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).

List of commandants of Belfast IRA, 1924-1969 (updated)

The following is an updated version of the previously posted list of officers commanding the IRA’s Belfast battalion (the name normally given to its structures in the city for most of this time) from 1924 to 1969. The list is based on a variety of sources. Despite the revisions and corrections there are still gaps and may well also contain omissions since those listed are those named in accounts of different events over 1924-1969. Some of the published also contain (eg Anderson, in Joe Cahill: A Life in the IRA names Jimmy Steele as O/C in 1969 when it was Billy McMillen), in others an inference is taken, such as in 1934 when Jack McNally had to form a staff (it is implied he was O/C but not stated). I have also noted where the commandant was arrested or imprisoned since IRA volunteers automatically lost rank on imprisonment. In each instance, presumably, someone was O/C of Belfast in an acting capacity.

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

1924-26 Hugh Corvin

Former Quartermaster of the IRA’s 3rd Northern Division. As a Belfast Brigade IRA delegate Corvin had supported the Executive against GHQ over the Treaty in 1922. Subsequently interned, he stood for election in North Belfast for Sinn Féin in 1924. Corvin acted as O/C of the Belfast Brigade during the re-organisation that followed after Joe McKelvey’s re-burial in Milltown on 30th October 1924. He continued as O/C until April 1926 when he resigned citing business reasons (he had set up an accountancy firm). He had been arrested in November 1925 and held until the end of January 1926 along with twenty others following the shooting of an informer.

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

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Hugh Corvin

1926-7 Dan Turley

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

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Dan Turley

1927-33 Davy Matthews

From Albert Street. A former O/C of C Company, 1st Battalion in the 1920-23 campaigns, including the Raglan Street ambush, and a former internee on the Argenta. Took over from Dan Turley who remained as part of his staff. Instigated re-organisation of the Belfast IRA in 1929, including training camps, Irish language classes and recruitment to Na Fianna. Described by Bob Bradshaw as having a ‘heart of gold and head of ivory’. Also active in Sinn Féin at a time when there were internal divisions within the IRA over whether to co-operate with Sinn Féin, Fianna Fáil or a left-wing political project (or if they were to co-operate with anyone at all). In November 1933, Matthews was arrested in possession of IRA documents and received a short sentence. So many other senior Belfast staff were arrested, including Jimmy Steele, Charlie Leddy, George Nash, Tom O’Malley and Jack Gaffney that a temporary staff was formed, including Jack McNally, Jim Johnstone and Sean Carmichael.

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Davy Matthews

1933-34 Jack McNally

From the Bone. Another 1920-23 campaign veteran. Appears to have taken over as O/C while Davy Matthews served a short sentence in 1933-34 (this is implied but not explicitly stated in his memoir Morally Good, Politically Bad). While he was in prison Matthews decided to sign an undertaking that he would cease his IRA membership if he was released just before Christmas. So too did another veteran, George Nash. Whether Matthews intended to honour the commitment or not, he was courtmartialled in January 1934 and dismissed from the IRA. McNally only stayed as O/C for a number of months but remained active on the IRA’s GHQ staff until his arrest at Crown Entry in 1936. He was interned in December 1938 and was to later be active in the Anti-Partition League.

Jack McNally

Jack McNally

1934-36 Tony Lavery

From Balkan Street, a Fianna veteran of the 1920s, took over role as O/C Belfast (at the time designated Ulster Area No 1). Despite an order from Army Council not to, he instructed those charged by the northern government over the Campbell College raid to be defended in court. After they were acquitted, the Army Council charged Lavery with disobeying a direct order and was to be courtmartialled in Crown Entry on 25th April 1936 (although it was expected, unlike Matthews, he would merely get a slap on the wrists). Crown Entry was raided just as the courtmartial was to take place and all those present were arrested including the IRA’s Adjutant-General, Jim Killeen, GHQ staff and senior members of the northern and Belfast leadership of the IRA including Lavery’s Adjutant, Jimmy Steele, and other staff members like Liam Mulholland and Mick Traynor.

1936-38 Sean McArdle

Took on role of O/C Belfast after the loss of Lavery and other Belfast staff members at Crown Entry. By early 1937, McArdle had also been arrested and sentenced to a brief term in Crumlin Road. It is not clear from existing sources as to who took on the role of O/C Belfast while McArdle was in prison. On his release he remained as O/C Belfast until he was interned in December 1938.

