…for fear of alienating the Unionist vote… #Brexit

A pivotal moment in the relationship of London and the European community, Unionist votes holding a precarious balance of power, Conservative government policy (including security policy in the north) subject to the need to keep the Unionist votes on side. While no-one seems to have drawn the parallel, we have been here before and the outcome is perhaps worth noting.

Over the course of 1971 and 1972 Edward Heath was trying to push his European Communities Bill through a reluctant House of Commons. The Bill was instrumental in the UK joining the European Economic Community (as the EU was then known). Following the 1970 General Election, Heath had come to power intent on legislating for UK membership of the EEC. With 330 MPs he had a slim majority of 14 and that included the 8 Unionist Party members returned in the north (along with Ian Paisley, Gerry Fitt, Bernadette Devlin and Frank McManus).

Over the summer of 1971, in the lead up to the early stages of the Bill, the press speculated on the extent to which Heath’s reliance on the Unionist votes was a factor in deciding security policy, including in the lead up to the widespread arrest and internment of Catholics in August 1971. At an early stage, in October 1971, most of the Unionist MPs (who were joined in a formal parliamentary grouping with Heath’s Conservatives) voted against the Bill. All of this provides a notable backdrop to the Heath’s perceived need to win Unionists support for his European project for the crucial votes that would happen later in 1971 and early in 1972. Notably, over this period, security policy continued to fall in line with Unionist demands. Political reform was largely ignored (you can see the types of proposals under consideration at the time). And formal scrutiny of recent events was heavily sanitised, such as the Compton report issued in November 1971. During critical events such as the McGurks Bar bombing in December 1971 and Bloody Sunday in January 1972, UK government policy remained favourably aligned on Unionist needs and wants despite significant international opprobrium.

On 17th February 1972, Heath finally got his European vote over the line with a bare majority of eight (the sum total of the Unionist MPs). His biographer, John Campbell, called it ‘Heath’s finest hour’. Within weeks, there was a shift in security policy as first Stormont was prorogued and then the British government began talks with the IRA that appeared to open up all sorts of political possibilities of British withdrawal to the IRA.

This isn’t to suggest that the guiding factor in Heath’s security policy in the north in 1971 and 1972 was predicated upon needing Unionist support to pass the European Communities Bill. But, whatever it’s significance, it was a factor. And once the need for those Unionist votes was passed, the shift in emphasis in political policy against the Unionists was relatively swift.

The following editorial captures all this under the headline “Heath’s Close Call”, it appeared in the Irish Independent on 18th February 1972.

To Irish people who are used to Dáil cliff hangers coming out in a majority of two or three for the Government, Mr. Heath’s majority of eight in Westminster last night on the crucial E.E.C. Bill will seem small beer. But in a Parliament with over 600 members this vote was proportionately as close as any we have seen in Leinster House in recent times.
Now that Mr. Heath has won his vote, however, it is fair to say that the crisis is over for him on this issue. He can expect a gradual improvement from last night’s lowest ebb. With luck the coal and power crises will be things of the past in a few months’ time; a “handout” budget can be expected in an effort to stimulate the economy and fight unemployment; and Rhodesia has already caused the Westminster Government its fill of embarrassment.
There remains Northern Ireland. Certainly Mr. Heath has personally taken political punishment as a result of his handling of the North. However, last night’s critical vote may now free his hand a bit to make some concessions to the minority viewpoint. Up to this, with this crucial vote pending, Mr. Heath has had to be careful what political initiatives he even hinted at for fear of alienating the Unionist vote for last night’s test. Six of the eight Unionist M.P.s had voted against the principle of the Common Market on October 28th; but last night’s vote had turned into a straight political fight, an issue larger that the E.E.C. question. Three of the six anti-Market Northern Unionists were thus free to support the Government on the basis, presumably, that the E.E.C. with Heath was preferable to Wilson with no E.E.C.
His failure to secure a bloc Unionist vote, however, on an issue which had turned into a vote of confidence in the Government means that Unionist opinion is not solidly behind him. One reason for this could be that some Northern Unionists feel that he is about to “do a deal” with the Northern minority. His hands certainly seem less tied after this vote than before it.

European Union flag

Was a Belfast IRA commander expelled over a pension application?

Was a Belfast IRA commander expelled from the IRA for making a pension application? One of the files included in the latest release of files from the Military Archives is a pension applications made by Davy Mathews starting in 1933 when he was O/C of the Belfast IRA. In January 1934 he was expelled from the IRA. Nominally the reason for his expulsion was that he had allowed prisoners to sign out of Crumlin Road jail for Christmas in 1933 (against IRA standing orders). But now Mathews pension application documents have been published, it looks like the IRA may have had other reasons to expel him too.

Mathews

Davy Mathews (from Jim McDermot’s ‘Northern Divisions’ book)

Mathews formally made his application for a pension on 1st January 1933. In his application letter he recorded that he had joined the Willie Nelson Sluagh of Fianna Éireann in 1914, progressing to join the Irish Volunteers after 1916. He was then a member of the James Connolly Sluagh whose O/C was Joe McKelvey while Mathews himself was First Lieutenant (Fianna officers held dual membership of Fianna Éireann and the IRA). He was arrested and questioned for a day in 1917 after being observed taking charge of Fianna party drilling in the open. Matthews continued active in IRA throughout the War of Independence and was eventually arrested in September 1922 with Belfast Brigade commander, Paddy Nash, and was imprisoned for possession of a revolver. After his release he was pressed to accept a commission in the newly formed (pro-treaty) National Army but instead he agreed to take charge of an (anti-treaty) IRA flying column in Longford. Before he got there, he was arrested at Easter 1923 and spent time on the Argenta prison ship and Larne Camp from where he was sent to Derry Gaol to spend six weeks in isolation before embarking on a hunger strike. A son born while he was imprisoned was a year old before Mathews saw him when he was released in August 1924.

Interned again in 1925 during the collapse of the Boundary Commission, his mother died on Christmas Day but he was refused leave to attend the funeral. The 1925 internees were only released when the Labour government in London put pressure on the Unionists at the end of January 1926.

