Review of Belfast Battalion in The Irish News

A review of Belfast Battalion by Connla Young was published in today’s Irish News, where it is given Book of the Week. You can read the original at the link above (if you can’t access it, I’ve posted the review below).

 

BOOK OF THE WEEK

Belfast Battalion: A History of the Belfast IRA 1922-1969 by John O’Neill, published by Litter Press, priced £14.99

IN BELFAST Battalion: A History of the Belfast IRA 1922-1969, John O’Neill presents a very readable chronology of the IRA’s activities over almost 50 years. The book provides a unique insight into how the IRA emerged from the post-treaty period to maintain a presence in Ireland’s second city. In every decade since partition militant republicans have made their presence felt and the organisation in Belfast has played a critical role. In 1969 the Provisionals would eventually emerge as the dominant force in a divided IRA as the recent conflict began to take hold. Throughout Belfast Battalion the near constant conflict between the IRA and unionist authorities at Stormont is highlighted; republicans were regularly subject to arrest and detention without trial.

O’Neill identifies several largely forgotten but key episodes including the IRA killing of Belfast man Patrick Woods in November 1925. He was suspected of providing information that led to the discovery of an arms dump the previous year and he also gave evidence in the trial of a man later linked to the weapons. His killing resulted in the arrest of 50 men, with dozens detained without charge. The mass arrests took place just before the final shape of the border was confirmed in December 1925 and the Boundary Commission’s work came to an end. While some of those arrested were released, others were detained for several weeks, ensuring high profile figures were out of circulation during a critical political period.

The author also explores the role of a rouge IRA unit known as ‘The Ginger Group’ in the 1930s. This gang was blamed for blowing up a republican monument at the Harbinson Plot in Milltown Cemetery in 1938. The group emerged as part of a bid by some hardline republicans to precipitate conflict between the IRA and the unionist regime. The unit was also accused of shooting a former prison officer before the leadership of IRA in Belfast stepped in to close it down.

In total the Harbinson monument and replacements were targeted on three other occasions between 1937 and 1939, including once at a west Belfast sculptors’ yard.

Belfast Battalion is an important addition to research into the history of the republican movement.

8/10

Connla Young

If you want to pick up your own copy see litter.press/shop_siopa

Irish News review.png

Remember Us, The People’s War, Newport Area, Mayo 1914- 1924.

Earlier this year, I put up a post about John Collins, who had been born in Jordan Street in Belfast (now gone, but lay off the Oldpark Road between Glenview Street and Hillview Street). Collins was killed in an IRA ambush in Mayo in 1921, shortly after joining and IRA Flying Column. An account of his life is included in a new book just launched by the Tiernaur Oral History Group entitled Remember Us, The People’s War, Newport Area, Mayo 1914-1924.

newport-800x800

The back cover of the book gives a flavour of its contents:

“In the century that has passed since the 1916 Rising, War of Independence and Civil War in Ireland, much has been written about Pearse and his comrades. Somewhat ignored by history are the gallant efforts of ordinary men and women in rural towns and villages who played a crucial part and paid an immeasurable price in their bid to separate Ireland from the oppression of British imperialism and to achieve an Irish republic. Within the pages of this book, you will find first-hand accounts of those times in Newport, County Mayo and the surrounding area, thanks to the collective memory of the local community and the descendants of those involved. You can read descriptions of their incarceration, the torture they suffered and subsequent death of some as a result. This book outlines the local perspective, personal sacrifices and experiences of the time, to honour and recall the bravery of their deeds lest they be forgotten.”

As to John Collins (below), the book reveals that he was orphaned at a young age before spending time in Nazareth Lodge (in Belfast) and then Artane (in Dublin). He had apprenticed to a tailor in Westport a number of years before he joined the IRA there.
Indo 25 May 1921The book is avail here from Mayo Books (priced €25 plus postage) or the link below.

https://www.mayobooks.ie/Remember-Us-Peoples-War-Newport-Tiernaur

The book was part funded by the European Union, Department of Rural and Community Development and Mayo Local Action Group (under the LEADER programme).

