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.

Ethna Carbery and the disappearance of many Northern cultural figures from the literary history of Ireland

Last weekend the Irish Times published a map showing some of the locations where it believed we should be considering erecting monuments to honour the achievements of various outstanding Irish women. Since it only included very few in the north, I’m suggesting one, Anna Johnston, who should be near the top of any such list.

In 2002, when the designation of Belfast as European City of Culture for 2008 was being criticised due to a claimed lack of a cultural heritage in Belfast, Mary Burgess, writing in the Irish Times (4/3/2002), had pointed out how one legacy of what she calls ‘cultural partitionism’ had been the “…disappearance of many Northern cultural figures from the literary history of Ireland.” She went on to point out that most of the innovative and important names in the Irish Revival had actually hailed from the north, not least among them being Anna Johnston (who wrote under the name Ethna Carbery).

Johnston and Alice Milligan (from Gortmore, County Tyrone, also equally worthy of recognition on that list) had been active both as creative figures and in the production of The Northern Patriot and The Shan Van Vocht newspapers. The latter paper had inspired Constance Markieviecz to found L’Irlande Libre and Johnston was a founding Vice-President of Maud Gonne’s Inghinidhe na hÉireann, itself a fore runner of Cumann na mBan. Johnston and Milligan are part of what Brian Maye (again in The Irish Times) described as “…part of a remarkable generation of Irish women nationalists whose role has received attention only in recent years.

Anna Johnston

Anna Johnston (thanks to Roddy Hegarty for the photo)

Anna Johnston, as Ethna Carbery, was to provide many people with the soundtrack to the revolutionary period ushered in by the ‘revival’ and was widely read among the Irish in America and Britain (one early twentieth century American critic described her as one of the few great poets of the last hundred years). It is difficult now to appreciate how impactful it was to explore her themes drawing on Irish history, nationalism, mythology and folklore for an audience that had long been expected to consume and enthuse about an arts that gloried in British imperial values and themes.

Although Anna Johnston died of gastritis in 1902, aged just 37, her husband the writer Seumas MacManus, ensured that her The Four Winds of Erinn was posthumously published that year, as were The Passionate Hearts (1904, with cover design by George Russell) and In the Celtic Past (1904). Johnston and MacManus had only married the previous year. He was to remain prominent in promoting her writing (as was Alice Milligan) which inevitably attracted reference to their tragically brief marriage layering further emotional depth into her work. The Four Winds of Erinn in particular was repeatedly reprinted well into the 1930s. In 1948, The Irish Press (2/4/19948) wrote of The Four Winds of Erinn that “There have been greater books of verse published in Ireland since then, but none that has achieved greater popularity.” At the fiftieth anniversary of her death, a public address was given by Sinead de Valera in which she stated that “Among women poets Ethna Carbery would always hold the foremost place and, even though her life was short, it was full of devotion and idealism” (Irish Press 2/4/1952).

Johnston developed themes and style appealed to a contemporary audience, in particular an unashamed sentimentality, but probably just wouldn’t translate into today’s tastes. One of her poems that many people do still know today was used to provide the lyrics for the song Roddy McCorley. Yet Johnston was clearly a hugely significant figure within the literary and political revival of the late nineteenth century and contributed significantly the sense of identity that underscored the nationalist and republican movements of the early twentieth century. Although she had moved to Donegal after she married, she had grown up and lived most of her life in Belfast on the Antrim Road where she had been exposed to Irish history and politics all her life. So had her brother James who was a member of the fascinating London Irish Republican Brotherhood circles and, although he had not taken any physical role in the Easter Rising (he was then 54 years of age), was arrested and interned in Frongoch. According to the National Graves Association pamphlet Belfast and Nineteen Sixteen (from 1966) James wasn’t in good health and he died shortly afterwards. However, while he does appear to have suffered ill health while at Frongoch, years after his return he moved to Salthill House in Mountcharles, County Donegal (in the late 1920s) where he lived until his death on 10th May 1932 at the age of 70.

