Billy McKee, 1921-2019

The death of veteran Belfast republican Billy McKee has been reported this morning.

Born in 1921, he had joined Fianna Éireann in his teens against the backdrop of intermittent violence in the 1930s. He was then arrested in the McKelvey Club in Rockmount Street in November 1938 along with twenty-three others. The McKelvey Club was the base for the GAA club of the same name. Membership of the club was confined to IRA and Fianna members and provided them with an opportunity to bypass the Special Powers Act restrictions on political activity to hold meetings. All twenty-three arrested in the McKelvey Club were charged with illegal drilling and got several months in prison or fines. McKee spent a few weeks in Crumlin Road and, when I had the opportunity to meet him in researching the Belfast Battalion book a few years ago, he told me of how cold he was in that first night in prison after being roughed up. He remembered lying in the cell and looking up to see a figure with his head in his hands sitting on the pipes that ran along the wall. McKee was in the cell on his own, though, and thinks he then passed out.

After his release he joined the IRA but was again arrested when the RUC raided a meeting of the Belfast Battalion’s D Company in Getty Street on 15th August 1940. Fifteen IRA members present were charged under the Treason Felony Act and sentenced to seven years in November that year. McKee, like other long term sentenced prisoners (there were around 130 by 1943), was confined in A wing in Crumlin Road. The Unionist government had never developed facilities suitable for long term prisoners and previously had sent them to Peterhead in Scotland instead. To avoid paying a subsidy for Peterhead, minor modifications were made to A wing although it still lacked any of the facilities required for prisoners with tariffs above two years.

There were significant tensions in the prison at the time. A major escape then took place from A wing on 15th January 1943, when former IRA Chief of Staff, Hugh McAteer, Northern Command Adjutant Jimmy Steele, Pat Donnelly and Ned Maguire accessed the roof, climbed down over three storeys on a rope made of blankets then scaled the prison wall. A second team was to follow. According to McKee, he had been advised by John Graham (one of the second team) to take his chances after they had gone. As it happened, the last of the first team was spotted (although he got away). McKee recalled the moment he knew his chance was gone when the chief prison officer on duty, a Cork man named Ríordan, strode into the circle of Crumlin Road Prison shouting “Lock them up! Lock them up!”. Even in his 90s, McKee’s memory was extraordinarily sharp, as was his story telling, particularly when discussing the 1940s (as I was only interested in the period up to 1969-1970, we didn’t really discuss anything later). At one point, as he reminisced about individuals from that time, he waved his arm at the sofa in his living room and said that time in his life was so vivid that when he talked about it, it was like he could see the men he mentioned all just sitting in the room.

The response to the January 1943 escape was ‘rough treatment’ (Joe Cahill had called it a ‘reign of terror’). That included constant searches and beatings. Prison protests including a strip strike and hunger strikes followed. The tactics employed in the 1943 and 1944 hunger strikes in Armagh and Crumlin Road were learnt from when McKee went on hunger strike himself, much later, in 1972. On the latter occasion, McKee also was reflecting a similar concern from 1945 when internees were released while sentenced prisoners often had to serve several more years prior to their release. McKee eventually got out on license in 1946 and returned to the IRA (less than 20% of those imprisoned in the 1940s did so).

Front cover, Republican News during McKee’s hunger strike (4th June 1972)

The next phase for the Belfast IRA, and McKee, was more political than military, with the Belfast Battalion remaining small in size (in part as a reaction to the security problems with informers that had come with expansion in the 1930s). A rapprochement with Sinn Féin by 1950, was followed by some electoral successes although mainly outside Belfast. The border campaign that followed was viewed in Belfast (according to McKee), as a fiasco from the start. McKee, like many of the Belfast Battalion, was rapidly interned in Crumlin Road. Back in prison he acted as a key figure in sourcing and operating linesmen (prison staff and others who would carry message in and out of the prison) and was a central figure in networking between the sentenced prisoners in A wing, internees in D wing and the IRA outside the prison.

