Just a reminder that the Belfast Battalion: a history of the Belfast IRA 1922-1969 is now available on Amazon. The Kindle/ebook edition can be read on any device and is also available via Kindle Unlimited. It should be possible to pre-order the printed edition in the next week or two.
Paperback copies should be available for delivery in November with a launch probably on the 8th December in Belfast.
To be notified when the printed book is available just send your email below (you can also forward any questions or comments with your email address.
Tonight TG4 is screening a documentary about Frank Stagg in the Finné series. The programme will look at the events that followed Stagg’s death on hunger strike on 12th February 1976. His brother George will tell the story of how Frank’s remains were seized by the Irish government in an attempt to prevent him receiving a republican funeral.
Stagg had been arrested in England in April 1973, charged with conspiracy to carry out bombing attacks and given a ten year sentence. Moved around various prisons, in March 1974 he and Michael Gaughan joined Gerry Kelly, Hugh Feeney, Paul Holmes, Dolours Price and Marion Price on hunger strike in protest at the refusal to grant them political status including setting a date at which they would be moved to prisons in the north (such movements, in either direction, were being routinely facilitated for non-republicans).
Like the others, Stagg was subjected to force feeding during his hunger strike. Force feeding was believed to be a factor in Michael Gaughan’s death on 3rd June 1974. While the others were moved to prisons in Ireland after Gaughan’s death, Stagg was moved to Long Lartin then Wakefield. He and his family claimed they were subjected to humiliating body searches prior to visits there and he spent much of the time in solitary confinement, as did many other republican prisoners. He participated in a number of further hunger strikes and was again subjected to force feeding. His last hunger strike began on 14th December 1975 along with others like Gerry Mealy.
Force feeding of prisoners is described in various accounts. In the past Thomas Ashe and Terence MacSwiney had both been subject to force-feeding while on hunger-strike and it had contributed to their deaths. It had been introduced, and used, by the prison authorities during the hunger strikes by imprisoned suffragettes from 1909 to 1914. Afterwards, prison regulations in England appear to have permitted or directed the authorities to forcibly feed a prisoner from the sixth day of a hunger strike. Conor MacNessa, who led an IRA hunger strike in Parkhurst in 1940, states that this was the regulation in force at the time and gives an account of the impact force feeding had on Joe Malone (from Belfast). MacNessa states that the injuries sustained by Malone were left untreated by the prison authorities and ultimately led to his death the next year. In 1946, the prison authorities in Belfast force fed David Fleming when he was on hunger strike (Fleming’s case disproves the claim that force feeding was not used here after 1917).
Clamp used in force feeding (drawn based on recollection Conor MacNessa, An Phoblacht, 17th May 1974)
The edition of Republican News published on 10th January 1976 carried an account of force feeding in it’s ‘Brownie’ column, based on information supplied by Gerry Kelly and Hugh Feeney.
If, as is likely, Frank Staff is force fed again he will suffer the following torture and, because his throat and stomach in particular cannot have healed properly, his health will deteriorate more quickly than it is doing at present.
He will face the possibility of at least one and maybe two ‘feedings’ daily. Force feeding is always brutal. No matter how often it occurs the victim does not get used to it. Some sessions are worse than others, but all are terrible experiences. If the ‘feedings’ are not at regular times each day, and usually they are not, then he spends his entire day trying to prepare himself emotionally. Trying to re-stock his determination to fight.
A team of screws are the first to appear. They come into the cell with varying expressions on their faces. These range from snarls, through impassive indifference to the odd sheepish apologetic smile. He will be ‘fed’ either in his cell or dragged outside into another one. He will be held in a bed or on a chair. Usually six or eight screws are involved. They swoop in an obviously planned manner, holding and pressing down on arms and legs. He will struggle as best he can even though he knows it is useless. One grabs him by the hair and forces his head back, and when he is finally pinned down in the proper manner the doctor and his assistant arrive.