Mathews remained active in the IRA as well as a prominent member of the Joe McKelvey GAA club. He recorded in 1933 that he had been O/C of an IRA Battalion three times and arrested each time. In September 1933 he submitted a pension application, giving his own rank as O/C Belfast Battalion since 1928 and recording that he had been made O/C Ulster in 1931 on the IRA’s Army Executive. He named some of those who could vouch for his service in his 1933 application including Maurice Twomey (as IRA Chief of Staff) and Joe McGurk, George Nash and Jimmy Steele (as members of the Belfast Battalion staff). Imprisoned in November 1933, he was then dismissed from the IRA in January 1934 for encouraging prisoners to sign guarantees to get early release for Christmas.

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Page from Davy Mathews pension application on 4/9/1933 naming Moss Twomey as IRA Chief of Staff and Joe McGurk, George Nash and Jimmy Steele as members of Belfast Battalion staff (for original see militaryarchives.ie file 1RB1254 David Mathews)

Since the IRA refused to recognise the authority of either administration in Belfast or Dublin in the 1930s, Mathews application for a pension would have been in violation of IRA standing orders at the time. While this may seem a little odd now, even in later decades the IRA, and Cumann na mBan, refused to let member hold service posts in the north (as they had to take an oath of allegiance to the crown) just as members did not recognise the courts, legal systems or electoral assemblies. Not only that, but Mathews names members of his Belfast Battalion staff and the Chief of Staff (Moss Twomey) on his application. While the IRA enjoyed a quasi-legal status in the south at the time, it seems unlikely that either Twomey or others in IRA GHQ would have been happy with Mathews. Mathews was on the IRA’s Army Executive as O/C Ulster from 1931 and so held a very senior post within the organisation. While the pretext given for his expulsion in January 1934 did not mention the pension application it seems unlikely that it would have been approved or gone unnoticed as part of the process was writing out to those named by applicants to get statement corroborating information on the application.

There is much more on Mathews time as Belfast O/C in the Belfast Battalion bookBelfast Battalion book.

The time line of Belfast IRA commanders has also been updated to reflect the dates given by Mathews (I’ll post more on this another day).

New IRA pension files released today

The Military Archives have released their most recent set of pension files today including documents shedding light on the activities of the IRA, Cumann na mBan and Fianna Éireann. While they primarily relate to the years 1916 to 1923, there is a wealth of information buried within them relating to later periods of equally significant historical value. Here is one example to get started with.

One infamous episode in the history of the IRA was the takeover of IRA GHQ by the Belfast Battalion and court-martial of Acting IRA Chief of Staff, Stephen Hayes, in 1941. Hayes wrote a ‘confession’ (under duress) that was transcribed by Pearse Kelly (a future IRA Chief of Staff and later of RTÉ). This was annotated and used in further interrogation of Hayes (before he escaped by jumping out a window). The Kelly transcription survives in the National Library (you can read more about it here). The main accusation made against Hayes was that he was acting in concert with the Fianna Fáil government rather than in line with IRA strategy (there is more detail on this at the link above). I suspect that, if you follow the rationale seemingly applied in Hayes interrogation that the same accusation would likely have been levelled at Sean Russell if he had lived).

The main argument offered in Hayes defence (including by Hayes himself) was that he was subsequently sentenced by the Military Court to a number of years imprisonment. Other republicans, though, have dismissed the import of that insisting that Hayes was effectively kept in prison for his own safety and was comfortably looked after while there.

After his release Hayes made an application for a pension for his prior military service. Buried within his pension file is a seemingly innocuous memo. Under the terms of the various pension acts, those who had remained active in the IRA were forfeit of a certificate of service and pension entitlements. To facilitate an application for Hayes it was proposed to amend the legislation so that Hayes could receive a pension but, rather than make it specific to Hayes, to make it a more general amendment. It is notable, within the other releases (particularly of Belfast republicans), how many of those who had opposed the treaty and remained active in the IRA subsequently struggled to have their pension entitlements granted (in some cases, due to apparent obstruction by former comrades who had supported the treaty). Largely that appeared to be consistent with a policy of not granting pension entitlements to those who continued to dispute the authority or legitimacy of the southern state. That latter point might seem antiquated, yet given contemporary republican attitudes towards engaging with the authorities on either side of the border, it is significant to see the likes of Belfast IRA staff officers signing and submitting statements to support pension applicants in the 1930s.

Hayes legislation

Memo in Stephen Hayes pension file (MSPC, see link below).

Unlike when Hayes’ case arose, there had been no previous attempt to formally restore pension entitlements. So this may add further weight to the claims that Hayes’ real loyalties had lain with the Fianna Fáil government and as such he then received sympathetic treatment by the authorities as a reward.

I’ll post more on some of the new releases in the near future.

You can read more about the Hayes affair in the Belfast Battalion book.

You can search the Military Service Pensions Collection here.

You can see some of the Stephen Hayes files here.

Belfast Brigade IRA files, new release by MSPC

Next month will see a further release of pension files from Military Archives in Dublin. The files are scanned copies of the applications made for a pension by individuals who were active in IRA, Cumann na mBan or Fianna Éireann over the period from 1913 to 1923, or the families. While the files contain information about the applicant they often include accounts of their activities, names of commanding officers and other bits of data that help put together a bigger picture of what was happening. I’ve mapped the 1540 files in the new release (see bottom of this post) to make them searchable by area and name (just click on the map to get a search window). The locations are approximate and you can find more on the address listed in the release from MSPC listing the files (you can view that here).

The files related to the Belfast Brigade due to be released in October 2019 are listed below and include some prominent names such as Dan Branniff, Mick Carolan, Rory Haskins, David McGuinness and Davy Matthews and span the period from before 1916 to the 1930s (when Matthews was O/C of the Belfast Battalion). They includes files on the IRA, Cumann na mBan and Fianna Éireann in Belfast and cover districts like Ardoyne, the Bone, the Falls, Hannahstown, Carrickhill, Smithfield and Sailortown. It is possible that other files with addresses outside Belfast will also contain information on Belfast Brigade activities.

The files released with Belfast addresses are listed below the map at the end of this post.

To search files that are currently available go to the Military Archives website (see here) and then use the search fields. Files can be quite large but include applications, transcripts of interviews about military service, administrative information, supporting letters and other information.

