The northern government had hung IRA Lieut Tom Williams on 2nd September 1942 as a reprisal for the death of RUC Constable Patrick Murphy after a botched diversionary attack on Easter Sunday the same year (Williams hadn’t even fired a gun during the confrontation that followed).
While executions had become a staple diet of the De Valera regime in Dublin, deaths from neglect and the terrible conditions in the prison camps of the north had been the more typical experience under the northern government (I now believe as many as 10 prisoners died between 1940 and 1945).
Jimmy Steele was in Belfast prison at the time and he and the other republican prisoners fasted on the day of Williams’ execution. Mass was to be said at 8 am and the chaplain had arranged for a key point in the mass, when the communion host is raised up, to coincide with the exact time of Williams execution. The resonance of the symbolism of sacrifice in Catholic theology was easily understood and it broke up many of those present.
Jimmy Steele later wrote a poem called ‘Tom Williams’ that he published in Resurgent Ulster in 1954 containing the lines ‘Time must pass as years roll by, But in memory I shall keep, Of a night in Belfast Prison, Unshamefully I saw men weep…’. He also published a second poem called ‘The Soldier’ which was dedicated to Williams. Both are below.
Time must pass as years roll by
But in memory I shall keep
Of a night in Belfast Prison
Unshamefully I saw men weep.
But a time was fast approaching,
A lad lay sentenced for to die,
And on the 2nd of September
He goes to meet his God on high.
To the scaffold now he’s marching
Head erect he shows no fear
And while standing on that scaffold
Ireland’s Cause he holds more dear
Now the cruel blow has fallen
For Ireland he has given his all,
He who at the flower of boyhood
Answered proudly to her call.
Brave Tom Williams we salute you.
And we never shall forget
Those who planned your cruel murder
We vow to make them all regret.
Now I saw to all you Irish soldiers
If from this path you chance to roam
Just remember of that morn
When Ireland’s Cause was proudly borne
By a lad who lies within a prison grave.
Dedicated to Tom Williams, hanged in Belfast Prison, 2nd September 1942
They cut down his body, so lifeless and cold
To sate British justice, his life had been sold.
Alien hands laid him to rest in the day
No marble or stone, his cold grave did mark
Just grim prison walls, foreboding and stark
No cer’monial parade, for this martyr, so young
No soldier’s death, like a dog he was hung
The mantle of sorrow was spread o’er the town
His death has been marked, in the debt of the Crown
Oh! people of Ulster the debt it mounts high
Yet under the yoke you are willing to lie
Our dead in the heavens with hard eye, look on
While, to the foreigner daily you fawn
But bear with us longer, dear dead of our race!
Your sons like you spurn to live in disgrace
We’ll fight and we’ll die, we promise you soon
Your proud sons of Ulster wait the rise of the moon.
 ‘Tom Williams’ was published in Resurgent UlsterVol 2, No. 20 in July 1954. It appeared anonymously but is likely to have been written by Jimmy Steele. ‘The Soldier’, published later in various places is ascribed to ‘Séamus´ and so is definitely written by Jimmy Steele.