Cavehill

Anna Johnston seated at the back of the family home, Antrim Road, Belfast. Beside her is her sister Marguerite (thanks to Roddy Hegarty for the photo).

Their father, Robert Johnston, was a timber merchant and, as the Irish Press noted after his death in March 1937, the last surviving member of the Supreme Council of the Irish Republican Brotherhood on which he had sat with Charles Kickham, John O’Leary, John Devoy, Denis Dowling Mulcahy, Charles O’Farrell and John Lavin. In many ways his own eclipse from Irish history mirrors that of his daughter.

R Johnston 29.3.37 I Press

Robert Johnstone, Irish Independent 29th March 1937

Robert Johnston had been born in 1839 in County Antrim where he had grown up hearing stories from the last veteran United Irishmen who had fought at the Battle of Antrim. He even once, reputedly, saw Mary Ann McCracken herself. He had later got to personally know those involved in the 1848 Young Ireland revolutionary movement before he got involved in the 1867 Fenian rising. He later oversaw the re-organisation of the IRB in the 1880s and had hosted many of the leaders of the Easter Rising in his Antrim Road home in Belfast. He was an intimate of James Stephens, John O’Mahony and Charles Parnell. The personal connections with 1798, 1848 and involvement in 1867 and those who were to lead the 1916 Easter Rising led Seamus MacManus to call Robert Johnston the “…connecting link that kept the spirit of freedom alive throughout more than a century.

With his own advancing age, Johnston became progressively more housebound in Belfast but lived to reach the age of 99 just before he died in March 1937. While there was considerable press coverage of his death, the lack of any official recognition at the time of his death prompted one correspondent to write to the Irish Independent (12/4/1937):

Robert Johnstone was a man who had dedicated his life to the cause of Irish ‘Nationality’ and had been given a place of honour at the funeral of John Devoy, his friend and co-worked and died as he lived an uncompromising Fenian. He was worthier by far of more than the mere handful of Irishmen who attended the funeral to pay their respects to one who had given his all for Ireland.

It is with a deep sense of shame that we record that of the innumerable circle from the highest to the lowest in the land, and particularly in the South which boasted his friendship in life, none could afford to come and pay his respect to Robert Johnstone in death.

Robert Johnston had himself memorialised with the one thing he believed history would associate him. Beneath his name on his tombstone, in St Mary’s in Greencastle, it simply includes how he believed history would remember him: ‘Father of Ethna Carbery.’

 

[Thanks to Roddy Hegarty for the photos of the Johnstons and to Damien Mac Con Uladh for details of her correct date of birth]

Where, oh where, is our James Connolly: #Connolly150

One of the remarkable things about James Connolly is how his life provides an intersection with so many long-standing themes: immigration, poverty and disadvantage, Irish-British relations, the Irish in Scotland, class politics, imperialism, socialism and Irish republicanism.

Another critical area, in which so many of these issues, and others, converge is in service in the armies of the British empire. A range of motivations brought individuals into service. Patriots mingled with those compelled by a sense of duty or adventure, others by poverties: disadvantaged urban communities, impoverished rural communities, immigrants seeking financial or political affirmations, colonial subjects speculating on an exchange of years of their lives for some degree of pensionable future financial security. All of these journeys meet within Connolly’s life. Oddly enough, in one of the least known and most obscure episodes, his military service.

Back in July 2017, I had a look at what is known about his British Army service. Pretty much nothing of the details of his military career are clear. This is not out of keeping with our real knowledge of his early life. He fleetingly appears in some documentary records in Edinburgh such as his birth on 5th June 1868. He is listed as an apprentice baker in the 1881 census (again in Edinburgh) with his parents and older brother Thomas (a trainee print compositor). His eldest brother John had already left home with the British Army by this date. Thomas’ later life is completely obscure. The historical Connolly literally re-emerges in a letter to Lillie Reynolds on April 7th 1889 (they were later to marry). The commonly held belief is that Connolly’s letter to Lillie was written just after he deserted the British Army.