Thanks to Sean Cadden for the update.

a myth of perpetual republican violence

Just to make a point that seems lost on some people.

One thing that tends to get overlooked by many people commemorating the declaration of an Irish Republic in 1916 is the extent to which the subsequent violence was a significant departure. Apart from a number of low key incidents in 1848 and 1867 and a couple of sporadic bombing campaigns in the decades after 1867, there hadn’t been a widespread violent insurgency since 1798. Even the violence of 1867 was widely understood as a response to the famine, as seen in the lives of leading Fenians like William Harbinson who had personal experience of the famine.

The violence associated with the subsequent insurgency campaign, partition and civil war ended in 1923 with all most those imprisoned on both sides of the border released under general amnesties by the end of 1924. In the subsequent decades the IRA organisation continued to exist but, violent clashes with the governments in the south and north were extraordinarily rare. When and where sustained violence did occur it tended to be for limited periods such as 1939-44 and 1956-62. In reality, for much of the IRA’s existence post-1924 it more typically pursued (and fragmented) over a series of political projects rather than insurgency campaigns. Even after 1969, the IRA was involved in a series of campaigns bracketed by ceasefires (in 1972, 1974, 1975, 1994 and 1997) and linked to, and reacting against, political initiatives.

The idea that there ongoing violence maintains some sort of legitimacy in perpetuating resistance to British control in Ireland is a myth that isn’t supported by the history of the IRA itself (for anyone that doesn’t believe me – I’ll leave open the long preview of Belfast Battalion, detailing the history of the Belfast IRA from the 1920s to 1960s).

That’s a highly simplified view of a more complex picture but in the aftermath of the death of Lyra McKee it will hopefully cause some people to reflect.

…candidature of most interest to women is that of Mr. James Connolly…

Another piece on James Connolly and woman’s suffrage. In this case, a lead article in The Irish Citizen (11/1/1913) urging people to support Connolly during the 1913 municipal elections in Belfast. The Irish Citizen was the Irish Women’s Franchise League’s own newspaper.

Irish Citizen

Connolly stood for elections as a Councillor to Belfast City Council in the Dock Ward, the heavily congested district encompassing Sailortown, Tigers Bay, North Queen Street and the New Lodge Road. His opponent was the Unionist candidate, David Jones, a butcher from York Street. The highly restricted access to electoral rights meant that the odds were heavily stacked against Connolly. The election, which took place on 15th January, recorded the number of electors in Dock Ward as 3,473 (some of whom had more than one vote). The 1911 census shows that the number of men over the age of 21 in Dock Ward was 5,701, so even with the restricted entitlement to vote, the Dock Ward electorate at most was 60.9% of the adult males (in practice, given plural votes, it was even less). Adding in the number of women excluded from the electorate shows that the 1913 electorate was a mere 29.6% of adults over 21 in the Dock Ward (in modern terms where 18 year olds have the vote, it would be only 26.5%).

Connolly, was nominated as a ‘Labour Nationalist’. He summarised his own political beliefs prior to the election: “As a lifelong advocate of national independence for Ireland, I am in favour of Home Rule, and believe that Ireland should be ruled, governed, and owned by the people of Ireland. I believe that men and women having to face the battle of life together, could face it better were all enjoying the same political rights.

He was nominated by James Turley and Francis MacMahon, both from the New Lodge Road, the more affluent area of the ward (highlighting that, as well as gender, there was a direct link between relative wealth and access to the vote). Turley was the National School teacher at Star of the Sea on Halliday’s Road. Francis MacMahon owned a shop on the New Lodge Road at the corner of Trainfield Street (the family continued to run it into the 1960s). The polling stations for the election were Hillman Street National School (also the count centre), York Street National School and Earl Street National School.

Hillman Street

Hillman Street National School, the main polling station and count centre in 1913.

