When Fianna Fáil entered government in Dublin in 1932, Frank Aiken was appointed Defence Minister, barely ten years since he ordered the killing of six Protestants at Altnaveigh near Newry.
A founding member of Fianna Fáil and a TD since 1923, Aiken had been the Commandant of the IRA’s 4th Northern Division during the war for independence. He ordered the IRA to cease offensive operations against the Free State government within weeks of becoming IRA Chief of Staff in 1923. His 31 year ministerial career with Fianna Fáil was to include holding briefs for Finance, External Affairs. In the 1960s he spent four years as Tanaiste and turned down the opportunity to succeed Eamon de Valera as the Fianna Fáil candidate in the 1973 Presidential election (Erskine Childers stood for Fianna Fáil and won).
Aiken’s presence or absence during the killings at Altnaveigh has been debated. A new book by Gregory Knipe, The Fourth Northerners, documents Aiken’s 4th Northern Division and provides more detail on the Altaveigh attack.
Here’s a brief account of Altnaveigh from Gregory:
In the early hours of Saturday 17th June 1922 a special group of about thirty heavily armed IRA Volunteers travelled overland from Ravensdale Forest in County Louth to the village of Altnaveigh in South Armagh – a distance of about 8 miles. Altnaveigh was a small predominantly Protestant village and is described in the memoirs of former IRA members as the ‘stronghold of the ‘B’ Force murder gang’.
Each volunteer from the Newry 2nd Battalion was armed with a service rifle, 230 rounds of .303 ammunition, a service revolver and grenades for this special mission – a murder mission. The purpose of the mission, as stated by one of the participants was to burn every house and shoot every male that could be got. On completion the Volunteers returned to Ravensdale Park.
The outcome of the raid was the killing of 6 Protestants and the wounding of many more (those killed included Thomas Crozier, Elizabeth Crozier, Joseph Gray, John Heslip, Robert Heslip and James Lockhart). The concern within the ranks of the participants were such that no reference was made to the event in the official records. A large number of the participants also left Ireland after the Truce.
Subsequently, I.R.A. members said that the attack was in revenge for four Volunteers killed by the ‘Specials’ and Altnaveigh was seen as a village of loyalists which had a high recruitment into the Ulster Special Constabulary.
Regardless of the controversy over whether he was present or not, as O.C. of the 4th Northern Division Frank Aiken would have to have given approval for such a mission. He was named by one Volunteer as being present on the attack, but this is disputed as he was involved on another mission on the same day – this was an attack on ‘A’ Specials at McGuill’s pub. This was as a response to a raid on the pub of a local republican and close friend of Frank Aiken.
Another file relating to the event cover up the murder of the Altnaveigh Protestants is shown in the image below.
So while Aiken wasn’t present at Altnaveigh, he was the one who had issued orders to the two IRA parties that left Ravensdale that night.
Prof. Greg Knipe’s new book The Fourth Northerners, about the IRA’s 4th Northern Division during the war for independence, has just gone to print. Among other things, it includes a range of documentary records, a detailed chronology of events and participants and the surviving membership rolls for individual units including Cumann na mBan and Fianna. Buried among all that, in the membership roll of the Aughatarragh Company of the 3rd Brigade’s 2nd Battalion is the name of the Company Captain, Malachy Hughes, and his address at the time the rolls were compiled in the 1930s, which is given simply as ‘R.U.C.’.
So – can anyone shed any further light on Malachy Hughes? According to bits and pieces in the press he joined the R.U.C. in 1924, serving as part of the Governor’s Guard at Hillsborough Castle and on the border, based in Clogher and Sion Mills (prior to 1924 he doesn’t seem to have joined the National Army south of the border or been imprisoned). He was involved in at least one subsequent incident with the I.R.A. (the arrest of Frank Morris) and was an explosives Inspector for the R.U.C. in the 1940s and 1950s. He was transferred to Ballymena around 1945 and retired from the R.U.C. there as a Sergeant around 1956-57.
Perhaps people might share this around to see if it gets to someone who can add some more information to what looks like a very intriguing life journey.
At the start of February in 1932, a soloist with a name that ‘rarely belongs to a Protestant’ (according to the Belfast Telegraph on 8/2/1932) got up to sing at a function at an Orange Hall in County Antrim. In the Tele’s view, the hall was “…tastefully decorated with Union Jacks, while, in addition, the usual Orange pictures and the lodge banner, depicting King William crossing the Boyne, were in their accustomed places.” The soloist proceeded to sing, as the paper put it, ‘with the greatest feeling ‘Kevin Barry’ a red-hot Sinn Fein song’. To the huge surprise of the reporter, “…the audience was held spellbound – not from amazement but because they failed to grasp the import of the song – and at the finish there was not only thunderous applause, but a general demand for an encore.” The artiste neglected to provide a second song and, as the Belfast Telegraph states, ‘All’s well that ends well.’
That Orange Hall rendition of Kevin Barry serves as a useful illustration of the sort of emotional pull of music and songs and performance. And the role of ballads and poetry in political formation and messaging has been significant throughout Irish history. The song Kevin Barry is such a well-known ballad that it has been sung not just by the Wolfe Tones and the Clancy Brothers but many others like Pete Seeger, Paul Robeson (below), Lonnie Donegan and Leonard Cohen (you can hear their versions by clicking the links).
Sean Prendergast, in a Witness Statement describes the role the song had in building the subsequent political impact of Barry’s execution in 1920: “Around his heroic sacrifice the songster and the ballad singer weaved the story of his life, of his service as a Volunteer and his glorious death. Ballad sheets were printed in laudation of ‘Kevin Barry’ and sold in the tens of thousands – not merely sold, but sung at all times and in all places. The young people, particularly, fell prey to the strain of the ballad…”. Prendergast recounted that the likes of Joe Stanley’s ‘Gaelic Press’ and his printing establishment in Proby’s Lane printed and distributed song sheets.