Various methods will be employed to open Frank’s mouth. His nose will be covered to cut off air, or a screw or doctor will bunch their fists and bore their knuckles into the joints on each side of the jaws. A Ryle’s tube will be used. This is a very long thin tube which is pushed through the nose. It is supposedly for nasal feeding, but, in forced feedings it is simply a torture weapon used to force open the jaws. It rubs against the membrane at the back of the nose and, if not coated in a lubricant (which it seldom is), it causes a searing pain, akin to a red hot needle being pushed into one’s head.
If Frank cries out with this pain, a wooden clamp will immediately be pushed very forcibly between his teeth. If this fails to work, the doctor will use a large pair of forceps to cut into the gums, the ensuing pain again forcing the jaws to open sufficiently for the clamp to be forced in. Sometimes a metal clamp, rather like a bulldog clip, is used. It is forced between the teeth and a bolt is turned, forcing a spring and the jaws to open.
When Frank’s jaws are finally pried open, a wooden bit, rather like a horse bit, is forced into his mouth. This bit has two pointed ends which are used to force and to hold an opening. It ‘sits’ across his mouth with a screw holding each end, and there is a hole in the centre of it through which the feeding tube is forced. A flat piece of wood is inserted first to press the tongue down and then a three foot long rubber tube, coated in liquid paraffin, is shoved in and down his throat. A funnel is place on the open end and the will pour some water in. If the water bubbles, they know they tube is in Frank’s lungs. If so, the tube is removed and the whole process starts again.
Michael Gaughan was murdered in this way. When the tube is eventually fixed properly, it is pushed down into Frank’s stomach. There are different widths of tube and obviously the wider they are, the more painful the torture. Doctor’s usually use the widest as food goes down quicker and they don’t have to delay overlong. Frank will feel his stomach filling up and stretching, an experience has undergone before. Automatically he will vomit up, the disgorged food being caught in a kidney dish. If the doctor in charge is especially sadistic the vomit will be forced back down his throat again (this happened to Gerry Kelly). As the tube is removed it tears at the back of the throat, more so than before because the liquid paraffin has worn off on the way down. The last few inches will be ghastly.
Frank will get violent pains in his chest. He will choke, and, at this point, he will be sicker than before, as the tube coming out triggers more retching (Marion Price passed out at this stage once). After ‘feeding’ Frank will find it impossible to stand up, to sit up, or to move in any way.
If you want to read about the IRA in Australia (or more strictly, official attitudes to the IRA in Australia), there is an interesting post here on the Irish Diaspora Histories network by Evan Smith and Anastasia Dukova. It notes that the Australian security services had monitored Irish republicans there since the Easter Rising. But in the early 1970s, fear that conflict in Ireland could spill over to Australia saw an increase in focus on Irish republicans in Australia.
The post reminded me of a throw away comment about the IRA and Australia reported in a court case in 1939. Hugh McCluskey, Thomas Magill and Robert McCann were IRA volunteers from Belfast who were involved in the sabotage campaign in England which began in January 1939. On 18th February 1939, a police raid in Wheelys Road in Edgebaston in Birmingham found all three in a house with magnesium, metallic sodium, magnesium scrapings and detonator wire. These were basic bomb-making equipment as IRA volunteers had been trained to use them to manufacture detonation charges to use with ‘paxo’ explosives (made by mixing potassium chlorate and paraffin wax). Other incriminating items were also recovered from the house, but no guns.
McCluskey and McCann had both been imprisoned in Belfast previously for offences under the Civil Authorities (Special Powers) Act. In court, on 20th March, they received ten year sentences, while Magill received seven years. During the trial a detective claimed under oath that, when he was being arrested, McCluskey admitted to having been a member of the Belfast Battalion and said “It’s all right. We have not got a gun. If we had we should have put a bullet through all of you. You caught us napping. I am better off inside. I am shutting up, as one of our fellows went to Australia and they got him there.”