Initially, an additional candidate had been proposed, Charles McShane – a clerk from Gilford Street who was backed by Bernard Magee (a North Queen Street pawnbroker) and Frank McKernan, a Sailortown publican (suggesting McShane was to be a Nationalist candidate). Once the list of proposed candidates was published, there was a limited time for candidates to withdraw before the list was finalised. The day after they were announced, the Belfast Newsletter (7/1/1913) reported that the Belfast High Sherriff and others tried to persuade candidates to stand aside or to they would have their nominations declared void so Corporation both didn’t incur the expense of an election and unionists didn’t risk splitting the vote in some areas. McShane withdrew from the election, likely to give Connolly a free run. This may also have been the purpose of Connolly being designated as the ‘Labour Nationalist’ candidate.

When the election count took placein Hillman Street National School a crowd had gathered outside, carrying torches and headed by a band and Union Jack (Hillman Street was heavily unionist at the time) to await the declaration of the result by the deputy returning officer, Mr John Hanna. The result was that Connolly had received 905 votes to Jones 1,523 on a turnout of 69.9%.

Prior to the election, The Irish Citizen, had been critical of the Socialists in Dublin (in the same issue as above), reporting that “…a Socialist speaker denounced the women’s movement as side-tracking the workers, an issue which should be avoided.” However, the Irish Citizen isolated Connolly from that criticism and fully endorsed his candidacy:

In Belfast, the candidature of most interest to women is that of Mr. James Connolly for Dock Ward. Mr. Connolly is undoubtedly the ablest Labour Leader in Ireland; he is also the strongest supporter of woman suffrage to be found in the ranks of Irish Labour. Both in Dublin and Belfast he has done much to educate his party on the vital importance of the women’s fight for freedom. Last summer, while the organised opposition to suffragist meetings was at its height in Dublin, Mr. Connolly travelled specially to Dublin to speak at one of the Phoenix Park meetings of I.W.F.L. at considerable risk and inconvenience, to testify to his support of the fight for free speech and political emancipation. While, for reasons set out in our leading article, we do not recommend to women suffragists any general support of Labour candidates as such, we strongly hold that in the case of a man like Mr. Connolly, of whose genuine attachment to the women’s cause there can be no doubt, the fullest possible support should be given him by organised bodies of women. We hope Belfast suffragists will do all they can to secure Mr. Connolly’s return. The Belfast City Council, whose Lord Mayor, a bitterly anti-suffragist MP refused even to receive a resolution in favour of the Conciliation Bill, badly needs men like Mr. Connolly to bring into it a breath of freedom. Others all withdrew the next day (Belfast Newsletter reported that the Belfast High Sherriff and others tried to persuade candidates to stand aside or to have their nominations declared void so Corporation didn’t incur the expense of an election).

A previous post on Connolly’s adoption of the hunger strike tactic from the suffragettes later in 1913 can be read here (with links to previous posts on Connolly).

Suffragettes, James Connolly and hunger-striking

The modern tactic of hunger-striking was largely devised by the suffragette movement in 1909. As a tactic it attempted to capture people’s imagination and, it was hoped, awaken an interest in the political issues at hand. By doing so it attempted to mobilise public opinion against the authorities. The suffragettes used hunger strikers in prisons in Britain and Ireland to take contemporary patriarchal chauvinist opinions on the ‘delicacy of women’s health’ and turn them to their advantage (albeit at a significant cost to the health of many of those who took part). In Ireland, the modern use of hunger-striking outside of the women’s suffrage campaign appears to be James Connolly’s hunger strike following his arrest during the tram strike in the summer of 1913.

Connolly had been arrested along with a number of others in Dublin on 30th August 1913, during the tram strike (Jim Larkin had managed to evade capture). Connolly was charged with inciting people to cause a breach of the peace in a speech he had recently delivered. While Connolly’s co-accused agreed bail and surety terms, he refused to either find bail or sureties and so was committed to Mountjoy Jail for three months. The following Saturday, 6th September, Connolly went on hunger strike in protest at his imprisonment.