Public singing of republican ballads was clearly part of the routine of political street theatre in the 1920s (indeed, to this day, many people’s most public political act is to join in when some well-known ‘rebel song’ is being played). The song about Barry quickly caught on in 1921. By July 1921, according to the Belfast Telegraph, youths outside the Anglo-Irish Peace Conference in the Mansion House reportedly sang a song “…having reference to the late Kevin Barry” (8/7/1921). This is presumably the same song, although there were a glut of songs written about Barry (you can see some more here in the Kevin Barry Papers at UCD). Another Kevin Barry ballad was the subject of a court case by Fred Cogley (the composer) in the Circuit Court in 1925, trying to restrain the Minister for Posts and Telegraphs from permitting gramophone recordings of his song entitled “To Kevin Barry”. The Northumberland Fusiliers regimental magazine St George’s Gazette (of 30/9/1921) also recorded that “In addition to the curious and inquiring glances and the gestures of dislike and defiance to which we are subject by the riff-raff which support Sinn Féin we have ‘Kevin Barry’ sung after us.”
[By the way – there is a whole TG4 series – Ceol Chogadh na Saoirse – looking at the impact of songs during the war for independence.]
Sometimes also referred to as ‘In Mountjoy Jail One Monday Morning’ the original author of ‘Kevin Barry’ is unknown. According to a story related by Seamus de Burca in 1961, “During Christmas 1920, an Irishman living in Glasgow was on holidays in Dublin. He came into the dairy shop, 8 Fleet Street, and presented the manuscript of a song he had just written to Kathleen Barry, one of Kevin Barry’s sisters. Miss Barry showed the song to her mother and her brothers and sisters and returned the song to the author, informing him that the Barry family had no objection to its publication. The song appeared in ballad sheet form and was an instantaneous success, even amongst us schoolboys. The melody, like the words, belongs to the man who wrote it, who gave both to the Irish Nation without any reward.” A later letter by De Burca (in the Evening Herald, 2/12/1992) repeats the same story and he also notes that his father was a first cousin of Barry’s mother.
A handwritten copy of the lyrics in the Kevin Barry papers in UCD contains basically the same story noting the author likely worked with a ‘Paddy M’ in Glasgow and was given £20 for it. It states that the air was ‘Roaming Home to Bonnie Scotland’.
Barry’s sister Katherine was a prominent member of Cumann na mBan (long predating her brother’s political activism). She was to continue to have a high profile at many events in Ireland and abroad in leveraging the political power of the Irish diaspora. The song was to become an integral part of the Kevin Barry legend. It was to become so well known that it appears in Carl Sandburgs famous American Songbagfrom 1929, where he states he learned it from ‘Irish Boys and Girls in Chicago’.
And people were very protective of the Kevin Barry song (and legend). De Burca’s story had appeared in a letter he sent to the Dublin Evening Mail (on 5/8/1961) criticising the appropriation of the melody for ‘The Irish Patrol’ a song written by Dick O’Donovan to honour Irish soldiers who had served in the Congo. Five days later O’Donovan pointed out in reply to De Burca, in the same paper, that ‘Kevin Barry’ was set to the air of a sea-shanty, and an English one no less, ‘Rolling Home to Merry England’ also known in the United States as ‘Rolling Home to Old New England’. It had also been used in a song about Terence McSwiney (‘Shall My Soul Pass Through Old Ireland’). Lonnie Donegan’s 1959 recording of the song had also attracted criticism in the media as disrespectful.
The song regularly caused confusion too, particularly when just the tune was played by a band. The tune had often been played to accompany British Army regiments embarking in colonical ports to sail back to Britain, with variations on the ‘Rolling Home…’ lyrics such as ‘Sailing Home to Merrie England’ and ‘Roaming Home to Bonnie Scotland’. According to ‘Trumpeter’ (in the Dublin Evening Mail of 29/31/1959) when British soldiers evacuated Dublin in 1922 the regimental band played ‘Sailing Home to Merrie England’ as the boat sailed out along the Liffey while people on the quays thought it was playing ‘Kevin Barry’.
The handwritten lyrics in the Kevin Barry Papers state that the tune is ‘Roaming Home to Bonnie Scotland’, which may be referencing a song that features in at least one late nineteenth songbook by ‘Claribel’ (the English poet and composer Charlotte Alington Barnard). But the air was indeed familiar in other settings too. James Connolly had written a song to the same air, ‘The Call of Erin’ which was used to close Dublin Labour meetings from before 1916 and well into the 1920s. Later songs about Erskine Childers and the Blueshirts reused the same tune too.
It may be tempting to think that the song ensured that Barry’s name became inextricably linked to Irish republicanism and kept him constantly in the public eye. But as early as 1929, a columnist in the Derry Journal (4/11/1929) was scathing about official attitudes to Barry barely nine years after his execution:
“It is bad form to mention Kevin Barry’s name in the circles of the new aristocracy. The cult of the all embracing Imperialism with its dances and its dinners and its garden parties, patronised by “the best people” from the remnant of the old garrison party, and carried out according to the most approved standards of English etiquette, looks disdainfully on the principles for which Kevin Barry and so many like him, sincere as they believed all their leaders to be sincere, gladly and heroically laid down their young lives. The hands-across-the-Irish-Sea policy has no place for the martyrs of the Anglo-Irish war. To remember them would be to cast a doubt on the blueness of the blood from which “high society” in the Saorstat loves to make the world believe it has sprung.”
Today is the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Belfast republican, Jimmy Steele.
Steele was born on 8th August 1907 in Artillery Street in the North Queen Street area of Belfast. When his mother, Catherine, died from tuberculosis on 3rd March 1912, Jimmy was just four years old. His younger brother, Dan, was two weeks short of his first birthday. Jimmy, Dan and their three older brothers were mainly brought up by their aunt Mary Ellen in her small shop on the New Lodge Road, rather than by their father, Arthur, a fitter originally from Randalstown (an older sister, Mary Ellen, had died as a baby).
Jimmy was later to write of hearing politics discussed as a child, of Home Rule, Joe Devlin, John Redmond, the Hibernians, Connolly and Larkin. He also recorded how he remembered hearing someone whistling ‘A Soldiers Song’ and graffiti on a wall in the street after the Easter Rising and of “…the wounded Connolly, idol of the Belfast dockers and mill girls being shot to death as he sat strapped to his chair”.
Arthur remarried in October 1919 to Sarah Scullion, who owned a pub on the New Lodge Road. Even before Catherine had died Arthur already had a reputation of being overly fond of drink (Jimmy was to be a lifelong teetotaller). Arthur’s drinking led his eldest brother, Charlie, to emigrate to New York in April 1920. His brother Arthur emigrated too. Jimmy was attending school in Hardinge Street where he apprenticed as a plasterer. He got involved in gaelic games there and played on the school’s hurling team.
