Sean Russell in the USA in 1939 had already raised the profile of the Irish issue (and effectively demonstrated that any value the English sabotage campaign, ultimately, had also  lay in exerting pressure on the UK via Irish-America).

The second front was in being able to draw lines between the British Empire and its enemies. Quite a lot has been written about the IRA and Nazi Germany, yet contacts were minimal, extremely erratic and apparently valueless to either side. In Belfast, over the same period, the IRA, was attempting to widen its political base by forming a Republican Club. This coincided with communists and the left pushing for a broad anti-fascist front and provided common ground. The Belfast steering committee included both IRA volunteers like Charlie McGlade, Jack Brady, Ernie Hillen and Tarlach Ó hUid, and, Communists, trade unionists and other interested parties like Malachy Gray, Jimmy Johnston and Jimmy Devlin (Ó hUid names members in his 1960 memoir Ar Thoir Mo Shealbha). Billy McCullough and Betty Sinclair were even to be jailed for publishing an article by the IRA in the left wing newsletter Red Hand. Over the course of 1939, the communist’s public language shifted from a broad ‘antifascist front’ to opposing Britain’s ‘imperialist war’. This initiative fragmented when Germany invaded the Soviet Union. The Communists position shifted dramatically towards supporting the Allies war effort in line with Russian foreign policy.

The subsequent fallout among those involved in the Republican Club was to continue to colour events in Belfast for decades, denouncing republicans within weeks of Tom Williams execution in 1942 and reputedly betraying senior IRA figures and dumps to the RUC (see Swan, Official Irish Republicanism, 1962 to 1972, p93). What this more acute was that, in the wake of the Hayes fiasco, the IRA’s centre had shifted to the north and Belfast. By mid-1942, weapons were being relocated to the northern dumps in preparation for a proposed campaign. After the capture of the main dump in late August 1942, massive RUC raids saw over 200 arrested in the hours after Williams execution at the start of September. The northern campaign never materialised (although the lower Falls was put under curfew until December 1942). With no prospect of success via a military victory, again, whatever strategy was in place relied upon achieving sufficient publicity in the USA that Irish-America might demand an Irish republic be included in any post-war Versailles-type treaty. By the end of 1942 and start of 1943 it was becoming apparent that no negotiated settlement would take place as the Allies demanded unconditional surrender by the Germans.

Subsequent IRA actions in the north in 1943 should then be understood as operations intended to generate as much publicity as possible, with two main audiences. The first was its belaboured supporters in Ireland, under pressure at home, and, interned on both sides of the border, and, both sides of the Irish Sea. The second was, as ever, Irish-America, and whatever future political support it might be able to deliver.

The focus on the newsworthiness of the escape also explains some of the flaws in the IRA’s overall plan for the Derry escape. The success factors in the high profile escape from Crumlin Road prison that January were not replicated in the Derry escape (resulting most of those who escaped being immediately picked up and interned in the south). Despite considerable logistical support on the ground, the main thrust of the escape plan was to get those involved over the border. That was despite the fact that the southern government had been even more bloodthirsty in pursuit of the IRA than even the northern government. Consciously or not, the real value in the escape was in the newsworthiness.

Two quotes shed some light on IRA thinking at the time. In his historical novel, An Ulster Idyll, Vincent McDowell (himself a 1940s internee) captures the general thinking among republicans in 1942: “They could look forward to peace eventually and some kind of normality, but the IRA hoped that they would have a place in the final peace conference, and that the question of Irish unity would be raised, hopefully with the help of the Americans.” Similarly, Hugh McAteer, the IRA Chief of Staff at the time (who himself had escaped in January 1943), wrote in the Sunday Independent in 1951 that by the middle of April 1943 the IRA leadership were openly admitting to each other that the military offensive begun in September 1942 was failing: “…we acknowledged to each other what we had long felt in our own hearts – that the possibility of our plans in the North succeeding was out of the question for the present. The propaganda value of the Derry escape, as evidenced by the many popular ballads, was tremendous; the practical result very small.


