William Harbinson: a New Lodge ‘Fenian’

September 11th 2017 marks the 150th anniversary of the death of William Harbinson in Crumlin Road prison. On the evening of his death, Harbinson was found dead in his cell and the coroners inquiry heard he had an unexplained head wound but did not establish if it occurred prior to his death. The Head Centre of the Irish Republican Brotherhood in Belfast, Harbinson lived in the cottages known as Pinkerton Row just above the junction of North Queen Street and the New Lodge Road (roughly where Pinkerton Walk is today).

Map of Belfast in 1860s showing North Queen Street, the Infantry Barracks (later Victoria Barracks) and the lower New Lodge Road. Pinkerton Row is unmarked appears to be the line of cottages just above ‘Trainfield’. The breaks in the houses on that side of the New Lodge Road roughly correspond to Bruslee Street, Carntall Street, Carnmoney Street and Pinkerton Street that all linked back to Artillery Street (which appears on the map as dotted lines). These streets were flattened in the 1960s and 1970s. The Half Bap and Little Italy districts extend from the bottom right of the map.

Harbinson was a Staff Sergeant in the Antrim Rifles and had access to the Infantry Barracks arsenal. He was one of a number of ‘Fenians’ among the serving garrison in the barracks. The IRB had consciously inserted soldiers in the British Empire’s army and used them to both cultivate further recruits and bring back a quantum of military know-how and material to the organisation. In many respects this was an expression of the complex relationship between the Empire and its Irish subjects.

Harbinson’s life is illustrative of how young men typically ended up in the British Army. Driven from his birthplace in Ballinderry to Liverpool at the height of the famine, he enlisted underage. Perhaps unsurprisingly, his army service was punctuated with bouts of ill-health. The year after Harbinsons death, James Connolly was born – brought in great poverty, he too enlisted underage in the British Army and was one of a number of those who participated in 1916 that had a military background. In Belfast in 1920-22, ex-servicemen were prominent in the ad hoc defence of districts that came under attack from unionists. Many of them became involved in the IRA. In the 1970s, again in the face of unionist violence, ex-servicemen (this time, formally) grouped themselves under the banner of the Catholic (later ‘Local’) Ex-Servicemen’s Association. So, in many respects, Harbinson reflects a tradition within republicanism that is often overlooked. James Connolly rationalised the motivation behind a young Irish man joining the British Army “…let him make the best of it and learn all he can and put his training to the best advantage he can when he comes out. A well-trained soldier will always find his allotted place in the community”.

Harbinson also reflects a largely unexplored aspect of republican tradition across north Belfast. In some respects, like Harbinson, this is connected to the presence of the Infantry Barracks and Irish soldiers serving there. But he is far from the only senior IRB figure to have lived in the north of the city. Frank Roney, Head of Centre in Belfast before Harbinson, was from Carrickhill. Robert Johnston served on the Supreme Council from the 1860s, FJ Biggar was co-opted onto the Supreme Council by the end of 1870s. Henry Dobbyn was also prominent in the IRB. That generation was slowly eased out and replaced by the likes of Denis McCullough (President of the IRB’s Supreme Council in 1916). All lived in the north of the city, on of around North Queen Street or the Antrim Road. Johnston was the father of Eithne Carbery, the pre-eminent poet of the nationalist revival of the late 19th century and editor of the Shan Van Vocht newspaper. Her brother, James and cousin James were also active in the IRB (the likes of Major John McBride were also connected to north Belfast through St Malachy’s College). Another Antrim Road resident, Winifred Carbery, was Connolly’s assistant throughout the Easter Rising.

So, on the 150th anniversary of his death, it is worth remembering how William Harbinson reflects many aspects of republican history in north Belfast (and further afield) that really should warrant further exploration in the future.

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James Connolly’s time as a British soldier, some new evidence

James Connolly, signatory of the 1916 proclamation, is widely accepted to have served as a British soldier in Ireland. Remarkably little is known about this period of his life and its impact on his political formation and views. It is assumed that he joined the King’s Liverpool Regiment, although direct documentary proof has yet to be found. However, new evidence about his brother’s service and the King’s Liverpool Regiment in Ireland suggests that Connolly could have been on duty as a British soldier during sectarian violence in Belfast, evictions in Meath and prison protests on Spike Island. He also took part in war games that tested the British governments deployment plan for the army in the event of war in Dublin.