I’ll put together some updates based on the information in the files when they are released.

The map on the October 2019 release is below. You can see more maps on the Belfast IRA here (including maps of the Irish Volunteers in Belfast in 1916, Belfast Brigade of the 3rd Northern Division, Argenta internees etc and much more). And you can read some more about a book on the period (Facts and Figures of the Belfast Pogrom 1920-1922) in Belfast written by Fr John Hassan and suppressed in 1922 here.

Belfast files in the upcoming October 2019 release:

Boomer, Robert John 23 Clondara Street, Belfast

Branniff, Daniel 16 New Dock Street, Belfast

Carolan, Alphonsus 4 Chief Street, Crumlin Road, Ardoyne, Belfast

Carolan, Andrew 80 Chief Street, Belfast (Address in 1921)

Carolan, Michael 80 Chief Street, Belfast (Address in 1916 and 1920)

Cunningham, Edward 15 Wine Tavern Street, Belfast

Donegan, Benedict 12 Ardmoulin Street, Belfast

Elliott, George 8 Slate Street, Belfast (address in 1923)

Flynn, Thomas 3 Raglan Street, Belfast

Graham, Robert 73 Belmont Church Road, Belfast

Gray, Thomas 21 Earl Street, Belfast

Haskin, Robert Columcille 12 Glen Crescent, Falls Road, Anderstown, Belfast

Heathwood, Thomas 31 Upton Street, Belfast

Hegarty, William 449 Crumlin Road, Belfast

Keenan, John 28 California Street, Belfast

Matthews, David 70 Bombay Street, Belfast

McAlea, Joseph 42 Falls Road, Belfast

McCorry, William Braefoot, Hannastown/Hannahstown, Belfast

McGeown, Brigid 58 Earlscourt Street, Belfast

McGrattan, Peter 51 Walton Street, Crumlin Road, Belfast

McGuinness, David 42 Leoville Street, Belfast

McWhinney, Charles 61 Mill Street, Belfast (address in 1915)

