The 1944 IRA hunger strike

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

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

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

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

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

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

AntOglachMarch1943

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

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

RepNewsJuly1943

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

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

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

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

How to replace the peace lines with the River Farset

Imagine we could replace the fifty year old peace line by re-opening the River Farset? That isn’t as fanciful as it sounds. A significant section of the river along the northern side of Cupar Street (much of it open ground today) while the peace line runs on its southern side. So it would certainly be possible, but is it plausible? As a starting point, here’s a brief overview of the course of the river, it’s heritage and the pre-1969 urban landscape of Belfast.

Here’s a closer look at the course of the River Farset between the Falls Road and Shankill Road. To make it easier to follow, I’ve stitched together a map. Rather than use the modern street layout (there is a reason for this which I will get to), I’ve overlaid it on to the street layout prior to the construction of the peace line in 1969. While enough of the street layout survives to align yourself on the map (if you know the area), I’ve added the course of the peace line in red, as a reference point.

Farset and peace line Map

The course of the Farset was surveyed and mapped in detail by the Ordnance Survey in the 1830s. The volume and flow of water in the Farset was substantial enough to power water wheels that drove machinery in various mills along the route of the river (or was used in the industrial processes in the mill). These mills provided the employment that drew people into the streets that began to be built along either bank of the river. This is part of the origin of the Shankill Road district to the north of the river and the Falls Road to the south.

But capitalism being capitalism – businesses competed for access to the Farset. Mills further up the Farset could tap into the water supply and reduce the flow of water (and thus power) for their competitors downstream. The insurance many business took out was to construct a pond to hold water which could then be released to power a mill wheel when it suited the business. The industrial landscape this created is still visible in the various pre-1969 maps of the district. These record the locations of ‘ponds’, ‘mill ponds’, ‘reservoirs’, mill races and other water courses. This industrial heritage is also visible in the surviving mill buildings. The chimneys used for the fossil fuels that were to replace water power. These water courses would have been constructed to draw and control the supply of water from the Farset to a reservoir from which water was allowed to flow out and power a wheel. Water power was to be slowly replaced by steam generated by coal fires and the necessary infrastructure of ponds and water channels became obsolete.

By 1849, the use of water along the Blackstaff had become a major public health issue due to overflows and flooding from the dams used to capture water in ponds for mills and industrial use. In 1851, access rights to water from the Carrs Glen stream and River Milewater had been the substance of major legal battle. Water Bills were passed and rates levied, with elected commissioners, to try and manage water related issues in Belfast and the surrounding districts.

Heavy rains brought floods to the city. As the Belfast Newsletter (3/10/1851) described it: “Belfast is also peculiarly circumstanced with respect to floods. The mountains by which it is embraced are, as the town has lately extended, very contiguous to it. The water-courses are few, and consequently, the mountain torrents descend very abruptly from the hills to the sea and the river which forms the course of the valley.” The same article details the various water courses. The Farset, which it calls the Town Burn, is described as insignificant at its head but augumented by several small feeders into a forcible stream, and ‘artificially embanked for mill purposes’. It names some of the business along the Farset: Clonard dyeing and bleach works, Belfast Flour Mill, Campbell and Cos flax spinning mills. The Mill-dam at Millfield disgorged so much water that it flooded the streets in Smithfield below it.

Flooding along the Farset was a recurring problem. Following floods in August 1895, a report for Belfast Corporation names locations along the route of the Farset, from the Crumlin Road across the Shankill into Cupar Street, North Howard Street, Percy Street, Hastings Street and as far as the Pound. Residents described flooding, sometimes on multiple occasions in the one year, as a growing problem since 1880 with 1893 also particularly bad (see, eg, Belfast Newsletter 30/8/1895 and 3/9/1895). They claimed the water was up to two feet deep in the likes of Townsend Street and individual houses were flooded by up to six feet of water. Proposed remedial works give an idea of the integration of the Farset into the city waste and water infrastructure: an overflow from the Shankill sewer into ‘the river at Percy Street’; another overflow culvert, at Snugville Street and down Conway Street to discharge ‘into the river course crossing that street’; and, an overflow from the Cupar Street sewer into the adjacent river course that crossed Lawnbrook Avenue. A water course that ran south from the Farset called the Pound Burn is also mentioned (it seemingly was linked back to the Farset). Remedial works weren’t foolproof as flooding continued to be an issue along the Farset, as late as November 1954, heavy rains triggered floods along the line of the river from Cupar Street to Millfield.

Deep pools of water brought other dangers as various drownings are reported in the press, such as Hugh Scullion found in Kennedys Dam in Cupar Street in December 1886, a nine year old boy, Danny McDonald, was to drown in a ‘dam’ at Cupar Street as recently as 1967. The fire brigade had to pump out 100,000 gallons of water from the disused dam to recover his body. Drownings in Belfast mill-dams and ponds were reported with tragic frequency.

The Farset ran on a crooked course behind the houses on the western side of Battenberg Street. Maps from 1901 (just after Battenberg Street was built) show that the Farset had been channelled into a much straighter course since the 1830s. South of the end of Battenberg Street and to the west of Cupar Street it turned to the east (towards Cupar Street). This is where the original course of the Farset and the modern peace line run side-by-side. The Farset ran along the Shankill Road side of Cupar Street. Cupar Way, which runs alongside the peace line, is constructed over the houses which originally stood on the southern side of Cupar Street, with the pre-1969 line of Cupar Street preserved parallel to Cupar Way. Judging by the maps and descriptions in the press (see above), there was a sewer constructed under Cupar Street with the Farset running in a separate channel on the northern side of Cupar Street. The Farset passes under the modern peace line below the bottom of Argyle Street from where it ran to Conway Street where it was still visible where the road crossed the Farset (in 1895). From there the Farset crosses back over the peace line just outside the North Howard Street gate and again at the Northumberland Street gate. In 1895 it was again visible where it crossed the road in Percy Street. It continues east from here to between Boundary Street and Townsend Street where a channel, called the Pound Burn, linked it to the Blackstaff River (where it was a natural stream or not isn’t clear).

This is a very preliminary survey of old maps and newspapers but it does raise the prospect of establishing the route of the River Farset on the ground in this area. Documentary research could reveal more details of the works at individual locations along the course of the river that might inform our understanding of how the meandering course of the Farset was gradually constrained into a narrower channel and then, at some point, culverted or even re-directed entirely. While it is fifty years since the peace line began to be built alongside the river, being able to re-establish the old street layout on the ground would significantly help to plot the course of the river from the former Shankill Church down as far as Millfield. While much of this can be transposed from maps, older members of the communities on either side might be able to confirm minor details that tie together a bigger picture.