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Connolly as a young man, not long after leaving the army.

Some biographers have Connolly joining the same regiment as his older brother John who had enlisted underage, using a false name, in 1878. John’s regiment is (variously) given as the Royal Scots or the King’s Liverpool Regiment and the suggested false name is usually ‘John Reid’ (much of this is teased out in Donal Nevin’s  James Connolly: a full life). However, it is possible to recover a bit more information about John Connolly as he re-enlisted in the 2nd Battalion, Royal Scots (see WO/363, service number 20308), during World War 1. John was discharged due to ill health in February 1916. The reason given was Bright’s Disease, brought on through exposure to bad weather while guarding German prisoners at Stobs Camp in the Scottish Borders in 1915.

This photo shows the exposed positions from which sentries guarded the prisoner of war section of Stobs Camp during World War 1 (the original is online here).

This may, in part, explain why James Connolly’s last statement (smuggled out of his cell by his daughter Nora) begins, “I do not wish to make any defence, except against the charge of wanton cruelty to prisoners.” Given that he followed John into the army and then to Dundee, it would seem that he was close to his older brother. Concern at his brother’s reaction may even have influenced how James framed his own last words. John never recovered his health. He died on 22nd June 1916 and is buried in Edinburgh’s North Merchiston Cemetery.

His military records show that John had not served as ‘John Connolly’ but as ‘James Reid’ and his files note that he had previously spent sixteen years in the army, which he states was with the Borders Regiment. There is a ‘James Reid’ listed in the regiment in WO/121, service number 1524, who joined on 9th July 1878 and was discharged in Dublin (due to ill health) on 9th March 1886. The dates match up so this may mark his departure from full-time service. Like his false name, John’s age was consistently recorded as two years younger than it was, due to his enlistment underage as James Reid. He does correctly list his wife’s surname as Connolly in his army documents, though. John had medals for his service in Afghanistan and Egypt (1882). He also re-entered the Royal Reserves in Edinburgh for a year up to April 1901 (service number 1597) before re-enlisting in December 1914.

As the Border Regiment was not awarded either the Afghanistan or Egypt 1882 medals, this seems to be where John completed his service or joined the reserve rather than where he served full-time. Of the other regiments mentioned, the Royal Scots did receive the former award (for the campaign in Afghanistan from 1878 to 1880) while the King’s Liverpool Regiment received both. While it confirms some truth to the various rumours around the Connolly brothers’ military service, it doesn’t really bring us any closer to complete certainty on the regiment in which James served.

If John served as ‘James Reid’, is that the confused source of the false name ‘John Reid’? Or does it even open the possibility that, when enlisting James followed John in using the name ‘Reid’ and swapped first names with his brother? No records appear to be available for a John Reid in the 1st Battalion, King’s Liverpool Regiment. But this may simply be down to the surviving records or extent of digitisation since only the records of some soldiers named in the battalion in newspaper reports in the 1880s can be found, most cannot be identified. Whether John Reid was the name or not, it may be possible a soldier can be found to match up with his putative army service in the records of the 1st Battalion, King’s Liverpool Regiment (possibly with a service number between, roughly, 200 and 260).

The earliest reference to Connolly’s military service appears in the anti-Larkin newspaper The Toiler in 1913 which claimed he had served in the Monaghan militia, deserted and went to Scotland. Since Connolly had lived in Edinburgh, not Monaghan, he wouldn’t have served in the Monaghan militia (he is listed in the census in Scotland in 1881). The strongest argument for him serving in the Liverpool Regiment appears to be Nora Connolly’s assertion that he was going to be demobbed in Aldershot in February 1889 when he left the army while her mother was to take up a post in London (in her account in Uinseann MacEoin’s Survivors). This is consistent with the dates that 1st Battalion Liverpool Regiment moved from Dublin to Aldershot between 15th and 18th of February 1889 (see Aldershot Military Gazette 23rd February 1889). Connolly’s father, John, had a serious accident in February 1889, which may have precipitated his return to Scotland rather than to serve out his remaining time and complete his discharge in Aldershot. However going to assist his father seems less plausible when, by April he was living in the main area of Irish immigration in Dundee, Lochee where he was to begin his involvement in socialist politics.

