Launch events for Belfast Battalion…

Litter Press

There will be a couple of launch events for Belfast Battalion on 8th December in Belfast. The details of the morning one are below.

8th December, 11 am, St Joseph’s Church, Sailortown (see here for location).

St Josephs The summer of 1935 saw the most significant violence in Belfast between 1922 and 1969. Mainly concentrated in the Docks area, the events of 1935 are repeatedly referenced in reporting of the conflict that re-emerged over the summer of 1969. Rather than concentrating on the wider causes of the violence this talk will look at people’s experience on the streets off Garmoyle Street, Nelson Street and York Street in 1935. After the violence, Sailortown residents submitted compensation claims to Belfast Corporation which provide first hand accounts of various incidents. What residents witnessed in 1935 likely became part of local history and folklore and influenced how people reacted to events in 169.

There…

View original post 48 more words

An IRA arms dump and an informer

Here are a couple of photos I found recently. The first is of an arms dump being displayed for the cameras by the RUC. The dump was captured in Currie Street on 19th September 1924 in a hall known locally as the ‘Currie Institute’. A group of men arrested in the hall appear to be the members of the local IRA company. More of the story is told here.

The photo was published during the following week in the Belfast Telegraph. The format, with police officers posing with the captured arms on display, is relatively unusual for the 1920s or 1930s, certainly in an Irish context. The find included twenty-four service rifles and a Thompson submachine gun (probably the gun set slightly in front with its stock at a right angle to the others).

The second photo, above, is Patrick Woods. He was shot dead by the IRA on 19th November 1925 and his photo published a couple of days later in the Belfast Telegraph. Woods had given evidence over IRA activity in court and had been involved in moving the weapons to Currie Street in his taxi the previous year (see link above). Again, at the time, it was unusual to see published portrait photographs of individuals other than major figures in politics, sport and entertainment. Although fatalities involving the IRA were rare after the mid-1920s and into the 1930s, violent deaths during 1920-22 were common although it was also very unusual, then, to see published portraits of the dead.

Woods’ death provided the Unionist government with a pretext for the mass round up of the Belfast IRA, many of whom were interned for several months in one of those episodic internments between 1922 and 1969 that are often overlooked. After the arrests, with the Belfast IRA leadership mostly interned, the failure of the Boundary Commission to end partition was confirmed in public. The internees were not released until the end of January 1926.

(You can read more about all of these in Belfast Battalion).

why republican groups are so fractious…

It has long been a cliché that, historically, the first thing on the agenda in any Irish republican organisation is a split. But like many clichés it has an element of truth to it.

Most people are probably unaware that the Irish Citizens Army, as well as Republican Congress, organised in Belfast in the 1930s. In the late 1940s, the Socialist Republican Easter commemoration at Milltown was probably bigger than the mainstream republican event. At different times others operated in Belfast under the names Laochra Uladh and the Irish Freedom Fighters.

Why is republicanism so fractitious? It was one of the points Michael Jackson picked up on in our discussion that was published in a recent newspaper article (see below).

This is the full text of the article and interview with me that was published by Michael Jackson in the Andersonstown News and North Belfast News (see original here). ‘Belfast Battalion, A History of the Belfast IRA, 1922-1969’, by Dr John Ó Néill, is available online here or, in Belfast, from the Sinn Féin shop and Cultúrlan, from Connolly Books in Dublin and Calton Books, in Glasgow.

You can also consult copies in the library of Conway Mill Republican History Museum.