On his release from internment McKee became Belfast OC (in IRA parlance meaning ‘officer commanding’ or ‘oifigeach ceantair’) and had to rebuild the Belfast Battalion from scratch. He described himself to me as a socialist but said that it was clear even in the early 1960s that Cathal Goulding, then IRA Chief of Staff, just didn’t understand the sectarian dynamics in Belfast and that there was this bizarre belief that organisations like the Orange Order, Apprentice Boys or B Specials were simply ripe to be infiltrated and converted to hotbeds of Irish republicanism. Much of the Belfast Battalion’s energy and meager resources were taken up with publishing a newspaper, Tírghrá, edited by Jimmy Steele, while he, McKee and others established and maintained physical memorials for dead republicans through the National Graves Association. A dispute over flying the tricolour at a Wolfe Tone commemoration in Belfast in 1963 saw McKee abruptly resign from the IRA leaving Billy McMillen to take over as OC (McMillen had defected to the more militant Saor Uladh group in the mid-1950s and only returned in 1962 to become McKee’s Adjutant).

McKee spent the remainder of the 1960s active in the likes of the National Graves Association and former republican prisoners groups, like the Felons. The large Belfast network of former republican activists from the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s and 1950s monitored political developments closely and critically, fearing the language and street violence and then deaths arising from contemporary unionist opposition to the civil rights campaigns presaged more intense violence as in 1920-22 and 1935. It was felt that the IRA and Belfast Battalion were intent on disregarding this threat.

In that regard, the reaction to events in mid-August 1969 was remarkably muted. While McMillen and much of his Battalion staff were briefly interned, McKee, Steele, Cahill and others organized makeshift IRA units and defences and used former connections to try and source arms from old IRA dumps. When McMillen was released, McKee and John Kelly led a delegation to the next Battalion staff meeting (which had to officially sanction McMillen’s reinstatement as OC). McKee dismissed that idea that the meeting was fractious (he says it was just a conversation) although he said that when he arrived McMillen wasn’t there but his Adjutant, Jim Sullivan, was and that Sullivan “…couldn’t do anything without shouting.“. When McMillen arrived they settled down to business – McKee asked for four people to be nominated to the Battalion staff, based on the units put together in McMillen’s absence. They requested that monies that had been donated for arms (and now under Goulding’s control) be used for that purpose – Goulding seemingly wanted the money used for political projects instead. The main request, as a response to the failures of the IRA that summer, was that Goulding be replaced by Sean Garland (another prominent left republican in the IRA) and other senior figures loyal to Goulding step down (but not McMillen). The Belfast Battalion, they believed, should refuse to recognise the authority of IRA GHQ until this was done.

The subsequent fallout over the IRA’s performance in the summer of 1969 led to two competing IRA Army Council’s being formed, with McKee assuming the role of OC of the now expanded Belfast Brigade loyal to the ‘provisional’ Army Council. While I hadn’t explored any details of McKee’s subsequent career, one point we did discuss was Jimmy Steele’s sudden death in August 1970, only weeks after McKee himself had been shot and badly wounded. He had just returned to Belfast and said Steele had been working on a profile to use to restrict IRA membership as they believed that the experience of the 1930s and 1940s had taught them that the Belfast IRA was more effective when small and less prone to security issues or those motivated more by sectarian intent than republicanism. McKee had arrived at Steele’s Clondara Street home and sat down, not realising Steele had died that morning. He said Steele’s wife, Anna, had come in to him and had to tell him. We were sitting in McKee’s own living room, some forty years later. McKee suddenly stopped talking. He then ran his left hand down his right arm and stopped at the elbow and said “It was like losing my right arm.” The remainder of McKee’s career as OC of the Belfast Brigade will likely dominate reports of his death. Yet McKee, like the post-1969 political and conflict landscape had been closely shaped by the experience of the preceding decades.

McKee was one of the last senior figures linking the pre-1969 IRA (which was the subject of the Belfast Battalion book) and events from 1970 onwards. Time had made him a reluctant historical subject which was a great pity both from the point of view of his own story telling abilities and his sharp memory. The conflict that intensified from 1969 hadn’t simply appeared from nowhere, nor had the different influences within the IRA that shaped the 1969-1970 split, the longer term impact of sectarian violence in Belfast in the decades before the 1960s or even the methodologies and tactics of the civil rights campaigns (which were mainly rooted in long term republican opposition to the abuses under the Special Powers Acts). McKee’s life and career spanned many of these events and everyone would have benefitted from a better understanding of each other in learning how history unfolded if we could create an environment in which history telling itself was less contested.