The Steele’s came to the attention of the RIC in July 1920 when a revolver was found during a search of Mary Ellen’s shop. By then Jimmy and his older brother Bill were active in Fianna Eireann’s North Queen Street sluagh and D Company of the IRA’s 2nd Battalion in Belfast (his uncles were also involved in the IRA). Raids and arrests were to become a constant feature of Jimmy’s life. In 1921 the RIC came looking for Bill as his handcart had no light on it. As he wasn’t at home, they arrested Jimmy instead. North Queen Street saw some of the most intense violence of 1920 to 1922. His father’s brother James received serious head wounds in a grenade attack on his home in August 1921 and other relatives, like his uncle Dan and his fathers cousin Patrick Steele, were also injured in the violence.
As a Fianna officer, Jimmy had dual rank and was also attached to B Company of the 1st Battalion of the IRA. He remained active after the split in 1922. He and Bill kept a small arms dump stored on waste ground behind Mary Ellen’s shop which was given away by a tip-off to the RUC in September 1923. At that time Charlie was home from New York and he and Jimmy were arrested as the RUC could not find Bill. While Charlie was quickly released, Jimmy was to spend three weeks in Crumlin Road. When Charlie returned to New York, he and Arthur repeatedly offered to pay for Jimmy and Bill to join them. Jimmy was to be arrested and imprisoned for a while again in 1924, with Mary Donnelly of Cumann na mBan.
By now he was part of an independent unit in the Belfast Battalion that covered north Belfast, under Jack McNally. He avoided the round-up of IRA suspects that coincided with the news of the failure of the Boundary Commission in November 1925, but was detained in January 1926 following the discovery in the postal sorting office of a package of 110 copies of An Phoblacht addressed to him (the paper had been banned the same month). The unionist government struggled to find scope in the Special Powers Act to prosecute him and he escaped with a fine for possession of a banned edition of An Phoblacht that was found in Mary Ellen’s shop.
He was involved in the setting up of Joe McKelvey’s GAA club by members of the Belfast IRA in 1925. Throughout the late 1920s and into the 1930s he was to be an active playing member for the club in both hurling and football, mainly in the half forward line. He won South Antrim junior and senior football championship, league, South Antrim Cup and Madigan Cup medals. He also played in a number of junior and senior hurling finals. The pinnacle of his sporting career was probably 1931 when, as South Antrim champions, McKelveys played in the Antrim Senior Football Championship final against the North Antrim Senior Football champions Cuchullains, from Dunloy, eventually losing a replay 1-4 to 0-3. The next week McKelveys lost the South Antrim Senior Hurling Championship final to O’Connells. He played in all three matches.
In 1927 he and Tony Lavery had been tasked by the Belfast Battalion O/C, Davy Matthews, with rebuilding the Fianna organisation in Belfast. This led to a tripling in size of the Belfast IRA by the early 1930s as individuals progressed from one organisation to the other. This was accompanied by more arrests and detentions. In 1928 he was arrested with posters that were to inform people of an Easter commemoration but again the authorities found that their intended charges were not covered by the Special Powers Act. Arrested yet again with posters that were deemed ‘illegal’ in 1929, the unionist government had its prosecution thrown out of court as it transpired that no prohibited organisations were actually mentioned on the posters. Documents reportedly found on him during one 1929 arrest showed he was then learning Irish and writing poetry.
As sectarian tensions began to simmer in Belfast again in the early 1930s, the Belfast Battalion staff began to fight a running battle with IRA GHQ in Dublin over how to confront the issue. The Battalion staff refused to get visibly involved at an organisational level in the Outdoor Relief strike in October 1932 as it would give the authorities a pretext to put it down violently. Many IRA volunteers were actively involved as individuals, though. As the suppression happened anyway, the Battalion got officially involved in the railway workers strike in January 1933, carrying out bomb and gun attacks at the request of the unions. This wasn’t sufficient to placate those in IRA GHQ who were trying to leverage the Belfast Battalion so that the IRA would more fully engage in political activity. By various means over 1933 and 1934, existing Battalion staff like Davy Matthews, George Nash and Dan Turley were forced or pushed out and Tony Lavery and Jimmy then took over as Battalion O/C and Adjutant.
The IRA had increasingly come in to conflict with the RUC during 1933 and RUC constables were killed during confrontations in January and October 1933. The latter led to widespread arrests of IRA suspects, including Jimmy and he spent several months in prison. He was to take over as Battalion Adjutant on his release in 1934. Protests over the arrests and a huge election rally in support of republican candidates in the November 1933 election saw the IRA candidate run Joe Devlin close in Belfast (the unionist government response was to introduce a non-abstention oath for candidates). During the election campaign the Belfast IRA also began to produce its own occasional newspaper, An Síol to which Jimmy began to contribute (particular from 1935 when it began to appear weekly). He also continued to play for McKelveys although the club was struggling due to the repeated arrests of its players.
The formation of Republican Congress in 1934 took some of the IRA GHQ opponents of the previous Belfast Battalion staff out of the IRA. In Belfast sectarian violence was now leading to occasional deaths and the growing threat of a sustained assault on Catholic districts such as had happened in 1920-22. Drawing on its experience of 1920-22, the IRA tried to replenish its stock of rifles and train its members as preparation for defence of threatened districts, leading to further confrontations with the RUC as it intercepted drilling parties and searched for weapons. Jimmy was arrested again in late 1934, with habeas corpus suspended the unionist government denied it was even holding him as a prisoner. His treatment was bad enough to require medical assistance on his release in January 1935.
Despite increasing street violence, the Belfast Battalion agreed to attend a training camp at Gyles Quay Louth in July 1935. As violence erupted in North Queen Street on the 12th July, Free State forces swooped on the Belfast Battalion’s training camp, confiscating weapons and imprisoning twelve of those present. On the 13th, Jimmy managed to disentangle enough volunteers to return and take over the defence of the North Queen Street district where violence continued until late summer.