Given the significance of the IRA in shaping Ireland over the last century, there has been no shortage of historiographies about the organisation. Dr John Ó Néill’s Belfast Battalion, however, presents itself as a rarity amongst other texts on the subject.
The new book offers an invaluable chronological history of the Belfast IRA between 1922 and 1969, drawing on primary resources to provide a fuller-than-before view of the battalion’s actions, key personalities, direction and, at times, indirection during that period. Dr Ó Néill, a former St Malachy’s pupil from the Antrim Road, is also the author of the widely respected Treason Felony Blog, an online publication of his fascinating research on republican history.
Although an archaeologist by profession, Dr Ó Néill’s more recent research has a significant personal relevance, as his new book initially began as a biography of his great-uncle, leading IRA figure Jimmy Steele. However, he says that his own professional background helped him bring together many of the missing pieces in the IRA’s history.
“My background was mostly in pre-history and if you want to research a clandestine organisation then it seems to be perfect training, because you’re basically starting from scratch,” explained John.
“Other people have written some histories of the IRA during certain periods, but what I have tried to do is to create a chronological history. Obviously it gets flowery in places where you start talking about other issues that have impacted on it.
“In acadamia people have a tendency to take a thematic approach, but a fundamental building block for something like this is that you actually need to have the whole chronology of events.”
He continued: “You can start uncovering things like internal IRA memos and then you can start building up pictures of relationships between individuals, how things were done and organised. The idea was to take that period after the Civil War up until the start of the modern Troubles.
“Today it’s longer from 1969 than 1969 was to 1922, and the real experience of the people involved has to have coloured what happened in 1969. You have to wonder, do you really understand the more recent conflict here without having an understanding of what happened from the 20s to the 60s? This is my small contribution to starting that. It’s also about opening it up.
“By the same token, here are unionist groups who were involved in various campaigns of military violence, but there is very little documentation on them, or very little history written about them. We don’t really understand who’s involved on that side, what motivated them and what directs them. Are there greater forces at work or are you seeing a greater level of grassroots activity? I think we’re only starting to scratch the surface.”
While Dr Ó Néill’s exceptionally well researched book provides a detai- driven narrative of the Belfast IRA, one of its greatest triumphs is illuminating many of the internal struggles and personal differences within the wider movement, with tensions between the Belfast Battalion and the IRA’s Dublin-based GHQ featuring prominently throughout. Although historians, and even some republicans, particularly after 1969, have been keen to explore tensions between the IRA’s left and right wing defenderist traditions, Dr Ó Néill argues that the issues between Belfast and Dublin are a “much bigger dynamic continually”.
“If you look at the 1930s or 1920s, what is presented by some people as conflict over left wing politics is really a conflict over control from Dublin or control from Belfast,” he said.
“If you want to talk about a new Ireland, even republicans have always found it difficult to work out coexistence between Belfast and Dublin in terms of direction and everything else.
“I emphasise it quite a lot through the book, but in the 1920s and 1930s the Belfast IRA aren’t really represented at GHQ in Dublin. There is a constant difference in political initiatives that Dublin drives versus what the Belfast IRA want to see. It ebbs and flows and then in the 1940s it goes the other way. What actually happens is that Stephen Hays is stood down as the Chief of Staff of the IRA and the Belfast IRA take over GHQ and relocate it to Belfast.
“Even in 1969, the political dimension of socialism, communism or left wing politics was only introduced a few years later and you see that if you take what people wrote at the time was not was they wrote subsequently because they were trying to find a spin on it that worked for them.
“At the time Bombay Street was burned, the IRA Chief of Staff and his Army Council members were being paid to stage a training camp in the Dublin mountains in that week in August. It really illustrates the difference in experience of that time.
“I do think it’s a theme that you can extrapolate into modern politics to say that these are things that need to be borne in mind. Republicans who, on paper, have this same ideal or objective, can still have serious disagreements.”
The story of the Belfast IRA with its ebbs and flows in activity does, of course, have its moments of intense drama, some of which have been surprisingly obscured by time. One such story, which Dr Ó Néill rightly said has a “cinematic quality”, is that of Dan Turley, a veteren Belfast republican who was mistakenly shot as an informant.
“It’s a tortuous story,” Dr Ó Néill said. “It goes back to the 1920s. There was some conflict between him and some people from GHQ in Dublin. It blows up in the 1930s when a number of arms dumps were found in Belfast. At the time somebody else is blamed and is suspended from the IRA. Turley then gets blamed because the RUC gives false information to somebody who passes it on to the IRA. You don’t know from subsequent events if it was somebody who was working with the RUC, or whether they were unwittingly getting involved.
“Turley gets shot three years after he was expelled from the IRA. Within months of being exiled from Belfast he was contacting the IRA Army Council and they seem to endorse his return. He gets shot when the Belfast IRA is under serious pressure at the end of 1936. Members had been banned from taking military action over that period, so it’s questionable who actually shoots him.
“Clearly, from other events, Turley wasn’t actually guilty. His family stay involved in republican politics for years afterwards.
“In the middle of all this there is the story of when he gets shot in Clonard, people see it and run over. He has his hand on the inside of his jacket, they think that he was going to pull a gun and defend himself, but he actually had a Child of Prague statue that he had his hand on. I asked his grandson if the story was true, and he told me it was, and he told me that he still has the statue on the mantelpiece in his house.”