Hunger striking had been a tactic employed by the suffragettes since 1909. Typically the authorities responded in one of two ways, either releasing the hunger strikers after a number of days fearful of public opinion or, from September 1909, by force-feeding the hunger strikers. At least one man, Alan Ross MacDougall, who was imprisoned for two months for assaulting Lloyd George (in support of the suffragettes) also went on hunger strike (in 1912). From 1911, Women’s Social and Political Union activists went on hunger strike on numerous occasions. Claims at the success varied wildly, the Home Office stated that in 1913 only 8 out of 66 suffragist prisoners had been released following hunger strikes (eg Irish Examiner, 19/3/1913). Dr. George Robertson, who had performed at least 2,000 force-feedings of hunger striking suffragettes, put the figure for early releases in 1912 as 66 out of 240 prisoners (see Examiner, 25/2/1913). As a proponent of force-feeding, he also noted that the main threat to life was prisoners struggling during force-feeding – which was later to be repeatedly demonstrated with Irish republican prisoners.

The hunger striking suffragettes did not just demand release, in some cases the demanded was for the political status of suffragette prisoners to be recognised. In Mountjoy Jail, a hunger strike demanding political treatment by three English suffragettes in mid-August 1912 – Gladys Evans, Mary Leigh and Lizzie Baker – saw them being force-fed within hours. They were joined on hunger strike by Irish suffragettes Hannah Sheehy-Skeffington, Jane Murphy, Margaret Murphy and Margaret Palmer by 15th August. But by the 19th August the Irish suffragettes had all been released and Lizzie Baker was also released relatively quickly. The force-feeding of Gladys Evans and Mary Leigh then continued into September (both had been sentenced to five years penal servitude). Mary Leigh’s deteriorating health saw her released on 20th September.

During the hunger strike, the following letter appeared in the Irish Independent (30/9/1912):

Sir—In a letter to the ‘Irish Independent’ of Thursday last, Caroline Smithwick says that the object of Mrs. Leigh in refusing her food, whilst in Mountjoy Prison was “…to, obtain political treatment the same as that given to men here and in other civilised countries for crimes that are political.” By all means, give political treatment for political crimes, but is an attempt to burn a public building a political crime? It may have a political motive, but that does not affect the crime in any way.

If an ordinary man attempted such a deed as the burning of a public building, you, may be sure he would get more than five years penal servitude; and what is more, he would have to bear it, too. If a prisoner is released from prison because she refuses to eat, all the criminals in Ireland should immediately start a hunger strike, so; if Mrs. Leigh died from the effect of her self-imposed starvation, would she not be guilty of suicide? And at present is she not guilty of attempted suicide and liable to arrest for it? People are inclined to make a heroine of Mrs. Leigh, but if she is as brave as they say she is, why didn’t she lie on the bed she made?

Charles J. Lanktree, Beechmount, Glanmire, Co. Cork.

Gladys Evans continued to be force-fed and began to physically resist the force-feeding on 30th September. The authorities then released her under license on 3rd October after fifty days on hunger strike. Afterwards the British government began to move towards formally adopting different tactics, releasing hunger strikers when their health deteriorated but reserving the right to return them to prison to complete their sentences once they had recovered. Gladys Evans herself was re-arrested within weeks (she went back on hunger strike).

Irish suffragists also staged a hunger strike in Tullamore Jail in February 1913. The same month, in London, men confined to Lambeth Workhouse went on hunger strike in protest at conditions. Hunger strikes, and the threat of hunger strikes, by women involved in the suffrage campaign continued during 1913 while the authorities devised legislation to allow hunger strikers to be formally released on license due to ill health then re-arrested. This was to be called the cat-and-mouse act.

Not everyone was sympathetic to the suffragettes. A Belfast Newsletter editorial on 22nd February 1913 opined that “The Suffragists have forced the overwhelming majority of the community to the conclusion that effective measures must be taken to put an end to their exploits. If some of the hunger-strikers were now allowed to starve, there would be a general feeling that they had brought their fate on themselves. But since it is undesirable that any real martyrs should be manufactured, it would be well to devise other methods for dealing with these misguided women.