McWhinney, James 118 Upper Library Street, Belfast

McWilliams, Patrick 121 Falls Road, Belfast

Moan, Owen 36 Glenview Street, Belfast

Moore, James Ardoyne, Belfast

Stewart, Charles McCaull 18 Parkview Street, Oldpark Road, Belfast

The path to the IRA Split: September 1969

September 1969 witnessed more milestones in the journey towards the split in the IRA. From a Belfast perspective, key events happened over the course of 22-24 September when the Battalion informed Cathal Goulding’s Dublin-based IRA leadership that it no longer recognised it’s authority. This had its roots in multiple different historical issues. The most immediate was the failure of the Dublin leadership to prepare for the violent attacks in the north that summer. But other factors were at play too, such as long term tensions between Belfast and Dublin over IRA strategy. The split (and moves to not prevent it happening) can also be seen in the context of contemporary guerrilla theory. You can read more background to the IRA split here, here and here.
The release of the Belfast IRA O/C, Billy McMillen, from internment in mid-September required a meeting of the Belfast Battalion Council to formalise his reinstatement as OC, since, under the IRA’s own rules, individuals had to relinquish their commands on imprisonment. While O/C’s were often nominated by the IRA’s leadership, they still had to be formally approved by a vote of confidence from the local staff. But the Belfast IRA had changed significantly since McMillen’s arrest on 15 August. Large numbers of IRA veterans had returned to active duty with the organisation and there had been an influx of new recruits. As an organisation, the IRA operated to a constitution and standing orders at least nominally, if not always in practice. As such, leaders were elected at conventions organised for that purpose. The Belfast IRA of 22 September 1969 was much larger than that of 15 August 1969 both in terms of membership and in the strength and distribution of its units. According to Joe Cahill, “Immediately after events of 15 August, everybody who had been in the IRA and had been dismissed or resigned or whatever, reported back to the Belfast staff.” (Anderson, Joe Cahill; A Life in the IRA, p176). Given that the Belfast Battalion of the IRA and other republican organisations such as Cumann na mBan had a strength of around 1,000 in the early 1940s, and 200-300 even in the 1950s, there was a sizeable pool of former members of the IRA and Cumann na mBan and their families from which to increase its size.
There is a dramatic contrast in the condition of the Belfast IRA on 14-15 August and mid-September 1969. In August it was effectively unarmed, much of its leadership arrested and unable to really influence events when violence erupted. By mid-September, Jim Sullivan, chair of the Central Citizen’s Defence Committee (and acting as Belfast O/C in McMillen’s absence) was meeting Major General Tony Dyball, the British Army’s deputy director of operations in the north. Not only were the British Army and Belfast IRA talking directly about how to guard barricades and manage security, they were apparently doing so over the heads of the Unionist government. This, however, flew in the face of the commentary coming from the IRA leadership in Dublin, via the likes of the United Irishman newspaper in September and October. The British army was presented as being there to maintain sectarian divisions and foment a civil war (so it could intervene and present itself as a saviour). This was claimed to be part of a wider British strategy to regain control of all of Ireland in a London-led federation, hidden within the moves by London and Dublin to join the European Economic Community (eg see United Irishman, October 1969). Goulding’s analysis – which, in a mirror image of the inaction of Lynch’s government, had been exposed as so flawed in mid-August – seemed to be oblivious to any role or agency unionists might have in actively fomenting violence.
The IRA leadership’s response in the aftermath of August 1969 was minimal. A meeting in Leitrim on 17 August had failed to persuade IRA O/Cs that the leadership was capable of responding to any new outbreak of violence. In September a further meeting in Lurgan saw Daithi O Conaill appointed as a military advisor to the northern defence committees. In reality, IRA GHQ in Dublin appears to have been more focused on pushing through changes to IRA policy on abstentionism and political activity such as the creation of a ‘National Liberation Front’ (in that respect there were elements within the IRA and Sinn Féin that opposed Gouldings policies for a variety of reasons).
The events of mid-September 1969, that saw the formalisation of a ‘peace-line’ and further violence from unionists following the publication of the Cameron Report. This was the immediate backdrop to McMillen’s release. Famously, the Battalion Council meeting to approve his return as O/C was attended by representatives of the newly expanded units of the Belfast Battalion, some of whom were armed (having travelled across Belfast in September 1969 that seems hardly surprising). Billy McKee, who had preceded McMillen as Belfast O/C, outlined what many of those present believed Belfast Battalion strategy should now be: demand changes in the IRA leadership in Dublin with Sean Garland replacing Cathal Goulding as Chief of Staff, increase the Belfast Battalion staff to include a number of named individuals, Goulding release monies raised for arms in the north for the purchase of weapons. McMillen recounts some of his own views of the meeting in Rosita Sweetman’s 1972 book On Our Knees. The Belfast IRA agreed to break with Dublin for three months until the necessary changes were made. This was communicated to Dublin but it was quickly claimed that McMillen had reinstated communication with Dublin and agreed with Goulding to string his opponents along for the time being. The repercussion from this then played out as the split in the IRA widened over that autumn. At the time, though, there is nothing in the likes of United Irishman to suggest that the events of September were particularly seismic.
Goulding, through the United Irishman, began to claim that a faction within Fianna Fáil was trying to take control of the IRA in the north naming individuals like Hugh Kennedy (who was a press officer of the Citizens Defence Committees) and the likes of Seamus Brady formerly of the Irish Press. Paradoxically, that October, Goulding himself was actually meeting with the likes of Haughey and in discussion with him and others over the channelling of money to the IRA (he also later claimed that it was Fianna Fáil that was trying to have him ousted as IRA Chief of Staff). By November, though, the Fianna Fáil contacts had clearly soured as the United Irishman carried a critical expose of the contacts with Haughey, Blaney and Boland (in a 1971 pamphlet, Fianna Fáil – the IRA Connection, Goulding again sought to blame Fianna Fáil for the IRA split). Matt Treacy (in The IRA, 1956-69) makes it clear that Lynch’s government had heavily infiltrated Gouldings Army Council long before August 1969 and believed itself to be well-informed in July 1969 when it considered ‘taking steps’ to deal with the IRA in an apparent response to the bombing campaign in the north (which was actually the work of the UVF).
Tensions between Belfast and Dublin were hardly new and had been a long term feature of internal republican politics. It had dogged relations between units in the north and IRA GHQ in the 1920s and 1930s culminating in the Belfast IRA taking over GHQ during the ‘Hayes Affair’ and then relocating GHQ to Belfast for a period of time in the 1940s. Co-operation was no less problematic in the lead up to the 1956 IRA campaign and wasn’t helped by the fact that the weight of internment in the north fell mainly on the Belfast IRA.
The changed circumstances of August-September 1969 brought about a shift in the balance of power within the IRA in Belfast that wasn’t immediately recognised. Historically, the lower Falls had been the seat of the Belfast IRA leadership. IRA units around the city had generally taken a lead from the area as the IRA had a high concentration of supporters there, with more access to safe houses and freedom of movement. Maintaining hegemony in the lower Falls then meant controlling the Belfast IRA. When the IRA rapidly expanded in numbers in 1969, though, its membership had a much wider geographic spread across the city and less of an inclination to take an uncritical lead from the lower Falls. In the short term, McMillen (and by extension Goulding) appears to have felt secure in his own position as he could rely on his support in that area, not realising that the powerbase of the IRA in Belfast had shifted.
A last point to bear in mind when looking at internal tensions within the IRA in 1969 is to briefly look at contemporary perceptions of what a revolutionary movement constituted. Cathal Goulding had intended to announce the creation of a ‘National Liberation Front’ with a number of other groups during 1969. This largely mirrored Vietnam with the People’s Liberation Armed Forces of South Vietnam (typically referred to by the press as the Viet Cong) incorporated into a wider National Liberation Front (NLF). The NLF name had been used in previous successful anti-colonial wars, such as in Algeria and by the Greek resistance to the German occupation during the second world war. The IRA under Goulding had already been issuing statements under a variety of shifting identities during the 1960s, including ‘Irish Citizen Army, Northern Command’, ‘Irish Resistance Movement’ and ‘Irish Resistance Forces’.
In theory at least, Goulding already recognised the need for encouraging the participation of a diversity of groupings to achieve success. Where other organisations had operated in competition with the IRA, such as the short-lived Irish Freedom Fighters in Belfast in the mid-1960s, the IRA had shut it down. That Goulding wasn’t quick to move against opponents once a split started opening in the IRA in 1969 may, at some level, been rooted in a National Liberation Front concept that could have absorbed a split as long as it remained under the same general umbrella. In some ways this explains what appears to be complacency about a split on Goulding’s part. A split may also have had a useful purpose. An anti-colonial movement that was often noted in republican publications in the 1950s and 1960s was in Palestine where Irgun and Haganah had performed differing offensive/defensive roles. Consciously or subconsciously, there may even have been a sense that there would be roles for a variety of republican groupings by 1969. That division in roles is pertinent to the later emergence of the Catholic Ex-Servicemen’s Association. In that regard, it is possible that a future split in the IRA could have been imagined as an opportunity as much as a threat in 1969.
There is more on the split and related events in the various links throughout the text above and the Belfast Battalion book.

The Al Rawdah prison ship, 1940-41

Here is a history of the Al Rawdah prison ship. It was in use only briefly (in 1940-41) but falls within a longer history of the use of prison ships as internment camps in Ireland, including the Postlethwaite in 1798, prison ships transporting convicts overseas, the Argenta in 1922-24 and more recently the Maidstone in 1971-72.