Photo showing prisoners re-captured by Free State soldiers in Donegal (published in Tim Pat Coogan’s The IRA).

The Other Side of the Wall: escape from the Crum, 1943

This is an account of events in A wing, Belfast Prison (Crumlin Road) on the morning of 15th January 1943 when Pat Donnelly, Ned Maguire, Hugh McAteer and Jimmy Steele escaped.

If you prefer a shorter version, you can see it here.


The day discipline staff arrived as usual at 7.30 am under Principal Officer William Nelson. Nelson didn’t normally perform this role, but on the 15th he happened to be replacing Principal Officer Graham who was on his day off. Nelson relieved the temporary Officer, Nicholson, who had been in charge of A wing during the night. Nicholson confirmed that 115 prisoners were present in A wing and completed the hand over. Two warders went on duty on A1 (James Johnston and Joseph Carson), two on A2 (George Tate and Charles Hipson) and one on A3 (Robert Haddick), which housed only twenty prisoners. The warders moved to their stations on the various landings.

Prison Officer James Johnston confirmed that 43 prisoners were present on A1. Johnston was 40 years old and had been a prisoner warder for four years having previously completed 15 years service in the Royal Ulster Rifles where he had risen to the rank of Sergeant. He lived in Roseleigh Street. He opened the cells so that Ned Maguire (brother of the Belfast  IRA O/C) and the orderlies could begin first slops and the usual morning routine. On A1, the other orderlies were Frank McKearney, James Kane and Anthony McMenemy.

Prison Officer George Tate and Charles Hipson, a native of The Curragh in County Kildare, confirmed that 52 prisoners were present on A2 when they relieved Nicholson. They opened the cell doors to allow the orderlies, Joe McKenna, George Crone, Arthur Kearney, David Barr, Vallely, McCoy and Michael Walsh, to begin their rounds. Barr was the only orderly on A2 who wasn’t a republican prisoner. Hipson began to go around the cells, opening the doors for slops, while Tate followed in his wake. When Pat Donnelly’s cell door was opened, he made a request to Tate to see the doctor, saying he had diarrhoea (Donnelly was O/C of the IRA unit in A wing). When interviewed that evening by Sergeant Maguire of the RUC, Hipson admitted that, to make it easier for second slops, doors regularly had their bolts drawn across rather than having the key turned in the lock.

Temporary Officer Robert Haddick, a former B Special, confirmed that 20 prisoners were present on A3. He open the cells of the two orderlies, Stevenson and Edward Dalzell, and they began first slops. Haddick also opened the lavatory on A3.

The handover had occurred at 7.30 am. Nelson then left to open the passage gate and workshops, entering the A wing yard. Nelson hadn’t noticed anything unusual.

The day and time had now arrived. The warders began to distribute tea, bread and milk for breakfast on A1 just before 8 am. None of the escape team managed to eat their breakfast apart from Jimmy Steele who drank his tea. Having drank his tea, Steele asked permission to go to the lavatory from James Johnston. His cell door was left unlocked awaiting his return. Steele began the escape attempt by walking up the staircase of A wing in full of view the warders on A1, A2 and A3. Ned Maguire simply followed him up the stairs. According to Billy McKee, despite the regulations, prisoners regularly might move between wards (as the floors were known) to return a book or for some other errand even though it was expressly forbidden. It was hoped that a member of prison staff who noticed movement on the stairs would assume that that was why Steele and Maguire were on the stairs.

On A2, Pat Donnelly had asked permission from Tate to visit the toilet due to his diarrhea. Donnelly was now just ahead of Steele and Maguire on the stairs. On the way up the stairs to A3, Donnelly saw McAteer’s cell being left unlocked after he too had requested permission to visit the toilet. As McAteer emerged he saw Steele and Maguire following Donnelly up the stairs. The whole escape team had now arrived on A3, in plain sight of any of the warders who might chance to look up to the Threes landing. The staff were mainly concentrating on opening cells and distributing breakfast.