In November, Jimmy acted as Director of Elections to Charlie Leddy (who had been imprisoned over Gyles Quay) in West Belfast during the general election. In December, the Belfast battalion ambitiously tried to clear out the two hundred rifles of the OTC armoury in Campbell College. Instead, it was surprised by the RUC and fought a running gun battle in which one volunteer was captured (Jimmy and Tony Lavery had to go to the scene to call off the operation). The aftermath saw a wave of arrests and the Battalion investigated whether there was an informer among the staff.
Jimmy acted as Battalion O/C when Tony Lavery was ordered to a courtmartial for having some of those arrested defended in court (against GHQ orders). On 30th March, he lined out at centre half forward for McKelveys as they won the Biggar Cup final. He was the only remaining player from the team that had played in the 1931 senior county final. Lavery’s court martial in Crown Entry the next month, which was doubling up as a conference of senior IRA commanders in the north, was given away by the same informer and Jimmy and most of the IRA northern leadership were arrested. They were charged with treason felony and given varying sentences in Crumlin Road (Jimmy got five years penal servitude). He had been preparing to marry his childhood sweetheart, Anna Crawford, prior to his arrest. Prior to the sentencing he wrote a poem called ‘A Prayer From My Prison Cell’ that was to be published in the Wolfe Tone Weekly on September 11th 1937. During that summer he also wrote ‘Belfast Graves’ which was to be a popular song among Belfast republicans. Lines from the song are quoted in Brendan Behan’s novel Borstal Boy (Behan later recalled Jimmy staying with his family when visiting Dublin).
The treason felony prisoners demanded they get recognised as political prisoners (there were twenty-three long and short-term republican prisoners in Crumlin Road by August 1936). After several clashes with the prison authorities a hunger and thirst strike began on 18th August, although they began taking water again by the sixth day. By the 1st September only Jimmy remained on hunger strike. Weakened by the initial thirst strike, he became weak on the 3rd and Bill was called into the prison to see him. A supposed deal was brokered by the 5th and Jimmy ended his hunger strike only to restart it on 17th and continue to the end of the month (by now the authorities had at least agreed to deal with a nominated O/C of the republican prisoners). This protest took a long term physical toll on his health as it damaged his lungs.
Jimmy was forced to observe the unfolding of the IRA’s English campaign from inside Crumlin Road, only to be released in May 1940, immediately reporting back for active service (on 1st August he was also to finally marry Anna). Assigned as Director of Training to the Northern Command, he took over as O/C Belfast around September 1940 having been involved in disciplinary proceedings against members of the Belfast Battalion who were believed to have had ‘fascist’ leanings. He also appears to have edited the Belfast edition of War News (the forerunner of Republican News). At the start of December he was arrested in the backyard of Anna’s father’s house on North Queen Street. A revolver and cash found in his coat were used as a pretext to later give him a ten year prison sentence and was he returned to Crumlin Road. The expanding number of republicans in Crumlin Road had saw the internees and sentenced men divided into two battalion structures, with Jimmy as O/C in A Wing. He continued to write poetry and articles that were smuggled out and published anonymously in War News, An tÓglach and The Critic. Like the other prisoners, he was confined to Crumlin Road during the blitz when bombs fell around the prison (his cousin James O’Boyle and Mary Donnelly, who had been arrested with him in the 1920s, were both killed during the German bombing in April 1941). The authorities also identified him as having a role in procuring equipment for the escape of five prisoners in June 1941 but they made no attempt to punish him. During 1941 and 1942 relations were strained within the prison when the IRA killed a prison warder in February 1942 and Tom Williams was hung there in September the same year.
The latter was followed, on 15th January 1943, by the escape of Jimmy, Hugh McAteer (the recently arrested IRA Chief of Staff), Ned Maguire (brother of the Belfast IRA O/C) and Pat Donnelly from Armagh. They had accessed the roof space over A wing and broke through the roof, climbed down a rope made of sheets and scaled the outer wall. The unionist government was severely embarrassed at its inability to recapture the escapees. This became even more acute when twenty one prisoners tunnelled out of Derry jail in March (Jimmy was involved in the operation on the outside). In between, Jimmy had taken over as the IRA’s Belfast O/C and Adjutant of Northern Command and also edited Republican News. In April, when Liam Burke was arrested, he took over as Adjutant General of the IRA. At the end of the month, he and McAteer further embarrassed the unionist government by staging a public Easter Rising commemoration in Broadway cinema in Belfast. Within a week the northern government’s Prime Minister, J.M. Andrews, resigned.
The intense searches that followed saw Jimmy re-arrested in Amcomri Street in May and he was returned to Crumlin Road (this time with a further twelve years added to his sentence). His seventeen year old nephew, Arthur, received a ten year sentence the same day. On returning to A wing he immediately joined the blanket protest taking place at the increasing harshness of the prison regime which ended in September. After the blanket protest ended he received a beating in his cell at the hands of prison staff. Although the women in Armagh Jail had shown up the difficulties in mounting a hunger strike in late 1943, the men in Crumlin Road didn’t heed the lessons and began their own hunger strike in February 1944. Starved of publicity and looking increasingly likely to lead to fatalities, the strike was ended by orders of the IRA Chief of Staff on 6th April. Jimmy had spent forty days on hunger strike. Beatings and violence from warders continued to be a feature of prison life until the end of the war in May 1945 and the release of internees in August that year. However, despite the demonstrably political nature of sentencing policy, the unionist government was slow to accept that it had also to release the sentenced prisoners and Jimmy was the last to be released, in September 1950. Earlier that year, he had been stood as the Sinn Féin candidate in West Belfast in the general election but had polled poorly.
After his release he was given work doing deliveries for Hughes Bakery and he and Anna tried to settle into some sort of married life. In April 1951 his father, Arthur, died at the age of 81 (his second wife, Sarah, had died in 1948). He and Anna had their own child, a son called Colm, in 1952. On his release Jimmy had also reported back for duty to the IRA and took over again as O/C Belfast. Much of the Belfast Battalion’s energy and resources were taken up with the publication of a newspaper, Resurgent Ulster (from November 1951), but there were still occasional confrontations with the authorities and periods of detention for Jimmy. Much of the early 1950s was taken up with re-establishing the Belfast IRA as the pre-eminent republican organisation in the city. Jimmy began to be publicly involved with the National Graves Association in Belfast and more openly associated with political activity with Sinn Féin. The Battalion didn’t seem to fully engage with IRA GHQ’s emerging plans for a border campaign though. By the time the campaign started Jimmy had stood down as Belfast O/C in favour of Paddy Doyle (an organiser sent up by GHQ). Doyle’s arrest on the eve of the campaign meant that Belfast never fully participated as subsequent swoops by the RUC detained many active republicans. Jimmy avoided arrest until 1957 but was to be held until 1960, spending much of the time as O/C of the internees and famously rallying them following mass beatings after a failed escape attempt.
