Revisiting 1969: #peacewalls50

The peace line formally erected in 1969 is directly associated with the events of 14th and 15th August 1969. With the fiftieth anniversary of those days looming, I’m going to recap some previous posts on the peace line.

The course of the Shankill/Falls peaceline closely mirrors the path of the River Farset as it winds its way from Squire’s Hill down to the River Lagan. From around 1780 to 1800 Belfast saw a boom in cotton manufacturing leading to an unmanaged expansion of the town along the River Farset where there had been mills since at least the 1600s. Two of the main arterial routes into Belfast were the Falls Road between the Farset and Blackstaff, and the Shankill Road (then known as the Antrim Road) on the other side of the River Farset. The Farset actually crossed the Shankill Road at the site of the old church (the Sean Cill) from which the Shankill get its name.

 

Williamson’s map of Belfast, 1791, showing the course of the Farset and topography between the Falls and Shankill (then known as the Antrim Road). Belfast History Towns Atlas, Vol 1.

As Belfast developed along the Farset, Falls Road and Shankill Road, Catholics began to congregate on the south bank (Falls Road) of the Farset with Protestants on the north bank (Shankill Road). The light touch regulation by Belfast corporation saw little in the way of infrastructure provided and housing and working conditions and wages were equally poor. These conditions and pre-existing sectarian tensions led to sporadic outbreaks of violence through the nineteenth century. The extent of religious segregation in the Falls-Shankill was explored by F.W. Boal in a paper published in Irish Geography in 1969, before the major outbreak of violence that summer. It included the following illustration of the extent of segregation.

Boal

Figure 5 from Boal, Territoriality on the Shankill/Falls divide. Irish Geography, Vol 6, No.1, p30-50. His ‘CUPAR’ district matches the location of the peace line.

An immediate response to violence was often to deploy police or soldiers as a human barricade. In 1920 this often progressed to the use of knife-rests – wooden structures wrapped in barbed wire – and in some places, formal wire entanglements and blockhouses. In March 1922 formal timber barriers were erected in a number of streets and left there for a couple of years. These walls (see the example from Young’s Row below) completely blocked the view and were designed to prevent snipers and gunmen being able to fire into the street. This was repeated in 1935 although the move to introduce similar full barriers was made much quicker, in only four days (rather than the 21 months it took in 1920-1922). In both 1922 and 1935 the barriers were taken down within a couple of years. You can read more on events in 1920-1922 here and 1935 here.

Peace line, Young’s Row, 1922. From Seán Ó Coinn’s Defending the Ground.

The UVF, who had been active since 1966, carried out a campaign of bombing in 1969 that had led to the deployment of the British army in April 1969.  Photographs of soldiers on duty at key installations show the wire entanglements erected by a detachment of engineers that had arrived that April. Newspaper reports from 1969 show that it had been widely anticipated that British soldiers would be deployed if violence intensified. Despite recent evidence of how the violence might manifest itself, such as in 1964, didn’t seem to influence thinking on the types of tactics and training which may be required if the army were deployed. Therefore no meaningful training or tactics were developed in anticipation of the type of threat that might emerge.

When violence did intensify in mid-August in Derry and Belfast the initial expanded use of troops on 15th August in Belfast was as human barricades, often deploying knife-rests or even utilising the existing ad hoc barricades that had been erected during rioting. In the days after 15th August the emphasis was on removing the ad hoc barricades and replacing them with knife-rests and British soldiers replacing those guarding the barricades from (what were or later became) the ‘citizens defence committee’ on the Falls and ‘defence association’ on the Shankill. However, British soldiers were often reduced to onlookers, unable to intervene or use their weapons, as the glaring lack of tactical preparation became exposed.

By early September the imminent release of the Cameron Report (which was to recommend the disbandment of the B Specials) focused minds on a likely violent reaction. Despite the lessons of 1935, the initial response on 10th September was to involve Belfast city council in identifying a line on which the British army would re-use the materials it had available, mainly pickets and barbed wire, to create a ‘peace line’ between the Falls and Shankill. The route, from Springfield Road to Millfield, was teased out over a number of days and effectively mirrored the earlier course of the River Farset. Again lessons in using complete visual barriers, learned in 1922 and 1935, were not applied and gunfire and projectiles were fired across the barbed wire entanglements. It was quickly realised that, again, the British army still hadn’t trained or prepared troops or officers for the role. Wire entanglements could simply be pushed aside to attacks residents on the other side without any intervention from the soldiers present who had no clear instructions on how to react.

By the 25th-27th September these failures had become apparent and the wire entanglements began to be replaced with concertina-type barriers that were fixed in place and provided a complete visual barrier. It was also announced that there would be an immediate overhaul of the equipment and training supplied to British soldiers so that it was more suitable for their role.

You can read more about the initial development of the peace line here and the route of the River Farset here.

The development of the peace line is being document by Professor James O’Leary of UCL here at the Peace Wall Archive which will include a series of events in September to mark the fiftieth anniversary of its construction.