You can read a report on McKee’s death here in The Irish News: http://www.irishnews.com/news/northernirelandnews/2019/06/13/news/provisional-ira-founder-billy-mckee-dies-1640479/?param=ds441rif44T

Billy McKee, 1921-2019

How to replace the peace lines with the River Farset

Imagine we could replace the fifty year old peace line by re-opening the River Farset? That isn’t as fanciful as it sounds. A significant section of the river along the northern side of Cupar Street (much of it open ground today) while the peace line runs on its southern side. So it would certainly be possible, but is it plausible? As a starting point, here’s a brief overview of the course of the river, it’s heritage and the pre-1969 urban landscape of Belfast.

Here’s a closer look at the course of the River Farset between the Falls Road and Shankill Road. To make it easier to follow, I’ve stitched together a map. Rather than use the modern street layout (there is a reason for this which I will get to), I’ve overlaid it on to the street layout prior to the construction of the peace line in 1969. While enough of the street layout survives to align yourself on the map (if you know the area), I’ve added the course of the peace line in red, as a reference point.

Farset and peace line Map

The course of the Farset was surveyed and mapped in detail by the Ordnance Survey in the 1830s. The volume and flow of water in the Farset was substantial enough to power water wheels that drove machinery in various mills along the route of the river (or was used in the industrial processes in the mill). These mills provided the employment that drew people into the streets that began to be built along either bank of the river. This is part of the origin of the Shankill Road district to the north of the river and the Falls Road to the south.

But capitalism being capitalism – businesses competed for access to the Farset. Mills further up the Farset could tap into the water supply and reduce the flow of water (and thus power) for their competitors downstream. The insurance many business took out was to construct a pond to hold water which could then be released to power a mill wheel when it suited the business. The industrial landscape this created is still visible in the various pre-1969 maps of the district. These record the locations of ‘ponds’, ‘mill ponds’, ‘reservoirs’, mill races and other water courses. This industrial heritage is also visible in the surviving mill buildings. The chimneys used for the fossil fuels that were to replace water power. These water courses would have been constructed to draw and control the supply of water from the Farset to a reservoir from which water was allowed to flow out and power a wheel. Water power was to be slowly replaced by steam generated by coal fires and the necessary infrastructure of ponds and water channels became obsolete.

By 1849, the use of water along the Blackstaff had become a major public health issue due to overflows and flooding from the dams used to capture water in ponds for mills and industrial use. In 1851, access rights to water from the Carrs Glen stream and River Milewater had been the substance of major legal battle. Water Bills were passed and rates levied, with elected commissioners, to try and manage water related issues in Belfast and the surrounding districts.

Heavy rains brought floods to the city. As the Belfast Newsletter (3/10/1851) described it: “Belfast is also peculiarly circumstanced with respect to floods. The mountains by which it is embraced are, as the town has lately extended, very contiguous to it. The water-courses are few, and consequently, the mountain torrents descend very abruptly from the hills to the sea and the river which forms the course of the valley.” The same article details the various water courses. The Farset, which it calls the Town Burn, is described as insignificant at its head but augumented by several small feeders into a forcible stream, and ‘artificially embanked for mill purposes’. It names some of the business along the Farset: Clonard dyeing and bleach works, Belfast Flour Mill, Campbell and Cos flax spinning mills. The Mill-dam at Millfield disgorged so much water that it flooded the streets in Smithfield below it.

Flooding along the Farset was a recurring problem. Following floods in August 1895, a report for Belfast Corporation names locations along the route of the Farset, from the Crumlin Road across the Shankill into Cupar Street, North Howard Street, Percy Street, Hastings Street and as far as the Pound. Residents described flooding, sometimes on multiple occasions in the one year, as a growing problem since 1880 with 1893 also particularly bad (see, eg, Belfast Newsletter 30/8/1895 and 3/9/1895). They claimed the water was up to two feet deep in the likes of Townsend Street and individual houses were flooded by up to six feet of water. Proposed remedial works give an idea of the integration of the Farset into the city waste and water infrastructure: an overflow from the Shankill sewer into ‘the river at Percy Street’; another overflow culvert, at Snugville Street and down Conway Street to discharge ‘into the river course crossing that street’; and, an overflow from the Cupar Street sewer into the adjacent river course that crossed Lawnbrook Avenue. A water course that ran south from the Farset called the Pound Burn is also mentioned (it seemingly was linked back to the Farset). Remedial works weren’t foolproof as flooding continued to be an issue along the Farset, as late as November 1954, heavy rains triggered floods along the line of the river from Cupar Street to Millfield.