1938-39 Charlie McGlade

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

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Charlie McGlade

1940 Jimmy Steele

A Fianna and IRA veteran of 1920-23, Steele had been imprisoned since the Crown Entry raid, only being released in May 1940. For some time there had been unease at reports that were coming in to the IRA prisoners in Crumlin Road about disciplinary procedures being applied by the Belfast IRA staff. On his release, Steele was appointed to the IRA’s Northern Command staff. He had a dossier on the activities of the Belfast staff and following an investigation they were courtmartialled and reduced to the ranks. No-one names the staff involved (and Tim Pat Coogan, who recorded the episode, does not remember if he was ever told). It may be that McGlade was O/C but was busy elsewhere and this was his staff who were reduced to the ranks. Either way, Steele took over the role as O/C Belfast until his arrest in December 1940.

Jimmy Steele

1941 Liam Rice

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

Liam Rice

Liam Rice

1941 Pearse Kelly

When Rice left for Dublin, Bowyer Bell states that Pearse Kelly took over as O/C Belfast in May. Kelly too left for Dublin in July to take part in the investigations into Chief of Staff Stephen Hayes. Kelly was eventually to become Chief of Staff himself and ended up in the Curragh. Afterwards he went on to a senior role in RTE as Head of News.

Pearse Kelly

Pearse Kelly

1941-42 Hugh Matthews

During 1941 Hugh Matthews, brother of Davy Matthews and another 1920-24 veteran, took over as O/C in Belfast, and was O/C during the Army Conference in Belfast in February 1942 (according to Bowyer Bell in The Secret Army). Ray Quinn (in A Rebel Voice) says he took over from Jimmy Steele but dates it to a later Army Convention in Belfast in February 1943. It is not particularly clear from surviving accounts, but Matthews appears to have been O/C as further disputes arose about disciplinary practices of his Belfast staff members (but not direct criticism of Matthews himself).

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Hugh Matthews

1942 John Graham

There was a confrontation between the IRA’s Northern Command staff and the Belfast staff in November 1941, again over the disciplinary practices of the Belfast staff. Graham was O/C of an independent unit, mostly made up of Protestant IRA men. This unit was mobilised by the Northern Command staff during the confrontation and ultimately the Belfast staff stepped back in line. Graham took on the role of Director of Intelligence for the Northern Command and (according to Joe Cahill), was also O/C Belfast. This was presumably after Hugh Matthews although the timing is unclear. He was arrested along with David Fleming in the Belfast HQ on Crumlin Road on 3rd October 1942, where printing presses and radio broadcasting equipment were also recovered. Graham, a divinity student in the 1930s, on his release he was to become a noted professional golfer. He died in 1997.

John Graham playing golf in the 1930s.

1942-43 Rory Maguire

Maguire was O/C Belfast in the autumn of 1942, apparently following Graham’s capture in October.

1943 Jimmy Steele

Escaping from Crumlin Road prison on 15th January 1943, Steele re-joined the Northern Command staff as Adjutant and took over the role of O/C Belfast from Rory Maguire (Maguire’s brother, Ned, had escaped with Steele). He remained O/C Belfast when he took over as IRA Adjutant General after Liam Burke’s arrest.

1943-44 Seamus Burns

Following Jimmy Steele’s arrest in May, Seamus ‘Rocky’ Burns took over as O/C Belfast. Burns had been imprisoned as a 17 year old in 1938, interned in 1939. He took part in the mutiny in Derry jail and was moved to Crumlin Road prison, only to be returned to Derry from where he escaped with 20 others through a tunnel in March 1943. Recaptured in Donegal, he was interned in the Curragh. Harry White had Burns resign from the IRA, sign out of the Curragh, then rejoin the IRA and return north (when he took over as O/C Belfast). He was shot trying to escape from RUC officers in Chapel Lane in February 1944 and died the next day.

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Seamus ‘Rocky’ Burns

I’ve since revised the next sections (see here)

1944-45 Harry White

Harry White was O/C of the Northern Command at the time of Burns’ death. He was also on the run continuously. He seems to have taken on the role of O/C Belfast for much of the time and also delegated it to others like Harry O’Rawe, Albert Price and Patsy Hicks on an intermittent basis. By the end of 1944, White was Chief of Staff of the IRA but living under an assumed name in Altaghoney on the Tyrone/Derry border. He had first gone to Altaghoney in March 1944. He returned to Belfast briefly, then went back to Altaghoney from around April to August 1944 when he again returned to Belfast (his memoir Harry seems to imply that he had O’Rawe act as Belfast O/C in his absence). From the spring of 1945 White moved for good to Altaghoney. His cover was eventually blown in October 1946 and he was driven 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’s luck held and he avoided execution, only to be sent to Portaoise for a number of years. On his release, he was active in the Wolfe Tone Socieites in the early 1960s.