James Connolly’s hunger strike in 1913 was supported by the suffragettes in Ireland. Connolly had publicly supported the suffragettes and contributed to the Irish debates on the likes of ensuring the Home Rule Bill include a provision for women to have the vote. The Irish Women’s Franchise League issued a statement to say that “…we protest against the treatment meted out by the Irish Executive [i.e. Dublin Castle] to Mr James Connolly is on hunger strike since the 6th for political motives and that we demand in the interests of justice and humanity his instant and unconditional release.” (Evening Herald, 13/9/1913). While the practice of fasting in protest at an injustice is reported in various Irish medieval texts, the modern use is clearly rooted in the adoption of hunger striking by the suffragettes in Ireland. Connolly then appears to be the first to use the hunger strike tactic in prison over a non-suffrage political issue in Ireland. A number of others involved in the strikes went on hunger strike in prison that year, some of whom were force-fed. The tactic continued to be used by the suffragettes up to August 1914.

Connolly himself was released on Saturday 13th September, reportedly in a weak condition after a week on hunger strike. None of the contemporary newspaper reports suggest that he was force-fed. On the following Wednesday he returned to Belfast. The Evening Herald carried the following report of his arrival in the city (18/9/1913):

TURBULENCE IN BELFAST Mr. James Connolly’s Arrival

The arrival of James Connolly, the strike leader, in Belfast, last, night, was marked by tumultuous scenes, and a serious riot was narrowly averted. A procession, organised by the Belfast branch of the Transport Workers’ Union and the Textile Workers’ Union marched through the city to the Great Northern railway station, where Connolly was due to arrive on the 9 o’clock train. The vanguard of the procession consisted of a body of textile operatives, all young girls, who were cheering and singing, while accompanying the transport workers were two bands.

The parade through Royal Avenue and Donegall Place attracted large crowds.

Outside the station, Great Victoria street was congested, and the presence of a hostile element was indicated by the singing of “Dolly’s Brae” and “Derry Walls.” It was evident that a political aspect was being imparted to the demonstration, and matters looked serious when a pretty large opposition crowd drew together opposite the main entrance to the station. Just as the procession came along, the largo sliding doors, with glass panes, at the station entrance were closed, and a party of police moved in between the processionists and the crowd. When the train arrived the passengers were allowed out singly, but a rush was made by the crowd, and a volley of stones hurled over the heads of the police, one missile smashing the glass in the station door, and two men in the vicinity were struck and received scalp wounds.

A great cheer and the beating of drums greeted Mr. Connolly’s appearance, and this was answered by revolver shots and cries of execration from the crowd, who were driven further back by the police, but Without the use of batons. Mr. Connolly, looking pale and worn, mounted an outside car with some friends, and the procession then returned through the central streets. At Donegall Square corner stones were thrown at the car, and a small party of police turned from the rear of the procession and scattered a crowd, which was following up.

The procession made its way to the Custom House steps, where a mooting was addressed by Mr. John Flanagan, organiser of the transport workers, and Mrs. Gordon, of the textile workers. Matters were looking very ugly at Castle Junction as the procession moved past, and there were cries of “No Home Rule” and “No Pope,” while from a number of side streets missiles were thrown, but the police prevented the opposition from mustering in any force, and the meeting passed off quietly. Mr. Connolly did not speak, and afterwards drove away to the Union.

Some further posts:

On James Connolly:

https://treasonfelony.wordpress.com/2018/06/05/where-oh-where-is-our-james-connolly-connolly150/

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

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

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

On hunger striking/force feeding:

https://treasonfelony.wordpress.com/2016/01/19/the-womens-hunger-strike-armagh-1943/

https://treasonfelony.wordpress.com/2017/02/21/the-1972-hunger-strike/

https://treasonfelony.wordpress.com/2018/09/26/force-feeding-hunger-strikers-frank-stagg-documentary-on-tg4/

https://treasonfelony.wordpress.com/2019/04/03/the-1944-ira-hunger-strike/

 