You can read more on the background to August 1969 in Michael Burns book Burnt Out and in the Belfast Battalion book.

Sean Murray will be showing a short film, The Wall, and giving a talk on the events that led up Shankill-Falls peace line on Tuesday 6th August evening as part of Féile an Pobail. I’ll be giving a talk at the exact same time in the Glenpark for Féile an Tuaiscirt which will include looking at the role of the IRA in August 1969.

Further events marking the fiftieth anniversaries of events in 1969 are planned in August and September by the Falls Commemoration Committee (see poster below). I’ve not seen any events marking the anniversary organised on the Shankill Road, but if anyone knows of any, let me know in the comments and I’ll add them here.

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Revisiting 1969: “we mustn’t allow hatred to spring up in our hearts for our Protestant brethren” (from Brendan McMahon)

This is a recording from August 1969 of Fr Patrick Egan addressing the Clonard Men’s Confraternity supplied by Brendan McMahon. It gives a contemporary response to events in Clonard, Bombay Street and Cupar Street from the days after 14th/15th August 1969.

Keep an eye out for more from Brendan in a couple of weeks.

A propaganda photo and some Corr family stories (by Dominic Corr)

 


Corrs BT

This is another classic example of propaganda from 1920-1922. The photograph above was reproduced in the Belfast Telegraph on 20th September 1921 with a second photo (see the end of this post for the second photo). The caption said, “So bad have conditions become in Vere St., Belfast, that the loyalists have had to tunnel the walls of their backyards so as to get to and from their business, the street being under continuous fire from a Sinn Fein locality. Here is a man and child standing in the tunnelled back gardens.

This being the Belfast Telegraph, the family in the foreground are actually Catholics and the houses shown were occupied by Catholics in the upper end of Vere Street. The story behind the photo is even more incredible.

Vere Street had repeatedly witnessed serious violence including in the weeks leading up to the shooting of two women Margaret Ardis and Evelyn Blair on 18th September 1921 (the area subsequently had its own curfew imposed). Two other women had been wounded several days previously and the streets had been swept with machine gun fire earlier in September (one judge referred to Vere Street as the ‘toughest street’  in Belfast). The incidents earlier in September appear to have attracted the press interest that saw the tunnelled back yards being photographed. This happened before the 18th September 1921.

The man in the foreground and the woman in the photo are John and Mary Ann Corr. Far from being loyalists, John and Mary Ann were one of the Catholic families that lived at the North Queen Street end of Vere Street (residents at the upper half of Vere Street were mainly Catholic, the lower half mainly Protestants). What is more, on the evening of 18th September, after Margaret Ardis and Evelyn Blair were killed in lower Vere Street by a shot fired from the upper end, the Corrs had their house searched and John was arrested and charged with their double murder (he was refused bail hence the photograph must date to before the 18th September). This is an example of the type of disinformation and propaganda described by Fr John Hassan in his Facts and Figures of the Belfast Pogrom 1920-1922. The subsequent trial fell apart as eye witness testimony that identified John Corr firing the fatal shot from a rifle fell apart as a soldier testified to being served in Corr’s shop by him at the time of the shooting and post-mortem evidence revealed that the fatal shot had come from a revolver.

Here is Dominic Corr on this story along with some more of the Corr family history. This includes some stories from the 1920s, including the tunnelling of the walls shown in the photograph above. In the same week the photo appeared in the press his Grandfather was framed for the shooting dead of two women on Vere Street during a riot. He had ammunition planted on him during a search (this must have immediately followed the publication of the photograph) and was then brought to trial on a double murder charge (he was acquitted). Dominic includes more details on the Corr family in the 1930s and 1940s, including the imprisonment of his father and uncle and the death of his grandmother and another uncle during the blitz. I’ve included some additional links to previous posts which mention the Corr family at the end.

My grandparents John and Mary Ann Corr reared their family in different homes they lived in north Belfast in and around districts such as Little Patrick Street in Little Italy in the Docklands, Hardinge Street off the New Lodge Rd and Vere Street in the Fenian Gut off North Queen Street. I remember my Da telling me he was born in the room of a house when they lived in residences in a house in Little Patrick Street in an area known as Little Italy off York Street
This district was called this due to the amount of Italian families which had emigrated to Belfast and set up home in this area. My Granda John Patrick, Johnny Corr and his wife Mary Anne moved to a room in another house in Hardinge Street and then to a house they got in Vere Street off North Queen Street when they got their own rented house sometime between 1916 and 1919 close to the district known as the Fenian Gut (see map below).