Harry White

Harry White

1945-4? There are gaps here for the years around 1945-47 that have yet to be filled in. A profile of Seamus Twomey (in The Irish Press on 15th July 1972) states that he was O/C Belfast in 1945 after his release from internment. Johnny Murphy, John Bradley and Barney Boswell are also believed to have served on the Battalion staff at this time, from 1945 to 1947 and Murphy may have also been O/C Belfast for a time. Based on Harry White’s movements, it seems likely that White took on role as Belfast O/C in February 1944 following Burns’ death. O’Rawe acted as O/C from in White’s absence and may have taken over the role from then until his arrest on March 6th 1945 (this appears to have prompted White’s final move to Altaghoney). It is possible that Johnny Murphy, having been told to sign out from internment in late 1944, then took over as O/C, followed later that year by Seamus Twomey. It may be more likely that Twomey took over in October 1946, while Murphy replaced White as O/C Northern Command.

Johnny Murphy


194?-49 Seamus McCallum

Richard English names McCallum as O/C when Des O’Hagan joined the IRA in 1949 (it is unclear if this is meant to be Seamus ‘McCallum’ or the Seamus ‘McCollum’ who was arrested in England in the 1950s). As Frank McKearney was O/C when Joe Cahill was released in November 1949, I’m listing them in that order. As noted above, it is unclear who (if anyone) was in charge of what was left of the Belfast IRA between early 1945 and 1949.

1949-50 Frank McKearney

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

1950-56 Jimmy Steele

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

1956 Paddy Doyle

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

1956-57 Joe Cahill

Cahill, who had a death sentence commuted in 1942, had been released in 1949 from Crumlin Road. He took over from Paddy Doyle on his arrest in December 1956 until Cahill himself was interned in July 1957. Cahill was to remain an active republican for the rest of his life.

Joe Cahill

1957-60 There is a gap in available information from mid-1957 until about 1960.

1961-63 Billy McKee

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

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Billy McKee

1963-69 Billy McMillen

Following the argument over the Wolfe Tone commemorations in June 1963, McMillen took over as O/C Belfast. Having earlier been associated with unofficial bombings in 1950, McMillen had left the IRA in the mid-1950s following an argument and linked up with Saor Uladh. After his release from internment in 1961, he first went to England then returned to Belfast and rejoined the IRA. He remained O/C through the 1960s and was interned just before the pogrom in mid-August 1969. He was imprisoned for a number of brief periods, such as 1966, when he was presumably replaced by an acting O/C by the likes of Jim Sullivan, who was his Adjutant. As part of the fallout over the failure of the Belfast IRA to adequately prepare to defend areas during the pogrom, McMillen was forced to restructure his staff and withdraw its supports for the Goulding leadership on 22nd September 1969. Later killed during an internal feud.

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Billy McMillen

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

Irish Freedom Fighters (1965-66)

In 1965 and 1966 a group called the Irish Freedom Fighters carried out a number of operations in Belfast. Made up of young republicans, many IRA volunteers, it was active at a time when the “…rest of the country was striving towards reality, Belfast dragged its feet. The Belfast Battalion Staff impressed on Headquarters the necessity for a happy blend of political agitation and military activity.

That quote was written a few years later by Billy McMillen, the Belfast IRA O/C (in Rosita Sweetman’s On Our Knees, published in 1972). McMillen is understating the extent to which IRA structures outside of Belfast also resisted the increasing primacy given to political activity by the IRA command. To give one example, the Quartermaster General, Mick Ryan, resigned in October 1965 over the continued failure to procure and replenish weapon stocks. Conversely, violent IRA actions in Belfast in the mid-1960s were very rare. One of the few operations that took place occurred in October 1965, when a party of ten IRA volunteers disrupted a British Army event in St Gabriel’s Secondary School on the Crumlin Road, destroying a projector, recruiting film and injuring the projectionist and an army liaison officer.

The next month, five men aged between seventeen and nineteen were arrested in a parked car in Belfast and charged with possession of bayonets and documents detailing RUC movements. They got twelve months in jail each. The five comprised Joe McCann, Seany Watson, Harry O’Neill, Michael Kieran and Sean Murphy. When they were first charged, three were wearing combat gear. While some, like McCann, were IRA volunteers, it isn’t clear if all were. It appears, from the accounts given by RUC officers at the scene, and reports of their subsequent trial, that the group was led by McCann.

Ciaran Donnelly's iconic image of Joe McCann from 10th August 1971.