Connolly arrived in Dundee in 1889 not long before he wrote what seems to be the first of his surviving letters to his future wife, Lillie Reynolds, from Mrs Boyle’s, St Mary Street in Dundee and dated April 7th (see MS 13,911/1, where it is dated as 1888). In the letter he mentions how “It was only across the street from here a man murdered his wife and they are all discussing whether he is mad or not, pleasant, isn’t it?”. Bridget Redmond was murdered by her husband, Joseph, in their grocers shop on St Marys Road on the 30th March. According to the Dundee Advertiser, both were Irish immigrants and Joseph was a retired soldier from the King’s Liverpool Regiment. Press reports in the likes of the Dundee Courier state that he had been taken to an asylum on 6th April, the day before Connolly wrote the letter. Redmond’s trial later was told that he had delusions about being threatened by Irishmen in Dundee into joining the Land League and that he had suffered from sunstroke while in the army in India.

Redmond

The images, from Dundee Advertiser 2nd April 1889, showing where Bridget Redmond was killed (James Connolly lived across the road at the time).

The circumstantial evidence for Connolly having served in the 1st Battalion, King’s Liverpool Regiment seems solid enough. Desmond Greaves quotes a story told to him in which Connolly reminisced about being on guard duty in Haulbowline, in Cork, on the night when Myles Joyce was executed in Galway for the Maamtrasna murders on 16th December 1882 (Connolly reputedly was able to show his knowledge of the local geography during political activity there in 1911). The 1st Battalion had moved to Ireland in 1882 to replace the 2nd Battalion of the Grenadier Guards (who were bound for Egypt). When it’s 480 men assembled in Liverpool to cross to Ireland onboard the Batavia, contingents came from Plymouth, Bradford, Fleetwood, the Isle of Man and Tynemouth. By the end of August, though, an additional 45 men had been sent from the regimental depot in Warrington. It is possible that Connolly joined at any of these locations and came either in July or August (meaning he was just four or five months short of his seven years’ service in February 1889). Connolly had just turned fourteen on 5th June 1882.

The battalion’s arrival in Cork, with companies based in Youghal, Haulbowline and Carlisle Fort coincides with a number of news reports of soldier beaten up by locals in Cork and Youghal. Shortly after Myles Joyce’s execution, in January and February 1883, 400 convicts from Spike Island prison, adjoining Haulbowline, were used as labour on works and staged a protest that ended up requiring the Royal Marines and military to be called out. Even if the 1st Liverpool Regiment wasn’t called out, it was surely a topic of conversation. This was James Connolly’s introduction to the British garrison in Ireland. The battalion relocated to the Curragh in September 1884 (some companies being rotated to Castlebar). It then moved to Dublin in September 1885, first Linen Hall Street and Ship Street, then Beggars Bush. While in Dublin it took part in manoeuvres and war games around the city.  This included a war game where flying columns left Beggars Bush to intercept invading flying columns at locations outside the city. In 1916, it was probably assumed that this was the defensive plan the British army would expect to have to deploy, rather than an attempt to seize the centre of the city itself. So Connolly may well have taken part himself in practise deployments of the British army’s defensive plan for Dublin.

The most regular feature of the Liverpool Regiment’s posting in Ireland was the performances of its regimental band. It began performing publicly in August 1882 and continued through to 1889, playing at events such as regattas, sports days (including one under GAA rules in Ballsbridge on 30th July 1886), army parades, the Cork Industrial Exhibition (in 1883), banquets, the Rotunda, RDS, the Grand Promenade, Phoenix Park and many more. Kingstown (Dun Laoghaire) was a recurring venue from 1887, and it may have been on a trip out to see the regimental band play that Connolly famously met Lillie Reynolds, both of them having missed the same tram.  The regimental band also played at the visit of various dignitaries, such as the Viceroy, the Earl of Carnarvon in January 1886. In June 1887, the whole regiment provided a guard of honour (presumably including James Connolly) for Queen Victoria’s on her arrival and during her visit.