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The Fenian Gut was an area long since gone of a few streets that were nestled in between York Street Mill and North Queen Street close to the top of Henry Street. Just beyond it were Sussex Street, Vere Street, Grove Street and Earl Street with Cross Street running along one end at the North Queen Street end and Dale Street running along the bottom of Vere Street and Grove Street. All in the shadow of York Street Mill.
Between living in Little Italy, Hardinge Street and the Fenian Gut they had a family of eight children four girls Winnie, Bridget, Josie and Debbie and four boys Arthur (Arder), my father Kevin Barry, Johnny and Freddie.
My Granda Corr had four sisters and my Granny Corr had a twin sister who died in infancy and a brother who lived until 1960 when he died in Manchester. Her maiden name was Bloor which had been anglicised from the Belgian name Bleur and her family emigrated to Ireland from Congelton, Cheshire in England in the mid-1800’s though its believed they originally came from Belgium.
What brought a family originally from Belgium who lived in Cheshire to Ireland during a time of poverty and starvation around the time of an gorta mór? Is anybody’s guess. Her father Frederick was registered as a steeplejack while brother Frederick Bloor was registered as having left a workhouse in Cheshire to emigrate to Ireland. He also joined the navy.
The Corr side of the family came to Belfast from Ballnagilly in Cookstown on the Tyrone side of Lissan. Lissan is a townland situated on a borderline  which straddles both county Tyrone and county Derry  and as far as I know it was my Granda Johnny’s father, also called John, who made that move. After he and his wife Bridget Corr nee McAleer had returned to Ireland from Burrow-on-Furness where they had emigrated to from Ballnagilly in Lissan.
They set up home at 9 Pinkerton Street in the New Lodge area of Belfast after they had lived in Union Place and Columbia Street in Belfast. It has been passed down the family in an oral storyline that when they moved to Belfast he and Bridget had separated  around eight or nine years later and that he may have had other families in Burrow-on-Furness and Coalisland. All that I know his my own Da and his brother Arder hadn’t much of a good word to say about their grandfather John after whatever had happened.

Baker Corrs

The Corrs photo as it appears in Joe Baker’s book The McMahon Murders.