Ciaran Donnelly’s iconic image of Joe McCann from 10th August 1971.

But all five were part of a group of younger republicans operating under the name Irish Freedom Fighters. The arrest of McCann and the others didn’t deter the Irish Freedom Fighters from participating in further operations. In February 1966 an RUC vehicle and Unionist party HQ were petrol-bombed. The petrol bomb thrown at the RUC landrover happened in Comedagh Drive in Andersonstown on the night of 10th February. A number of those arrested in November had addresses in Comedagh Drive (all were still in prison at the time). Similarly, a petrol bomb thrown at Unionist party HQ on the 18th February was believed to have been carried out by the same group. Some of the press even were able to report that this was the work of a republican splinter group.

The next night, 19th February, there were a number of attacks on Catholic Church properties. St Gerard’s on the Antrim Road was vandalised, a fire bomb thown at St John’s primary school, while St Joseph’s primary school in Crumlin was also attacked. The IRA vehemently denied any connection to the incidents in the previous week or so and issued a denial from the ‘Republican Movement’ through the Irish Republican Publicity Bureau on 22nd February. On the night of 24th February two petrol bombs were thrown at the Broadway Presbyterian Church. By now the Belfast Battalion had had enough of the Irish Freedom Fighters. Senior IRA members visited the homes of some of those involved, including one who ended up being beaten with a brush handle. While some more were to be arrested over Easter, there appear to have been no further attacks by the group.

However, not long after the release of McCann and the others, the Belfast Battalion appeared to be under pressure again to participate in more militant activity. Significantly, later narratives on this period portray a militant element among Belfast republicans as being older veterans of the 1930s and 1940s who were no longer active in the IRA. Pressure from younger republicans within the IRA is rarely (if ever) mentioned or acknowledged. Yet smoothing the re-integration of the Irish Freedom Fighters into the Belfast IRA structures seemingly necessitated greater militancy on the part of the Belfast Battalion leadership.

This is evident in two bomb attacks carried out on the night of the 24th May in 1967. One was at the Territorial Army Centre at Firmount on the Antrim Road and the other was at another Territorial Army Hall at Wallace Avenue, Lisburn. At Firmount, there was substantial damage down to the ground and lower floors. The IRA unit involved had broken in and used gelignite to set petrol alight inside the building. There was only slight damage done at the hall in Wallace Avenue. The IRA claimed the attacks in statements as the ‘Republican Movement’ and (somewhat bizarrely) ‘Irish Citizen Army, Northern Command’These were merely names being used by the IRA and don’t seem to have denoted anything particular (although the two statements do seem to reflect a lack of co-ordination and possibly hint at being caught off-guard). At other times in the 1960s, ‘Irish Resistance Movement’, ‘Irish Resistance Forces’ and other names were appended to IRA statements. The psychology and ideological purpose of a continuous shift in IRA nomenclature while Cathal Goulding was Chief of Staff is probably worth a closer look (‘National Liberation Front’ being another that was to appear). The Irish Freedom Fighters was not a name used by the IRA, though.

#McGurks Bar: a brief prehistory of disinformation

Forty-five years on from the McGurks Bar bombing there is much that is yet to be understood not only about the bombing itself, but also the context in which it happened. Mindful that the human legacies of such a tragedy may never be mitigated by any amount of revelations, a full and accurate account of events is required if broader societal and political aspirations towards achieving genuine conflict transformation are to be realised.

McGurks Bar (officially known as the Tramore Bar).

McGurks Bar (officially known as the Tramore Bar).

The last point is significant, though. Much of what we know about McGurks Bar have been painstakingly pieced together by Ciaran MacAirt, in the face of considerable and sustained obstruction on the part of the British government and its security forces.  Key to understanding what actually happened on 4th December 1971 is having a meaningful insight into the  roles played by the northern government (and its armed forces), it’s interactions with those that planned and planted the bomb, and also those of the British army. To date, it seems inconsistent to argue that there is any evidence in the actions of the British government to suggest that it is actually seeking real conflict transformation in Ireland.

A number of key themes emerge in reviews of the bombing, in particular the actions of the RUC and the British Army, including Frank Kitson who has become a lightning rod for attention due to his documented lead in counterinsurgency and disinformation strategies. Kitson’s previous career in Kenya and Malaya identify him and his staff as potential sources for the campaign of disinformation that followed in the aftermath of the bombing. However, there is also an intersection here with a deep native capacity for disinformation and black propaganda amongst the RUC and northern government. A brief exploration of incidents predating the 1970s shows that the RUC were already adept at the strategies applied at McGurks Bar.