Not that the regiment’s period in Ireland was all band performances and guards of honour. Indiscipline and violence were never far away, with soldiers regularly appearing before the courts for attacking locals at the various postings, or as the victims of attacks (one drunken sergeant was reportedly seen shouting “Three cheers for Parnell!” and making ‘insulting comments about the Queen’ in February 1886). A Sergeant Carrigan shot himself in the head in Youghal Barracks in August 1884. There are also hints at the conditions inside the battalion in December 1888, when a Major Whitely had his house attack over conditions in the battalion. There was an inquiry into the condition of the barracks hospital and loss of stores around the same time.

For the individual soldiers, there was the recurring possibility of being posted overseas. Throughout 1882 to 1889, drafts of recruits and reserves were regularly processed through the 1st Battalion en route to the regiment’s 2nd Battalion on service in India. There are recurring claims that Connolly also saw service in India and it is conceivable that he somehow was added to one of the drafts that went out (if his brother John was on active duty in India that might have been sufficient incentive for him to go).

Ironically, if Connolly didn’t serve in India, the battalion’s duties over 1886 and 1887 may have contributed just as significantly to the formation of his political views. In the summer of 1886, the Liverpool Regiment was deployed on the streets of Belfast during serious rioting that saw over thirty deaths. It was reported in the Dublin Daily Express on August 12th that 379 men from the regiment were in Belfast (making it quite likely that Connolly was present). In October 1887, a company from the battalion was deployed to carry out evictions at Lord Masserene’s estate in Collon. While bailiffs and RIC constables removed the tenants, the soldiers were face-to-face with those opposing it as they formed a cordon to prevent the hostile crowds from intervening to prevent the evictions taking place. The soldiers had boiling water, gruel and mud thrown at them as well as much verbal abuse (eg see the account in the Dundalk Democrat, 29th October 1887). This may not have been the only occasion on which the regiment took part in an eviction. If the Bridget Redmond murder is anything to go by, the Land League was still a topical issue among Irish immigrants in Dundee in 1889.

If these events, or Indian service (or both), were contributing to Connolly’s political awakening, it was to be accompanied by increasing reports that the Battalion was to move from Dublin. This began in May 1887, with first Newry then Tipperary proposed (any move was formally suspended in August). Then in January 1888 it was suggested that the Battalion would now return to England (as a preliminary to a move overseas). By March the destination had been announced as Preston then the move was suspended again, only to be re-confirmed, without a destination, in April. This speculation would seem to overlap with James and Lillie meeting and may provide some sort of context to a decision to make an early break with the regiment rather than complete his service.

Just to expand slightly on the earlier point – Connolly would have acquired a service number between (roughly) 200 and 260 in the 1st Battalion of the King’s Liverpool Regiment and a soldier of that number should be listed in Regimental Defaulter Book in February or March 1889.

Unfortunately, Connolly did not leave any (known) account of his own army service or motivations for joining. Donal NevinClearly, from his own literacy and vocabulary, and even his letters from as early as 1889, he did acquire some education while in the army. Instead, the closest we may have to his own judgement on the value of his army service may be hidden in a story told by his daughter Ina in her own witness statement to the Bureau of Military History. Ina has Connolly giving his view of the value of serving in the army to a woman they knew whose son had ran off to enlist:

“Well”, said my father, “didn’t you ask for it, pumping the child’s head with the glories of the British Empire. What more can you expect?”.

“But he is so young” implored the mother. “What can I do? Won’t you help me? I thought of you, the first person I must go to; you never encouraged anyone to join up in the Boer war; surely the same applies now?”

“Not exactly”, replied my father: “there is no war on now and by the time he serves his three years he will be out of their reach by the next war. At least, I hope so, and if I can be of any service to you, I will do my damnedest to keep him at home then. You just remember these words and keep me to this promise for the next war and see how I’ll help you then”.