This would not be without a purpose. Finding a way to visually represent the course of the River Farset on the ground, with physical markers, would lend itself to talking about the communities here without explicit reference to the post-1969 peace line. This would provide a new focus for visitors to the area that moves beyond the dark heritages of the recent conflict as it relates to Belfast’s medieval and industrial heritages and rich urban history. The past treatments of the Farset also speaks to modern concerns of the environment and sustainability. It may even become possible to explore physically relocating and re-opening the Farset, eg alongside the original line of Cupar Street. This would require much more detailed scoping, including physically opening up the ground for archaeological testing of the former river course to establish what is present and a much more considered view of the possibilities and the communities’ views of such a project. In one way, though, it would be quite a powerful aspiration to seek to replace the now fifty year old peace lines by re-opening a section of the river from which Belfast took its name.

The start of the peace lines: Belfast, 1969.

Fifty years ago this summer peace lines were erected across parts of Belfast, most famously along a line that roughly follows the course of the River Farset from Divis Street to the Springfield Road. Here, I look at how it was first built in September 1969 and some of its predecessors in Belfast. I also take a look at the coincidence of its location and the River Farset.

It is often overlooked that the British Army had been deployed in Belfast before August 1969. It had initially been used to guard infrastructure and key installation in April 1969 in the face of an ongoing unionist bombing campaign. That deployment was then extended in mid-August due to the rapidly intensifying violence which led to the widespread erection of barricades by residents in various districts in Belfast (a book on the violence that summer – Burnt Out – has just been published by Michael McCann).

1969 knife rests


Military barrier of ‘knife rests’, 16th August, 1969 (Getty Images)

Immediately troops were on the streets, many public figures pressed for the removal of the barricades as a symbol of a return to normality. A short term solution to this was to replace the physical barriers with soldiers, what was described in conversation between Irish diplomat K. Rush and Sir Edward Peck of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office as a ‘human barricade’. While the Irish representatives made it clear that it believed that the ‘human barricade’ was preferable to physical alternatives, Peck implied there was a need for a physical barrier due to British soldiers being a ‘scarce commodity’. Photographs from 15th and 16th August 1969 show the interim measures put in place along side the military – mainly portable wire obstacles, such as knife rests, in place at various locations. After discussions over the replacement of barricades between community leaders, the IRA and the British Army there were tentative moves to start dismantling and replacing the residents’ ad hoc barricades. These took many forms, including everything from burnt out vehicles to solid barriers of broken paving stones to shuttering erected on scaffolding. Immediately the British Army was to replace the ad hoc barricades with knife rests, which in ‘Catholic’ districts, were to be jointly guarded by the British Army and Citizen’s Defence Committee.

On 9th September, the Unionist Prime Minister Chichester Clarke met with his Joint Security Committee at Stormont Castle, including the Ministers of Home Affairs, Education and Development, the Army GOC and Chief of Staff and various RUC, Army and Civil Service figures. The conclusions from the meeting noted that “A peace line was to be established to separate physically the Falls and the Shankill communities. Initially this would take the form of a temporary barbed wire fence which would be manned by the Army and the Police. The actual line of fence would be decided in consultations with the Belfast Corporation. It was agreed that there should be no question of the peace line becoming permanent although it was acknowledge that the barriers might have to be strengthened in some locations.” That opening phrase ‘peace line’ now entered the security lexicon, although ‘peace wall’ was occasionally, if more rarely, used (prior to 1969 the phrase ‘peace line’ was generally just associated with the demarcation line from the end of the Korean War).

That evening, Chichester Clarke made a broadcast that was televised on the news on BBC, UTV and RTE (you can watch it and other footage of the peace lines being constructed here). He stated that: “We have now decided that the army will erect and man a firm peace line to be sited between the Divis Street area and Shankill Road on a line determined by a representative body from the city hall. In conjunction with this action, barricades will be removed in all areas of Belfast, both Protestant and Catholic.” The initial reaction from representatives of the ‘Catholic’ residents was very negative.

The knife rests and residents’ barricades were thus to be replaced with wire entanglements straight out of the British Army’s Manual of Fields Works (All Arms). The first to be erected were constructed of barbed wire strung between multiple bays of pickets. The pickets were placed in holes drilled through the road surface and then hammered into place (as shown in the photos below). Wire was then strung between the pickets to create the required obstacle. As they were solely composed of pickets and wire, they controlled movement but did not create a visual barrier. The construction of the peace line at the corner of Cawnpore Street and Cupar Street on 10th September 1969 is shown below (taken as stills from television footage).

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The ‘representative body from city hall’ that was going to determine the route was to be chaired by the Lord Mayor, Alderman Joseph Cairns. It included all the councillors from the wards involved (this is based on reporting in the Irish Press 11/9/1969 and contemporary television footage and interviews). This body was to identify where to locate the ‘peace line’ street by street. The start and end points were largely self-defined by flashpoints and the rioting of the past weeks. However, negotiating the exact position often involved arguing over (literally) which individual houses it needed to accommodate on the Falls Road/Divis Street or Shankill Road side of the line.

The actual construction works were undertaken by British Army Engineers escorted by the 2nd Grenadier Guards and began at about 4.30 pm at either end, starting in the east at Coates Street (which was closest to the Millfield/Divis Street end) and in the west from the Springfield Road end of Cupar Street. In theory, work was to progress towards a centre point on the route agreed by the working group. Initially installing the peace line seems to have stopped at 9 pm on the 10th September and then resumed again at 8 am on 11th (these times are quoted in the press on 11th September). Despite the intention of the western and eastern sections converging, progress at the eastern end was obstructed by a failure to agree the position of the wire entanglement on Dover Street and it was the last to be completed. According to The Irish Press (11/9/1969), on the first day work had begun with rival crowds singing “Go home you bums, Go home you bums…” to the soldiers involved.

Photos of the peace line just after it was constructed on 10th/11th September at Cupar Street and Lucknow Street are shown below (from Irish Independent 11th and 12th September 1969).

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The immediate impetus for the erection of the ‘peace line’ was presumably as preparation for violence that was expected to accompany the imminent release of the Cameron Report (on the circumstances that led to violence the previous year). There had been leaks since early September that signalled that the report would be critical of the Unionist government and the RUC. This was confirmed when it was published and widely discussed in the media on the 11th and 12th September. However, reactions to the Cameron Report, in particular recommended changes to the RUC meant that the ‘peace line’ did not stop violence continuing.