The photograph shown above was taken from a book a while ago after two old New Lodge residents Annie Kelly and Josie Wiggins RIP had brought it to a family members attention and confirmed that the man with the moustache in the front was my Grandfather John Patrick (Johnny) Corr and the woman was his wife my Granny Mary Ann. The picture is said to have been taken in the back yard of a house in the Vere Street, Earl Street, Grove Street and Sussex Street area sometime around 1920/22. When residents dug holes in back yard walls to use as access and escape routes during the unionist/British military  pogroms and sectarian terror attacks which paved the way for the establishment of the six county Stormont state.
My Granda Johnny and his family like many other Irish Catholic families in Belfast had witnessed and been on the receiving end of unionist state violence, harassment and injustice. My Granda Johnny was at one point arrested and charged with a double killing in North Queen Street. Two women, Margaret Ardis aged 22 years old and Evelyn Blair aged 22 years old, who were part of a unionist crowd attacking Vere Street were both killed by a single bullet as a sniper shot them on the 18th of September 1921.
Local folklore had it that both women were dressed in a provocative manner as Mary and Joseph one on a donkey and the other walking the donkey on a leash shouting anti-Catholic profanities at the time of the shooting. The bullet is said to have struck Miss Ardis on the head killing her instantly  passing through her and striking Miss Blair who  died a short time  later in hospital.
My Granda John (Johnny) Patrick  was arrested after the British military raided the family home in Vere Street. My aunt Winnie, who was his oldest daughter, told him not to touch his coat and to register a complaint right away as she had seen a soldier attempting to place ammunition in the pocket of her fathers coat. Johnny asked to speak to whoever was the officer in command of the search telling him to take the soldier who placed the ammunition in his pocket aside.
He explained what Winnie had seen and asked that the commanding officer search both his coat and the soldier to ascertain if he had any missing ammunition. This was done and the bullets found in the coat pocket matched the same number of bullets missing from the magazine of the soldiers rifle. John was still arrested and charged.
The death knell for the case came when another British soldier said that at the time of the shooting he had seen Johnny Corr working in a shop in Garmoyle Street which was around a quarter of a mile away serving someone tobacco.
Johnny maintained his innocence from the time he was arrested right through the trial on charges of this double murder for which he would’ve been hanged if found guilty. This soldier who gave evidence that wrecked the crown case had been involved in an incident in Clonard in which a priest had been shot dead the year before. In July 1920, a Redemptorist member, Brother Michael Morgan, aged 28, was shot dead by a British soldier as Brother Michael was looking out from an upper-storey window of the monastery adjoining the church.
Johnny was released as the crowns case against him collapsed. Family members have gained access to the actual charge sheet and witness statements which contradicted each other and some made little or no sense. Despite several attempts  to gain access to documents relating to this actual trial and acquittal from PRONI public records office by members of our family we have yet to have any success.
In the years later he moved between Belfast, the south of Ireland and England to work as the candy and tobacco shop he ran in Garmoyle Street closed. In 1928 Johnny and Mary Ann had a young son Johnny he died as an infant a year later as a result of cardiac failure due to chronic bronchitis and pneumonia. In the mid 1930’s onwards Arder, Kevin Barry and Bridget were involved in the IRA and Cumman na mBan in Belfast.
Arder was sentenced in the late 1930’s to seven years in Belfast prison Crumlin Road Gaol. It was during this term of imprisonment as a republican political prisoner that his mother Mary Ann and youngest brother Freddie, who was 11 years old, both died on Easter Tuesday 1941 during the Luftwaffe blitz on Belfast.
They were killed when bombs dropped by the Luftwaffe exploded on York Street Mill which was said to have been the biggest spinning mill in the world at that time. The main side wall of the six storey mill collapsed on top of their home and many other houses in Vere Street and Sussex Street off North Queen Street killing and injuring many of the residents.
Their bodies along with many others were brought to the Falls Road bath’s which at the time was turned into an emergency morgue. When my Granny Corr died she was 48 years old along with her youngest child Freddie who was 11 years old. She left behind her husband Johnny Patrick, four daughters Winnie, Bridget, Josie and Debbie and two sons Arthur and my father Kevin Barry who was 19 years old at the time.
My aunt Josie received burns to her arm and chest in a different house in Vere Street as she was blown onto the hearth of the open fire and my aunt Debbie was found in another house in Vere Street trapped inside the chimney as in the panic they couldn’t make it to their own family home at the time the bombs were being dropped. People had been running in and out of houses in panic as the Luftwaffe planes dropped the bombs.
My father was at a dance in St Marys Hall off Chapel Lane and they were locked in as the bombs dropped.
When the air raid had finished and word spread of the houses demolished in Sussex Street and Vere Street my father was told his mother and younger brother had been killed and were taken to the Falls Rd baths. My Da who at that time was an active republican made his way to the baths and was shown in by a friendly attendant where he was able to unofficially identify his mother and brother. My Granda Johnny Patrick  had been working in England at the time. As a result of this the coroner said the oldest son would have to identify my Granny and Freddie’s bodies.
My uncle Arthur (Arder) was the eldest son at 25 years old but was a sentenced republican prisoner in Crumlin Road Gaol at the time. He got compassionate parole to identify his mother and brother. He was brought from the Gaol to the Falls baths in handcuffs which he wore throughout the process of identification and his return to the Gaol.
I watched a documentary programme from the 1990’s about the blitz. When a man who had worked in the Falls baths as an attendant at the emergency morgue almost cried as he recounted how Arder was handcuffed and a detective stood between him his mother and brother making sure he couldn’t touch them or have any physical contact with either of them.
After Arthur was returned to Crumlin Road Gaol the Catholic Bishop at the time had to intervene on the family’s behalf so Arder could get paroled a second time for his mother and brothers joint funerals. My Granda was contacted in England and told of the deaths of his wife and their youngest child. He returned to his family to bury his wife and son.
A year later our Granda Johnny died on the 17th of July 1942 from throat cancer and his son Arder was refused compassionate parole to visit his father yards away in the Mater hospital next door to Crumlin Road Gaol or go his father’s funeral.
Less than two months later my father Kevin Barry and Arder were to lose their friend and comrade Tom Williams a nineteen year old political prisoner and IRA member hanged in Belfast prison Crumlin Road Gaol.
Tom was hanged as a result of being involved in an IRA operation in which an RUC constable Patrick Murphy was shot dead. My uncle Arder who was a fellow Irish republican political prisoner at the time wrote a song in tribute and honour of Tom, The Ballad of Tom Williams, while he was in his cell in Crumlin Road Gaol shortly after Tom Williams was hanged on the 2nd of September 1942.
Within months Arder was to get a pleasant surprise, well all depending at what way you look at it. A screw opened his cell door to tell him he had a special visitor, and it would be a long visit, as his younger brother, my father Kevin Barry, was pushed into his cell.
He had been arrested after months on the run when he was found in a warehouse in Belfast docks having taken ill with pneumonia.
He was brought under armed guard to the Mater hospital where he was held under guard for almost a fortnight and then brought to the Gaol next door. On his introduction both my father and Arder started a protest in refusing to share a cell as it meant the prison authorities were attempting to double men up in cells. Meaning they could make room to bring more Irish republican political prisoners into the Gaol. Arder had a habit of protesting and annoying the screws and governor so much so that he was whipped with the cat-o-nine-tails.
In this instance the governor and a screw called Witherspoon who were trying to act clever. Saying as they were brothers and due to all they and their family had been through, they should be glad to be reunited and share a cell together. Both refused and in an act of vindictiveness the governor moved Arder to Derry Gaol and kept my Da in the Crum. He was escorted to Derry gaol by the screw Witherspoon who took great joy in telling him what he was going to do to his younger brother now he was in the Crumlin  Road Gaol without Arder. The screw’s joy ended in a wisely judged silence as Arder recounted to him a lot of personal details about himself and other members of the Witherspoon family.
Arder received a sentence within Derry Gaol which resulted in him being forcibly tied to a rack and flogged with a whip which was known as the cat-o-nine-tails. It was a whip which had nine strands which had weights on the end of each one. It was a brutal method of torture inflicted on political prisoners who the prison authorities deemed as dangerous and problematic figures who posed a threat to the status quo within a prison.
By that stage their sisters had moved in with aunts and Bridget in particular came under serious harassment from the RUC as she was in Cumann na mBan in Belfast. My father was released after being interned for three and a half years and Arder was released after serving his sentence.