Many parallels can be seen as far back as the 1920s. On 13th February 1922, a bomb had been thrown into children playing in Weaver Street, killing four children, two adults and wounding many others. The actions of Special Constables before, during and after the attack (and their role in it) were never to be disclosed or explored by the northern government. At the time, the RUC issued erroneous statements implying they had come under attack. Subsequent comments by James Craig and reporting by the press even gave the impression that the IRA may have thrown the bomb after shots were fired at an armoured car. This deliberately blurred culpability. In fact there was no armoured car present and the bomb had been thrown by men in the company of Special Constables. Not only that, two Special Constables had forced the children into a crowd so the bomb, thrown at a distance of thirty yards, would inflict maximum damage. To compound matters, the RUC had refused to take statements from witnesses at the scene or collect forensic evidence such as bullet casings and bomb fragments. All of these were subsequently produced by residents at the inquests before the City Coroner.

There are many echoes in the Weaver Street bombing in attacks that took place decades later: the acquiescence (if not direct participation) of security forces, the failure to investigate and the deployment of disinformation. Notably, much of this was exposed and reported on during the inquests, which may have influenced official attitudes towards such process at a later date.

The need to control legal proceedings is shown by another example, from 1935. On 12th July, during violence in Lancaster Street, John McKay, a cattle drover who lived in Great Georges Street, was shot dead. The inquest was perfunctory, but his wife lodged a compensation claim with the Belfast Recorder. During the hearing before the Recorder, RUC headquarters sent instructions that the two reports by RUC Constables into McKay’s death were not to be disclosed to the court. The Recorder inspected the reports and then declared them covered by privilege despite the fact that such a right was only available to a cabinet minister.

Even today we know very little about the unionists who carried out the bombing in Weaver Street in 1922 or the likes of those who shot John McKay in 1935. Who was responsible, how they were organised and who ultimately directed their violence is not clearly understood. Nor are these minor details of historical dilettantism. There was no intention on the part of the northern government to work towards any meaningful societal reconciliation after 1922. The net effect was that violence against Catholics (in the sense that that was who was understood to be the target) was never deconstructed away from having a sort of monolithic ‘unionism’ as it’s source. Despite all the subsequent protests to the contrary, a failure to divest an understanding of who the real protagonists were, the motivations and modus operandi amounted to a continued co-option of the moral responsibility for all those actions onto the ‘unionist’ body as a whole. An unraveling of this, faced with scrutiny by the print and broadcast media, can be seen in the events of 1966.

In May that year the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) publicly threatened that “…known IRA men will be executed mercilessly and without hesitation.” On the 27th of that month, UVF members shot John Scullion in Oranmore Street. The RUC immediately reported that Scullion had been stabbed and that they believed he knew the name of his attackers. The emotional framing around Scullion is classic black propaganda. Not only did Scullion ‘knowing his attacker’ detach the incident from contemporary unionist violence, it also very subtly (and unsympathetically) profiled him as associating with a man who would stab someone. It was reported months later, following Scullion’s inquest, that the RUC had been given a bullet that had hit Scullion the night he was shot and that they had been told by witnesses that they heard the two shots.

Against a backdrop of increasing violence in Belfast (with significant exposure across the broadcast and print media), John Scullion died of his wounds on 11th June. The RUC continued to perpetuate the myth that he had been stabbed, repeatedly reporting that he knew his attacker and that were merely awaiting him to regain conscious and give them the name. They then reported that he had passed away without divulging the name (even though an exasperated UVF had been claiming responsibility and rang the press to confirm their claim). The State Pathologist in Belfast had to subsequently order that John Scullion’s remains be exhumed to review the cause of death. That revelation and further deaths in UVF violence over the same weekend forced the northern government’s Prime Minister, Terence O’Neill to climb down on a refusal to proscribe the UVF. Arrests and convictions then followed.

A mere five years later, the UVF planted the bomb that destroyed McGurks Bar. As early as 8 am on the morning after the blast, despite being briefed following forensic examination of the scene, the RUC were providing politicians with disinformation that identified the bombers as the IRA and cast doubt on the innocence of some of those caught up in the blast. The RUC persisted with this false version of events for many years even though they had been immediately exposed by eye witness testimony and a telephoned claim of responsibility by unionists. In 1966, Terence O’Neill (unlike the RUC) had been unable or unwilling to continue to providing political cover for the UVF. By 1971, the intersection of RUC, unionist and British Army (and indeed Gerry Fitt’s) interests coalesced sufficiently that no public unraveling of the disinformation was permitted.