By the end of his time in Crumlin Road, his health had begun to suffer and on his release, while he was re-employed by Hughes Bakery, he eventually had to take up work in the Bakery shop rather than carry out deliveries.
In October 1961 tragedy struck when Colm was knocked down and killed in a hit-and-run incident at a pedestrian crossing on the Falls Road. Although the driver was eventually caught, the inquest in December 1961 returned an open verdict on Colm’s death.
On his release from Crumlin Road Jimmy had again reported for duty to the IRA. The Belfast IRA resumed publishing its own newspaper, Tírghrá, in December 1962 and tried to rebuild some sort of capacity under Billy McKee. Over the next couple of years, Jimmy worked closely with National Graves in developing the republican memorials in Milltown which coincided with the Wolfe Tone commemorations of 1963 and then the Easter Rising commemorations in 1966 by which time Jimmy had published Antrim’s Patriot Dead and Belfast and nineteensixteen. In so far as the state organised the 1966 commemorations in Dublin, the IRA largely organised those in Belfast, with Jimmy as President of Directorate of the Commemoration Committees.
As with the Wolfe Tone societies set up earlier in the 1960s, all of these coalesced groups into the organised ‘Republican Clubs’ which the IRA saw as an outlet for political activity. Jimmy continued as President of the Directorate of Republican Clubs. Over the course of the 1960s, the Divis Street riots and UVF attacks in 1966 had become reminiscent of the 1930s with the threat of intensifying violence against Catholic districts. Billy McKee had resigned as Belfast O/C in 1963, to be replaced by Billy McMillen. Throughout the rest of the 1960s the IRA concentrated on political activity with little emphasis on procuring arms or carrying out training. Publication of Tírghrá ceased by 1965 as control centralised in Dublin and considerable disaffection was growing among republicans in Belfast over IRA policy. Jimmy’s continued involvement in the Republicans Clubs into 1967 to some extent validated the policy, but he began to make muted statements criticising the direction the IRA was taking at the Manchester Martyrs centenary events in Manchester in November 1967. He made a nuanced comparison with the ‘New Departure’ initiative of John Devoy in which leading IRB figures pursued a personal initiative to break with abstentionism as policy when it was not official IRB policy. Late the next year, Cathal Goulding, the IRA’s Chief of Staff, pushed through changes to the IRA that expanded membership of the Army Council which would have a majority of Goulding supporters until the next Army Convention when the membership would have to be re-elected.
With unrest growing on the streets of Belfast and the IRA totally unprepared to offer any defence to districts likely to face violent attacks, Jimmy decided to make his criticisms of the IRA leadership public at the reburial of Peter Barnes and James McCormack in July 1969. His words were aimed directly at Goulding: “There comes a time in every generation when men try to re-direct the republican movement along a different road to that upon which our freedom fighters trod… And Connolly’s words on this matter should give us all food for thought when he said, “Unity is a word used by many with ulterior motives, to achieve political ambition, or ultimately, to seek power and control in a united movement.” Therefore in striving for genuine unity we must be careful that such efforts may not lead to that seizure of power and control by the wrong people as defined by Connolly.”
Within days, Goulding had Jimmy immediately dismissed from the IRA without courtmartial. Within weeks, the unionist government had interned McMillen and much of the IRA leadership just before the widespread attacks on Catholic districts on 15th August. The parlous state the Belfast IRA had reached was illustrated by Broadway being defended by Jimmy and Joe Cullen, another 1920-22 IRA veteran.
In the immediate aftermath of the August violence, Jimmy and many others immediately returned to service with the IRA. Jimmy chaired a meeting a week later to try and backfill some structure where the IRA had all but disappeared. Districts were visited and organised, parties were dispatched to recover long forgotten arms dumps and distribute them to areas where they would be needed. When McMillen was freed a month later, Jimmy joined a deputation that went to where he was meeting the Belfast Battalion staff with demands on changes that had to be implemented. McMillen agreed to break communications with IRA GHQ until changes were made, including Goulding’s removal. The next day, McMillen resumed communications and the Belfast IRA divided into individuals and units willing to recognise Goulding’s authority and others, like Jimmy, who wanted a new leadership elected.
As the split in the IRA formalised in 1970, Jimmy was reputedly offered the role of Chief of Staff and Adjutant General but turned down both. He did help restart publication of Republican News by the summer of 1970, alongside the likes of Hugh McAteer. McAteer, whose health had been weakened by long years in prison died in June 1970 at the young age of 53. Jimmy gave the oration at his funeral. Rather than take that as a warning that he needed to slow down, Jimmy continued to edit Republican News and be active for long hours every single day. Then on 9th August 1970, Jimmy’s poor health also gave way and he died of heart failure. It was the day after his sixty-third birthday.
Here is a poem he wrote in 1946.
(A Prison Poem 1946)
The whitewashed cell is cold and bare,
As perished with the chilly air,
I sit and muse on times long past.
To feel the melancholy blast
Of longing, for the day I knew,
When sorrows with me then were few.
The home where all my youth was spent,
Advice and counsel kindly meant
From those dear ones, who felt for me
And sought to guard and keep me free
From every trouble, pain and care,
A wicked world gives as its share.
The pleasant nights of dance and song
Has set me reminiscing long.
To hear the voice of colleen sweet
The rhythm of the dancers feet,
The lilting tune of jig and reel,
That made our aching feet e’er feel.
The urge to dance and be so gay
And all our worries to relay.
The tramp o’er mountain, road and hill,
Or sitting in the quiet still
Of some lone glen; while someone there
Would speak or sing of Ireland fair.
The story of her ancient right.
The struggle ‘gainst usurper’s might;
Her sons who served and fought and died
In her just cause so sanctified,
And thus our hearts with pride, we’d lace
With love for our unconquered race.
The haunting sound of Gaelic tongue,
Enchantingly around us clung;
The hours we spent to win its fame,
And preach our gospel in its name,
The grip of caman in my hand,
Amidst a stalwart hurling band,
To glory in the rugged play,
Enthusiastic in the play.