You can read more about Arder Corr and the Ballad of Tom Williams here and the Corr family, including Dominic’s aunt Bridget are mentioned in this account of the violence in the area in 1935. The trial of Margaret Ardis (22) and Evelyn Blair (22), eye witnesses claimed two men, one of them they claimed was John Corr, had come out of a house close to the Corr’s house, went to the corner of Dale Street and fired two shots, the second hitting both Ardis and Blair as they leant out of the doorway of 6 Vere Street. In court, it was stated that the two women were killed with a revolver bullet, not a rifle bullet, and military witnesses testified that they were exchanging fire with a single gunman further up Vere Street when the two women were hit. None of the military witnesses could identify the gunman and John Corr’s alibi was sufficient to prove his innocence.

The second of the two photographs that features in the Belfast Telegraph on 20th September 1921 is online in Getty Images and was taken by George Rinhart (see below). The photo on Getty Images shows the same tunnelling between backyards in Vere Street with John Corr’s left arm appearing (out of focus) in the foreground on the left of the picture. In the top left, just over the yard wall, you can just make out the chimneys of houses on Sussex Street. Behind them, you can see the upper storeys of the York Street Mill looming over Sussex Street and Vere Street. On 16th April, 1941, German bombers brought the six storey high mill wall down on top of Sussex Street and Vere Street killing at least 35 people including the Corrs and my own grandfather’s first cousin, James O’Boyle.

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Facts and Figures of the Belfast Pogrom

This is the story of one of the most curious books in Ireland.

Facts and Figures of the Belfast Pogrom 1920-1922‘ by G.B. Kenna is a book very much shrouded in mystery. Written and printed in 1922, thousands of copies were printed for distribution but only eighteen ended up in circulation. The rest were apparently pulped to prevent the book reaching the shops. It is, of course, well known that the author wasn’t actually ‘G.B. Kenna’ but the name of the publisher, the ‘O’Connell Publishing Company, Dublin’ similarly appears to be fictitious. So, what was going on?

Cover of the original edition of Facts and Figures of the Belfast Pogrom 1920-1922

The book began in the work of the Publicity Committee of the Provisional Government in 1922 (as the early Free State government was known). Michael Collins had sent Cork man Patrick O’Driscoll to Belfast in mid-February 1922 to gather statements on the intense violence that had been happening in the city. Northern IRA units had been sending a stream of intelligence reports to Dublin with accounts of the violence since 1920. It had always been assumed by Collins, IRA GHQ and others, that these accounts exaggerated not just the extent of the violence, but Craig and the Unionists’ role in inciting it, and the behaviour of the B Specials and others that had led Belfast Catholics to label it as a ‘pogrom’ (the use of the term ‘pogrom’ is discussed further below). Given the disputes over the Anglo-Irish Treaty he signed in December 1921, at the very least, Collins now needed the northern IRA units to not openly oppose the treaty. O’Driscoll being sent was likely part of the same trust-building exercise by pro-treaty supporters in Dublin that had included a promise of arms and ammunition to the northern IRA units if they backed the treaty. Highly regarded by Collins, O’Driscoll (later a Dáil reporter) was to explore the truth of the ‘pogrom’ claims.

The statements and information O’Driscoll collected began to be appear in Provisional Government bulletins during March 1922. Collins likely sought to use the revelations as leverage during his own negotiations with the northern Unionist leader Sir James Craig (these negotiations led to the Craig-Collins Pacts). O’Driscoll also advised Collins that the Catholic bishops and community leaders were demanding that someone publish a detailed exposé to counteract the propaganda the unionist press had been printing since 1920. This included funerals of Catholics being wrongly reported as IRA victims, attacks on Catholics being wrongly ascribed to the IRA and photographs of damaged ‘Protestant’ homes that had actually been owned by ‘Catholics’. [You can read more about a typical example, Weaver Street, here.]

Collins asked the Catholic Bishop of Down and Conor, Joseph MacRory, to release Father John Hassan, the administrator in St Mary’s, Chapel Lane in the centre of Belfast, to work on gathering suitable material for a book. Hassan had previously been the parish priest in St Joseph’s in Sailortown and was familiar with, and well known in, the districts which had seen the most violence. He had also been recording the details of events since 1920. Hassan set out to gather information to address the black propaganda issues (sometimes at the expenses of completeness in his statistics).