 

 

The 1944 IRA hunger strike

Seventy-five years ago this week, IRA sentenced prisoners in Crumlin Road ended a hunger-strike that had begun just over forty days earlier, on the 22nd February 1944. The hunger strike was the latest in a sequence of prison protests that had included a strip strike in mid-1943 and an earlier hunger strike by the female prisoners in Armagh Gaol in the winter of 1943. After the IRA finally began its long delayed campaign in England in January 1939, it had failed to reinvigorate the campaign by transferring its focus to the north. By the middle of 1943, in the face of the loss of key personnel and lack of resources and with no imminent prospect of a Versailles style post-war conference, the emphasis shifted to the prisons and publicity coups in what IRA Chief of Staff Hugh McAteer later described as an attempt to ‘preserve the spirit’ of the movement.

The circumstances of the IRA in the north, at this point, were now considerably removed from that of the generation who were active from 1916 to 1922. From the Easter Rising onwards, conflict with the British authorities and then Free State and Northern Ireland authorities had indeed seen many republicans interned or sentenced to terms in prison. Despite the widespread republican experience of internment and imprisonment between 1916 to 1924, the typical period of incarceration was more often measured in months than years and few faced extended periods in prison. Only a handful of republicans were imprisoned for longer periods, some serving terms in prisons in Britain for a number of years after the general amnesties that followed the signing of the treaty in 1921.

The existing sentencing policy applied in the north from the mid-1930s onwards saw republicans given prison terms for offences that only warranted a fine for others. This discrepancy increased wildly after 1936, first when Eddie McCartney was given a ten year sentence and then when the Treason Felony Act was invoked to hand lengthy prison sentences to the northern IRA leadership. That Act hadn’t been used since the 1880s, which was the previous period in which republicans experienced similarly long terms of imprisonment with the likes of Tom Clarke serving fifteen years in jail.

Long term prisoners create a particular set of circumstances. Using ‘criminalisation’ as a tactical response to present insurgency as illegitimate isn’t exactly new but it does bring its own complications. It may not be explicit state policy but long term insurgent prisoners are designed to be hostages with the prospect of early release held out as an incentive to ending an active insurgency campaign. While the immediate benefit to the state is removing key insurgents from active involvement for extended periods of time that has to be balanced against other factors. Once imprisoned they are able to take part in in-depth internal debates on strategy and tactics with other imprisoned leaders, are able to engage with an audience outside the prisons and often attract support as a prisoner from individuals and organisations who wouldn’t otherwise openly support the insurgency itself. As had happened in the 1890s, the publicity attracted by long term prisoners began to far outweigh any tactical purpose in holding them in jail.

By early 1944, the republican prisoners in A wing in Crumlin Road included the likes of Jimmy Steele and Hugh McAteer who had been imprisoned on multiple occasions and already spent six or seven years each in jail (Steele had first been in prison in 1923). Many others had served various short terms prior to receive lengthy sentences since 1940. Internees, housed in D wing in Crumlin Road, Derry Gaol, Armagh Gaol and (in 1940-41) on the Al Rawdah, had to contend with the uncertainty of internment – no trial or charges also meant no defined period of imprisonment. The internees’ only (vague) salvation was that political pressure or events would eventually bring their release. The fear for sentenced prisoners was that they would not get released in the same way. The creation of two separate prisoner communities (interned and sentenced) created the potential for internal dissent and conflict over strategy and tactics inside and outside the prisons that might bring their release.

In March 1943, the IRA’s Adjutant-General Liam Burke issued an edition of An t-Óglach for the first time in many years (it’s circulation was confined to IRA members). This included an article on ‘Unity’ with the prisons specifically mentioned: “Too often in the past we have allowed ourselves to be divided by some petty grievance or worse still by some false rumour manufactured by enemy agents. In order to satisfy personal spites or ambitions we have allowed that element of disunity to creep in among us. This is very often obvious in the Prisons where Volunteers, living together in confinement for long periods, find too much time to brood on every petty grievance that arises.” There is also an article on Guerilla Warfare that pointed out the legitimate status accorded to ‘Guerillas’ since the 1899 Hague Conference.