Newspapers reports on 26th and 27th September show how the night of the 25th September had quickly exposed the limitations of the wire entanglements as a ‘firm peace line’. In Coates Street, a crowd from the Shankill Road side simply threw petrol bombs over the ‘peace line’ and burned out a number of houses. Repeated violence in Coates Street and Sackville Street also saw crowds breach the wire entanglements to attack houses on the other side of the peace line.

The failure of the ‘peace line’ had clearly been noted by the military. The Belfast Telegraph had reported on Wednesday 24th September that the British Army had been removing residents’ barricades by agreement and only a handful were left. The paper noted that “As far as West Belfast is concerned, some of the heavy steel ones are remaining for a few days until the Army replaces them with special corrugated iron affairs that will foil snipers and stop cars speeding up and down the streets.” By the weekend of 27th-28th September it was abundantly clear that the tactics employed by crowds attacking from the Shankill Road side were exposing the frailty of the ‘peace line’. Just as the wire entanglements were merely being pushed aside, soldiers were carrying rifles with live ammunition and, at this date, simply stepped back rather than open fire on the crowd. Contemporary accounts clearly show that the troops had been deployed without either training or suitable equipment for crowd control (apart from CS gas). Similarly, the wire entanglements were completely ineffective as obstacles when it came to snipers and missiles.

By Monday 29th September British Army engineers had begun to erect ‘concertina-type’ barriers in Coates Street/Sackville Street (eg see Belfast Telegraph 2/10/1969). The authorities also announced tactical changes in how the British Army would deal with rioters, including an acknowledgement of the passive role taken by the Army to date, such as when soldiers stood aside while rioters entered and burned houses in Coates Street. It claimed that some soldiers would now be deployed without guns but with two foot batons instead. The ‘concertina-type’ barriers that were to replace the wire entanglements would be fifteen feet in height and would completely seal off the ends of individual streets (the same reports in Belfast Telegraph dismiss claims that the peace line was to be extended to fifty feet in width). The new barriers were constructed from corrugated iron sheeting erected on wooden studding. Photographs from Coates Street show the first of these being constructed (Getty Images). They appear to be closer to around ten feet in height that the proposed fifteen feet.

Coates Street concertina type

The completed concertina-type barrier, with a reinstated wire entanglement obstacle in front of it, is visible in this photograph taken in December 1969 (Getty Images).

Sackville Coates

Questions to the Unionist Minister of Home Affairs at Stormont, Robert Porter, from Unionist MP Norman Laird indicated that it was the Minister of Home Affairs who had the authority to close roads (Stormont Hansard, 2/10/1969) and that the concertina-type barriers were erected by the Army with Porter’s agreement (see Stormont Hansard 7/10/1969). In the latter debate, Porter stated that the corrugated iron barricades were intended to be purely temporary. Fifty years later the peace line and many others still remain. Ironically, though, none of the current peace-line appears to contain any surviving sections of the first ‘concertina-type’ barrier.

The practice of physically segregating districts and individual streets in Belfast was not new in 1969. When intermittent violence throughout the early 1930s peaked on 12th July 1935, British soldiers were deployed to act, initially, as a ‘human barricade’. As that violence continued to escalate quickly, in particular in York Street and Sailortown, on 16th July the RUC began erecting physical barriers by closing off the end of streets with hoardings including New Andrew Street, New Dock Street, Marine Street, Ship Street, Fleet Street and Nelson Street. This was then extended to streets in the Old Lodge Road by the 19th July (eg see Belfast Newsletter 17/7/1935, Northern Whig 19/7/1935). These were ‘concertina-type’ barriers, made of corrugated iron and seven feet in height (eg see description in Irish Times, 30/4/1936). Despite continued protests from businesses in the area, they were only taken down in the middle of June 1936 (see Northern Whig, 13/6/1936). Notably, some residents claimed that the barriers had been unwanted as they simply prolonged and reinforced division (eg the likes of Jackie Quinn, quoted in Munck and Rolstons’ Belfast in the Thirties: an Oral History).

The barrier on New Dock Street is shown below (from Irish Press 19/7/1935, for more see here).

irish-press-19.7.35.png

Prior to 1935, the same ‘peace line’ structures had been also used during 1920-22. This included all the same elements that were to be found in 1969: human barricades, knife rests, wire entanglements and hoardings. The latter two are recorded in Ballymaccarrett in particular. The Belfast Newsletter reported on 24th July 1920 that Seaforde Street and Wolff Street had been closed with wire entanglements the previous day. Two days later the paper reported that sandbagged and wire barricades had been put in place at Seaforde Street, Short Strand, Middlepath Street, Lackagh Street, Harland Street and Wolff Street. Timber barriers were then erected at the Newtownards Road end of Seaforde Street and Young’s Row in early March 1922 (see Belfast Newsletter 13/3/1922). Despite continued opposition, the barriers at the end of Seaforde Street and Youngs Row were only taken down towards the end of 1923 (newspaper reports in the summer of 1923 clearly show the barriers were erected on the authority of the Minister of Home Affairs). The sequence of wire entanglements, knife rests and timber barriers being put up and taken down at Seaforde Street is shown below (from various sources: Illustrated London News 4/9/1920; cartoon from Illustrated London News 31/7/1920; Sunday Independent 4/12/1921; construction timber barrier, March 1922, from here; timber barrier being removed in 1923 from Snapshots of Old Belfast 1920-24, by Joe Baker, 2011).

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There were also sandbagged military posts and wire entanglements at various other locations around the city. A Dáil Publicity Department Communication published by the Irish Independent on 22nd June 1922 described how “There is now a fort or blockhouse on the Sth African system along every 100 yards of Falls Road. The windows are sandbagged and wired.” A still from a Pathé newsreel of Belfast in 1922 is shown below. The reference to the South African system was clearly intended to invoke a tactical comparison with the blockhouses and concentrations employed by the British Army during the Second Boer War and other newspaper reports make reference to the tactics deployed then in Transvaal.