Fr John Hassan (courtesy of his great grand nephew, Niall Hassan)

Hassan, however, told O’Driscoll that he personally didn’t feel up to the task of writing a book on the subject and it was agreed with Collins that it be entrusted to a member of the Publicity Committee, Alfred O’Rahilly, who would be supplied with the necessary information by Hassan. O’Rahilly, a noted mathematician and theologian, was the Registrar of University College Cork and had been the constitutional advisor to the treaty delegation in 1921. He had helped draft a constitution for the new Irish Free State earlier in 1922 and was very much a Catholic intellectual, having initially trained as a Jesuit. O’Driscoll said that O’Rahilly was going to write “…one of the most powerful indictments of Orangeism ever published” (see J. Anthony Gaughan’s biography of O’Rahilly).

Special Branch photo of Alfred O’Rahilly who it labels as Director of SF Propaganda

After the Provisional Government’s North East Advisory Committee met on 11th April 1922 to review events, O’Rahilly met with Collins on the 20th and agreed to write the book. In early May he sent an outline to Kevin O’Higgins’ secretary (Patrick McGilligan) but O’Rahilly was then busy with university business until June. As Kieron Glennon has pointed out (in From Pogrom to Civil War), the dire reports from the north at the 11th April meeting and O’Driscoll’s eye witness accounts surely alarmed Collins and Richard Mulcahy over their capacity to retain the confidence of northern IRA units. Mulcahy had been Chief of Staff of the IRA and was now Chief of Staff of the new Free State’s ‘National Army’. They then agreed to an abortive, disorganised and ultimately futile northern offensive by the IRA in mid-May 1922. That offensive eroded most of the northern IRA’s remaining resources and capacity to no obvious purpose (other than perhaps diverting their attention from events further south).

In early June, O’Driscoll wrote to O’Rahilly to advise him that all the necessary material was now available. He also told O’Rahilly that Fr Hassan was starting to get uneasy as he hadn’t yet heard from O’Rahilly. By now, though, the outbreak of hostilities between pro- and anti-treaty supporters had taken centre stage in the south. The Provisional Government set-up a new North East Policy Committee without Collins but including the likes of Ernest Blythe, a republican with a northern Protestant background. Hassan continued to work on collecting information for the book. O’Rahilly’s public standing, though, meant that he was caught up in attempts to broker peace between pro- and anti-treaty supporters in Cork and he seems to have been unable to commit to completing his part of the work at the time. According to Gaughan it was then decided that, as an interim report, Hassan would publish the information he had gathered to date as a book. This was to be funded by Collins and O’Rahilly would follow it with his own devastating polemic in due course.

So Hassan pulled together the material he had gathered to date. He appears to have finished up at the start of August as the book contains details of sentences handed out in court in Belfast on the same date that he wrote the foreword, 1st August 1922. The foreword explicitly set out the motivation behind writing the book: “…to place before the public a brief review of the disorders that have made the name of Belfast notorious… A well-financed Press propaganda… has already succeeded in convincing vast numbers of people, especially in England, that the victims were the persecutors… What the Catholics of Belfast would desire most of all…is an impartial tribunal set up by Government to investigate the whole tragic business… considering the magnitude of these outrages…?

But by the 1st August 1922 Michael Collins had only three weeks left to live.

The timing seems to be quite significant. On 2nd August Collins and the northern IRA units had agreed to cease offensive operations in the north and were instead to adopt a policy of passive resistance and non-recognition of the Northern Ireland government. The 3rd August issue of the Irish Bulletin from the Publicity Committee included a summary of some of the information gathered by Hassan. The next day the Freeman’s Journal called it a “…an admirable antidote to the lying propaganda which has been flooding this country for many months past.

However, Ernest Blythe made very different proposals to the North East Policy Committee a few days later on 9th August. Instead, Blythe suggested that they should push the IRA and northern Catholics to recognise the authority of the Northern Ireland government and actively support it. However Blythe’s rationale was that the current policy (non-conciliation) was supported by the (anti-treaty) IRA and so the Provisional Government should reverse its position on the north as a way of “…attacking them [the IRA] all along the line.” Furthermore, Blythe wrote, “The ‘Outrage’ propaganda should be dropped in the Twenty-Six Counties. It can have no effect but to make certain of our people see red which will never do us any good.” Blythe effectively proposed sacrificing the book, details of the Belfast pogrom and revealing the truth of what had happened in Belfast since 1920 for tactical reasons during the civil war. Perhaps to test the public reaction, Blythe’s proposals were clearly leaked to some newspapers, such as the Donegal News, which reported them on 12th August as ‘rumours circulating in Dublin’. The leaks claimed they were actually proposals that had been agreed between a northern bishop and a leading British cabinet minister (this may have been mischievous as Blythe, at least, knew that Bishop MacRory had recently met Lloyd George in London). On 19th August the Provisional Government endorsed Blythe’s proposals.

Ernest Blythe

Presuming Hassan had immediately given his manuscript to the printers, it seems unlikely that it had been composited, printed and bound before either the 19th August when Blythe had the Provisional Government agree to drop it or Collins’ death on 22nd August (Collins was apparently to meet with Alfred O’Rahilly the night after he was killed). As such, it seems likely that the book was literally in the printers when Collins died. Since Collins hadn’t yet challenged other members of the Provisional Government over endorsement of Blythe’s proposals, or had a chance to argue they should be dropped, Blythe’s policy stood and that was the end of Facts and Figures of the Belfast Pogrom 1920-1922. For now.