He added: “Dan Turley was involved in the IRB with Sean Mac Diarmada in Belfast in the 1900s. He was the Director of Elections for the First Dáil for Sinn Féin in Belfast. He’s one of those people, and there’s quite a few of them, that are obscure figures that should probably be better known, as much to inform people of their own history as anything else.”
Although Dr Ó Néill’s account ends in 1969 when the IRA finally split, Belfast Battalion gives a clearer picture of the reasons for the fall out, and helps illuminate the trajectory taken by the Provisional IRA and the Official IRA in the immediate aftermath. Although the events of 1969 are tumultuous, Dr Ó Néill highlights how personal differences and individual personalities played a significant part in the IRA’s more recent parting of the ways.
“One of the interesting things about it, and it does speak to modern republican politics, is that, in Belfast, to stay involved in something like the IRA throughout the 20s, 30s, 40s or 50s, there’s a certain type of independent mindset that people needed,” he said. “You need a certain mindset to retain the aims and objectives that they had and to pursue this idea of an Irish Republic.
“People overlook that when they’re wondering why republican groups are so fractious. You need to be independent minded and strong willed to battle the oppression that they did. The natural outform of that is fragmentation because the people involved are not the sort of people who will roll over in a debate – they very much stuck to their guns.
“We often overlook the long-term impact of something like that. There are things that drew them together, but when when things that caused any kind of conflict emerged you see these strong personalities come out.”
He continued: “The personalities in the split go back decades and have nothing to do with 1969, almost. There were longstanding emnities between individuals that come to the fore. Billy McMillen, for example, who was OC at the time, had left the IRA in the 1950s after falling out with Jimmy Steele. Other people like Des O’Hagan had left as well and came back to the IRA in the 1960s.
“There were faultlines that had been there for a long time and disputes that come to the fore again in 1969. Again, the theme of Belfast and Dublin comes up because some people aren’t happy with the direction from Dublin, who they think don’t understand the dynamics north of the border.
“The funny thing that affects what happens after the split is, because the Belfast IRA was traditionally led from the lower Falls, what becomes the Official IRA concentrate on that area, whereas the Provisional IRA concentrate on the other districts. That’s a factor that people have often overlooked when trying to understand the split itself.
“The decision was informed by what people understood the Belfast IRA to be about and they thought that if you were in control of the lower Falls then you were in control of the IRA in Belfast. The traditional constituency for the IRA had spread much further than the red brick terraces of the lower Falls. Long shadows are being cast and you can see the impact of these things down the road.
“I think the book might help people understand some of the dynamic involved. There are so many positions and attitudes are so entrenched that you might not be able to change many of them. I’m probably not very sympathetic to Cathal Goulding and GHQ, but if you’re from Belfast and you’re trying to write it then it’s hard not be that way. You have your own baggage and your own emotional engagement in what you’re doing and that always comes out. I wouldn’t be apologetic about it.
“I think it’s worth people approaching afresh.
“I deliberately chose to stop in 1969 because all the things that happened afterwards aren’t inevitable. Because we know the people who were involved but we don’t know enough about them and there’s not enough written about them to get for people to get to grips with them.
“A few people have tried to do it, like Martin Dillon, Tim Pat Coogan, Ed Moloney, Eamonn Mallie, Richard English – lots of people have written about the IRA, but in terms of trying to understand the interpersonal relationships between the key figures and the history of their relationships.
“If you’re interned with people in Crumlin Road Gaol for a few years in the 1950s or 1960s, with the best will in the world you might not want to sit in a room with them again, whereas your politics forces you to do that.
“We need to understand a little bit of that to understand how that influenced certain events, rather than trying to fit things into a grander narrative. People might not tell these thing in conventional histories. There are some things that people told me during the research that I just couldn’t put in the book.”
A lack of documentary evidence, such as the incomplete runs of Belfast’s republican newspapers from the 30s and 40s, was just one of the challenges faced by Dr Ó Néill as he was conducting his research. However, he also believes that personal histories and family stories, including those of his own family, have a further historiographical gap to fill.
“My mother’s family would have been involved in politics going back around 100 years,” he said.
“As some of the older generation started dying out I realised how important their stories were.
“One of my mother’s cousins, Arthur Steele, was in prison in the 1940s and he had fantastic delivery telling the stories. He was really dry and droll – he knew exactly what he was doing. It’s a great oral history that wasn’t being recorded. Arthur died a few years ago and it’s one of the voices that is missing in a book like this because you’re not able to go back to him and ask him about it. You can create a very dry history based on newspapers articles and, but it’s the stories that you get from people that add the colour in. You then start getting at how personalities drive events, rather that people trying to tie them to bigger issues such as class politics, or whatever else.
“I’m fully anticipating that the more people who read this the more people will find things that aren’t correct, and that’s kind of the purpose. This isn’t the publication to end all publications, this is very much the starting point. I want people to read it and, paradoxically for most people, I would be happy for people to correct me on certain things so we can build up a bigger picture than this.”
He continued: “A lot of the history has been lost. It has probably been told within families, but there is no public voice. Nobody has been able to speak to them all, most of them are dead. A lot of that is knocking around in other people’s heads if it was talked about at all.
“There is the old rule that silence is golden. I’ve heard a few people say that their father maybe only opened up about things a year or two before they died, and that they wished they had done it before then.
“ A lot of that information might be lost, which is why we need to do things like this.”