Pathe Falls

The picture below (from Getty Images) shows a sandbagged blockhouse in Belfast at an unspecified location (possibly opposite Falls Park) in 1920. While the file is dated 1st January 1920, it says on ‘Orange Day’ which seems to mean 12th July 1920.

blockhouse

Finally, it is interesting to look at the physical location and course of the peace line (see map). Belfast in Irish is usually rendered as Beal Feirste and which is assumed to derive from its location at the mouth of the River Farset which enters the Lagan at High Street (the Farset seems to take its name from sandbanks where it enters the Lagan). A fourteenth century borough was founded where the Farset, Lagan and various routeways converged, with the layout of High Street, Ann Street and the various entries likely dictated by the layout of the medieval borough’s property boundaries. An earlier church site at Shankill lay alongside a ford over the Farset as it flowed down towards the Lagan (at today’s Lanark Way/Shankill Road junction). The name Shankill (Sean Cill or ‘old church’) shows it predates a later church, known in the seventeenth century as the Corporation Church, that lay close to where St George’s is today on High Street. Pre-seventeenth century documentation of Belfast is so inadequate that a handful of reference to a ‘chapel of the ford’ are usually taken to mean another church that predates the Corporation Church, but the ‘chapel of the ford’ but could equally be referring to Shankill (given that it also sat on a ford over the Farset).

peacelinefarset

Map (based on 3rd Edition OS Map), showing course of River Farset (blue), peace line (red) and Shankill Church (green with white cross).

Where north and west Belfast slope down to the Lagan there are various streams and rivers that could be damned to power mills and factories, attracting industry and drawing workers in from the countryside. This led to the growth of industries and residential areas for the workers on this side of the city. The Shankill Road and Falls Road, which converge along the Farset, drew in workers to the factories, mills and foundries that established in an industrial district along the banks of the Farset itself. Religious and ethnic tensions were constantly preyed upon, arguably to the benefit of the factory and mill owners who could play on sectarian fears to deflect from poor work and housing conditions. The communities that then grew along both the Shankill and Falls Road, on either side of the River Farset, tended to have greater proportions of Protestants (Shankill) and Catholics (Falls) as intermittent violence throughout the nineteenth century often lead to sporadic increases in segregation (and thus perpetuated the tensions). The final expression of this appears to be the tracing of the ‘peace line’ in September 1969 along a route that mirrors that of the Farset itself.

You can read more about the summer of 1969 in Michael McCann’s bookBurnt Out and about the wider background (for free for the next few days) in Belfast Battalion.

A current project by James O’Leary of University College London is documenting the peace walls at http://www.peacewall-archive.net which can be viewed here.

 

Belfast Battalion: #WorldBookDay

To mark World Book Day, you can now read Belfast Battalion online for free (just click here or cut and paste the link: https://thelitterpress.wordpress.com/2019/03/07/belfast-battalion-worldbookday/).

It will be available to read for free from 7th March 2019 to the 18th March 2019.

To  buy the book click here.

 

Ethna Carbery and the disappearance of many Northern cultural figures from the literary history of Ireland

Last weekend the Irish Times published a map showing some of the locations where it believed we should be considering erecting monuments to honour the achievements of various outstanding Irish women. Since it only included very few in the north, I’m suggesting one, Anna Johnston, who should be near the top of any such list.

In 2002, when the designation of Belfast as European City of Culture for 2008 was being criticised due to a claimed lack of a cultural heritage in Belfast, Mary Burgess, writing in the Irish Times (4/3/2002), had pointed out how one legacy of what she calls ‘cultural partitionism’ had been the “…disappearance of many Northern cultural figures from the literary history of Ireland.” She went on to point out that most of the innovative and important names in the Irish Revival had actually hailed from the north, not least among them being Anna Johnston (who wrote under the name Ethna Carbery).

Johnston and Alice Milligan (from Gortmore, County Tyrone, also equally worthy of recognition on that list) had been active both as creative figures and in the production of The Northern Patriot and The Shan Van Vocht newspapers. The latter paper had inspired Constance Markieviecz to found L’Irlande Libre and Johnston was a founding Vice-President of Maud Gonne’s Inghinidhe na hÉireann, itself a fore runner of Cumann na mBan. Johnston and Milligan are part of what Brian Maye (again in The Irish Times) described as “…part of a remarkable generation of Irish women nationalists whose role has received attention only in recent years.

Anna Johnston

Anna Johnston (thanks to Roddy Hegarty for the photo)

Anna Johnston, as Ethna Carbery, was to provide many people with the soundtrack to the revolutionary period ushered in by the ‘revival’ and was widely read among the Irish in America and Britain (one early twentieth century American critic described her as one of the few great poets of the last hundred years). It is difficult now to appreciate how impactful it was to explore her themes drawing on Irish history, nationalism, mythology and folklore for an audience that had long been expected to consume and enthuse about an arts that gloried in British imperial values and themes.

Although Anna Johnston died of gastritis in 1902, aged just 37, her husband the writer Seumas MacManus, ensured that her The Four Winds of Erinn was posthumously published that year, as were The Passionate Hearts (1904, with cover design by George Russell) and In the Celtic Past (1904). Johnston and MacManus had only married the previous year. He was to remain prominent in promoting her writing (as was Alice Milligan) which inevitably attracted reference to their tragically brief marriage layering further emotional depth into her work. The Four Winds of Erinn in particular was repeatedly reprinted well into the 1930s. In 1948, The Irish Press (2/4/19948) wrote of The Four Winds of Erinn that “There have been greater books of verse published in Ireland since then, but none that has achieved greater popularity.” At the fiftieth anniversary of her death, a public address was given by Sinead de Valera in which she stated that “Among women poets Ethna Carbery would always hold the foremost place and, even though her life was short, it was full of devotion and idealism” (Irish Press 2/4/1952).

Johnston developed themes and style appealed to a contemporary audience, in particular an unashamed sentimentality, but probably just wouldn’t translate into today’s tastes. One of her poems that many people do still know today was used to provide the lyrics for the song Roddy McCorley. Yet Johnston was clearly a hugely significant figure within the literary and political revival of the late nineteenth century and contributed significantly the sense of identity that underscored the nationalist and republican movements of the early twentieth century. Although she had moved to Donegal after she married, she had grown up and lived most of her life in Belfast on the Antrim Road where she had been exposed to Irish history and politics all her life. So had her brother James who was a member of the fascinating London Irish Republican Brotherhood circles and, although he had not taken any physical role in the Easter Rising (he was then 54 years of age), was arrested and interned in Frongoch. According to the National Graves Association pamphlet Belfast and Nineteen Sixteen (from 1966) James wasn’t in good health and he died shortly afterwards. However, while he does appear to have suffered ill health while at Frongoch, years after his return he moved to Salthill House in Mountcharles, County Donegal (in the late 1920s) where he lived until his death on 10th May 1932 at the age of 70.