Hassan’s own obituary in the Irish Independent (5/1/1939) confirms the story but adds a different spin to the reason why the book was censored, “By order of the Provisional Government an edition, running into many thousand copies, was printed for distribution on a world-wide scale, but before the time of publication things in the North took a better turn, and it was decided not to proceed further with it.” Hassan being from Banagher in Derry, he had a lengthy obituary in the Derry Journal (6/1/1939) which also confirms that “…when printed, the publication had been withdrawn…” although the Derry Journal implied that had happened earlier in 1922, during the Craig-Collins talks (which is clearly incorrect based on the content of the book). In a 1970 article in the Irish Examiner (9/9/1970), historian Andrew Boyd was closer to the truth in suggesting that the Provisional Government thought publication of the book “…was more likely to incite war than promote peace.

While Boyd’s phrasing suggests slightly more altruistic motives, failure to publish the book may have had much more longer term repercussions. Many of the issues raised throughout the book, and much of Hassan’s language, finds dark echoes in the violence in Belfast in 1935 and again from 1969 onwards. Given that between January 1919 and June 1922, around 20% of all War of Independence fatalities occurred in Belfast, the almost absolute absence of meaningful histories of the period in Belfast, until ‘Facts and Figures’ was eventually made widely available in 1997, is still astonishing. A moment, which could have possibly seen some sort of coming to terms with the immediate past in 1922, was entirely missed. Failing to quickly unpack the legacy of 1920-1922 may also have been crucial to creating the type of long-term dynamics around ‘dealing with the past’ that we still see today. While the Provisional Government effectively censored reporting on the violence in Belfast after 19th August 1922, the likes of Belfast Newsletter and Northern Whig could continue, unchallenged, to dismiss accounts of the violence as shameless propaganda.

A final key point, here, is in the use of the term ‘pogrom’ in the books title. In recent decades, historians like Robert Lynch and Alan Parkinson have been at pains to dismiss the use of the term. However, contemporary commentators who had witnessed the violence in Belfast in 1920-1922, had absolutely no qualms about using it. Ironically, the current accepted definition of ‘pogrom’, used by the likes of Werner Bergmann and David Engels, is “…a unilateral, non-governmental form of collective violence initiated by the majority population against a largely defenseless ethnic group”. That collective violence generally manifests as riots and is directed at the minority group collectively rather than targeting specific individuals. There is also an the implication that officials have connived at it, but not directly organised it. This is exactly how Hassan uses the term, but not Lynch or Parkinson [Lynch claims, for it to be a pogrom, victims should be mostly women and children, Parkinson that it should be state organised. Neither interpretation is consistent with current accepted definitions of a ‘pogrom’]. Kieron Glennon, though, thought it appropriate and used the term in the title of his From Pogrom to Civil War.

Today, pretty much no-one will want the term ‘pogrom’ used. But as pointed out earlier, the real moment for coming to terms with all this likely passed with the original suppression of ‘Facts and Figures’ in 1922. Yet Hassan himself makes the most important point of all in his own dedication at the start of the book. Proportionally, very few people took an active part in the pogrom, and of those many were likely caught up in it rather than instrumental in making it happen. Hassan makes that point explicitly at the start of the book, dedicating it to that vast majority who took no hand or part in it: “The many Ulster Protestants, who have always lived in peace and friendliness with their Catholic neighbours, this little book dealing with the acts of their misguided co-religionists, is affectionately dedicated.

Facts and Figures of the Belfast Pogrom 1920-1922 by G.B. Kenna, in its original cover, is available again now via Amazon.

Kieron Glennon’s From Pogrom to Civil War is published by Mercier Press. The details of Ernest Blythe’s proposals to the North East Policy Committee are included in his papers in UCD (IEUCDAP24) and quoted at length by Glennon.

J. Anthony Gaughan’s biography of O’Rahilly, Alfred O’Rahilly is published by Kingdom Books.

The appropriateness of the term ‘pogrom’ is discussed by Robert Lynch (in his 2008 paper in the Journal of British Studies, “The People’s Protectors? The Irish Republican Army and the “Belfast Pogrom,” 1920-1922”) and Alan Parkinson in The Unholy War (published by Four Courts).

For a discussion of Werner Bergmann’s definition of a pogrom see Heitmeyer and Hagan’s survey paper in International Handbook of Violence Research, Volume 1. David Engels views are reviewed in Dekel-Chen, Gaunt, Meir and Bartal’s Anti-Jewish Violence. Rethinking the Pogrom in East European History.