The press reporting, including many Australian newspapers such as the Sydney Morning Herald, highlight the reference to Australia. Unfortunately, none actually explore the implications of what McCloskey is reported to have said (any speculation is obviously predicated upon the police officer truthfully repeating something that McCluskey said).
There are a number of instances of the Belfast IRA, or individuals connected to the Belfast Battalion of the IRA, killing former members or others connected to the IRA in the 1920s or 1930s, such as Patrick Woods, Joe Hanna and Dan Turley. However, there doesn’t appear to be any reference to a former member being tracked to Australia and killed there over the same time frame. A review of the Belfast Brigade lists compiled in the 1930s identifies four from Belfast with addresses in Australia in the 1930s. These are George Fitzsimons (Engineering Battalion), Henry McCollum, Thomas Corry and John Myles (all A Company, 2nd Battalion). There doesn’t appear to be anyone of the same names who died in suspicious circumstances reported in the Australian press up to 1939. The RUC suspect list from the 1930s doesn’t note anyone as having emigrated to Australia during this time.
While it may be a reference to an IRA volunteer from somewhere other than Belfast, again, this doesn’t appear to be mentioned anywhere else that I have noted up to now. One possibility is that it is a garbled version of the story of James Carey, the informer whose evidence had led to the execution of five Invincibles in 1882. Carey was spotted on a ship while emigrating to South Africa and killed by another Invincible, Patrick O’Donnell, who was subsequently executed (O’Donnell was a great grand uncle of Patsy Dougan).
The Invincible, Patrick O’Donnell
Anyone who knows of any cases where someone from Belfast died in suspicious circumstances prior to 1939 could add some details in the comments below.
See here for a link to a story in the Irish Echo about the unveiling of headstone at the New York grave of Patrick Dougan, a volunteer in D Company, first Battalion, of the IRA’s Belfast Brigade during 1919-1921. On 30th May 1937 he died of pneumonia and had been buried in an unmarked grave in St Raymond’s Cemetery in the Bronx.
Patsy Duggan (see Irish Echo article linked at the start of the post)
Dougan was one the Belfast IRA volunteers who was arrested in Lappanduff in Cavan on 8th May 1921 while serving in a flying column. The flying column had been recruited through Seamus McGoran who had transferred from the Belfast Brigade to become O/C of the East Cavan Brigade. The thirteen strong flying column was led by Joe Magee and included Patrick Dougan, Sean McCartney and Johnny McDermott from D Company. They arrived in Cavan between the 3rd or 4th of May and the 6th (when McCartney arrived) and were to be reinforced by a further 10-12 men before going in to action. In the meantime they had cleaned up the cottages in which they were staying and began cleaning and sorting their arms and ammunition. Several of the men, including Patrick Dougan and Sean McCartney, were experienced ex-servicemen who had served in the first world war. Dougan had served under an assumed name (William Cairns).
On the night of Saturday 7th May, Magee gave permission for three of the men to visit a pub McCartney had spotted around a mile from where they were staying. According to Seamus McKenna (Magee’s second in command), the sudden appearance of Belfast men in the pub would have aroused suspicion. He also noted that two of the three were ex-servicemen saying they “…were anything but discreet and I have no doubt that their tongues wagged.” At 1 am that night McGoran arrived with another former Belfast IRA volunteer, Tom Fox, who was his Brigade engineer while some locals delivered further supplies to the flying column. They were accompanied by two local Cavan IRA leaders. Further reinforcements were also expected.
Two sentries had been posted for two hours watches through the night and at 4 am, one spotted some movement at the foot of the hill below the house. When another member of the flying column went about fifty yards from the house to get water he also some movement and waved, thinking it was the reinforcements. A number of shots fired at him made him realise it was a military party. The shots also awakened the rest of the flying column. Magee ordered the men to take up defensive positions and sent McCartney and McDermott out to reconnoitre the foot of the hill. According to the British record of the incident, soldiers and RIC constables searching for an IRA organiser stumbled upon the flying column outside a house on Lappanduff mountain.