Al Rawdah PS
Photograph of the Al Rawdah in use as a prison ship with appears to be the barbed wire enclosures on deck (from 1985 edition of Belfast Graves).
On 2nd September 1940, 140 internees were taken from Derry Gaol at 11 am and split into batches of fourteen. Each fourteen then were handcuffed in pairs and put onto a bus with British soldiers. The buses were driven in a convoy, accompanied by Lancia armoured cars, along roads which were heavily guarded. The first destination was Ebrington Barracks in Derry where the prisoners were inspected by the commander of the British 61st Division, Major-General de Wiart. They were then handed over to the RUC. When the convoy passed through Belfast, the internees reportedly sang loudly.
Their destination turned out to be 130 miles away from Derry, at Killyleagh in County Down. Some newspapers reported that as many as 157 internees were brought on the buses from Derry. The transport from Derry left another 80 internees in on-shore prisons, all in the Belfast Prison (Crumlin Road). When the Derry internees arrived in Killyleagh at 3 pm, the pier was cordoned off by the RUC. There was then a roll call of the first batch of men off the buses. They were dressed in everything from labourers clothes to sports jackets and flannels. The men were then transferred in small groups to two waiting boats. When about thirty internees and RUC men were in each boat a motor-boat towed them out to a ship, the Al Rawdah, which was to be used as a prison ship, anchored two miles off-shore. According to the Belfast Telegraph the internees sang the ‘Volga Boatman’s Song’ on the way out. In all it took until 5 pm to transfer all the internees from the buses to the Al Rawdah. One bus load remained on the quay. It included sixteen men who had applied to sign out from internment plus Jimmy McDonnell, Jack McNally and Jim Nolan (all of whom hadn’t participated in the takeover of Derry Gaol in December 1939). Instead they were taken to Crumlin Road where those applying to sign out were placed in C Wing and McDonnell, McNally and Nolan in B Wing.

rowing-out-to-ship.png

A boat travelling between the shore and the Al Rawdah (the ship shown a couple of miles off-shore in the background). This is identical to the first view the internees got of the Al Rawdah in Killyleagh. This is a still from the 1943 film ‘We Dive at Dawn’ which featured the Al Rawdah.

composite with guns
(Above and below) Close ups of the Al Rawdah from the film ‘We Dive at Dawn’ (1943) showing the gun turrets added with other refurbishments after use as a prison ship.bows.png

The Al Rawdah was a 3,930 ton vessel built in 1911 and requisitioned by the British Ministry of Shipping from the British-India Steam Company in 1940. The decision to bring a prison ship into service for internees had become public knowledge in late July 1940. By August it’s identity and destination in Strangford Lough were both well known with the Belfast Newsletter and Belfast Telegraph referring to it as the ‘Ulster Prison Ship’ and ominously noting that it’s intended capacity was 700-800 prisoners. Significant public criticism followed, noting the experience of the Argenta prison ship anchored off Larne in 1922-24 (early in August it was rumoured that the new prison ship would also be anchored off Larne). The cramped conditions, lack of exercise spaces and even difficulty in removing sick internees had all contributed to a significant number of Argenta internees developing tuberculosis and other diseases and a number being released early when they had become terminally ill. On top of that, several weeks previously some 800 German and Italian internees had been killed when the SS Arandora Star was sank en route to an internment camp in Canada. A number of local authorities and other bodies south of the border passed motions condemning the use of a prison ship.

Nationalist politicians protested that internment without trial on a ship was both against international law and presenting a serious danger given the current threat of attack from air or sea. The Unionist Minister of Home Affairs, Dawson Bates, dismissed the claims stating that “Anyone who attacked the Al Rawdah from above or from under the sea would get an unpleasant surprise.” Dawson Bates also repeatedly avoided answering questions about the cost of the Al Rawdah.

A couple of days later, on 10th September, 72 internees were taken from Crumlin Road prison in Belfast, split into batches of around fifteen and placed on five buses for a similar journey to the Al Rawdah via Killyleagh. The number transferred on 10th September varies in different newspaper reports but a statement in Stormont in mid-October confirms it as 72. This brought the number of internees on the boat to around 212. It was also noted that some internees had previously been interned without trial on the Argenta prison ship during 1922-1924. As far as I can make out Richard Ryan definitely spent time on both the Argenta and Al Rawdah. Jack Gaffney and Thomas O’Malley possibly were on the Argenta but certainly both of them and James Doyle had been imprisoned in 1920-24. Other names that feature on the list of internees on the Argenta and Al Rawdah are James Connolly, Mick Gallagher, John Kearney, Sean Keenan, P.J. O’Hare, Patrick Quinn and James Trainor. Other people may be able to shed more light on whether these are indeed the same individuals.

This immediately presented a problem to the families of internees since Killyleagh was difficult to access. At Stormont, Labour MPs asked whether the Unionist government was prepared to provide financial assistance to the families of internees. Dawson Bates refused stating that he was unaware of any anxiety on the part of the dependents of those interned. He did note that the authorities “…would not interfere in anyway with the disbursement of funds by any body provided it was within the law.” However, money collected by various groups for the dependents of internees was to be repeatedly seized by the Unionists.

By the 19th September the Al Rawdah was joined by a Catholic priest from St Paul’s Retreat at Mount Argus, Belfast-born Fr Enda Elliott, who was to become the chaplain. Four non-Catholic internees were to have their spiritual needs met by the Protestant clergy of Killyleagh. On that day the Unionist mounted a public relations offensive, with Dawson Bates and William Lowry bringing the American Consul in Belfast (John Randolph), the chaplain of Belfast Prison (Fr. McGouran), Nationalist MP Richard Byrne and Labour MP Jack Beattie and some Stormont officials out to the Al Rawdah for lunch and to inspect its newly equipped library, indoor games room and medical and dental equipment. While the press noted their meal did have some delicacies and wine added it claimed that, otherwise, it was the standard fare prepared for prisoners by the ships ‘coloured chefs’ (some of the crew were Indians). The non-unionist visitors to the prison ship declined to make any comment to the press, although the government officials advised reporters that if those visitors were to make any comment ‘it would be favourable’.

By October, there were repeated protests at the inability of families to visit internees on the Al Rawdah (notably media reports were by then using the figure of 180 for the number of internees). Internees were permitted one visit per week from two family members (the Ministry of Home Affairs only allowed visits from two out of a panel of six close relatives which had to be vetted in advance). The authorities only provided facilities and transfers to the Al Rawdah for a limited number of visits per week meaning that after six weeks some prisoners had yet to receive a visit. The remoteness was believed to be a deliberate ploy and it often proved impossible to get internees off the ship for compassionate reasons – when Patrick Doyle’s widower father James was ill in December, although he was an only son, it proved impossible to get home to Colligan Street in time to see him before he died.