This appears to be supported by a throwaway reference in the April 7th letter to Lillie as ‘the girl he left behind him’. This paraphrases the refrain of ‘The Girl I Left Behind Me’, considered the parting song for eighteenth and nineteenth British Army regiments as they left for overseas service. This may be the closest thing to a direct reference by Connolly to his own British Army career in his own writings.

The Girl I Left Behind Me

Extract from Connolly’s letter to Lillie Reynolds from April 7th, 1889 (original in the National Library).

Consensus had it that James had followed his eldest brother John into the British Army and his biographer Desmond Greaves identified his regiment as the King’s Liverpool Regiment, which is to some extent supported by later biographers like Nevin.
The difficulty here is that Connolly is believed to have served under an assumed name so it is not simply a matter of finding a soldier named ‘James Connolly’ in the relevant regimental records. Despite the lack of documentary evidence, a reported anecdote told by Connolly suggested he was stationed in Haulbowline in December 1882 (indicating he had joined underage). Based on the date of his letter to Lillie, his departure from the British Army was believed to be in the period shortly before the letter was sent (i.e. just before the start of April 1889). This gives his period of service as the second half of 1882 through to (roughly) March 1889, a time period that matched the period in which the King’s Liverpool Regiment was stationed in Ireland (the basis of Greaves argument). Connolly’s service number, presuming he had joined roughly between his 14th birthday (although giving his age as 16) and December 1882 would be between 200 and 260 in the 1st Battalion of the King’s Liverpool Regiment.
Fortunately, his desertion in early 1889 gives us another fixed reference point to use to identify him. Deserters were listed in the Police Gazette with their name, regiment, service number, age, a brief description and information where they deserted. Since Connolly deserted in February or March 1889, he would feature (under his assumed) name, in one of those issues.

police gazette.png

Front page of Police Gazette, February 26th, 1889, showing format of deserter lists.

Over the course of February, March and April 1889 the following were reported in the Police Gazette as deserters or dismissed from the King’s Liverpool Regiment for misconduct (their service numbers are included in brackets):
Police Gazette, February 12th: John Keating (2151), Peter Murphy (2730), James Calligan (443), William Clare (2557), Patricks Collins (1468), Martin Connolly (254), Dean Walter (1474), Patrick Gorrie (1087) and William Henderson (1259).
Police Gazette, February 19th: William Miller (2672), George Omerod (2705).
Police Gazette, February 26th: Charles Burke (2715), James Sears (2697);
Police Gazette, March 12th: Alfred Clark (2762), John Doherty (2732), Thomas Noon (2768), John Wilson (no number).
Police Gazette, March 19th: Herbert Coughtrey (1518).
Police Gazette, March 26th: Ben Aspinall (2577), John Curtis (2636).
Police Gazette, April 9th: W.H. Wakeman (no number).
Police Gazette April 16th Tim Kelly (2588), Joseph Stedman (2680), Frederick Wilson (2579), William Purcell (no number).
Police Gazette, April 30th Thomas Burns (2666), Charles Evans (2592), Thomas Quinn (2627).

This includes only one candidate with a service number between 200 and 260, conveniently enough sharing the same surname: Martin Connolly (254). Martin Connolly is listed in the Police Gazette as having deserted from the Reserve of the King’s Liverpool Regiment at Warrington. His personal records indicate that he served in the 4th Battalion of the Regiment (it’s reserve battalion). The Police Gazette records his age as 30, height as 5 foot 6 ½ inches, hair brown in colour and eyes grey. His attestation forms, though, indicate his age as 20 when he signed up in 1885, his height as 5 foot 7, his hair colour as black and his eyes brown (perhaps highlighting how unreliable some of the Police Gazette and attestation form data can be). These latter details (even if not consistent) are at odds with information recorded about James Connolly. The RIC recorded Connolly’s height in Kenmare in 1898 as 5 foot 4 and his hair colour as black. Various people identified him as having light blue or grey eyes. All of these details seem to indicate that ‘Martin Connolly’ is not James Connolly.