Deep pools of water brought other dangers as various drownings are reported in the press, such as Hugh Scullion found in Kennedys Dam in Cupar Street in December 1886, a nine year old boy, Danny McDonald, was to drown in a ‘dam’ at Cupar Street as recently as 1967. The fire brigade had to pump out 100,000 gallons of water from the disused dam to recover his body. Drownings in Belfast mill-dams and ponds were reported with tragic frequency.

The Farset ran on a crooked course behind the houses on the western side of Battenberg Street. Maps from 1901 (just after Battenberg Street was built) show that the Farset had been channelled into a much straighter course since the 1830s. South of the end of Battenberg Street and to the west of Cupar Street it turned to the east (towards Cupar Street). This is where the original course of the Farset and the modern peace line run side-by-side. The Farset ran along the Shankill Road side of Cupar Street. Cupar Way, which runs alongside the peace line, is constructed over the houses which originally stood on the southern side of Cupar Street, with the pre-1969 line of Cupar Street preserved parallel to Cupar Way. Judging by the maps and descriptions in the press (see above), there was a sewer constructed under Cupar Street with the Farset running in a separate channel on the northern side of Cupar Street. The Farset passes under the modern peace line below the bottom of Argyle Street from where it ran to Conway Street where it was still visible where the road crossed the Farset (in 1895). From there the Farset crosses back over the peace line just outside the North Howard Street gate and again at the Northumberland Street gate. In 1895 it was again visible where it crossed the road in Percy Street. It continues east from here to between Boundary Street and Townsend Street where a channel, called the Pound Burn, linked it to the Blackstaff River (where it was a natural stream or not isn’t clear).

This is a very preliminary survey of old maps and newspapers but it does raise the prospect of establishing the route of the River Farset on the ground in this area. Documentary research could reveal more details of the works at individual locations along the course of the river that might inform our understanding of how the meandering course of the Farset was gradually constrained into a narrower channel and then, at some point, culverted or even re-directed entirely. While it is fifty years since the peace line began to be built alongside the river, being able to re-establish the old street layout on the ground would significantly help to plot the course of the river from the former Shankill Church down as far as Millfield. While much of this can be transposed from maps, older members of the communities on either side might be able to confirm minor details that tie together a bigger picture.

This would not be without a purpose. Finding a way to visually represent the course of the River Farset on the ground, with physical markers, would lend itself to talking about the communities here without explicit reference to the post-1969 peace line. This would provide a new focus for visitors to the area that moves beyond the dark heritages of the recent conflict as it relates to Belfast’s medieval and industrial heritages and rich urban history. The past treatments of the Farset also speaks to modern concerns of the environment and sustainability. It may even become possible to explore physically relocating and re-opening the Farset, eg alongside the original line of Cupar Street. This would require much more detailed scoping, including physically opening up the ground for archaeological testing of the former river course to establish what is present and a much more considered view of the possibilities and the communities’ views of such a project. In one way, though, it would be quite a powerful aspiration to seek to replace the now fifty year old peace lines by re-opening a section of the river from which Belfast took its name.

The start of the peace lines: Belfast, 1969.

Fifty years ago this summer peace lines were erected across parts of Belfast, most famously along a line that roughly follows the course of the River Farset from Divis Street to the Springfield Road. Here, I look at how it was first built in September 1969 and some of its predecessors in Belfast. I also take a look at the coincidence of its location and the River Farset.

It is often overlooked that the British Army had been deployed in Belfast before August 1969. It had initially been used to guard infrastructure and key installation in April 1969 in the face of an ongoing unionist bombing campaign. That deployment was then extended in mid-August due to the rapidly intensifying violence which led to the widespread erection of barricades by residents in various districts in Belfast (a book on the violence that summer – Burnt Out – has just been published by Michael McCann).