As the British took cover around a farmhouse and the flying column took cover around the house they had been using and both sides exchanged rifle fire. McKenna observed McCartney and McDermott under heavy fire running across a field at the foot of the hill to return to their position. McCartney was shot dead and McDermott, realising he couldn’t help him, continued up towards the flying column’s position. Around their position, men began to move out and several escaped the net of soldiers, RIC and Black and Tans. McGoran, Seamus Heron and Patrick Dougan had taken up a position to the rear of Seamus McKenna. Just below him, Seamus Finn collapsed, having been wounded. Patrick Dougan volunteered to go down to assist Finn. Despite heavy gunfire he managed to crawl down to Finn who could be clearly heard moaning. With the flying column separated into groups and pinned down, eventually Seamus McKenna offered to surrender as they were unable to return fire. The gun battle had lasted around two hours. Nine of the Belfast men and two of the Cavan volunteers were captured but the others, including McGoran, Heron and Magee, had managed to escape. Patrick Dougan would probably have escaped had he stayed with Heron and McGoran rather than go to the aid of Seamus Finn.
After the surrender there was some ill-treatment as the prisoners were beaten by the RIC and Black and Tans, with Peter Callaghan received a head injury after being struck with a rifle butt. However, the British soldiers removed the prisoners who were brought to Victoria Barracks in Belfast where they were all sentence to death on 11th July 1921. As the truce came in to force the sentence wasn’t carried and Patrick Dougan was moved first to Mountjoy then released in 1922.
The Dougans had lived at Panton Street and Cupar Street but by the 1930s they had moved to Peel Street. This was the address used for Patrick when the Belfast Brigade records for 1916-1922 were compiled. His brothers Dan and James were also active in the IRA, his father John had been in the IRB and the family had a long history of involvement as republicans.
In April 1930, Patrick emigrated to the United States, taking ship to New York. His emigration papers give his occupation as ‘coal merchant’ (by this time he was living in Kane Street). As the Irish Echo article notes, he died of pneumonia on the 30th May 1937. His death wasn’t overlooked in Ireland as some of the newspapers did report it, such as the Leitrim Observer (15th May 1937).
This is merely scratching the surface of Patsy Dougan’s life. You can read more about him here in a great piece by Michael Jackson (based on research by Dougan’s nephew Tomás Ó Dubhagáin).
On the 10th August 1971 the BBC was already reporting on the killings in Ballymurphy from the previous day and stating that an eyewitness was “…putting the blame fairly and squarely on the British Army”. The BBC quickly became the subject of attacks by the British government for its reporting on the actions of the Parachute Regiment. The British Defence Minister Lord Carrington even accused the BBC of “sniping” at the British Army and indulging in propaganda. The BBC called it an “error of judgement”.
On 9th August 1971, a neighbour of Fr Hugh Mullan, Bobby Clarke, was shot by soldiers after lifting a child to safety during the violence that followed the mass arrest of ‘Catholics’ that morning. After ringing the British Army HQ to advise them that he was going out to administer the last rites to Clarke, Fr Mullan ventured out, waving a white cloth and dressed as a priest, only to discover that Clarke was not fatally injured. He attempted to leave to get an ambulance for Clarke at which point he was shot by a British soldier. Frank Quinn, who attempted to provide assistance, was also shot dead.
Coverage of Fr Mullan’s death included an interview with the local Catholic bishop, William Philbin, broadcast on BBC the next day. The same day Bobby Clarke was also interviewed on the BBC Radio 4 programme, World at One, where he gave an eye witness account of Fr Mullan being shot in the back by a British soldier. Reporting of Fr Mullan’s death in many of the British newspapers repeated the claim that he had been shot as he went to administer the last rites to a wounded gunman.