The escape team covered their boots in prison socks to deaden the sound of their footsteps on the landings. While Haddick was distributing the breakfast and wasn’t watching the lavatory they entered and organised the tables so they could open the lock then climb up through the trapdoor and into the roof space. It was already arranged for the tables to be moved away from the trapdoor after the escape. To save time, the lock had been picked the day before and plugged with soap so it appeared closed.

Meanwhile, the orderlies, who were nearly all republican prisoners, had been detailed to close the cell doors of the escape team to delay discovery as long as possible. Some prisoners even staged one way conversations with some of the escape team, hovering at their cell doors to maintain the pretence that they were still inside. So far, nothing had raised the suspicion of the warders. Indeed, George Tate, on A2 was convinced he had saw Donnelly return to his cell and locked the cell when he gave a statement on the escape that afternoon.

The escape team had now all assembled in place in the roof-space. They walked down the roof space, over the occupied cells on A3 and as far as the Circle, from where they turned back and stopped at the point where the roof had been weakened. They collected the escape equipment such as the ropes and rope ladders that had been hidden in the roof. They lit a candle to allow them to find the place where the roof timbers and slating laths had been sawn through and they intended to break their way through the roof. Ned Maguire tried to force the slates free but pushing them up was more difficult than expected. A spare pair of trousers later found in the roofspace below the hole may have been used to dampen blows on the slates. As the seconds ticked by, trying to lever the slates up was abandoned in favour of brute force. Finally, the would-be escapers held their breath as the first slate parted from its nail. The sound, in the confines of the roof space, echoed like a gun shot. Everyone tensed as they waited to hear where the first whistles blow to signal their discovery.

For the first few seconds there was silence. Then another few seconds. The, slowly, everyone began to breathe again. Examining the hole made by the first slate, they carefully removed enough that they might get themselves up through the opening and onto the roof. Still, there wasn’t yet any sound or hint of movement in A wing or outside. The 30 foot rope was secured to a roof beam by Ned Maguire and slipped out and over the end of the eaves dangling into the darkness in the yard below.

Maguire was the first man to climb up through the opening in the roof. As he exited through the slates, far off to his left he would have seen the outline of the armed warder who guarded the main gate. He began his descent. All the way down he awaited the tell-tale sounds of warders assembling to intercept him at the bottom of the rope.

On reaching the ground Maguire discovered he was alone. As Steele climbed out, he edged down to the eaves then, grasping the rope, headed down to the ground. Shortly Maguire was joined by both Steele and Pat Donnelly. McAteer was deliberately positioned as the last man to descend the rope ladder. Having previously had a big fear of heights, there was a significant risk that he could freeze on the roof or rope and trap anyone behind him until he was able to either move back or forwards. Chances were that he could lose his nerve completely and effectively stop anyone following him.

Even as a former Chief of Staff, McAteer was not afforded any indulgence by the rest of the escape team. Once Steele, Maguire and Donnelly had all reached the ground they continued with the escape plan without waiting for him. The arrival of the escape team into the prison yard had not gone unnoticed, though. Once on the ground and moving across the yard, they were observed from the ground floor of A wing. The person they had been spotted by, though, was the resident of a cell on A1. However, their arrival had been expected since the shaft that had been manufactured for the hook was assembled in that cell in A1 and was now passed out through the window.

Meanwhile, Hugh McAteer had surprised himself as, pumped with adrenaline, he had climbed through hole in the roof. Over to his left he could still see the armed guard standing inside the front gate. Directly below him he could make out Steele, Pat Donnelly and Ned Maguire, having collected the shaft from the cell window and now en route to the outside wall. McAteer gripped the rope, swung himself over the eaves and quickly descended the thirty feet to the ground. He then moved across the yard to join the rest of the team at the wall.

McAteer reached the wall as the rod was being attached to the hook. Once it had been secured, they tried to attach the hook to the top of the wall. Even though the hook was smothered in bandages to try and catch the barbed wire, it stubbornly refused to take a grip as it was several feet short. To make good the shortage, Ned Maguire climbed up on McAteers back and tried to put the hook into position. The toe of Maguire’s boot, digging into McAteers back, caused McAteer to squirm and lose his balance.  The hook, shaft and ropes being carried by Maguire, crashed, along with Maguire, to the ground. Again the sound seemed to echo loudly across the prison yard.