No, she could not see that long ahead.

“I will buy him out; the money will be well-spent. I can’t bear to think of him in the British army”.

At this father went over to her and put his hand on her shoulder saying: “Many a good man was in the British army; there is nothing wrong in being well-trained and it is in the British army the soldier gets a good training. It’s getting out of the army in time of peace and putting your knowledge to the advantage of your country is what I call a good soldier. You try, and no doubt you will succeed in buying him out, but the average youth that is Inclined to run away from home and join the British army will do so again if he is brought home against his wishes. The training and mixing with other youths, older than himself, will develop him and let him see the other side of the picture. Take my advice and leave him where he is at present”.

The story concludes with Connolly responding to this question from Ina:

“Well, why leave him in the army if you think it is wrong?”

– by saying:

“But I did not say being in the army was wrong. It was his mother who tried to insinuate that. My remarks were to let him make the best of it and learn all he can and put his training to the best advantage he can when he comes out. A well-trained soldier will always find his allotted place in the community”.

The story may actually be a deliberate set-piece dialogue created by Ina to allow him to summarise his views rather than an accurate retelling of an actual conversation. That last phrase, ‘A well-trained soldier will always find his allotted place in the community’ maybe should be taken as Connolly’s own opinion on his time in the British army for now.

Belfast Fenian leader, William Harbinson

In July 1867 Belfast IRB leader William Harbinson was brought up on charges of treason felony. He died in Belfast prison in September 1867 before he was brought to trial. While his name was given to the original republican plot in Milltown and his funeral was attended by over 40,000 people (in defiance of opposition from the Catholic clergy), I suspect relatively few people have heard of him.

Photograph of William Harbinson from 1867. In an attempt to build intelligence on the IRB, the authorities photographed arrested leaders, which was very innovative for the time. The photograph of William Harbinson was first reproduced by Joe Graham in Rushlight.

The Irish Republican Brotherhood was founded in 1858 to establish Ireland as an independent democratic republic. In the United States, there was a parallel American organisation, known as the Fenian Brotherhood which tended to give its name (Fenians) to the wider movement. The outbreak of the American Civil War stalled the development of the Fenians. The support given by the Anglo-Irish aristocracy, Orange Order and the wealthy to the confederacy and slave owners energised the IRB in Ireland, inspiring the likes of Frank Roney, from Carrickhill, to be sworn into the IRB by 1862. Roney was to be the first Belfast and Ulster Head Centre. Like Robert Johnston, who was to replace Roney on the Supreme Council of the IRB by the start of the 1870s, Roney met and knew some United Irishmen who had been active in 1798 (Johnston was 99 when he died in 1937).

At local level, the IRB was formed into units of ten volunteers, whose leader was called a ‘centre’. At county or district level (referred to as a ‘Circle’), a ‘Head Centre’ was elected by a convention of the centres.  The organisation was governed by an eleven member Supreme Council, seven electoral divisions (four provinces of Ireland, Scotland, North and South England) each returned a member at a convention at which a divisional committee of five was also elected. While the IRB was a clandestine organisation, its Supreme Council met in Dublin and some records of its meetings survive (see here).

Some modern historians dispute the scale and nature of the IRB in Belfast, but contemporaries like Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa and John Devoy were complimentary of the work done in Belfast. The authorities also seemed similarly impressed as, when arrests began, the proportion of suspects detained in Belfast was on a par with other centres of IRB activity like Dublin, Cork and Tipperary.

[You can read more about the IRB in Belfast in an article on Frank Roney published by Kerby Miller and Breandán MacSuibhne in the journal Eire-Ireland last year, or in Catherine Hirsts’ 2002 book ‘Religion, Politics, and Violence in Nineteenth-Century Belfast: The Pound and Sandy Row’.]