Cavehill

Anna Johnston seated at the back of the family home, Antrim Road, Belfast. Beside her is her sister Marguerite (thanks to Roddy Hegarty for the photo).

Their father, Robert Johnston, was a timber merchant and, as the Irish Press noted after his death in March 1937, the last surviving member of the Supreme Council of the Irish Republican Brotherhood on which he had sat with Charles Kickham, John O’Leary, John Devoy, Denis Dowling Mulcahy, Charles O’Farrell and John Lavin. In many ways his own eclipse from Irish history mirrors that of his daughter.

R Johnston 29.3.37 I Press

Robert Johnstone, Irish Independent 29th March 1937

Robert Johnston had been born in 1839 in County Antrim where he had grown up hearing stories from the last veteran United Irishmen who had fought at the Battle of Antrim. He even once, reputedly, saw Mary Ann McCracken herself. He had later got to personally know those involved in the 1848 Young Ireland revolutionary movement before he got involved in the 1867 Fenian rising. He later oversaw the re-organisation of the IRB in the 1880s and had hosted many of the leaders of the Easter Rising in his Antrim Road home in Belfast. He was an intimate of James Stephens, John O’Mahony and Charles Parnell. The personal connections with 1798, 1848 and involvement in 1867 and those who were to lead the 1916 Easter Rising led Seamus MacManus to call Robert Johnston the “…connecting link that kept the spirit of freedom alive throughout more than a century.

With his own advancing age, Johnston became progressively more housebound in Belfast but lived to reach the age of 99 just before he died in March 1937. While there was considerable press coverage of his death, the lack of any official recognition at the time of his death prompted one correspondent to write to the Irish Independent (12/4/1937):

Robert Johnstone was a man who had dedicated his life to the cause of Irish ‘Nationality’ and had been given a place of honour at the funeral of John Devoy, his friend and co-worked and died as he lived an uncompromising Fenian. He was worthier by far of more than the mere handful of Irishmen who attended the funeral to pay their respects to one who had given his all for Ireland.

It is with a deep sense of shame that we record that of the innumerable circle from the highest to the lowest in the land, and particularly in the South which boasted his friendship in life, none could afford to come and pay his respect to Robert Johnstone in death.

Robert Johnston had himself memorialised with the one thing he believed history would associate him. Beneath his name on his tombstone, in St Mary’s in Greencastle, it simply includes how he believed history would remember him: ‘Father of Ethna Carbery.’

 

[Thanks to Roddy Hegarty for the photos of the Johnstons and to Damien Mac Con Uladh for details of her correct date of birth]

Lightly tap the muffled drum: the stories of Belfast-born Vol. Jack Edwards, killed Kilkenny prison 1922, and his family

These are the epic stories of the Edwards family who lived in the Manor Street area of Belfast at the turn of the twentieth century. Later moving to Waterford, the Edwards had an eldest son in the flying column of the local IRA (and who was shot dead in Kilkenny prison in 1922), a father who had spent years in both the British Army (including the first world war) and prison service, a political activist mother and a brother who fought conservative Catholicism, joined Republican Congress and fought in Spain. This short account of their experiences merely scratches the surfaces of the extraordinary lives that some otherwise ‘ordinary’ people lived in early twentieth century Ireland.
On 19th August 1922 Belfast-born IRA officer Jack Edwards was shot dead by a National Army sentry at Kilkenny prison. A train fireman, he had joined the IRA in Waterford in 1917 and was a member of the city’s D Company and, by 1921 was a full time member of the flying column of the Waterford Brigade’s Active Service Unit. He had returned home shortly after the truce and returned to work only to return to active service in 1922. In the race between the IRA and National Army to take control of key buildings and infrastructure in the middle of 1922, he had led an IRA unit which took control of the GPO in Waterford for several days but was eventually taken prisoner and placed in Kilkenny jail. Having been told someone in the street wanted to speak to him, Edwards went to an upstairs toilet where the small window allowed prisoners to converse with people in the street outside. He was shot through the window by a sentry and died immediately (a handkerchief marked with his blood is in the Kilmainham Gaol Museum).

John Edwards blood-stained handkerchief

Handkerchief reputedly stained with Jack Edwards blood (in Kilmainham Gaol Museum image published at the link)

At the inquest into his death it was reported that the sentry had given three warnings and exchanged words with Edwards before firing what the sentry said was an un-aimed warning shot from thirty yards away (although other, later, accounts dispute whether he gave any warning at all). The lack of any imminent risk of escape and the precision of the wound would give rise to allegations that Edwards had been killed in retaliation for the death of a National Army officer several days beforehand. None of those suspicions were tempered by the fact that the single shot through the forehead that killed Edwards seemed unlikely for an un-aimed shot but had all the hallmarks of the marksmanship the sentry had gained in his twelve years of service with the British Army (you can read more on this in Eoin Swithin Walsh’s account of Edwards death in Kilkenny: in times of Revolution, 1900-23). Edwards’ remains were taken from Kilkenny to the Cathedral in Waterford and from there to Ballygunner for burial. Other IRA prisoners were given parole from Kilkenny to attend his funeral (given this all happens to coincide with Michael Collins death, the unrestricted reporting and paroles would soon be much less likely).
The inquest was reported at length in the Kilkenny People (26th August 1922). It revealed that after his arrest, Edwards had been used as a hostage by the National Army and made to check for mines during its advance from Waterford. The soldiers guarding the prison had also indiscriminately fired shots into cells (from inside the prison) on a number of occasions, badly wounding at least one IRA prisoner (called O’Neill). The cross-examination of the National Army soldiers guarding the jail included a claim that another prisoner had been seen climbing a wall, apparently intending to escape, earlier that evening. He had merely been shouted at by the guards.The other prisoners also testified that as many as twenty prisoners had been at the same windows in full view of the outpost outside that evening without being warned. Earlier that evening, other prisoners testified, the un-named soldier who fired the fatal shot had boasted that he was a crack shot and that the prisoners would find that out that night (Edwards was shot at 8 pm). The prisoners also disputed evidence from the soldiers on guard duty that more than one shot was fired (the soldiers claimed four or five had been fired). The officer in charge and others were unable to produce records to show that more than one bullet was discharged or that, in reference to Edwards’ catastrophic head injuries, explosive bullets had been issued. Jerry Cronin (O/C of the IRA prisoners in Kilkenny Gaol) went as far as to claim that the soldier who fired the shot had been the one who actually called Edwards to the window. The jury still found the soldier had killed Edwards in the course of his duty. The whole proceedings took place in the prison in a room above the apartment containing Edwards remains. Annie Edwards, Jack’s mother who was dependent on her eldest son, had to sit through the whole proceedings.