A review of the attestation records for the other King’s Liverpool Regiment deserters, where available, invariably show they returned to the service after 1889, or otherwise did not fit with the rough outlines of Connolly’s life. This raises significant questions about Greaves identification of Connolly with the King’s Liverpool Regiment. The information on his military service used by Greaves is largely in the form of second- and third-hand anecdotes, even Connolly’s daughter Nora appears to be quoting Greaves when she mentions his desertion in 1889. The claims about his military service include that he enlisted under a false name, John Reid, and in the same regiment as his brother, John, purportedly the 2nd Battalion, Royal Scots. Anecdotes include the story about being on sentry duty in Haulbowline in December 1882 and also that he made reference to serving in India. There is no direct evidence to support either (as yet).

The earliest actual source referring to his military service is an anti-Larkin newspaper, The Toiler, published in 1913. It mentions Connolly in a couple of issues, claiming that he had joined the British militia twenty years or so ago, rumoured to be the Monaghan Militia and that he had deserted.

Given that the references in The Toiler are the earliest reference to Connolly’s military career, it is worth giving them some further consideration. The ‘Monaghan Militia’ was the 5th Battalion of the Royal Irish Fusiliers. While the reference is intentionally derogatory, it may be referencing Connolly’s reputed family connection to Monaghan (he did, incorrectly, list Monaghan as his place on birth in the 1901 and 1911 census). However, that family connection may have had some role in his route into the British Army. A plausible basis for The Toiler claim is that he may have used family connections in Monaghan to join the Royal Irish Fusiliers. A number of deserters from the regiment are indeed listed in the Police Gazette including John Donnolly (2312), William Freeman (3035), John Kelly (2969), John Walker (676), Thomas Dawson (3110), Fred Wm Malyon (2625), Francis Kelly (3131), Thomas Flanagan (3076), John McSourley (2905), Thomas Webb (no number), Loughlin Ward (2088), Robert Green (3041), Thomas Dougherty (3045), William McDonald (3087) and Robert Simpson (813). But again, none appear to provide a sufficient match to Connolly’s details to suggest that it might be the false name he adopted for his military service.

Aspects of the other anecdotal claims about Connolly can also be tested against the list of deserters to try and identify him. Firstly, there is the false name: John Reid. A John Reid, service number 2089, had deserted at Mullingar on 31st January 1889, while serving in the Royal Irish Rifles. A labourer claiming to be from Armagh, he roughly fits the description of Connolly, being reported as 21½ years of age, 5 foot 6 in height with brown hair and grey eyes. Reid, though, enlisted in 1887 and served well into the 1890s and so is clearly not Connolly. A review of other men enlisting under the name John Reid does not immediately identify a suitable candidate for Connolly.

The ‘John Reid’ pseudonym is possibly a garbled version of Connolly’s older brother’s military career. John Connolly was four years older than James and had enlisted, under age, in 1878 using the name James Reid. He had served in the Border Regiment according to his documentation when he enlisted in the Royal Scots in the first world war, although his medal and decorations are not entirely consistent with those awarded to the Border Regiment. Either way, confusing James and his brother John seems to be the origin of the ‘John Reid’ claim for Connolly and the association with the ‘Royal Scots’ regiment.

 

John C Borders

John Connolly’s re-enlistment form (as ‘James Reid’) showing his previous service with the Border Regiment.

 

 

John C medals etc

John Connolly’s medal and decorations.

 

 

John Connolly form

John Connolly’s discharge form (as ‘James Reid’) from February 1916 showing his correct address.