1969 knife rests


Military barrier of ‘knife rests’, 16th August, 1969 (Getty Images)

Immediately troops were on the streets, many public figures pressed for the removal of the barricades as a symbol of a return to normality. A short term solution to this was to replace the physical barriers with soldiers, what was described in conversation between Irish diplomat K. Rush and Sir Edward Peck of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office as a ‘human barricade’. While the Irish representatives made it clear that it believed that the ‘human barricade’ was preferable to physical alternatives, Peck implied there was a need for a physical barrier due to British soldiers being a ‘scarce commodity’. Photographs from 15th and 16th August 1969 show the interim measures put in place along side the military – mainly portable wire obstacles, such as knife rests, in place at various locations. After discussions over the replacement of barricades between community leaders, the IRA and the British Army there were tentative moves to start dismantling and replacing the residents’ ad hoc barricades. These took many forms, including everything from burnt out vehicles to solid barriers of broken paving stones to shuttering erected on scaffolding. Immediately the British Army was to replace the ad hoc barricades with knife rests, which in ‘Catholic’ districts, were to be jointly guarded by the British Army and Citizen’s Defence Committee.

On 9th September, the Unionist Prime Minister Chichester Clarke met with his Joint Security Committee at Stormont Castle, including the Ministers of Home Affairs, Education and Development, the Army GOC and Chief of Staff and various RUC, Army and Civil Service figures. The conclusions from the meeting noted that “A peace line was to be established to separate physically the Falls and the Shankill communities. Initially this would take the form of a temporary barbed wire fence which would be manned by the Army and the Police. The actual line of fence would be decided in consultations with the Belfast Corporation. It was agreed that there should be no question of the peace line becoming permanent although it was acknowledge that the barriers might have to be strengthened in some locations.” That opening phrase ‘peace line’ now entered the security lexicon, although ‘peace wall’ was occasionally, if more rarely, used (prior to 1969 the phrase ‘peace line’ was generally just associated with the demarcation line from the end of the Korean War).

That evening, Chichester Clarke made a broadcast that was televised on the news on BBC, UTV and RTE (you can watch it and other footage of the peace lines being constructed here). He stated that: “We have now decided that the army will erect and man a firm peace line to be sited between the Divis Street area and Shankill Road on a line determined by a representative body from the city hall. In conjunction with this action, barricades will be removed in all areas of Belfast, both Protestant and Catholic.” The initial reaction from representatives of the ‘Catholic’ residents was very negative.

The knife rests and residents’ barricades were thus to be replaced with wire entanglements straight out of the British Army’s Manual of Fields Works (All Arms). The first to be erected were constructed of barbed wire strung between multiple bays of pickets. The pickets were placed in holes drilled through the road surface and then hammered into place (as shown in the photos below). Wire was then strung between the pickets to create the required obstacle. As they were solely composed of pickets and wire, they controlled movement but did not create a visual barrier. The construction of the peace line at the corner of Cawnpore Street and Cupar Street on 10th September 1969 is shown below (taken as stills from television footage).

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The ‘representative body from city hall’ that was going to determine the route was to be chaired by the Lord Mayor, Alderman Joseph Cairns. It included all the councillors from the wards involved (this is based on reporting in the Irish Press 11/9/1969 and contemporary television footage and interviews). This body was to identify where to locate the ‘peace line’ street by street. The start and end points were largely self-defined by flashpoints and the rioting of the past weeks. However, negotiating the exact position often involved arguing over (literally) which individual houses it needed to accommodate on the Falls Road/Divis Street or Shankill Road side of the line.

The actual construction works were undertaken by British Army Engineers escorted by the 2nd Grenadier Guards and began at about 4.30 pm at either end, starting in the east at Coates Street (which was closest to the Millfield/Divis Street end) and in the west from the Springfield Road end of Cupar Street. In theory, work was to progress towards a centre point on the route agreed by the working group. Initially installing the peace line seems to have stopped at 9 pm on the 10th September and then resumed again at 8 am on 11th (these times are quoted in the press on 11th September). Despite the intention of the western and eastern sections converging, progress at the eastern end was obstructed by a failure to agree the position of the wire entanglement on Dover Street and it was the last to be completed. According to The Irish Press (11/9/1969), on the first day work had begun with rival crowds singing “Go home you bums, Go home you bums…” to the soldiers involved.