Some internees families remembered the difficulty of getting out for visits including the frightening climb up steps to get to the deck of the Al Rawdah. Even before they got there they had to brave the hostility of the locals in Killyleagh who resented the nearby presence of the Al Rawdah and the on-shore presence of armoured cars and barbed wire in their village (Frank McGlade quoted in John McGuffin’s Internment). Turlach Ó hUid (in his 1985 memoir of internment, Faoi Ghlas) says that, at the quay side, Killyleagh resident shook their fists at families visiting internees as they board the boats to take them out the Al Rawdah, shouting “Scuttle the Fenian gets.

steps

Climbing the steps to board the Al Rawdah, from ‘We Dive at Dawn’ (1943).
Al Rawdah with subs
This photograph gives a sense of the height of the Al Rawdah (for those having to climb up steps from a boat at sea level), from when it was in service with surrendered German submarines at the end of the second world war (Wikipedia).

In mid-October it was already rumoured in the press that the Al Rawdah was costing £1 per internee per day (again citing a daily cost of £180). Despite the reputed cost, the food on board was described by internees as abominable. According to Frank McGlade even when braised gosling and dry biscuits were given as a supposed treat, they were so bad even the seagulls wouldn’t eat them. The seagulls did help some internees to occasionally relieve the boredom. Bobby Devlin recounts a story about internees on the Al Rawdah. According to Devlin (in his 1982 memoir An Interlude with Seagulls), “A ploy of some men on the ‘Al Rawdah’ was to tie bits of food scraps onto cord and fling it skywards into a frenzied mass of gulls. A poor gull would grab a mouthful triumphantly then it would have its head nearly jerked off by the rigorous pulling of the men on the ship.” Another story often told about the Al Rawdah was how internees trained a mouse to bring messages between cells (as it knew it would be rewarded with food).

There was quickly speculation (and clearly briefings from Unionist government figures) that the Al Rawdah was only a temporary facility, that the Ministry of Shipping wanted it put back into service and that the internees would be moved an internment camp with the former RUC depot at Newtownards being suggested as the likely location. It was also suggested that the internees could be relocated to Belfast Prison (Crumlin Road) for a short time while a new internment camp was established.

The question of whether the Ministry of Shipping knew in advance that the Al Rawdah was to be used for internees under the Civil Authorities (Special Powers) Act was the subject of a heated debate in Stormont on 15th October. It was claimed that the Ministry of Shipping had demanded the return of the Al Rawdah on discovering that it was to be used for internees (the Unionist government’s uses of the Special Powers Act had been the focus of significant criticism in Britain in the 1930s).

That debate was against the backdrop of internees in Crumlin Road and the Al Rawdah failing to get release after submitting an appeal and sureties to an Advisory Committee that had refused 37 of the 62 applications (applying to the Advisory Committee also caused significant tensions among internees as it was seen as giving in to the Unionist government). Twenty-five had been released. Some of the failed applicants had began a hunger strike by 15th October leading to the release of William Barrett from the Springfield Road in Belfast. He had been interned since May (1940) and his family believed it had seriously damaged his health. He and the other hunger strikers appear to have been in D wing in Crumlin Road rather than on the Al Rawdah.

During the Stormont debate William Lowry revealed that, on that date, there were 268 internees (with 193 of those on the Al Rawdah). Apparently there were roughly 70 in the Belfast Prison and the remainder on the Al Rawdah, it is implied that those in Belfast Prison were engaging with the Advisory Committee (it is possible some were also in the prison hospital there). It was also insisted that, far from being unaware of the intended use of the Al Rawdah, the British military had offered it specifically for that purpose. Not only that, it was claimed that, on hearing that they were to be moved from the Al Rawdah, William Lowry claimed the internees had unanimously petitioned to be allowed to stay. He also took the opportunity to dismiss criticisms of the use of internment, stating that “There are thankful parents in Belfast and all over the Six Counties tonight because steps were taken at the proper time and a lad was checked on a course that could only have ended in a long term of imprisonment or on the scaffold.” Many of those interned on the Al Rawdah had been arrested in December 1938 and did not get released until the summer of 1945.

On the 18th October, Nationalist Senator Thomas McLaughlin visited the ship and also declined to make any comment to the press. In Stormont a few days later he challenged the Unionist government to admit that pressure from Washington had forced London to demand the return of the ship. This was put down to a warning about the negative impact on American public opinion if the ship was attacked from the air or sea. The Unionist leader of the Senate, John Robb, instead claimed that the British authorities had asked for the ship to be evacuated once they realised they were being asked to carry the full cost themselves. The debate revealed that there had been disagreement among the Unionist government over whether to use the Al Rawdah. It transpired that the pretext for abandoning Derry Gaol had been instructions from the military to remove any internees from the prison population, meaning citizens of hostile powers (eg Germany and Italy) and prisoners of war. The Unionists had sought to use this directive to have the cost of internment transferred to the military authorities. The only cost to Stormont, as it emerged in October, were the salaries of the prison staff (one of whom, Thomas Walker, was shot dead by the IRA in February 1942 although he was mistaken for another warder).

McLaughlin also challenged Robb to read out the actual petition received from the internees on the Al Rawdah to show that they had never requested that they remain on board the ship (the internees were obviously irked by the suggestion that, as a body, they were giving in to the Unionist government). Robb first placed the petition on a table in the Senate but eventually had to read out the wording of the petition for the record: “We, the Republican internees, desire to renew our protests against the injustice of the being detained without charge or trial. We learn with resentment that, in addition to the injustice of our detention, we are to be removed from a place where at least we have the status of political prisoners to a civil prison, where there are no conveniences or amenities for political prisoners and where, we feel, the restrictions and regulations governing convicted prisoners might even, in part, apply to us.

In the Stormont Senate McLaughlin described the circumstances on board for the 183 internees. He said that it did not conform the image of a ‘luxury ship’ given by the likes of Lowry. The only available recreation space was a 160 foot walkway which could only be walked, with care, in single file as there was so much barbed wire sticking out on either side. On the 28th October, the Unionists again announced that arrangements would soon be made to transfer the internees from the Al Rawdah to an on-shore internment camp. However, it was noted that it was unlikely, with winter coming, that any new internment facility would be ready (implying they would likely be moved to a prison instead).