Whilst in my ears the roars still clung
As eager fans made welkin ring.
The joy and fervour of it all,
E’en yet I feel it in recall.
More poignant thoughts seep through my mind,
And comrades faces there I find,
Who entered through the door of death
With martyred step and patriot breath,
Brave heroes in our country’s fight,
God grant them heaven’s place tonight.
What joy ‘twould give to wander back,
Along that old familiar track;
To greet old friends – old scenes again,
To shelter from the prison rain;
That soaks me with its sombre showers,
And turns the minutes into hours.
I’d intended to have a biography of Jimmy Steele completed for the fiftieth anniversary of his death but obviously this year hasn’t gone to plan. In the meantime – for the next few days anyway – there will be a special offer on the Belfast Battalion book (£10 including postage) which provides the backdrop to much of his life – click here for the special offer.
So what did the papers say about the outbreak of the Belfast pogroms in 1920? Following Edward Carson’s speech on the Twelfth at Finaghy the annual industrial holiday and taken place and, on the first day back at work, thousands of Catholic workers and socialists were attacked in the shipyards and driven from their jobs. This happened on the 21st July 1920.
In 1920 newspapers did not typically run headlines on their front pages. More often it contained advertising and notices. You had to flick to page 3 or 4 to get your current affairs and news items (some papers ran evening editions that covered events that day) although sport generally appeared on earlier pages as perhaps did an editorial. There was no broadcast media yet in July 1920 as experimental wireless radio broadcasts in Britain had only been started by Marconi’s Wireless Telegraphic Company from Chelmsford in June 1920. Up to July 1920 there had been experimental radio broadcasts and the beginning of commercial radio in the US, Argentina and by Hans Idzerda in the Netherlands. So people got their news from the printed press (morning and evening editions), handbills pasted onto walls and from their friends, colleagues and neighbours.
Here is coverage by four papers (Belfast Newsletter, Belfast Telegraph, Irish Times and Freemans Journal) of events in Belfast as reported on 22 July 1920. You can read the items and see their context (which is often overlooked) alongside what other events are reported and how they were reported.
It will be interesting to see how much airtime is given to one of this year’s most significant centenaries over the next week or two, that of the start of the Belfast pogroms in July 1920.
On July 12th 1920, Edward Carson addressed the assembled Belfast Orangemen at Finaghy telling them that the UVF would ‘take matters into their own hands’. As the Times put it the next day: “Upon Sir Edward Carson lies largely the blame for having sown the dragon’s teeth in Ireland.” Carson’s words were taken as the starting point of the pogrom by Fr John Hassan who documented the subsequent events in Facts and Figures of the Belfast Pogrom 1920-1922 (written under the pseudonym G.B. Kenna). Within days mass workplace expulsions of Belfast Catholics and trade unionists had begun, followed by a succession of pogroms in Belfast and other towns in the north-east. By the end of two years, hundreds had been killed in violence in Belfast, with 20-25% of violent deaths in Ireland up to June 1922 happening in the city. Yet, given the highly contested nature of so much of the history of 1916-1923 in contemporary Ireland, the centenary of the start of the Belfast pogrom will go completely unmarked by official Ireland and be studiously ignored by others.
So what did Carson say in 1920? His speech at the 1920 Twelfth platform in Finaghy was reproduced verbatim in the press for a wider audience, so it wasn’t just those present who heard his message. This is how the Belfast Newsletter reported part of it the next day: “But we tell you (the Government) this – that if, having offered you our help – and I have offered it to them over and over again – if, having you our help, you are yourself unable to protect us from the machinations of Sinn Fein, and you won’t take our help; well, then, we tell you we will take the matter into our own hands. (Cheers.) We will re-organise, at all costs, and notwithstanding the consequences, we will re-organise, as we feel bound to do in our own defence, throughout the province the Ulster Volunteers (loud cheers) – who sent you such splendid help to maintain our Empire during the war. But one thing we will not submit to is that we should be left helpless and hopeless in the face of our enemies, and we tell you that, come what will, in the last resort, we will rely upon ourselves, and, under God we will defend ourselves. (Cheers.)Now, I hope that I have made that pretty clear. (Laughter and cheers.) And those are not mere words. I hate words without action.”.
One point would not have been lost on anyone in July 1920 was that what Carson was proposing for Belfast had literally just happened in Derry over the previous weeks. Since 18th June, when the UVF precipitated violent clashes in Derry, twenty people had been killed in the city and many more wounded. Everyone hearing or reading Carson’s speech would have known this and understood the exact implications of what Carson was calling for. This was no mere rhetorical flourish or unfortunate phrasing. As he himself said “I hate to see words without action.”
The subsequent unfolding of events in Belfast in the two years following July 1920 were to see hundreds killed, amounting to as much as 20-25% of all violent fatalities in Ireland during that period. A figure of around 500 is generally given for the total number of fatalities (eg see here) but a comparison of the annual averages of violent deaths in the Reports of the Medical Superintendent Officer for Health for Belfast County Borough before and after 1920-1922 suggest that total may be an under-estimate of the order of 100-150 violent deaths. The latter figure likely captures fatalities where there is a gap of weeks or months between the original incident and the death.
[An underestimate of a similar order of around 20% applies to the pogrom in 1935, see here. It is also worth noting that violent deaths only tell part of a story of increased mortality arising from conflict and that would not be captured in any of those figures – for some discussion of this with regard to recent decades, click here. By the way – you can read Patrick Concannon’s account of the June-July 1920 Derry violence here.]
The day after Carson’s speech the London Times’ scathing report stated that: “If indeed that organisation [the UVF] was revived as a defensive police force for Ulster the most serious consequences would almost certainly ensue. Upon Sir Edward Carson lies largely the blame for having sown the dragon’s teeth in Ireland.” Press reports on the subsequent violence in 1920 and later repeatedly use the term ‘pogrom’ to describe events in Belfast. It is found in many newspapers in Ireland including the likes of the The Irish Times and in British newspapers such as the Westminster Gazette and Daily Herald.