Photos of the peace line just after it was constructed on 10th/11th September at Cupar Street and Lucknow Street are shown below (from Irish Independent 11th and 12th September 1969).

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The immediate impetus for the erection of the ‘peace line’ was presumably as preparation for violence that was expected to accompany the imminent release of the Cameron Report (on the circumstances that led to violence the previous year). There had been leaks since early September that signalled that the report would be critical of the Unionist government and the RUC. This was confirmed when it was published and widely discussed in the media on the 11th and 12th September. However, reactions to the Cameron Report, in particular recommended changes to the RUC meant that the ‘peace line’ did not stop violence continuing.

Newspapers reports on 26th and 27th September show how the night of the 25th September had quickly exposed the limitations of the wire entanglements as a ‘firm peace line’. In Coates Street, a crowd from the Shankill Road side simply threw petrol bombs over the ‘peace line’ and burned out a number of houses. Repeated violence in Coates Street and Sackville Street also saw crowds breach the wire entanglements to attack houses on the other side of the peace line.

The failure of the ‘peace line’ had clearly been noted by the military. The Belfast Telegraph had reported on Wednesday 24th September that the British Army had been removing residents’ barricades by agreement and only a handful were left. The paper noted that “As far as West Belfast is concerned, some of the heavy steel ones are remaining for a few days until the Army replaces them with special corrugated iron affairs that will foil snipers and stop cars speeding up and down the streets.” By the weekend of 27th-28th September it was abundantly clear that the tactics employed by crowds attacking from the Shankill Road side were exposing the frailty of the ‘peace line’. Just as the wire entanglements were merely being pushed aside, soldiers were carrying rifles with live ammunition and, at this date, simply stepped back rather than open fire on the crowd. Contemporary accounts clearly show that the troops had been deployed without either training or suitable equipment for crowd control (apart from CS gas). Similarly, the wire entanglements were completely ineffective as obstacles when it came to snipers and missiles.

By Monday 29th September British Army engineers had begun to erect ‘concertina-type’ barriers in Coates Street/Sackville Street (eg see Belfast Telegraph 2/10/1969). The authorities also announced tactical changes in how the British Army would deal with rioters, including an acknowledgement of the passive role taken by the Army to date, such as when soldiers stood aside while rioters entered and burned houses in Coates Street. It claimed that some soldiers would now be deployed without guns but with two foot batons instead. The ‘concertina-type’ barriers that were to replace the wire entanglements would be fifteen feet in height and would completely seal off the ends of individual streets (the same reports in Belfast Telegraph dismiss claims that the peace line was to be extended to fifty feet in width). The new barriers were constructed from corrugated iron sheeting erected on wooden studding. Photographs from Coates Street show the first of these being constructed (Getty Images). They appear to be closer to around ten feet in height that the proposed fifteen feet.

Coates Street concertina type

The completed concertina-type barrier, with a reinstated wire entanglement obstacle in front of it, is visible in this photograph taken in December 1969 (Getty Images).

Sackville Coates

Questions to the Unionist Minister of Home Affairs at Stormont, Robert Porter, from Unionist MP Norman Laird indicated that it was the Minister of Home Affairs who had the authority to close roads (Stormont Hansard, 2/10/1969) and that the concertina-type barriers were erected by the Army with Porter’s agreement (see Stormont Hansard 7/10/1969). In the latter debate, Porter stated that the corrugated iron barricades were intended to be purely temporary. Fifty years later the peace line and many others still remain. Ironically, though, none of the current peace-line appears to contain any surviving sections of the first ‘concertina-type’ barrier.