Despite raising the issues on the Al Rawdah, the internees were often suspicious of the motives of Nationalist politicians. The authorities regularly read the internees mail (and raided their homes to intercept any correspondence sent out illicitly). They intercepted one letter which was read out in Stormont in July 1942 to embarrass some of the Nationalists. It was written by a prominent republican, Joe McGurk, to his wife Sally when he was on the Al Rawdah and very blunt in it’s criticism of the likes of McLaughlin, Campbell and Byrne.

It read: “The common sense of the people outside would’ve told them, at any rate, that, irrespective of our Republican outlook and principle in the matter, it was very unlikely that we would petition this Northern Junta for anything after the persecution which we had to undergo several months ago, and also that we don’t give a damn where we go. We had Senator McLaughlin of Armagh on board on Friday and he was placed in a very embarrassing position, as we would not speak to him about conditions, or much more else for that matter, as he probably would have used his official position to perhaps do himself a lot of good. What takes me to the fair is the concern which T.J. Campbell and Dead-Head Byrne have for our welfare now. The ship is a Godsend for them, from a propaganda viewpoint, to ingratiate themselves with the people. It’s about time that Campbell and Byrne and that Ilk ceased to block the road of the young generation and die a natural death. They did not show much concern when we were interned in Belfast and removed to Derry. We would rather they kept away from us. as we look upon them with contempt.

The same day, some of the Indians in the crew of the Al Rawdah got into a fight that ended up in court at the Killyleagh Petty Sessions. It was claimed that Mohammed Essack had been drunk and hit Mohammed Esmail on the collar bone with an iron poker. Essack had been drunk and it had occurred during a special holy season (this isn’t specified). It was claimed that subsequently Essack had also produced a knife and told Esmail that “You kill me, or I will kill you.” Reportedly, Essack was fined £1. Court proceedings were translated into Hindi by one of the crew and some of those present were permitted to swear on the Qu’ran rather than the bible.

It was believed by the internees that the Indians were chosen to staff the ship to minimise communication between them and the internees. But contact was inevitable. Turlach Ó hUid (Faoi Ghlas 1985) records how the internees and Indian crew engaged in good natured banter, with internees typically telling the Hindus among the Indians that “Gandhi man no good. Moslem good.” and telling the Muslims among the crew that “Gandhi man good. Moslems no good.” Overall, despite the confined space, both sides got along well.

The Indians weren’t the only Al Rawdah crew members to face the courts. On the weekend of 9th-10th November, an Al Rawdah storeman, Sylvester Longstaffe, was arrested and charged with the theft of £3 worth of stores from the ship. It was claimed in court that he had just been dismissed from the ship. Evidence given during his arraignment stated that the financial arrangements under which the ship had been chartered it was still being managed by the British-India Steam Navigation Company. The Al Rawdah’s chief steward, Patrick John Connolly, was also charged with theft from the ship. As it was at an agreed rate per person, the cheaper it was run the more profit there was for the company. According to statements made by Longstaffe’s solicitor, there was a monetary incentive for the company to only provide starvation rations. However the case was never brought to court and the charges were dropped in March 1942.

Longstaffe was a married father of five from Liverpool who had been at Dunkirk. By 1943 he had been on boats that had been torpedoed three times. The charges over the Al Rawdah appear to have been dropped due to the difficulty in locating the defendants and witnesses. Longstaffe had taken on a post as a steward on ships to South Africa during 1941 and met and – bigamously – married another member of the crew in Durban for which he was prosecuted in 1943. His 4,000 mile dash to be by the bedside of his wife, Patricia, in hospital in 1947 made the newspapers. The newspapers then had to publish a clarification from his wife, Elizabeth, stating that it was not her in the photo. Neither was it Irene who he had married in South Africa. He was to feature in the press one more time, in 1958, when an Australian woman he met while working as a ship’s purser, Jean Cook, became pregnant and then tried to procure an abortion. The procedure led to kidney failure and she died a week later. Longstaffe was named as the father during the trial of two Harley Street doctors for carrying out the abortion. He gave a statement claiming he and Cook had ‘just been friends’.
Sylvester Longstaffe
Sylvester Longstaffe in the Liverpool Echo, 22nd September 1947 after his 4,000 mile dash to at the beside of Patricia.

On Monday 18th November, Jack Gaffney fell from his bunk and apparently injured his head. While the crew had a doctor, Dr John Moody, there was no doctor available for the internees. Moody examined Gaffney and he was left in his bed, then apparently brought to the ship’s hospital. He died the next day having received no treatment beyond a heart stimulant when his condition worsened. The official cause of death was described as a cerebral haemorrhage brought about by high blood pressure. In her book on the Argenta prison ship, Denise Kleinrichert lists the name ‘John Giffney’ as a prisoner on the Argenta. The surname Giffney is confined to a handful of people in Dublin and Wicklow in the 1911 census so it is possible that it should read ‘John Gaffney’ and that he spent some time on the Argenta (he was definitely imprisoned from 1921 to 1923). Gaffney’s funeral was well attended in Belfast and included the Catholic Bishop of Down and Connor, Mageean.

jack-gaffney.png
I’d not been able to track down a photo of him, but I think this him in a photo of the McKelveys gaelic football team dating to 1931-32 (courtesy of Donal McAnallen).

Neil Gillespie, O/C of the internees on the Al Rawdah, delivered an oration to the internees at the time of Gaffney’s funeral on 20th November. “One of our number has been released, released with honour, released unconditionally into the hands of God who made him. We mourn his passing with that natural sorrow which strikes to the heart of anyone when someone dear to him, someone with whom he ahs been closely associated is suddenly called away, but we’re proud of Jack Gaffney. He was faithful and true to the end. He died for the cause for which he stood, for which he worked, struggled, planned and fought throughout his life, just as truly as if he had fallen on the hillside. At this moment his remains are being brought to their last resting place in a Belfast Graveyard. We gather with those around the grave, we salute the passing of our comrade as a true soldier of Ireland and all humility we pray that God, in his mercy, may have mercy on his soul.” (Oration as quoted by Ray Quinn in A Rebel Voice, 1998).