In Belfast, the IRB had revealed itself in response to Orange Order violence in August 1864. It recruited many soldiers, including William Harbinson, a staff sergeant in the Antrim Rifles who had access to the arsenal of weapons held in the barracks in Belfast. Soldiers also drilled and trained other IRB volunteers in Belfast. This allowed the IRB to prepare for an insurrection. After the American Civil War ended in 1865, it actively recruited veterans and collected weapons, intending they also be available for any uprising in Ireland.

William Harbinson was born in Ballinderry in 1832 (in 1867 his age is mistakenly given in newspaper accounts as 41 or 44). His father, John Harbinson, may be the same one who is recorded living in Portmore in Griffiths Valuation in the 1850s. He was underage when he joined the 39th Foot Regiment in Liverpool, undoubtedly fleeing the famine, in February 1847. Ballinderry lost a sixth of its population during the famine. The Northern Whig had referred to the famine, in the previous month, as ‘the present favourable crisis … for conveying the light of the Gospels to the darkened minds of the Roman Catholic peasantry’. After a slump in the linen industry, as well as potato blight impacting on Antrim in late 1846, January 1847 had saw overt attempts to Catholics to convert to Protestantism in return for famine relief. The rate of fatalities during the famine rapidly increased in 1847 year. Exposure to the famine may have left its mark on Harbinson, as he was discharged from the army as unfit for service, due to ill health, in May 1852, from when he was pensioned until July 1853.

At the time of his marriage to Catherine McClenaghan in St Patrick’s, Donegall Street, in April 1857, he was working as a labourer and living in Wesley Place, while Catherine was living in Inkerman Terrace, both close to what is now Shaftesbury Square. William and Catherine appear to have had one child, a son, William John, who was born in October 1859 but died young (he was baptised in St Malachys, suggesting they were still living close to the Markets). His brother Philip, who also to be prominent in the IRB, moved to North Queen Street.

William returned to the army serving in a local militia regiment, the Antrim Rifles, where he rose to the rank of colour sergeant. In 1864, the Belfast Morning News reported that he was presented by a valuable gold watch and chain by the non-commissioned officers and privates of K Company of the Antrim Rifles, in John Edgars bar in John Street on Thursday 11th August. Oddly, that episode occurred during the bloody riots that began on the evening of the previous Monday, with the Pound, and John Street, at the epi-centre of the violence. That was the same year Harbinson was recruited into the IRB.

By late 1865, the British government closed down The Irish People, the IRB newspaper founded in Dublin in 1863, and arrested staff including Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa. A few months later, it suspended Habeas Corpus to legalise the arrest and detention without trial of suspected IRB members and sympathisers (a process that would later be more familiar to people as ‘internment’). In early 1866, it began to utilise those powers to stage a number of arrests in Belfast, beginning with Michael McGonigal on the 19th February, the next day Frank Roney (apparently using the surname O’Neill) was arrested at a pub at the junction of Peter’s Hill and the Old Lodge Road owned by Gordon O’Neill. Others arrested that day included John O’Rorke, a pensioner with a wooden leg who had a barbers shop in Millfield, Patrick Hassan (of the 83th New York Irish Volunteers) and Harbinson.

Roney and Harbinson were imprisoned in Crumlin Road and Mountjoy, although both were eventually regain their freedom due to public pressure for the general release of republican prisoners and letters of support from their family and prominent individuals. Harbinson was released in September and Roney in November.

Harbinson appears to have taken over as Head Centre in Belfast. Roney remained on the Supreme Council, travelling to Paris and London on IRB business. Early in 1867, Harbinson also travelled to London. It was later alleged by an informer, John Massey, that Harbinson represented Ulster at a meeting of the Supreme Council in February 1867 (see The Nation, 7th December 1867).

On Thursday 7th March, Harbinson was arrested at his house in Pinkertons Row, just off North Queen Street. The police had been watching the house the previous night and raided the house immediately once Harbinson’s wife, Catherine, had opened the window shutters at 7 am on the Thursday morning. Harbinson was still in bed and another IRB volunteer, John Murray, was found in the kitchen of the house. Harbinson was held by the police while Murray was taken to Banbridge.