 

The information on those listed as deserting from either the Border Regiment can also be cross-referenced against Connolly’s details to look for possible candidates. The Border Regiment deserters were John Rushton (no number), J. McIntosh (2009), who was discharged for misconduct), Thomas Cook (1856, reserve) Joseph Howells (1827, reserve), Percy Seymour (2165, reserve), W. Anderson (1414), Cosgrove T. (726), D Lundy (489), Arthur Copping (2730), Charles Fry (2223), H Ashby Carwood (2672), John Coulthard (2213), Thomas Hall (2620), Robert Little (2721) and Robert McCole (no number). None of these could plausibly be identified with Connolly.

The last of the anecdotal claims linked Connolly to the 2nd Battalion, Royal Scots. A review of the Royal Scots deserter listed in the Police Gazette, identifies Peter Devine (2557), John Bartlett (2970), Frank Newton (2566), Albert Hartwell (3043), Charles F White (2917), John Monaghan (2286), AM Woolidge (1395), William G Hunt (3212), James McAuley (2741), Thomas Clegg (2905), Thomas Moody (3129) and James Scott (2713).

The only possible candidate is James Henry, who deserted the Royal Scots at Aldershot on 11th February 1889. Henry came from South Leith in Edinburgh and listed his occupation as ‘carter’. His physical description as 5 foot 4 in height, with dark brown hair and grey eyes, roughly matches Connolly as does his age in 1889 (20). Even the name (James Henry) is attractive as a false name. James Henry’s service number (2580), suggests he enlisted in the Royal Scots in 1887. Without further documentation, unless he had transferred from another regiment, it would seem unlikely that he had enlisted in 1882 as James Connolly is purported to have done. However, in the absence of further information to formally exclude him as a candidate, he appears to be the most plausible of the listed deserters to be Connolly.

Today, the 150th anniversary of Connolly’s birth, it seems that the exact details of his military service are still, and will continue to remain, elusive!

James Connolly 150th anniversary

The 5th June 2018 will mark the 150th anniversary of James Connolly’s birth in Edinburgh of Monaghan parents. I’m sure the year will include various events and discussions of Connolly, his life and legacy.

One area that interests me and, I think, seems wholly under-explored, is Connolly’s time as a British soldier. Not just in how it must have contributed to Connolly’s own political and intellectual formation but also in how it provides an example of that tradition of service in Britain’s armed forces by Irish Catholics. Connolly’s military experience is very much suppressed in the post-1916 twentieth century hagiography and biographical treatments of his life (Greaves being the obvious pioneer of reintroducing his years as a soldier into the substance of the Connolly legend). That’s a thread I’m going to try and continue to pick up in 2018.

During this year, I’m hoping to start adding contributions from other people. The guiding principle will be that I’ll add anything relevant: memoirs, old historical news items, ephemera, songs/ballads etc. It doesn’t need to be academically written or of any particular length. The only requirement is that it adds something new, not well known or interesting. Easiest way to let me know you’ve something of interest is to message me via the Facebook page or by email (jjconeill at gmail.com works best).

In the meantime, best wishes for 2018 and thanks for continuing to read and comment on the blog and Facebook and here’s some Connolly reading from the blog to get your new year started.

https://treasonfelony.wordpress.com/2017/11/11/learn-all-he-can-and-put-his-training-to-the-best-advantage-irish-republicans-in-the-british-army/

https://treasonfelony.wordpress.com/2017/07/31/james-connollys-time-as-a-british-soldier-some-new-evidence/

https://treasonfelony.wordpress.com/2015/04/01/nora-connolly-obrien-on-her-father-belfast-and-1916/

https://treasonfelony.wordpress.com/2016/04/04/they-told-me-how-connolly-was-shot-in-the-chair/

The Manchester Martyrs centenary and echoes of the 1969 split in the IRA

Up to the Easter Rising, one of the key annual events in the republican calendar was the commemoration of the ‘Manchester Martyrs’, William Philip Allen, Michael Larkin, and Michael O’Brien, the IRB members who were publicly hanged in front of a crowd of 8-10,000 outside Salford Gaol on 23rd November 1867. They were hung for the death of a police sergeant during an attempt to free two IRB prisoners from a police van. Neither Allen, Larkin or O’Brien fired the shots that killed the policemen and two others that had also been sentenced to death had their sentences commuted due, in one case, due to American citizenship (a lesson not lost on a future generation), and in another, due to the clearly perjured evidence against him (bizarrely, the others were all convicted on the same evidence but not reprieved).