Yet many of the threads of this story have barely been unpicked. For a start, the mechanics of the subsequent violence are largely unexplored. Many writers simply describe the violence in Belfast as ‘sectarian’ as if that, in itself, acts as an explanation. By now, the term ‘sectarian’ has been repeated with such frequency that the key dynamic of the violence being discussed is usually overlooked – pitting proponents of an Irish republic or Home Rule against proponents of keeping Ireland within the British Empire and Act of Union. The repetition also has the effect of removing any context to the violence other than ‘sectarianism’ as if that, in itself, is an explanation.
The use of ‘sectarian’ as meaningless shorthand is worthy of fuller study in its own right as it may be inherited from official information policy strategy from the 1970s onwards as way of removing the immediate context of violent events as a suitable propaganda tool – eg see War on Words: A Northern Ireland Media Reader by Bill Rolston and David Miller. At the same time, the story behind the censorship of Facts and Figures of the Belfast Pogrom 1920-1922 in August 1922 shows there is a deep history of deliberately obscuring the events in Belfast being described. In recent decades, historians like Robert Lynch and Alan Parkinson have also been at pains to dismiss the use of the term ‘pogrom’. Lynch (in his 2008 paper in the Journal of British Studies, “The People’s Protectors? The Irish Republican Army and the “Belfast Pogrom,” 1920-1922”) claims, for it to be a pogrom, victims should be mostly women and children. While Parkinson (in The Unholy War) asserts that a pogrom should be state organised.
Ironically, both seem to apply their own definition of ‘pogrom’ rather than using modern accepted definitions such as used by the likes of Werner Bergmann (from mid-2000s) or David Engels. This is summarised as “…a unilateral, non-governmental form of collective violence initiated by the majority population against a largely defenseless ethnic group…”. That collective violence generally manifests as riots and is directed at the minority group collectively rather than targeting specific individuals. There is also an the implication that officials have connived at it, but not directly organised it. Engel states that although there are no “essential defining characteristics of a pogrom” but that the majority of the incidents “habitually” described as pogroms “…took place in divided societies in which ethnicity or religion (or both) served as significant definers of both social boundaries and social rank, … involved collective violent applications of force by members of what perpetrators believed to be a higher-ranking ethnic or religious group against members of what they considered a lower-ranking or subaltern group, … appliers of the decisive force tended to interpret the behaviour of victims according to stereotypes commonly applied to the groups to which they belonged, … perpetrators expressed some complaint about the victims’ group, …[and] a fundamental lack of confidence on the part of those who purveyed decisive violence in the adequacy of the impersonal rule of law to deliver true justice in the event of a heinous wrong.” For a fuller discussion of Werner Bergmann’s definition of a pogrom see Heitmeyer and Hagan’s survey paper in International Handbook of Violence Research, Volume 1 (2003). David Engels views are reviewed in Dekel-Chen, Gaunt, Meir and Bartal’s Anti-Jewish Violence. Rethinking the Pogrom in East European History.
Anyone familiar with the history of Belfast from 1920 to 1922 can easily map all of those characteristics onto the various episodes of violence (and similarly to later events).
In terms of actually understanding violence, rather than merely describing it, correctly applying the term ‘pogrom’ still only describes the dynamics and mechanisms by which violence is used. It does not explain the political, social or economic purposes of the violence. In an Irish context that is competing visions of from where Ireland should be governed (a point often, perhaps intentionally, obscured by over-use of the term ‘sectarian’). Ironically this modern definition chimes completely with how Fr John Hassan (author of Facts and Figures of the Belfast Pogrom 1920-1922) used the term in 1922, but not critics of the term like Lynch or Parkinson. Notably Kieron Glennon includes it in the title of his From Pogrom to Civil War. However, unpacking the use of the term ‘pogrom’ has implications well beyond 12th July 1920 and, to some extent, explains the widespread reluctance to explore the issue in any depth or to accord any real significance to centenary that will occur on 12th July this year.
* Historically (such as in the 1920’s) the Orange Order and unionist press used the term ‘demonstrations’ to describe the events around the Twelfth.
Last week saw the fiftieth anniversary of the death of former IRA Chief of Staff, prison escapee, hunger striker (he was one of the first republicans to experience long term confinement in the twentieth century), husband, father and writer Hugh McAteer (on 24 June 1970) at the young age of only 53.
Fifty years ago this summer a new run of Republican News began to be published by the Publicity Department of the Belfast IRA’s Brigade staff under the editorship of Jimmy Steele. The importance of publicity and communication had long been recognised across the political spectrum in Ireland. The anti-colonial movements, in particular, recognised the need for a platform to disseminate their message free from the bias and censorship required by the various administrations in Dublin and Belfast.
In the past (before 1970), Republican News had been published in various formats in the past, often as Republican War News or, more typically, War News. In the 1942-1945 the title Republican News became more established and was the main publishing outlet of the IRA. Due to security pressures, various local editions were issued from Belfast, Dublin and (periodically) Galway. Judging by surviving issues there was often little direct correspondence between content, editorial line or ideology in the local editions nor was there complete co-ordination between publication dates and issue numbers.
After the arrest and prosecution of Dan Turley Jr in 1945 included charges relating to possession of Republican News, it was to be thirty-six years until Patricia Haddock was prosecuted for possession of bundles of Republican News in 1971.
The early issues of Republican News in 1970 are typically presented as being some sort of anti-communist platform. In A Secret History of the IRA, Ed Moloney, mentioned Jimmy Steele and Hugh McAteer as influencing early editorial policy writes that “Anticommunism was to be a recurring obsession of the new IRA. The editorial in the first ediion of Republican News, the Provisionals weekly newspaper….Outling the malign influence of Goulding supporters, RN [Republican News] railed against them in language that would not have been out of place in a speech by Senator Joe McCarthy: “Gradually into Executive posts, in the IRA and Sinn Fein, the Red agents infiltrated…and soon these men became the policy makers. Young men and girls were brainwashed with the teachings and propaganda of the new policy makers and well-trained organizers were sent into different areas to spread the teachings of the Red infiltrators.”
Yet, this is largely the only negative reference to left wing politics in the first issues and was not actually the editorial (instead it appeared in an article entitled ‘Republican Policy – Then and Now’. The actual editorial in that same June 1970 issue stated that “The Socialism of James Connolly, the idealism of Patrick Pearse and unrepentant republicanism of Tom Clarke we shall try to inculcate into our people…“. Just to note – the (recurring) discrepancy here is largely down to contemporary perceptions of Soviet policy in the Prague in 1968 or Budapest in the 1950s as distinct from left wing socio-economic platform. The invocation of a left-right split within Irish republicanism (that isn’t supported by actual events in 1969) features in recent revelations about the 1970 arms trials and the role of Fianna Fail and British military intelligence (for more see here).