It was alleged in the press (from  Monday 11th March – see likes of The Examiner) that Harbinson had taken over as Belfast Head Centre from Roney. The newspapers claimed there were six Centres in Belfast who had all observed the security protocols meaning that it had been difficult to penetrate the IRB with informers. This bit of information was possibly a cover for John Murray, who had been arrested on 14th February, remanded, then released. Murray was to give evidence against Harbinson and others at a remand hearing in court in mid-July.

After his arrest Harbinson was held under the Habeas Corpus Suspension Act in Crumlin Road then sent to Mountjoy. He was returned to Crumlin Road on 24th May, presumably with the intention of bringing charges against him and other IRB leaders that had been arrested in Belfast including the likes of his brother Philip and Francis Rea.

William Harbinson was brought to court for an ‘investigation’ along with Edward Gilmore, Patrick Keith and Richard Lavery on 13th July. By the end of the month, a treason felony charge was brought against Harbinson in front of a Grand Jury which found that he would have to stand trial. The trial was to take place at the Spring Assizes in March 1868. In prison, Harbinson and the other interned IRB suspects were able to have their food brought in to them rather than eat the prison diet. They also were not forced to do prison work and were permitted frequent exercise, association, books and tobacco (this is what would later be classed as political status).

On the night of Monday 9th September, William Harbinson was found dead in his cell in Crumlin Road during the 9 o’clock check by staff. An attempt to hold an inquest the next day was delayed until his brother Philip (who was also imprisoned) and father-in-law, Edward McClenaghan, could attend.

At the inquest, the prison governor’s evidence stated that he always thought Harbinson was of ‘delicate’ appearance, although neither he, Catherine Harbinson nor his lawyer had made any complaint about his health. The inquest heard from prison staff that he had been outside exercising for around four hours that day and returned to his cell at either two o’clock or four o’clock and was last reported at quarter to six as sitting reading on his bed. When found, he was lying undressed on the floor as if he had fallen out of bed, although staff reported that there were no marks on his body. The inquest found he had died of disease of the heart and it was officially recorded as the bursting of aneurism aorta and he had been delicate a considerable time. This may have been the same condition which had led to his discharge from the army in 1852 and may have had its roots in damage done to his health by the famine.

While the Catholic hierarchy had been trying to counteract the rise of the IRB, it found it impossible to limit Harbinson’s funeral. On Sunday 15th September, round 40,000 people are believed to have either watched or taken part in the procession, which began in North Queen Street and carried the remains to Laloo, in Ballinderry. It travelled via Donegall Street, Bridge Street, High Street, Castle Place and the Pound to the Falls Road. The original republican memorial erected in Milltown in 1912 was named the Harbinson Plot in his honour.

Harbinson’s funeral was to be the largest republican event held in Belfast until Bobby Sands funeral in 1981.

You can read more accounts of the funeral and Harbinson on Joe Graham’s Rushlight webpages.

“…launched into eternity”: Belfast Newsletter on execution of Henry Joy McCracken

On Tuesday 17th July, Henry Joy McCracken was tried for treason and rebellion and hung in Belfast. Reporting the execution, the Belfast Newsletter states that:

“…at five o’clock the prisoner was brought from the Artillery Barracks to the place of execution. Having been attended in private by a Clergyman, he was only a few minutes from the time he came out, till he was launched into eternity.”

McCracken was tried at the Assembly Rooms (later remodeled as the Belfast Bank in Waring Street). According to Henry Joy’s final letter he had “… been ignominiously condemned to die at five o’clock this afternoon on the testimony of two witnesses who knew me not and have no knowledge of me in any way.” He finished the letter by saying “…In my fight for reform and redress of evils which constitute a crying shame to any nation and its rulers I have pleaded the cause of the Catholics who are more oppressed than we Dissenters, and I am a true Dissenter and shall die in that simple faith in less than an hour from now. What I have considered as my great mission is drawing to a close, but may the sons of freedom continue the struggle for rights above might.”

He was hung in Cornmarket, Belfast at 5 o’clock on 17th July 1798. An hour later his body was taken down and buried, his remains are believed to lie in Clifton Street Cemetery.

You can read the (brief) report below.

HJMcC