Smashing of the Van

‘The Smashing of the Van’ – the attempt to free two IRB leaders that led to Sergeant Brett being shot and the execution of the ‘Manchester Martyrs’ in 1867.

The execution was only the second public hanging in Manchester and The Pall Mall Gazette in London noted (on 25th November) the well behaved nature of the crowd (as opposed to the rioting that frequently accompanied hangings in London) and put it down to the fact that “…a taste for execution is perhaps, rather acquired than natural.” The hangman, William Calcraft, was notoriously inept and only Allen is believed to have been killed by the initial drop. Calcraft himself pulled on Larkin’s legs to break his neck but a priest in attendance, Fr Gadd, stopped him from doing the same to O’Brien. Instead the priest held O’Brien’s hands for three quarters of an hour until he finally died. The three were buried in the New Bailey prison in Manchester, although public funerals were held across Ireland and in some cities in Britain. Allen, Larkin and O’Brien are publicly commemorated in the song ‘God Save Ireland’, first published by Tim Dan Sullivan in December 1867. Another song, ‘The Smashing of the Van’ commemorates the events that led to their execution. Their remains were moved from the New Bailey prison to Strangeways in 1868 and then cremated and reinterred in Blackley cemetery in 1991.

Even after 1916, a huge commemorative ceili continued to be held annually in the Mansion House in Dublin for several decades. There are a lot of parallels with 1916, in terms of how the event became a focal point within the broader political methodology of Irish republicanism. For long periods, Irish republicanism had focused on building towards an event that might become the spark that would lead to the establishment of the Irish republic, rather than what would later become known as a ‘long war’ strategy (or low intensity conflict). In 1916, the ‘blood sacrifice’ concept understood by Pearse and Connolly was rooted in a realisation that failure to secure a republic by force of arms, in April 1916, would likely see their deaths either in battle or by execution. However, both knew Irish republicans could then catalyse the reaction to executions (rather than the whole Rising) into an ideological parable to try and give impetus to the Irish public to go out and establish that republic (as had happened with the Manchester Martyrs). Arguably, the structure of republican strategy, post-1981 hunger strike can be read within a similar framework. In the late 19th century, the Manchester Martyrs had provided a similar focus rather than the broader ‘Fenian movement’.  In many ways, the historical narrative around Irish republican ideology is often best understood within the context of such events involving a small number of individuals, rather than by looking at time periods defined in other ways (eg the ‘War of Independence’ was often reduced to a summary that focused on the likes of the execution of Kevin Barry).

The centenary of the Manchester Martyrs saw various events organised. Known, by 1967, as the Manchester Martyrs and Easter Week Commemoration Committee, the main organisers announced a few weeks in advance that a ‘Manchester Martyrs Commemoration Week’ was to be held in Manchester from November 20th to 26th. This was to include a folk night in St Bernadette’s Hall, Princess Road, a play presented by the St. Brendan’s Irish Players in St. Brendan’s Irish Centre. City Road, Old Trafford, a High Mass in St. Patrick’s Church, Livesey Street on the actual anniversary (celebrated by the Bishop of Salford),  a dinner dance in St. Brendan’s Irish Centre, City Road with the Assarce Ceili Band and then a parade on the 26th from Bexlev Square past the place of execution to St. Patrick’s Church for 11.30 am Mass. The parade was then to reassemble at Ben Brierley, Moston at 3 p.m. and continue to Saint Joseph’s Cemetery, Moston, where an oration was to be given by Jimmy Steele, Belfast, and a decade of the Rosary in Irish. All Irish organisations in Manchester were requested to keep that week free of engagements to support the committee’s functions.