Hugh McAteer and Jimmy Steele also both died fifty years ago this summer in July and August 1970.
If people are interested, I’ll try and post up further early issues of Republican News (I currently have copies of 1970: Vol 1, No 1 June, No 2 July, No 3 August; No 6 November/December; 1971 no number July – anyone with copies of Vol 1, Nos 4, 5 etc might let me know to firstname.lastname@example.org).
Here’s some cartoons from the Sunday Independent in early 1922. Given the papers recent ethos, their political emphasis is maybe surprising. The cartoons were all apparently drawn by Gordon Brewster. The first three date from the period in February and March 1922, in the immediate aftermath of the Weaver Street bombing. The second three are from the end of May and June 1922. The cartoons mainly feature Winston Churchill and James Craig, both considered at the time to be the architects behind the violent reprisal policies in Ireland. The Bogie Man in the cartoon isn’t actually Gerry Adams but is supposed to represent the prospect of an IRA invasion over the border as a jack-in-the-box pulled out by unionists to scare people.
The metal object in the photo below is a lead mould for an incendiary bomb from the early 1920s. It was recently shown to me in County Wexford where it was found stuck into the wall of a derelict building on a farm that formerly belonged to two brothers, Jack and Peter Redmond. They had been members of J Company in the 3rd Battalion of the North Wexford Brigade of the 3rd Eastern Division of the IRA in 1921 and 1922. I did a quick attempt to get an impression from the mould which gives some idea of what an incendiary bomb produced by the mould would look like (see photo above).
The use of fragmentation grenades, both home made and imported Mills bombs, as well as mines and other explosive devices are one feature of the War for Independence period and later. Unlike the fragmentation grenades, which were designed to shatter and scatter pieces of metal following the explosion of the detonator, the incendiary bombs were shaped charges designed to trigger a fire. One of the early co-ordinated actions of the IRA was to attack government offices housing tax and other records and set them on fire. This occurred during the phase in which brigade and divisional structures were being put in place. In March 1920, the IRA’s Director of Chemicals, James O’Donovan, had issued advice on the manufacture of home made bombs, both fragmentation and incendiary, in the IRA’s in-house journal An tÓglac. O’Donovan himself recorded something of the background to the IRA’s manufacture of munitions for the Bureau of Military History in 1957.
In Wexford the IRA had its own munitions manufacturing unit in Enniscorthy. Ultimately the training that included the bomb mould in the picture probably came from there. A number of incidents in 1920 might have involved the use of bombs manufactured in the mould, including the burning of the RIC Barracks at Kilmuckridge and the Morriscastle Coastguard Station actions in the district adjoining that of J Company which included the Redmonds (you can follow links to various incidents in Wexford here in the Brigade Activity series).
“In connection with attacks on barracks, etc., which were beginning to develop at this time, our activities were purely directed to the making of incendiary mixtures which gradually evolved to the making of incendiary grenades. I adapted a combination of the Mills type of bomb which we were about to bring out with incendiary materials and primers to produce an incendiary grenade, although the requirements for a fully explosive or a fully incendiary effect are quite different. In the explosive grenade, the object was to have a thick cast-iron wall serrated in such a way in the mould as to reduce by fragmentation to a theoretical 48 fragments upon explosion, each of which would be similar in effect in action to shrapnel; whereas in the case of incendiary work, a soft and easily consumed wall was what was required, preferably itself made of inflammable material, which would be destroyed in the process, and the contents such as to produce intensely high temperatures in the least time. There would, of course, in an incendiary grenade, be no detonator tubes or detonating explosive, but the fuse, which would be ignited exactly in the same manner as the explosive grenade, would touch off an easily inflammable primary mixture which perhaps, even though a second primary or secondary mixture, would work up with rapidly increasing temperature the main body of inflammable material. The first type of such grenade, but in a more imperfect form, had actually been tried out by me in company with Nick Lynch before he had been replaced by Dick McKee. This had a lead wall and contained thermite. as the main mixture; but the first efforts in that direction had not got over the difficulties of graduating the stages from the fuse to the main body of incendiary, with the result that there was a mildly explosive action which had the effect of scattering the main body instead of rapidly igniting it. By constant research on such practical problems, a stage was reached when these difficulties were resolved, and I remember the first official try-out of this product which took place in the basement of 44 Parnell Square in the presence of McKee, Clancy, Sean Russell, Mick Lynch, probably Sean Mooney (then brigade adjutant), and others. This was a memorable occasion, as units were drilling upstairs while we occupied the dark basement. In view of the job being undertaken, the drilling was an important adjunct as it tended to conceal the activity in the basement. A manually ignited fuse was used on this occasion, not11one operated by a hammer and cap mechanism, as the purpose was simply to try out the actual incendiary materials in association with primers and the container. It was, as far as I remember, cigar-lighter fuse, and its progress was, visible in the dark, so that the excitement and tension grew as the flame visibly progressed. During the silence of waiting, the marching and drilling upstairs filled the expectant basement. It was a complete success in every way and McKee was highly excited and congratulated me, shaking both my hands. When we had finished, the upstairs building began to fill with smoke, but by then we, the experimenters, were gone.”
As a footnote – as much as people will focus on the violence of the early 1920s during the various centenaries, it should be noted that violence was very much the exception to the rule of the long history of Irish independence movements. Similarly, parties advocating a constitutional route to Irish independence of various forms had won a majority of seats in Ireland in the British House of Commons since 1874. Even then the eligible electorate in previous elections was hardly representative of the opinion of the population of Ireland. For a start women couldn’t vote until 1918. But on top of that it was so incredibly restricted and narrow and drawn from a extremely limited spectrum of Irish society that there were under 93,000 votes cast in the 1859 election when the population of Ireland was around 5,700,000. Even in 1874 that number had only increased to 225,000 votes cast. Even taking the fiction of the unrepresentative nature of electoral politics in the late nineteenth century, constitutional politics had had the opportunity to deliver Home Rule, in various guises, for almost fifty years before the violence of the early 1920s.