So what was the difference between 1966 and 1971? Certainly the scale of the human loss at McGurks would suggest that it should have been less likely that political cover would be provided for the UVF. The only additional participant between 1966 and 1971 is Frank Kitson and the British Army. As Kitson has become something of a bête noire or pantomime villain it is perhaps too easy to see him as the key difference.

At the same time, it is clearly consistent with Kitson’s known methods that the British Army seamlessly grafted itself onto well established practices within the RUC and northern government and, by doing so, assimilated itself into that violent unionist monolith. Subsequent understandings of any events after the McGurks Bar bombing, who directed them, how and why, were and still are completely compromised by the internal dependencies created by that monolithic entity.

Disinformation and propaganda: violence in Belfast in 1966

In January 1966, the northern government’s Minister of Home Affairs, Brian McConnell made very public calls for the IRA to have the ‘good sense’ to not get involved in violence in the upcoming  1916 commemorations.

Then, in February 1966, an RUC vehicle and unionist party HQ were petrol-bombed. The petrol bomb was thrown at an RUC landrover at Andersonstown on the night of 10th February (in Commedagh Drive), while the Unionist party HQ was attacked on 18th February. The next night, in ‘reprisal’, St Gerard’s primary school on the Antrim Road was vandalised and a fire bomb thown at St John’s primary school in west Belfast. St Joseph’s primary school in Crumlin was also attacked. The IRA vehemently denied any connection to the incidents and issued a statement of denial from the ‘Republican Movement’ to the press through the Irish Republican Publicity Bureau on 22nd February (notably, unionist false flag attacks were to be a clear feature of the next few years). On the night of 24th February two petrol bombs were thrown at the Broadway Presbyterian Church. 

Then, in March, the Belfast Battalion O/C Billy McMillen and a staff officer, Denis Toner, were arrested and ended up being held over the Easter period. Meantimes, another petrol bomb was thrown, this time at Holy Cross Girls School on the Crumlin Road. That same March, Gerry Fitt had taken the Westminister seat of West Belfast for Republican Labour in a general election. He was the first non-unionist to take the seat since Jack Beattie in 1951 and for the first time, since the same election, the IRA hadn’t stood a candidate (notably, 58.8% of the vote in 1964 had gone to non-unionists). The IRA wasn’t to put a candidate up against Fitt again until 1974.

The first of the Easter Rising commemoration events was the conventional Easter Sunday commemoration. The main events were then to take place the next weekend.

On the following Sunday, the fiftieth anniversary Easter Rising Commemoration itself took place. That morning, unionists detonated a bomb at Milltown in the republican plot but it did little damage. A second bomb was also exploded at Ligoniel. 
The RUC mounted armed checkpoints across Belfast throughout the day as Ian Paisley also had organised counter parades to try and disrupt the republican commemorations (ironically, Paisley’s marchers paraded behind a banner saying ‘Ireland belongs to Christ’). A number of people heading for the republican commemorations were assaulted, including one man almost beaten death as he tried to cross a road through Paisley’s marchers.

The main republican march formed up in the old Pound Loney district in Hamill Street, Institution Place, John Street and Barrack Street. Some 5,000 took part in the parade, but an estimated 70,000 people came out to watch. The presence of many senior republican figures underscored the emphasis the IRA placed on the Belfast commemoration in 1966. One veteran IRA volunteer who joined the march, Chris McGouran, collapsed and died while walking during the parade.

The northern government, discomforted by the scale and enthusiasm of the commemorations, had the Belfast Battalion Adjutant, Jim Sullivan, and two other staff officers, Malachy McBurney and Leo Martin, charged with failing to give sufficient notice for the commemoration and for conducting what was then an illegal procession.

While Nelson’s Pillar in Dublin had been blown up by republicans in March, despite all the unionist claims to the contrary, no violent action had been planned by the Belfast Battalion. Yet in April, an additional battalion of the British Army had even been sent to the north, just in case they were needed. In the weekend after the main 1966 commemorations, a Catholic owned shop of the Shankil Road, O’Hara’s Self-Service Stores, was petrol bombed although little damage was done. The same night, a family in Hopewell Street had three shots fired into their house from a moving car.