The practice of physically segregating districts and individual streets in Belfast was not new in 1969. When intermittent violence throughout the early 1930s peaked on 12th July 1935, British soldiers were deployed to act, initially, as a ‘human barricade’. As that violence continued to escalate quickly, in particular in York Street and Sailortown, on 16th July the RUC began erecting physical barriers by closing off the end of streets with hoardings including New Andrew Street, New Dock Street, Marine Street, Ship Street, Fleet Street and Nelson Street. This was then extended to streets in the Old Lodge Road by the 19th July (eg see Belfast Newsletter 17/7/1935, Northern Whig 19/7/1935). These were ‘concertina-type’ barriers, made of corrugated iron and seven feet in height (eg see description in Irish Times, 30/4/1936). Despite continued protests from businesses in the area, they were only taken down in the middle of June 1936 (see Northern Whig, 13/6/1936). Notably, some residents claimed that the barriers had been unwanted as they simply prolonged and reinforced division (eg the likes of Jackie Quinn, quoted in Munck and Rolstons’ Belfast in the Thirties: an Oral History).

The barrier on New Dock Street is shown below (from Irish Press 19/7/1935, for more see here).

irish-press-19.7.35.png

Prior to 1935, the same ‘peace line’ structures had been also used during 1920-22. This included all the same elements that were to be found in 1969: human barricades, knife rests, wire entanglements and hoardings. The latter two are recorded in Ballymaccarrett in particular. The Belfast Newsletter reported on 24th July 1920 that Seaforde Street and Wolff Street had been closed with wire entanglements the previous day. Two days later the paper reported that sandbagged and wire barricades had been put in place at Seaforde Street, Short Strand, Middlepath Street, Lackagh Street, Harland Street and Wolff Street. Timber barriers were then erected at the Newtownards Road end of Seaforde Street and Young’s Row in early March 1922 (see Belfast Newsletter 13/3/1922). Despite continued opposition, the barriers at the end of Seaforde Street and Youngs Row were only taken down towards the end of 1923 (newspaper reports in the summer of 1923 clearly show the barriers were erected on the authority of the Minister of Home Affairs). The sequence of wire entanglements, knife rests and timber barriers being put up and taken down at Seaforde Street is shown below (from various sources: Illustrated London News 4/9/1920; cartoon from Illustrated London News 31/7/1920; Sunday Independent 4/12/1921; construction timber barrier, March 1922, from here; timber barrier being removed in 1923 from Snapshots of Old Belfast 1920-24, by Joe Baker, 2011).

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There were also sandbagged military posts and wire entanglements at various other locations around the city. A Dáil Publicity Department Communication published by the Irish Independent on 22nd June 1922 described how “There is now a fort or blockhouse on the Sth African system along every 100 yards of Falls Road. The windows are sandbagged and wired.” A still from a Pathé newsreel of Belfast in 1922 is shown below. The reference to the South African system was clearly intended to invoke a tactical comparison with the blockhouses and concentrations employed by the British Army during the Second Boer War and other newspaper reports make reference to the tactics deployed then in Transvaal.

Pathe Falls

The picture below (from Getty Images) shows a sandbagged blockhouse in Belfast at an unspecified location (possibly opposite Falls Park) in 1920. While the file is dated 1st January 1920, it says on ‘Orange Day’ which seems to mean 12th July 1920.

blockhouse

Finally, it is interesting to look at the physical location and course of the peace line (see map). Belfast in Irish is usually rendered as Beal Feirste and which is assumed to derive from its location at the mouth of the River Farset which enters the Lagan at High Street (the Farset seems to take its name from sandbanks where it enters the Lagan). A fourteenth century borough was founded where the Farset, Lagan and various routeways converged, with the layout of High Street, Ann Street and the various entries likely dictated by the layout of the medieval borough’s property boundaries. An earlier church site at Shankill lay alongside a ford over the Farset as it flowed down towards the Lagan (at today’s Lanark Way/Shankill Road junction). The name Shankill (Sean Cill or ‘old church’) shows it predates a later church, known in the seventeenth century as the Corporation Church, that lay close to where St George’s is today on High Street. Pre-seventeenth century documentation of Belfast is so inadequate that a handful of reference to a ‘chapel of the ford’ are usually taken to mean another church that predates the Corporation Church, but the ‘chapel of the ford’ but could equally be referring to Shankill (given that it also sat on a ford over the Farset).

peacelinefarset

Map (based on 3rd Edition OS Map), showing course of River Farset (blue), peace line (red) and Shankill Church (green with white cross).