A Sean Gaffney GAA club was later founded in Belfast in his memory. A 1920-22 IRA veteran, he was well known in GAA circles having played for Kevin Barrys and Morans before joining the Joe McKelvey GAA club in 1927. He played a prominent role in McKelveys’ on field football successes in the late 1920s and early 1930s. The club (which was specifically a club for IRA members) had been highly political in its sponsorship of motions at Antrim and Ulster GAA conventions. Similarly, Sean Gaffneys and other GAA clubs founded by ex-internees and ex-prisoners, like Tom Williams GAC and Seamus Burns GAC promoted political motions, such as in 1947, when they demanded that existing bans by the GAA on ‘foreign games’ and dances be strictly enforced. The years around 1947 were the peak years for Sean Gaffney GAC as it was playing senior football in Antrim. By 1949 the club had been relegated to the Intermediate League and was back playing junior football by 1950.

After Gaffney’s death republicans described the Al Rawdah as the ‘ship from hell’ mimicking British depictions of the German ship Altmark in contemporary propaganda. The Altmark was a German ship carrying three hundred British prisoners of war that was intercepted and the prisoners freed in February 1940. The hardships the Altmark prisoners endured were popularised during the relative lull in the war in early 1940 and were well known to the public and those on the Al Rawdah. According to Turlach Ó hUid (in Faoi Ghlas), Gaffney’s death was compared to the experience of those on the Altmark and that this, more than the threat of any German torpedo or dive-bomber sealed the fate of the Al Rawdah’s use as a prison ship.

At the end of December 1940 it was again announced that the internees would be taken off the Al Rawdah, although in this instance it was reported that the destinations would be Derry Gaol and the Belfast Prison (Crumlin Road). However this move still didn’t transpire and at the start of February (1941) there was an attempt to escape from the Al Rawdah. There are stories about internees on the Al Rawdah making keys out of nails when they were doing arts and crafts. However the escape attempt actually involved an escape onto another boat. Three internees managed to slide down a hawser in the dark and get on to the deck of a collier which had drawn alongside and was unloading coal on to the Al Rawdah (some versions state that it was five internees, such as in McGuffin’s Internment). One of the internees that tried to escape was James O’Hagan. They were discovered trying to lower a lifeboat and after first being mistaken for Germans, there was a scuffle and all but one managed to get back to their cells. The sole internee captured by warders was quickly released when the internees advised they would set the ship on fire if he wasn’t. As it was clear that the internees would be leaving soon, Jimmy Drumm (quoted by John McGuffin in Internment) said that the captain, Watt, told the internees would have had to go soon anyway as they nearly had the ship destroyed stripping it for souvenirs.

As it happened, just over a week later, on Tuesday 11th February 1941, 100 internees were finally transferred out of the Al Rawdah to Belfast and Derry. Motor launches were used to take the men from the ship and then they were escorted in six buses to Crumlin Road by heavily armed RUC men. The remaining 90 internees were transferred to Crumlin Road on the Thursday. Sally McCann, whose husband James was one of the internees, was arrested for waving a handkerchief at a bus transferring internees from the Al Rawdah as it passed on it’s way into Crumlin Road. She was charged with conduct likely to lead to a breach of the peace although it was thrown out of Belfast Custody Court the next day and her arrested was described as “… it savours of nothing if it does not savour of Gestapo methods“.

The physical toll of internment on the Al Rawdah was never really fully documented. Bobby Devlin’s An Interlude with Seagulls account of internment, like many other similar memoirs, clearly highlight a recurring concern among internees about their mental health. Much of this was a clear result of being interned without trial and without a defined period of incarceration, with no actual release date to look forward to. Many euphemisms were used for depression and apathy, like the big ‘D’, the ‘bonk’ and ‘Bangor Reserves’ as it rhymed with ‘nerves’, with ‘bad with their nerves’ being a typical Belfast term for mental health problems. Apart from psychological scars, the constant stench of stagnant sea water and fumes that rose up through the ship created what many on the Argenta, Al Rawdah and Maidstone recalled as an unhealthy atmosphere to even have to breathe in. Given that the internee population was males, mostly in their late teens, twenties and thirties, post-internment mortality was significantly high. Joseph Rooney died in May 1941, John (Seán) Dolan died on 25th October 1941. Dolan was well known in music and Irish language circles in Derry and had been the secretary of the Derry County Board of the GAA and a playing member of the Patrick Pearses club. When it was clear that he was terminally ill, he was released into a relative’s home in July 1941. Some were interned for several more years only to die from ill-health soon after release including Dickie Dunn, Richard Ryan (who had also been interned on the Argenta), Bernard Curran, James Doyle, Michael McErlean and Henry O’Kane. In some cases, such as Michael McCaffrey, the legacy of internment on the Argenta at the age of 26 was continuous ill-health and an early death at the age of 43 in 1957.

The exact number of internees who spent time on the Al Rawdah isn’t clear but, based on the available names, is at least 207 and maybe at least 217. While only a subgroup of those who experienced internment between 1938 and 1945, the fact that ten internees died due to ill-health out of just over 200 on the Al Rawdah does seem inordinately high. This doesn’t account for non-fatal impacts on physical and mental health in the short term, where internment on the Al Rawdah is believed, like in Michael McCaffrey’s case, to have contributed to an early death years later. A number of other internees and sentenced prisoners (including those imprisoned in England) are also known to have died prematurely due to either tuberculosis of what would appear to be otherwise innocuous complaints after their release.

A list of recorded Al Rawdah internees is included on the Mapping the Belfast IRA page, in Belfast Lough (for convenience rather than off Killyleagh). As I don’t have addresses for most of them, I’ve not filtered them for Belfast/non-Belfast and so all internees are included. Anyone who knows of other internees not listed here could add the information in the comments section. Of the 217 names, 177 have assigned prisoner numbers. The highest available prisoner number is 207 (the numbers are sequential), this may mean some internees were to be transferred to the Al Rawdah but never made it that far – again some readers might be able to shed some light on this as they might recognise a name on the list as someone who was never on the Al Rawdah.

Thanks to Brendan Harper, Ciarán Ó Fearghail, Cliodhna Ní Baoghaill, Paul Tinnelly, Cathy Kelly and Gabriel McCaffrey for sharing stories about the Al Rawdah.

You can read more about the background to the Al Rawdah in Belfast Battalion.
An earlier version of this post was originally published on 1st February 2019.