Fr Hugh Mullan
After the items were broadcast the Conservative MP for Dorset South, Evelyn King, wrote to Lord Carrington accusing the BBC of irresponsibility and “sniping” at the Army. Obviously, the use of the word ‘sniping’ was deliberate as this was the term conventionally used by reporters when describing physical attacks on the British Army in the north. The intention was clearly to use the term to associate the views of the BBC with those that were actually ‘sniping’ at the British Army. This is pretty unsophisticated censorship in that it is intended to diminish future reporting critical of the British Army as merely ‘sniping’ from the BBC.
Carrington responded to King’s letter by writing to the head of the BBC, Lord Hill, and King, stating that the radio interview in particular “…fell below the standard of fairness and accuracy people were entitled to expect” although he included other unspecified BBC items in his criticism. Carrington also seemed to be concerned that the items were also an attack on him personally since he had expressed his ‘utmost gratitude’ on the BBC for what the British Army had done. In his letter, Carrington admonished the BBC that when its “reporting falls below the standard of fairness and accuracy which we are entitled to expect, the main effect is to damage the corporation’s own standing with the public”. It should be borne in mind that, at this time in 1971, British public opinion on the deployment troops in the north wasn’t clear as there were calls for troops to be withdrawn both from the likes of the New Statesman and the National Front (see, eg, Irish Press, 24th August 1971). The latter even advocated Irish reunification, although it also wanted the forced repatriation of all Irish from Britain on the grounds that they were all mere “white wogs”.
The BBC accepted Carrington and Kings criticism and stated that “We do not defend the use of the item on the shooting of Fr Mullan. In our view it was an error of judgement to use this part of the interview.” However the BBC did reject the overall criticism.
While this may seem like another footnote to the broader issue of the behaviour of the parachute regiment in Ballymurphy between 9th and 11th August 1971, it points to one of the wider issues that is not yet satisfactorily addressed. The role of the media lies both in reporting events and ensuring that those in positions of responsibility are suitably held to account. This means it is critical to understand how the media subsequently reported on events and what influenced how the media framed their reporting. The potential chilling effect of criticism, such as came from Lord Carrington, is fairly obvious. The long term repercussions, though, are significant. A glaring omission from contemporary media coverage of ‘legacy’ cases involving individuals killed or injured by state forces is a clear articulation by the media of what differentiates these cases from other violent conflict deaths. For those unsure what that means: when a meaningful inquest or investigation of the circumstances has not occurred the default position is that the information given by the British Army (etc) becomes the official account of a death. Fr Hugh Mullan, like others killed by the state, is thus deemed as being culpable in his own death unless the British Army itself, or some legal process, formally recognises the killing was unjustified. It is solely victims of the state that are, in this way, deemed guilty until proven otherwise. The repeated failures to hold the state and its leading figures to account is one legacy of the real error in judgement of the BBC (and media in general) in allowing itself to become the propaganda tool of the likes of Lord Carrington.
You can read a balanced item about Fr Hugh Mullan on the BBC here along with footage of the interview with the Catholic Bishop of Down and Connor, Dr William Philbin, on the day following his death (note the video may not work in every territory).
Here is the full text of a longish article on the BBC admitting an “error judgement” following Lord Carrington’s letter, as published in the Birmingham Daily Post 20th August 1971:
Interview about shot priest was an error: BBC
The BBC admitted yesterday that its use of part of an interview on the death of a Roman Catholic priest in Northern Ireland was an error in judgement.
BBC Radio 4’s The Word at One programme on August 10 carried an item on the death of a Roman Catholic priest, Fr Hugh Mullan, the day before.
The item took the form of an interview with an unnamed Irishman who claimed to be the man to whom the priest was giving the last rites when he was shot. The man alleged that the priest had been shot in the back by a British soldier.
The programme chairman, Mr William Hardcastle, summed up: “An eyewitness putting the blame fairly and squarely on the British Army.”