In Manchester itself the centenary was preceded by a dispute over the erection of a memorial plaque at the site of the execution. The memorial was proposed and sponsored by the Manchester branch of the Connolly Association rather than the official Manchester Martyrs Memorial committee. It was given planning permission but opposed by the Manchester police and the issue was not resolved prior to the centenary itself. The Connolly Association had offered to include the policeman’s name on the plaque (arguing that he too was equally a victim of British imperialism). But the left wing politics of the Connolly Association also brought it into conflict with the conservation Catholicism of the official Memorial committee.

At the end of the main commemoration on the 26th November, the Memorial committee chairman, Austin Fitzmaurice, was prompted by one of his committee to add some final comments. The first was that the commemoration was nothing to do with any other commemoration committee (clearly meaning the Connolly Association), the second was that ‘those present’ did not want Ireland freed with the help of Soviet Union and the last was “We are Catholics first and Irishmen afterwards.” (Irish Democrat, January 1968).

The Connolly Association plaque was put on display during the commemorations, though. The main gathering on the Sunday was attended by 3,000 people including 77 year old, Elizabeth Maher, a cousin of Michael Larkin, who had travelled from Dublin. Also in attendance were Tomas MacGiolla, President of Sinn Féin and Jimmy Steele, Chair of the Republican Clubs in the north, members of Fianna Éireann (whose Dublin branch organised Ms Maher’s travel and provided a colour party), Cumann na mBan, the Brian Boru Pipe Band and the Pre-Truce IRA Association.

At the main gathering in the cemetery in Moston, Jimmy Steele gave what the Connolly Association’s newspaper, The Irish Democrat, described as a ‘spirited oration’ in its December issue. In it he criticised the ‘New Departure’ of John Devoy and Michael Davitt, stating that “…it was always an error to become involved in political parties.” (Irish Democrat, December 1967). Devoy, who had later supported the Treaty and Cumann na nGaedhal, had pushed the IRB leader, Michael Davitt, into supporting Parnell and the constitutional nationalists sitting at Westminster in 1878. This was perceived as having weakened the IRB and directed energies towards four decades of an ineffectual ‘Home Rule’ campaign in Westminster (the culmination of its failures being the IRB’s response with the 1916 Rising).

The month previously, Dan Breen, the former IRA leader who had been a Fianna Fáil TD, led a commemoration and wreath laying at the John Devoy memorial in Kildare, alongside leading Fine Gael politicians. Notably, neither party appears to have been represented at the official Manchester commemoration. There is an interesting echo here of last year’s 1916 centenary and Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael’s embarrassingly strained emphasis on constitutionalists like John Redmond.

Steele might have intended his comments to be a commentary on the Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael détente at Devoy’s memorial, or at least be read as such. But within the IRA and Sinn Féin, Cathal Goulding had been pushing for an end to abstentionism at Leinster House, Stormont and Westminster. This had been repeatedly defeated when put to a vote. While his strategy was being questioned, Goulding had increasingly been centralising control of both the IRA and Sinn Féin in himself and in its public voice, like The United Irishman newspaper. The Belfast IRA newspaper Tírghrá, edited by Steele, was starved of resources and effectively closed down by Goulding in 1965. In September 1968, Goulding was to dilute the ability of the IRA to oppose his attempts to end abstentionism by dramatically expanding the Army Council so that he could then install a majority of his supporters and force through changes (and, apparently, stall any Army Convention that might reverse the changes). This precipitated the crisis within the IRA that surfaced in the early summer of 1969, led by Steele. In that light, Steele’s comments in Manchester should be seen as commentary on Goulding’s aspirations to transform the IRA. The Manchester Martyr’s commemoration in 1967 should perhaps be regarded as an opening salvo in the dispute that was to split the IRA two years later.

For more on the Manchester Martyrs, see Joe O’Neill’s The Manchester Martyrs.