That unionists were behind the attacks was apparent at the start of May, as the newly reorganised Ulster Volunteer Force publicly threatened that “…known IRA men will be executed mercilessly and without hesitation.” On the 7th May, it tried to firebomb a Catholic owned bar in Upper Charleville Street (in the Shankill Road area of Belfast), but instead set fire to the adjoining home of Matilda Gould, who subsequently died from her injuries (on 27th June). The same night, a petrol bomb was thrown at the home of Josephine MacMahon on Northumberland Street and two petrol bombs were thrown at St Marys Training College on the Falls Road. At a debate that followed in Stormont, the Home Affairs Minister, Brian McConnell revealed there had now been eight such petrol bomb attacks in March, April and May.

A couple of weeks later, on 27th May, UVF members shot John Scullion in Oranmore Street having originally been trying to find and kill Francis McGuigan, a Belfast IRA volunteer. The RUC reported that Scullion had been stabbed and that they believed he knew the name of his attackers. However, it was reported at Scullions in quest that they were given the two bullets that had hit Scullion the night he was shot.

At the start of June, a unionist crowd, led by Ian Paisley, was permitted to march through Cromac Square in the Markets area. Unionist marches had been discouraged from passing through there since 1935. Paisley was en route to protest a Presbyterian General Assembly. The resulting riot at Cromac Square restarted the next night when two petrol bombs were then thrown at the RUC by the IRA in Lagan Street in the Markets on June 8th. A few days later, John Scullion died of his wounds (on 11th June). The RUC had perpetuated the idea that he was stabbed, repeatedly reporting that he knew his attacker and that were awaiting him to regain conscious and give them the name. They then reported that he had passed away without divulging the name (even though the UVF had been claiming responsibility and rang the press to confirm their claim). A few days after Scullion died, the UVF fired shots into Willaim Gamble’s shop in the Shankill Road district.  A brick had also been thrown through the window some days previously.

There were further attacks at the end of June. Just before those attacks happened, the State Pathologist in Belfast ordered that John Scullion’s remains be exhumed to review the cause of death (he had been buried just over a week previously). On the 20th, Jim Sullivan, Malachy McBurney and Leo Martin didn’t turn up in court for a scheduled appearance to hear the charges over the Easter commemoration and had fines imposed by the court in absentia.

The next day, Terence O’Neill, the Prime Minister of the northern government, claimed there was no reason to use the Special Powers Act against the unionists who had been claiming responsibility for recent violence. Then, during the night of 24th-25th, unionists broke into Leo Martin’s house in Baden-Powell Street in the Oldpark district. They tried to set fire to the house with little success. It later emerged that it was three UVF men that had tried to break in, intending to shoot Martin. That night, two armed unionists also entered the house of Thomas Maguire on Canmore Street, between the Falls Road and Shankill Road. Maguire was disabled but still had a gun put to his stomach and told to leave his home. Several hours earlier a friend, who had been visiting Maguire’s house, was stabbed after leaving the house. There were a number of other attacks involving minor vandalism and bomb hoaxes at the houses of prominent Catholics on the same night. There were also attacks on six houses in Ardmoulin Avenue.

The same night, the UVF unit that had failed to find Leo Martin at his home, instead encountered four Catholic barmen drinking in the Malvern Arms in Malvern Street off the Shankill. The UVF shot the barmen outside, wounding two and killing Peter Ward. Two days later, Matilda Gould died from the injuries she had sustained in May.

The Belfast IRA issued a statement on the day after Matilda Gould died, stating that “The Republican movement condemns in the strongest possible terms the recent outrages in Belfast, and expresses deepest sympathy with the relatives of all those killed and wounded in these incidents. We would reiterate that Republicans are utterly opposed to sectarian bitterness and strie and would remind our members that their duty is to resist all efforts to provoke them into acts of relationation. Discipline and self-restraint must be exercised by all.

The cumulative effect of the deaths of Scullion, Ward and Gould was that the northern government was forced to declare the UVF an illegal organisation. It also made a series of arrests and proferred charges against those involved.

A British royal visit at the start of July then led to some confrontations and protests. There were further attacks over the weekend of the Twelfth. This incuded a Catholic couple, the Donnelly’s, being assaulted in their home in Frenchpark Street on the 12th July. A mob also attacked houses in Rockview Street. Robert Donnelly was one of three people who received serious head injuries. The same night windows were broken in Charles O’Hara’s shop on the Newtonards Road. His window had been smashed during the election earlier that year and a petrol also thrown at the shop. There were further attacks in late July, on Catholics in Alloa Street between Manor Street and Clifton Park Avenue.

Having failed to turn up for their court appearance in June, Jim Sullivan and Malachy McBurney were arrested and given three months in jail. The trial of the UVF members (in which Ian Paisley was also named) dragged on over the summer and into August and September.