But the Defence Secretary, Lord Carrington in letters to a Conservative MP Mr Evelyn King (Dorset S) and the BBC chairman, Lord Hill, has said that the item fell below the standard of fairness and accuracy people were entitled to expect.
Mr King had written to Lord Carrington accusing the BBC of irresponsibility and “sniping” at the Army in its coverage of the Northern Ireland crisis.
In his reply to Mr King, Lord Carrington said: “I can assure you that the BBC items on Northern Ireland which you mention have not gone unnoticed by my Department. They are not the only items in this category.”
He then cited as an additional example, the item arising from the death of Fr Mullan and recalled that he had taken part in an interview on BBC Television News.
“I took the opportunity to express the utmost gratitude for the work of the Army in Northern Ireland. I believe quite firmly that this admiration and gratitude is shared by the vast majority of the people of this country and that, on those occasions when the BBC’s reporting falls below the standard of fairness and accuracy which we are entitled to expect, the main effect is to damage the corporation’s own standing with the public.”
In his letter to Lord Hill, Lord Carrington said: “I hope my letter to Mr King makes it clear that I certainly do not regard all the BBC’s recent reports and discussions on Northern Ireland as unbalanced and unfair.”
But he was concerned about the instances cited.
“I hope you will agree that they are unsatisfactory and that everything possible should be done to prevent repetitions.”
Last night a BBC spokesman said “We do not defend the use of the item on the shooting of Fr Mullan. In our view it was an error of judgement to use this part of the interview.”
But the BBC reacted sharply to Mr King’s accusations of daily “sniping” and indulging in propaganda.
The spokesman said, “These accusations are deeply wounding to staff who are engaged in the difficult task of reporting the terrible events in Northern Ireland. Much that we have to report will be unwelcome to one of the many conflicting interests involved and there will be occasional errors of judgement. But to accuse the BBC of sniping and propaganda is unworthy. We reject the accusation entirely.”
Memo, Chief of Staff, IRA, to Director of Publicity, Northern Command, 13th June 1942.
This is an rare example of a surviving internal IRA memo from 1942. Sent from the department of the Chief of Staff, GHQ to the Director of Publicity, Northern Command on 13th June 1942.
At the time, the Chief of Staff of the IRA was Hugh McAteer, while the Director of Publicity in the Northern Command was John Graham. The memo covers the IRA’s attitude towards American troops in the north following the entry of the US into the world war in 1941. In the IRA’s view, the stationing of any troops on Irish soil (British, German or American) could only happen with the consent of what was seen as the legitimate government of Ireland. According to the IRA, this was the IRA. While this may seem laughable, de Valera had taken a somewhat similar view of the deployment of American troops in Ireland. His constitution, enacted in 1937, retained the claim to authority over the whole of the island of Ireland and, as such, de Valera believed that the deployment of US troops in the north should only have happened following consultation with his government.
As fanciful as this may all seem, there was a significant Irish-American lobby which could be mobilised. When the IRA Chief of Staff was detained in the United States at the behest of the British government in 1939, seventy-six members of Congress threatened to boycott an official event welcoming the British king on an official visit. After September 1939, there was pressure from Irish-America to make US aid for British war efforts conditional upon the British government addressing the issue of partition in Ireland.
Indeed, the IRA had continuously positioned it’s own strategy with an eye on, at the very least, avoiding damage to de Valera and Fianna Fáil’s ascent to power in the 1920s and 1930s in the expectation that, once in power, they would seek to end partition and create an Irish republic along the line of the republic declared in 1916. By the late 1930s it was apparent that this was not going to be the case and, in the short term, the possibility of leveraging Irish-America towards the same end replaced the IRA’s long term hopes for de Valera.
The IRA memo of 13th June 1942 was in the Director of Publicity’s Northern Command HQ when it was raided by the RUC on 10th September that year and, as it was used as a crown exhibit in the trial of Graham and David Fleming, it has survived in the Public Records Office.