Jack

Jack Edwards, from Nioclas de Fuiteoil (1948) Waterford Remembers

Jack Edwards had been born in 1899 in Bandon Street in Belfast, the eldest child of Patrick and Annie Edwards. Annie was originally from Kilkenny (neé Houlahan) and was sitting part of her final exams to become a maternity nurse when she was told Jack had been shot dead. She had become active politically (as early as 1918 she is known to have signed the anti-conscription petition) and subsequently got involved in Cumann na mBan. Described as a ‘die hard’ republican, was constantly watched by the new Free State authorities (eg see Clark, Everyday Violence in the Irish Civil War, p168). While men were more likely to be arrested or interned (and attract the headlines), women like Edwards were providing the continuity and administrative and logistical spine of local IRA organisations. They retained the knowledge of membership, the location of dumps of weapons, documents, contacts and other assets (money, informants etc) during constant changes of the male leadership through arrest and disruption. As Annie Edwards also typified, they simultaneously had to manage grief over losing sons and partners and taking a lead role in organising and attending public protests as well as collecting and distributing supports to dependents of the dead and imprisoned.
Neither was Jack the first child Annie Edwards lost. Her and Patrick had had Jack (1899), Willie (1901), Mary (1906), Frank (1907), Josephine (1909), Teresa (1912) and George (1914). Willie died of tuberculosis in September 1918 ushering in a harrowing year for the family. Four year old George died early in 1919 (and is largely omitted in later accounts of the family). Patrick himself died in April 1919. Five months later, ten year old Josephine died of tuberculosis in August 1919. In the 1930s, Annie also described Teresa as having been ‘delicate’ since birth and still requiring the care of her mother (although Teresa did get married the year after Annie died).
Patrick had been born in Mary Street Limerick in 1865. He was working as clerk and was a member of the Royal Artillery’s militia battalion in 1887 when he went full-time into the British Army. He joined up in Limerick and was sent to Aldershot where he had completed the Medical Staff Corps school in October 1887. He subsequently spent most of his service in Ireland at various postings in Belfast, Cork, Dublin, Enniskillen, Fermoy and Youghal. He had completed his 4th class (1887), 3rd class (1888) and 2nd class education (1892) while in the army (calling to mind James Connolly’s famous quote about using army service to ‘learn all he can and put his training to its best advantage’). Patrick left the service in 1899 and then took up a post in the Belfast prison as a hospital prison warder (he and Annie had married in November 1898 in Belfast).
Patrick worked in Belfast prison until around 1908 when he then was transferred to Clonmel Gaol. In May 1913 the family moved again, this time from Clonmel to live at Long Avenue in Dundalk, where Patrick took up a post in the local prison. After the outbreak of war in 1914, he re-enlisted in June 1915. He was stationed in Cork where he served in the Royal Army Medical Corps. In April 1916 he reported ill and after several months was discharged as permanently unfit for duty in July 1916 (there is no suggestion that, like Tom Barry, he was reacting to the Easter Rising). On leaving the army, Patrick returned to his post in Dundalk prison and, in January 1917, was transferred to Waterford prison. The whole family then moved to Waterford. By mid-1918 Patrick was unable to work and he died of organic brain disease in April 1919. Annie later recorded that he had been an invalid for a year before his death. She began training as a maternity nurse after her death. Despite Patrick’s long military service and subsequent career in the prisons, the successive deaths of Willie, George, Patrick and Josephine all seem to point to a life lived in near, if not actual and crushing, poverty.
The family’s move to Waterford in 1917 coincided with a sudden political awakening in Jack Edwards as he got involved with the Gaelic League, Sinn Féin and the Irish Volunteers. He had got trained and worked as a fireman (an engine driver) with the Great Southern Railways. As he progressed from D Company to the Waterford Brigade’s flying column he is recorded as being involved in a number of incidents. A Waterford IRA officer, Moses Roche, recorded how Edwards halted a train he was driving near Kilmacthomas. It was carrying jurors to Waterford and the local IRA intended drawing out the RIC and military into an ambush (instead they forced Roche to walk in front to draw any fire, which never came). Edwards was one of the original members of the local flying column when it was formed in April 1921. Michael Ryan recalled Edwards being involved in a raid of the County Club in Waterford. He reportedly carried IRA units from Dublin down to Munster at the start of the Civil War in 1922. When the IRA took control of the GPO in Waterford in July 1922, Jack’s younger brother Frank arrived to join him. Frank was a member of Fianna Éireann but was only fifteen at the time. Jack told his younger brother to “Go home to hell” (as told by Frank in Uinseann MacEoin’s 1980 book Survivors, the account below is based on that a more recent article in Journal of the Waterford Archaeological and Historical Society and a lengthy article on Frank here by David Smith).
Frank did but he remained active in the Fianna and joined the IRA in 1924. Jack’s death, his mother’s activism and the loss of so many family members in 1918-19 provided Frank’s political formation and he was to remain committed to the IRA through most of the 1920s although he had become inactive by the end of the decade. He had trained as a National School teacher and by 1931 he was well known for his involvement with rowing and rugby in Waterford. By 1932 he was teaching in Mount Sion and a member of the INTO.
He had also been an early member of Saor Éire, an attempt to push the IRA in a political direction in 1931. In the late 1920s and into the 1930s the IRA struggled to define a political strategy and was more often concerned with calibrating its behaviour to not inflict political damage on Fianna Fáil (believing that, on assuming power, Fianna Fáil would finally realise the republic declared in 1916). Into the 1930s, Edwards was involved in republican and left wing politics in Waterford and wider afield, including unionisation. Having achieved a high profile in protests against the forming of the right wing reactionary Cumann na aGaedheal party put Frank Edwards on a collision course with his employers at Mount Sion in the shape of Archdeacon William Byrne and local Bishop Jeremiah Kinane, both staunch anti-communists who had no qualms about using the church to suppress left wing politics. In 1932 Byrne met with Edwards to try and persuade him to split from the IRA (on the grounds that it was too left wing). Edwards refused to give in to Byrne’s demands.
Just as Catholic anti-communist doctrine was being promoted in Waterford, by 1932 various left wing activists and study groups coalesced around Waterford’s embryonic branch of the Irish Revolutionary Workers Group (many of the former or disaffected IRA members like Frank Edwards). In 1933 the IRWG became the Communist Party of Ireland and, by March 1934, some of the left republicans in the IRA split and formed Republican Congress. Frank Edwards was among the first to join and he also wrote for its newspaper (also called Republican Congress).
By 1934 Congress in Waterford was active in tackling slum landlords. Edwards was so prominently identified with the campaign that his erstwhile employers, Byrne and Kinnane (in effect the Catholic Church in Waterford) gave him an ultimatum that he would be sacked from Mount Sion if he attended Republican Congress’ Convention that September. After he attended and spoke at the Convention, on 2nd October Edwards was advised that his employment was under review. In mid-October he received three months notice of his dismissal. When the local INTO protested and then its national executive got involved, Edwards was advised that the INTO had agreed with Bishop Kinnane’s proposal that the dismissal be rescinded once Edwards sign an undertaking that he would not be involved in any organisation that did not have the approval of the Catholic Church.
The dispute escalated on to the front page of national newspapers and, when the Bishop was to read a pastoral in the Cathedral on 6th January 1935 it was expected to condemn Republican Congress, the IRA and even anyone who hadn’t recanted opposition to the 1922 treaty. He had only mentioned Republican Congress by the time some of his congregation walked out (Gardaí had been positioned inside the church in case of a demonstration). As the day of Edwards’ dismissal drew close there were other public protests including a strike observed by a small number of pupils in Mount Sion itself. However, despite public opinion being hugely in Edwards favour the Catholic church exerted pressure everywhere, with even the local Dockers branch of the ATWGU offering unqualified support to the bishop. At one protest both Frank and Annie Edwards spoke publicly to protest at the treatment of her son. Afterwards, the bishop sent a priest to Annie to advise her that if she didn’t withdraw her statement she would be refused the Catholic sacraments. She then issued a statement saying that despite the injustice the family would remain good Catholics. According to the family she was deeply distressed by her treatment.
As more public bodies issued statements of support for the bishops, the IRA staged a huge protest parade in support of Edwards in Waterford. But the Catholic church sought to close down reporting and public discussion of the case and Frank Edwards ending up moving to Dublin to assist Frank Ryan in editing and producing Republican Congress. In October that year Annie died of acute nephritis at the age of 62. She was buried with Jack in Ballygunner with the IRA, Cumann na mBan, Republican Congress and other republican and left wing organisations represented at her funeral which was described as one of largest seen in Waterford for some years.
Frank Edwards was now blacklisted from Catholic schools (literally so, as a letter was circulated saying he wasn’t to be employed) and couldn’t get any teaching work. Instead he took jobs such as pipe laying in Dublin. In December 1936 he left with the Irish contingent to join the International Brigade fighting against the fascists in Spain. Within a couple of weeks they were in action in Lopera. Ten days there saw the Irish Company of the Abraham Lincoln Battalion reduced from 150 effectives to 66. They were then pulled out and put into the Madrid front at Las Rozas, ten miles north of Madrid. On 12th January 1937, the day after being deployed at Las Rozas they advanced in the fact of artillery fire as part of a blocking action to prevent Franco encircling Madrid. A shell fell between Dinny Coady and Frank Edwards wounding both. Edwards managed to struggle back down the hill to a first aid station despite losing a lot of blood. Stretcher bearers tried to bring Coady down but he quickly died. Frank Edwards was transferred to a hospital in Madrid. It was to be the end of March before he was scheduled to leave hospital. He returned to Ireland in August 1937.