Where north and west Belfast slope down to the Lagan there are various streams and rivers that could be damned to power mills and factories, attracting industry and drawing workers in from the countryside. This led to the growth of industries and residential areas for the workers on this side of the city. The Shankill Road and Falls Road, which converge along the Farset, drew in workers to the factories, mills and foundries that established in an industrial district along the banks of the Farset itself. Religious and ethnic tensions were constantly preyed upon, arguably to the benefit of the factory and mill owners who could play on sectarian fears to deflect from poor work and housing conditions. The communities that then grew along both the Shankill and Falls Road, on either side of the River Farset, tended to have greater proportions of Protestants (Shankill) and Catholics (Falls) as intermittent violence throughout the nineteenth century often lead to sporadic increases in segregation (and thus perpetuated the tensions). The final expression of this appears to be the tracing of the ‘peace line’ in September 1969 along a route that mirrors that of the Farset itself.

You can read more about the summer of 1969 in Michael McCann’s bookBurnt Out and about the wider background (for free for the next few days) in Belfast Battalion.

A current project by James O’Leary of University College London is documenting the peace walls at http://www.peacewall-archive.net which can be viewed here.

 

Belfast Battalion: #WorldBookDay

To mark World Book Day, you can now read Belfast Battalion online for free (just click here or cut and paste the link: https://thelitterpress.wordpress.com/2019/03/07/belfast-battalion-worldbookday/).

It will be available to read for free from 7th March 2019 to the 18th March 2019.

To  buy the book click here.

 

Death of Sean Garland announced

Garland

This evening it is being reported that Sean Garland has passed away. Garland was one of the key figures on the left of the republican movement. He was a key figure in the split that followed the upheavals of the summer of 1969, but perhaps not in the way that many people might think.

Despite the subsequent portrayal of the 1969 divisions within the I.R.A. as being rooted in a dispute over left wing politics, at the time the very pointed issues that caused so much internal dissension were the disarming of the Belfast I.R.A. and the control being exercised by Cathal Goulding. This all came to a head in a famous meeting at the end of September 1969. The Belfast O/C, Billy McMillen had been interned since before the intensification of violence in mid-August and his release was the pretext for him meeting the Belfast Battalion staff to seek confirmation that he would continue in the role (as Belfast O/C).

In McMillen’s absence, circumstances in Belfast had changed dramatically. As many former I.R.A. volunteers had returned to active duty, some of those arrived at the meeting, including Billy McKee and John Kelly to update McMillen on events.

McKee and Kelly “…outlined the concerns of the Belfast units and put three proposals to McMillan. The first was that they asked for co-options onto the Battalion staff for the likes of McKee, Leo Martin, Seamus Twomey and Sean McNally (six co-options were made in the end).

The second was that Belfast was to break with G.H.Q. until it acknowledged its responsibility for the failures of August. In that regard, it wanted four named members – Cathal Goulding, Mick Ryan, Roy Johnston and Seamus Costello – to step down and be replaced. The proposed replacement for Goulding was Sean Garland.[i] Garland had overseen the development of the plan for a northern campaign that had been captured by the Gardaí in May 1966. As he was known to be a committed Marxist this seems to further indicate that left wing politics was simply not a factor in the issues between Belfast and Dublin.[For instance, Kelly had spent a number of years in prison with Garland in the early 1960s]

McMillan accepted the first and extended the Battalion staff accordingly and, on the second point, agreed to break with G.H.Q. and the Army Council for three months to allow the necessary changes to happen.

McMillan notes a third issue that was agreed but has generally been overlooked – a demand that the money donated to the Northern Defence Fund for the purchase of arms was to be spent on arms. Goulding was already known to be diverting this it into his political projects (supposedly he insisted that the first £10,000 raised would go to fund political activity).[ii]

Having discussed and agreed the various points, the meeting broke up.”

That account is taken from the new Belfast Battalion book which (almost literally) ends at that point.

As McMillan advised the Chief of Staff, Cathal Goulding via Sean MacStiofáin, that evening, the Belfast Battalion split from G.H.Q. in Dublin.

[i] See Swan 2008 (Official Irish Republicanism), p312.

[ii] Billy McMillan in Rosita Sweetman 1972 (On Our Knees), p191 and MacStiofáin 1975, p128-129.

 

 

Andersonstown News article on new Belfast IRA book

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

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

You can read more about Stephen Hayes here.

You can order the book here!