Tom Barry’s British Army service records and #Armistice100

On 30th June 1915, Thomas Bernard Barry from Cork (but born in Kerry) joined the British Army at Athlone and enlisted in the Royal Field Artillery,  going on to serve with the 14th Battery in the Mesopotamian Expeditionary Force and Egypt. Barry is better known for his subsequent exploits as Tom Barry, a leading I.R.A. figure and I.R.A. Chief of Staff in the 1930s. Barry didn’t conceal his British Army training and his memoir, Guerrilla Days in Ireland, included details of his military service. His claims to insubordination, including at the time of the Easter Rising, are borne out by his own military service records (as Gunner Thomas Barry, Royal Field Artillery, Service Number 100399).

infractions.png

Tom Barry’s service records including a list of offences (note ‘Irregular Conduct’ on 27th May 1916, during the Easter Rising).

Att.png

Record of Barry’s enlistment.

Military History Sheet

Details of Barry’s military service.

Barry is probably the most prominent of those who fought during the first world war and subsequently fought in the I.R.A., but there were many others including the likes of Emmet Dalton and Erskine Childers and even a Victoria Cross winner, Martin Doyle.

The complex relationship between the Irish and service in the British Army is a recurrent theme in Irish history. In the post-famine era, Irish republicans frequently either specifically joined for, or later utilised, British Army military training for their own purposes. Individuals like William Harbinson, famously (if somewhat obscurely) James Connolly and more recently the likes of the Catholic Ex-Servicemen’s Association in the 1970s have illustrated how Irishmen did what Connolly summarised as “…learn all he can and put his training to the best advantage…“. The contribution of British military training to the capacity of Irish republicans to counter the physical control of Ireland by Britain is one obvious outworking of this relationship.

However, the traditional imperial practice of harvesting soldiers from the impoverished communities under it’s control, both at home and abroad, is indelibly rooted in Irish communities (both Catholic and Protestant) for whom military service and the risk of death were often taken as the last refuge from starvation and utter poverty. In some contemporary politics, what was a crushingly brutal experience for many is once again pressed into service as some sort of parable of lost imperial greatness captured by an obsession with glorifying the brutal slaughter of millions by the European royal families to no apparent purpose between 1914 and 1918.

Given the extent to which poetry is seen as the voice of the first world war, here are a few lines from a poem by an independent Orangeman from Belfast, shipyard worker Thomas Carnduff, from his poem about his own experiences entitled ‘Ypres, September 1917 (A Memory)’:

Light breezes, scented with North Sea spray,
Breathe murmurs of remorse,
And leafless shell-scarred branches sway
Above each mangled corpse.

 

Andersonstown News article on new Belfast IRA book

Here’s an extract from an article by Michael Jackson on the new book in the current edition of the Andersonstown News (you can read the original article in full here).

….you can read the rest of the article here (I’ll post it in full in a week or two).

You can read more about Stephen Hayes here.

You can order the book here!

Belfast Battalion now available…

As of today, you can buy your copy of Belfast Battalion at the following locations:

 

1517928394917_connollybookshop

Dublin

Connolly Books,

Essex Street East, Temple Bar

 
IMG_0458-718x539

Belfast

Sinn Féin Book Shop,

55 Falls Road, Belfast

 

 

 

 Glasgowcalton

Calton Books,

159 London Road, Glasgow*

 

 

 

 

*It should be available by Monday or Tuesday next week.

 

You can order the book direct to your front door online here.

There are also a couple of copies in the library of the Museum in Conway Mill if you just want to browse a copy.

And you can download it for Kindle/ebook here (and preview it below).

 

Belfast Battalion currently available…

Litter Press

As of today, you can buy your copy of Belfast Battalion at the following locations:

1517928394917_connollybookshop

Dublin

Connolly Books,

Essex Street East, Temple Bar


IMG_0458-718x539

Belfast

Sinn Féin Book Shop,

55 Falls Road, Belfast


calton

Glasgow

Calton Books,

159 London Road, Glasgow*

*It should be available by Monday or Tuesday next week.

You can order the book direct to your front door online here.

There are also a couple of copies in the library of the Museum in Conway Mill if you just want to browse a copy.

And you can download it for Kindle/ebook here (and preview it below).

View original post