Maguire turned on McAteer: “Why the hell did you have to start wriggling just then?”

But McAteer snapped back: “God Almighty! Do you think I did it for a joke?”

At that point, Pat Donnelly cut the argument short: “I think, lads, that you should finish that discussion on the other side of the wall.”

McAteer then tensed himself and Maguire swarmed up the former Chief of Staff’s back and tried to stretch and use the rod to hook the rope-ladder into position. The account of the escape published in the Republican News claimed that, after a couple of unsuccessful attempts, they only succeeded in putting the rope-ladder when a third man climbed up on the first two and finally succeeded. Given his size, if the Republican News version is correct, then this third man must have been Jimmy Steele.

However, it was hooked into position, the first up the rope-ladder was Ned Maguire and he placed a blanket, folded in four, over the barbed wire to give some protection to their hands. Once that was done, Ned Maguire slipped over the barbed wire, grasped the down-rope placed on that side then began to descend the other face of the wall. With that, he disappeared from the view of the rest of the escape team.

Jimmy Steele and Pat Donnelly followed Maguire, keeping to the same pattern as had held on the roof with McAteer filling the final place to minimise the risk of his fear of heights jeopardising the others’ chances. Steele climbed the rope ladder, passed over the blanket then, holding the down rope, continued to the ground on the other side of the twenty-odd foot wall. After twenty-five months of being confined inside the walls of the Belfast Prison on Crumlin Road, he was now found himself staring at the outside of perimeter wall of the jail. When he reached the bottom he turned around to see that he was alone in the entry that ran along the back of the warders cottages.

As had been agreed at the outset, Maguire hadn’t waited for Steele to appear. Neither was Steele to wait on Donnelly. Each man over the wall was to walk away. That had been the plan. As GHQ, the Northern Command or the Belfast hadn’t been forewarned, there wasn’t a waiting car to whisk them away to safety. So every second counted. Each hurried down the entry and out onto the Crumlin Road and headed towards Trainors Yard in Lancaster Street, the one arrangement that the escape team had put in place. Out on the Crumlin Road, a warder passed Jimmy Steele on his way in to his shift in the prison. The warder acknowledged Steele, then continued without reacting, towards the prison gate. He never reported seeing the escapers.

In real time, Jimmy Steele, Ned Maguire and Pat Donnelly had all emerged from the entry within seconds of each other. As the escaper with the most intimate knowledge of that part of Belfast, Steele headed off intending to take the shortest route possible. The others had also memorised the route but might have to pause to keep their bearings. They ran straight across to Florence Place, alongside the Belfast Court House and headed towards the Old Lodge Road. Despite the fact that he, Maguire and Donnelly were all wearing prison clothing, they managed to pass, more or less unnoticed, through the early morning crowds around the wartime Crumlin Road and the adjoining districts. Walking within sight of each other they arrived in Lancaster Street.

It was now 8.30 am. The escape, including breaking through the roof, assembling the hook and pole and making two attempts to catch it on the top of the wall, had taken roughly fifteen minutes. When the authorities, as part of their investigation, had an officer go over the escape route in daylight, with the roof breached and all the escape equipment in place, he also did it in fifteen minutes. The second team (John Graham, David Fleming and Joe Cahill), scheduled to make their attempt at 9 am and anyone who followed them, would still have the cover of darkness if they did it in the same time (Graham had reputedly told Billy McKee and others to take their chances once the second team had gone).

However, Hugh McAteer, the last man in the first escape team, hadn’t yet got over the wall. He began to climb up the rope ladder, but, having held the ladder out for the others, found that the effort had put too much strain on his arms and, quite likely, that the adrenalin of the roof top descent had also worn off. Suddenly, his arms could no longer pull his weight up the rope ladder and, eighteen foot up the wall and, only a couple of feet from freedom, he had to let go. McAteer dropped back into the prison grounds. He landed awkwardly on his left ankle and collapsed onto his back, having the breath knocked out of him. After a moment’s pause, though, McAteer got up and raced up the ladder.