Frank Edwards

Frank Edwards in Spain with the International Brigade (last man on the right, back row). Peter Daly (from Monageer in Wexford and later killed in action) is third from left in the back row, with Frank Ryan to his left. The man in white shirt at the back (two to the right of Edwards) is Jack Nalty who was also killed in action (for more on the photo see CLR here).

Frank eventually found a teaching job in Mount Zion (the Dublin Jewish school). He remained active in the friends of the Soviet Union and was one of those subsequently thanked by the Soviet ambassador when diplomatic nations between the Republic of Ireland and Soviet Union were finally normalised with the establishment of embassies in 1974. Frank died in 1983 and was cremated. The oration at his funeral was given by veteran Irish communist Peadar O’Donnell.
Frank’s own obituary in the Irish Democrat (July 1983) still noted that he had been born in the north although he had been raised in Waterford. So how strong were Jack Edwards Belfast connections? In Rebel Heart (about George Lennon – Edwards former IRA commander in the flying column), Terence O’Reilly describes Edwards as having come from Belfast in 1918 although this is inaccurate since he had been in Waterford since 1917 and had come there from Dundalk. One story about Edwards time in Belfast recalls how he had been beaten up by an ‘Orange mob’ on the way home from school. As the family left Belfast when he was around 8 or 9, it is plausible. They had lived in a unionist-dominated area off Manor Street, close to the Belfast prison on the Crumlin Road where Patrick Edwards worked. In the 1901 census Catholics made up on only about 1 in 10 of residents of Bandon Street or adjoining streets such as Avoca Street where the nearest school was located (street directories show that living in the area was popular with prison staff). Possibly a sectarian attack on Jack precipitated the family move which coincided with the arrival of Patrick’s nationalist-minded mother into the household to become a formative political experience that led him to wholeheartedly engage in republican activities once he arrived in Waterford in 1917. Whatever his own motivations, it was a seminal moment in his brother Frank’s life. Frank’s own memoir, published by Uinseann MacEoin in Survivors, he quotes the following lines about his brother Jack:

March with stately step and solemn,
Lightly tap the muffled drum,
For the gloom around is now cast
There’s a soldier coming home.
Make this grave upon the hillside,
Where our soldier lad will lie.
Let us wipe out fault and fashion
And when Freedom’s day will come.
We will prove ourselves in action
As Jack Edwards often done.

‘We will prove ourselves in action’ is certainly a phrase that rings true for the Edwards family.

[Thanks to Aaron Ó Maonaigh, John Dorney and Kieron Glennon for drawing my attention to Jack Edwards and his family, and Aaron for the image in de Fuiteoil’s book]

You can read an extract from Belfast Battalion: a history of the Belfast IRA, 1922-1969 by clicking this link.

The story of John Collins, a Belfast IRA volunteer killed in Mayo in May 1921 is here.

IRA Vol. John Collins: from the Bone, to Artane Industrial School to Kilmeena, Co. Mayo?

During an IRA ambush at Kilmeena, County Mayo in May 1921 a Belfast man in the flying column of the IRA’s 3rd Battalion, West Mayo Brigade, John Collins, was fatally wounded. He was buried in the republican plot in Castlebar, but who was John Collins?