AntOglachMarch1943

Burke (who had escaped from Crumlin Road in 1941) was re-arrested and returned to Crumlin Road in April 1943. There were of course IRA prisoners and internees held at various locations on either side of the border and a number of long-term sentenced prisoners from the sabotage campaign in British prisons. By 1943, the IRA’s leadership had mostly relocated to the north and, from early summer, became increasingly focused on the prisons.

Both the 1943 strip strike and Armagh Gaol hunger strike had delivered sharp lessons in terms of mobilising political support outside the prisons. The key focus on the prison campaigns was to obtain political status (eg see Republican News, July 1943 below). So in February 1944 a hunger strike began, with teams of three joining in stages, first beginning with McAteer, Liam Burke (by now O/C of the republican prisoners) and Pat McCotter. The prison authorities delivered food and milk to their cells every day, hoping to tempt the prisoners to come off the strike by leaving the food there in front of them. The will power required to continue the strike, in the cold cells of Crumlin Road, with food in easy reach, must have been formidable.

RepNewsJuly1943

The prison staff also continued to subject the strikers to two to three searches a week, including strip searches, despite the fact they were no longer allowed out of their cells. On day four of the strike (26th February), David Fleming and Jimmy Steele joined the hunger strike with the second team, Steele had participated in previous hunger strikes including in 1936, Fleming was to participate in later hunger strikes. The first of the hunger strikers had already been moved to the prison hospital by the 16th March, by which time eighteen men had joined the strike, including Joe Cahill on the 9th March. On the 16th March, William Lowry, the Home Affairs Minister in Stormont, reported to Stormont that the “…condition of these men is only what could be expected after such a prolonged period without food. The Government cannot accept any responsibility for the actions of these men whose present condition is solely due to their own voluntary abstention from food“. He described hunger striking as a malignant and criminal practice and insisted that the medical treatment the prisoners were receiving was entirely satisfactory. Lowry went on to say, “…Their own relatives at an appropriate time, for example when death is imminent, will be duly notified.

The hunger strikers were joined for a week by 100 internees in Derry prison in mid-March. By the 22nd March, the Irish Times was reporting that Liam Burke, Pat McCotter, Hugh McAteer and Jimmy Steele were all weak after 30 days on hunger strike and had abandoned the strike. That story was not true but, as it was the latest in a series of inaccurate reports on the strike, it was becoming painfully obvious to the IRA prisoners that the censorship was preventing the strike having any impact on public opinion. When the forty day mark was passed, the IRA staff debated the futility of continuing when the chance of fatalities was now growing ever higher. On the forty-fourth day (6th April), the strike was called off. It seems, from Joe Cahill’s account in his biography A Life in the IRA, that the decision was not made by the hunger strikers themselves, as he puts it that a decision was “…taken to bring them off.” One key failure of the hunger strike was to secure parallel political status for internees and sentenced prisoners as there was no concurrent release of internees and sentenced prisoners in 1945. It wasn’t until 1950 that the last three sentenced prisoners, McAteer, Burke and Steele, were released.

The 1944 hunger strike may well never be commemorated or receive any significant attention yet it marks a significant stage in the development of republican tactics. A number of those involved in hunger strikes and prison protests of the early 1970s, such as Billy McKee and Prionsias MacAirt, had been in Crumlin Road at the time of the 1944 hunger strike. Others prominent activists in the early 1970s were also veterans of the 1940s, like Jimmy Drumm, Joe Cahill, Albert Price, Charlie McGlade and Harry White. The 1943/44 protests were Irish republicans first real experience of long term imprisonment in the twentieth century. They contain the roots of later republican thinking and experience that provides a context for prison protests, including the structure of hunger strikes and the role of publicity that became central to events in the 1970s and 1980s.

Thanks to Dr Breandán Mac Suibhne for the discovery of the March 1943 edition of An t-Óglach.

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.