It was only in late August that the northern government officially admitted that John Scullion had been shot rather than stabbed despite having known this was the case from the night it happened. The pattern of RUC behaviour over Scullion’s murder has clear echoes of what was to become a familiar routine in the coming years. It also shows up an existing native capacity for disinformation and propaganda, long before the arrival of specialist British Army staff in 1969.

After Bombay Street: The Old Divisions Are Back

The Belfast IRA and politics, up to 1969

The recent release of the film 66 Days about the hunger strike of IRA Volunteer Bobby Sands in 1981 has attracted considerable publicity. One of the notable things about the commentary around the film is the received wisdom that the 1981 hunger strike set the IRA on the road to politicisation (or words to that effect). Yet repeatedly, in the period from 1922 to the 1960s, the IRA had participated in a variety of political projects. The 1980-81 hunger strike and the blanket protest that began with Kieran Nugent in 1976 started barely twelve years after Billy McMillen, then Belfast Battalion O/C, stood in West Belfast in the 1964 general election (the ‘Tricolour Riots’).

Republican election headquarters, Belfast, 1964

Political projects supported by the IRA didn’t usually extend to officially supporting candidates in elections to either local authorities or the northern parliament. Yet, paradoxically, the IRA usually stood candidates in elections to the Westminster parliament (which it explicitly wasn’t going to attend). After 1981, the IRA extended the range of elections in which it participated and ultimately loosened its abstentionist policy, however, the impetus was no different to previous initiatives where the concern within the IRA was that political gains would be made by others attempting to cash in on momentum achieved by what it saw as the sacrifices made by IRA volunteers.

In 1933, in the aftermath of the Outdoor Relief and rail strikes of 1932-33, the IRA had supported four candidates in the general election to the northern parliament. Again, in the aftermath of the violence of 1935, the IRA stood (among others) a Belfast Battalion staff officer, Charlie Leddy, in the Westminster election that November (while Leddy was imprisoned in Arbour Hill in Dublin). Leddy polled more than 20,000 votes in West Belfast but still lost to his unionist opponent. Leddy’s Director of Elections was the Belfast Battalion Adjutant, Jimmy Steele, while in 1933 it had been the Belfast O/C Davy Matthews. Prior to 1933, while officially supporting IRA initiatives like Saor Éire and Comhairle na Poblachta, the IRA didn’t stand a candidate in Belfast after the 1924 election (when Hugh Corvin and Paddy Nash stood in Belfast).

The departure of serial political intriguers like Sean McBride from the Army Councill and GHQ in the late 1930s, coincided with both the expansion of the Belfast IRA and a disengagement from electoral politics. During this same period, in 1936 and the mid-1940s, the Belfast IRA absorbed key lessons in the interaction of publicity and prison protests such as hunger strike. These lessons were to be applied with increasing effectiveness from 1972 onwards, with 1940s prisoners like Billy McKee and Joe Cahill now in senior command positions within the IRA. Again, by the late 1940s, perceiving advances being made by various left and ‘republican’ candidates, the IRA co-operated with Sinn Féin in contesting (and outside Belfast), winning electoral contests. During this period, the Anti-Partition League (to some extent a McBride vehicle), the Nationalists (loosely aligned with Fianna Fáil) and a variety of left republicans created a series of dynamics that gave added imperative for the IRA to support candidates in elections. Senior IRA figures, like Jimmy Steele, Frank McGlade and Billy McMillen, continued to be put forward as candidates in Belfast.

Although candidates were stood in Westminster elections up to 1964, no real inroads were made in Belfast. Again, little has been made of the limited military capacity developed by the Belfast Battalion in this period particularly given it’s apparent indifference to the 1956-62 ‘Border’ campaign. Arguably, the Belfast IRA, through a focus on publicity and some limited electoral activity, was beginning to explore political alternatives in the 1950s and 1960s. Mostly, conventional histories view IRA strategy through the prism of its Dublin-based leadership. A recurring friction, though, is almost always evident in the relationship between the Belfast IRA and Dublin throughout this period. The failure of this dynamic was probably more important in 1969 than any dispute over politicisation, militarisation or a leftward trend in IRA strategy and policy. No candidate was put forward in 1966 or 1970, while Albert Price and John Brady (Republican Clubs) stood in 1974. While the Republican Clubs continued to run candidates, the IRA did not support candidates again in Belfast until the 1982 Assembly election.

By the late 1970s many influential voices within the IRA and wider republican community would have been keenly aware of lessons learnt about politicisation, publicity and prison protests in the previous decades. Subsequently the role this learning played in the development of strategy in 1981 seems to have been forgotten or overlooked.