At the top, he discovered that, to manoeuvre himself over the top of the wall and reach the rope to descend the other side, he would need to rely on his weaker left arm to safely complete the task. Since he felt he couldn’t trust that his left would support him on the blanket covering the barbed wire, he momentarily grasped the exposed barbed wire with his right hand instead. He paused for a few seconds to get his breath again. However, he then felt a surge of pain from the barbed wire sticking into his right palm. Instinctively withdrawing his right hand, his left was unable to reach the down rope to make a controlled descent down the wall via the rope. Instead, he fell the twenty feet to the ground again. This time, at least, he was on the outside of the wall, looking at the rear of the warders’ cottages.

As well as his ankle, injured falling back into the prison, he now had a pain in his knee. Once he got to his feet he noticed that his right hand had left a bloody print on the ground. Realising that no-one else had waited for him, McAteer later wrote that he felt a fleeting sense of satisfaction in the knowledge that discipline had triumphed over the ordinary human instinct of comradeship. Thrusting his bleeding hand into his trouser pocket he hobbled past the back of the warders cottages and out onto the Crumlin Road. Later, McAteer thought his attempt on the wall had taken him only two minutes but it had actually taken five. It was now 8.35am.

But McAteer had also been seen. A boy on his way to school had observed McAteer coming out of the prison. It just so happened that the same boy, Lancelot Thompson, was the son of the warder of the same name who lived in one of the cottages McAteer had just passed. He rushed in to tell his father.

Meanwhile, back in A wing, the day discipline staff were finishing the morning round and preparing to do a count before heading off for their breakfast at 8.30am. The night guard had signed over 115 prisoners to them that morning. Ten minutes before McAteer had headed over the wall, at 8.25am, the day discipline staff reported the number of prisoners in the normal fashion. Once they collected the numbers from A1, A2 and A3, they established that the number of prisoners they had locked back into their cells was still 115. A few minutes later they went off for their breakfast.

Cahill, Graham and Fleming, confined to their cells until 9am, strained to hear of any sound that might indicate that the first team had failed or their asbsence had been discovered. At 8.30 am, on the wing, all appeared normal.

At the same time, Hugh McAteer, despite struggling with the pain in his leg and bleeding profusely from his hand, attempted to follow Steele and the others to the pre-arranged safe house. Lancelot Thompson junior, by now, had rushed back to his father, Lancelot Thompson, who had just come off the night guard and was preparing to go to bed. Thompson, having been told what his son had seen, rushed out to go to the prison gate and raise the alarm. With his laces untied and his coat unbuttoned, his father rushed up to the prison warder at the front gate and raised the alarm. He also noted the time. It was now just after 8.35am.

Out on the Crumlin Road, the vagaries of wartime clothes rationing meant that few people took a first, never mind second, glance at the escapers. McAteer had attempted a short cut, but lacking sufficient knowledge of the streets around the Crumlin Road, had to retrace his steps to find a recognisable landmark. Once he did and managed to find Carlisle Circus, he was just in time to witness warders racing past on bicycles searching for the escaped prisoners. He even passed other warders who were clearly on their in to the prison to begin a shift.

Riordan, a prison officer originally from Cork, ran into A wing shouting “Lock the up. Lock them up.” The prisoners were still locked into their cells. The second team and those that intended to follow them realised the opportunity had gone.

Some fifteen minutes later, on the verge of collapse, McAteer finally arrived at the address Steele had given as the safe house, only to discover the others had safely arrived. It was now almost 9am. Steele, Maguire and Donnelly practically had to carry McAteer upstairs to bed. When they prepared to examine his injured leg, Pat Donnelly pointed at his feet. McAteer still had his prison socks covering his boots. As McAteer later wrote:

“We all stared for a moment in surprised silence and then for the first time that morning we laughed. With that, the tension lifted and I felt, with a tremendous surge of exultation, that I was free again, really free, after less than two months.”


You read some more about the escape here.