On 18th May 1921, a flying column of the 3rd Battalion of the IRA’s West Mayo Brigade opened fire on the RIC in Newport hoping to draw them out into an ambush. An IRA sniper killed RIC Sergeant Francis Butler during the attack. Commanded by Michael Kilroy, but minus some of its Westport contingent (and many of its rifles), the forty-one men of the flying column had then set themselves up in an ambush position along the main Newport-Westport road the next morning at Kilmeena to await any reinforcements from either the RIC itself or from its Special Reserve (i.e. the Black and Tans). The ambush anticipated Crossley Tenders appearing from the Westport direction. According to one account the first Crossley Tender that appeared was driving quite close to a carload of nuns and had almost passed the position before the IRA could open fire. A second had been maintaining a gap of about a quarter mile and so was in a position to observe the initial ambush and halt. I’ve included a map from The Flame and The Candle below, you can also view where the ambush unfolded here. The Military Archives have digitised a map showing the positions taken during the ambush (see here) and are in the process of releasing more details through its Brigade Activity series (keep an eye on http://www.militaryarchives.ie for more information).

the-flame-and-the-candle.jpg

Kilroy had positioned flank guards several hundred meters out on either side but the main body of the flying column was brought under fire by the RIC who had dismounted from both lorries, effectively pinning them to their position on the eastern side of the road. While the RIC were able to bring a Lewis gun into action, there was sufficient cover on the southern (Westport) side that the main threat was from the RIC to the north. That detachment managed to work itself and its Lewis gun into a position where it could enfilade the front line of Kilroy’s flying column forcing them to fall back to the cover of the field behind and inflicting at least one fatal casualty on the flying column.

The IRA unit had been pinned down here for an hour when John Collins was shot in the chest. Paddy O’Malley did his best to help him but as the RIC began to fire rifle grenades into their flanks and main position, Kilroy had his men retreat back field by field until they were able to make good their escape before the whole position was outflanked (Paddy O’Malley was wounded during the retreat – he also had to stay behind and was captured). When a local priest, who lived nearby, arrived at the scene to attend the wounded he found Seamus McEvilly already dead and John Collins and two others (Pat Staunton and Thomas O’Donnell) with what he called only ‘a flicker of life’. All three quickly succumbed to their wounds. A fifth IRA volunteer, Paddy Jordan, died from his wounds ten days later. One RIC man was killed and another badly wounded during the ambush.

All of the accounts of the Kilmeena ambush note that John Collins was from Belfast. The Irish Independent published his photo on 25th May 1921, noting he was an old Artane boy while the Connaught Telegraph on 28th May stated that he was “…a native of Belfast (one of the expelled Catholic workers) and had been working for some time in Westport, being noted for his industry, piety and uprightness.” It also described how he had been buried in the Republican Plot in Castlebar two days after the Kilmeena Ambush. Wreaths at the funeral read “To Jonie from his fond companions, RIP” and “In loving remembrance of dear Jonie, from his Westport friends – RIP.” The press (eg Irish Independent 24th May 1921) reported that his friends had wanted to bury him in Westport but as only half an hour was allowed by the authorities for the burial, which was also restricted to 12 mourners, he had to be buried in Castlebar.

indo-25-may-1921.jpg

Photo John Collins from Irish Independent, 25/5/1921

Collins reportedly worked as a tailor for Kerrigan’s of Fair Green in Westport. Another IRA man present at Kilmeena, John Pierce, was from Dublin and had also been in Artane. He had come to Westport to learn his trade as a tailor in January 1919. Since Collins was likely expelled from his work place in Belfast after the many sectarian attacks on workers at the end of the summer of 1920, that connection might have brought Collins to Mayo although it could also be coincidental. There is some controversy over Pierce’s role at Kilmeena after he was arrested as he was seen being driven around by the RIC and then he apparently disappeared. A review of evidence provided by various eye-witnesses in the Connaught Telegraph on 23rd May 1984 concluded that he was not a spy. Dominic Price reproduces a lengthy statement he gave to the RIC after his arrest in The Flame and The Candle. That evidence led to a number of raids and arrests in the immediate aftermath of the ambush. Afterwards, Pierce was held in Galway Prison until December when he was transferred to Liverpool Prison before being released in the general amnesty that followed the signing of the treaty. He joined the newly-founded National Army and in November 1922 he was a Sergeant in the tailor’s department of the Quartermaster General’s Staff.

Pierce’s statement (as quoted by Price) described how he and Collins had been out for a walk at Corrig, just outside Westport, and happened upon an IRA unit on 17th April 1921 and asked to join. They had then become part of the 3rd Battalion flying column although Pierce states that Collins had asked a priest about shooting at police as he was uneasy about it. At Kilmeena, he was beside Collins when Collins was mortally wounded. As he was only 18, he simply appears to have broken under the stress of the gun battle and Collins’ death at Kilmeena rather than being either an informer or a spy.

So what else do we know of John Collins and his Belfast origins? Very little, so far. His age was recorded as 19 when he died, which would be consistent with being at Artane as the time as John Pierce. He is described in various sources as an ‘orphan’ (notably, so was John Pierce although Pierce’s 1922 army census record shows that his mother was still alive in Dublin – so calling him an ‘orphan’ may have been based on an assumption about why they had been sent to Artane). The 1911 census has two John Collins from Belfast at Artane, one aged 11 and other aged 14. Comparing the other ‘John Collins’ in the 1911 census and the birth/death records doesn’t identify a candidate who fits both the age and was an orphan several years prior to 1921 (presuming being an orphan is why Collins was sent to Artane). The closest I can find is a John Collins who was slightly older than 19 in 1921, at 21 years of ago. That John Collins was born in Jordan Street on the edge of the Bone in 1899. His mother, a mill worker named Catherine Collins, didn’t include his father’s name on his birth certificate (and was herself born in Louth). She shared the Jordan Street house with another mill worker, Mary Whiteside, and Mary’s daughter (also called Mary). Catherine died in 1902 of TB while Mary died two years later. Mary’s daughter Mary was put into an orphanage in Belfast. John Collins presumably then ended up in Artane, and I assume this is the 11 year old John Collins in Artane in the 1911 census (although he obviously returned to Belfast again and was working there before 1920 or 1921). Whether it is the same John Collins isn’t clear – yet.

We’ll find out in a couple of months as a new book including information about John Collins is being published in April. You can keep an eye on that here at the Tiernaur Oral History Page.

[Thanks to Martin Molloy for bringing John Collins to my attention]