Thanks to Martin Molloy and Niall Hassan for the photograph of Fr Hassan. Father John Hassan was born in Coolnamon, near Feeney in Derry in 1875 and went to school first at Fincairn, then Ballinascreen, then St. Columbs in 1892. In 1894 he went to Maynooth and then Rome the following year where he was ordained in St John Laterans by Cardinal Respighi on 9th June 1900. He was fluent in Italian, French and German as well as Irish and English. He returned to the Down and Conor diocese in Ireland, serving in parishes in Ballycastle, Castlewellan, Downpatrick and Kilkeel before he was transferred to Belfast, firstly to St Josephs in Sailortown in1910. He moved to St Mary’s, Chapel Lane in 1916 where he was involved in the events described above, staying there until 1929 when he moved as parish priest to Ballymoney were he died in 1939 (from Derry Journal, 6/1/1939). 

Revisiting 1969: the deployment of the British Army, April 1969

This is another article revisiting 1969, this time looking at the initial deployment of the British Army.

In 1969, violence led to the deployment of the British Army in the north. Historically people usually associate this event with the aftermath of serious disorder in Derry and Belfast in the middle of August. However, the British Army was actually deployed in April 1969 following a bombing campaign by the UVF.

A British soldier on guard duty, April 1969 (Getty Images)

An explosion on 30th March at an electricity station in Castlereagh caused £500,000 in damage (equivalent of £8.5m today). The bombing came on the eve of an internal Unionist Party meeting that was to focus on the leadership of Terence O’Neill who was under pressure for trying to move the party towards accepting the introduction of universal suffrage in local elections. There was no claim of responsibility but the next day (31st March) the Belfast Telegraph reported both that the Republican movement had denied any responsibility and claims from an un-named ‘republican source’ that it was the work of ‘nationalist-minded people living in the Six Counties’ and another claim from un-named ‘republican source’ that attributed responsibility to ‘Saor Uladh’. The latter claim looked particularly spurious since Saor Uladh had been defunct for almost ten years. Various figures attributed the explosion to an un-named ‘subversive organisation’. 
The Unionist government’s immediate response was to call up a further 1,000 B Specials to full-time service. Given the widespread public criticism of the performance and behaviour of the 400 B Specials that had already been called up, the likes of Ivan Cooper and Austin Currie publicly questioned the wisdom of the move. Further explosions followed with a bomb attack at Dunadry on the Belfast water supply from Lough Neagh on 4th April (again on the eve an internal Unionist Party meeting about O’Neill’s leadership).
On the 19th April, amidst further intense rioting in Derry, the Home Office at Stormont asked for advice on “…what the attitude of the British Government would be towards the use of troops for law and order enforcement if the Government of Northern Ireland were to announce their acceptance in principle of universal adult suffrage for local government elections.” This was only minuted by Stormont’s Ministry of Home Affairs on 7th May, when it noted the response stated that “…It is not possible for Her Majesty’s Government in the United Kingdom to give any secret pledges of military assistance…” (implying the Unionist government had requested a secret pledge). It goes on to state that “…At common law it is the duty of the military, at the request of the civil power, to take whatever steps the military judge necessary to maintain order, it being clearly understood that the judgement of the necessity for military forces and the degree of force used are entirely the responsibility of the military commander.” The British government claim that common law dictates that the degree of force is solely at the discretion of the responsible military commander is significant in light of later events involving the British army.

The night after that request was sent, there were further bomb attacks at Silent Valley reservoir and an electricity pylon in Kilmore in Armagh on 20th April. The Unionist government then made its request for the deployment of the army that day with Deputy Prime Minister John Andrews thanking the British government for permission to use the troops in the next day’s Belfast Telegraph (21/4/1969). The Press Association noted that contingency plans to deploy troops had been in place for some time. Initially, troops already based in the north were to be used but a number of additional detachments were transported from Britain over the next couple of days.

The photographs above and below are British troops being deployed, 22nd April 1969 (Getty Images)

That night the IRA, under pressure to draw some of the B Specials away from Derry, carried out a series of petrol bomb attacks on Post Offices in Belfast. The next day Belfast Telegraph had Brian Faulkner intimating that all the bombings were the work of the IRA and hinted at the use of internment. However, a leading member of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association, Vincent McDowell, made a public statement explicitly blaming the bombings on the UVF. Henry McDonald and Jim Cusack’s book UVF – The Endgame recounts that, in the first months of 1969, there had been widespread graffiti threatening violence from the UVF against Catholics’ businesses and homes, both in flashpoint areas and in districts where Catholics were in a distinct minority. This was no idle threat, obviously, as the UVF had carried out a number of killings in 1966. McDonald and Cusack also state that some of those publicly blaming the IRA actually knew the bombings were the work of the UVF.

The deployment of the British Army did not deter further bombings, with attacks at the Lough Neagh water pipe on 24th April and one at the water pipe at Annalong on the next night. The British government decided to send further British troops by air to Aldergrove the following day (25th April) including The Prince Wales Own Regiment and a detachment of Royal Engineers. The bombings also followed in the wake of the Unionist Party’s narrow vote on 23rd April in favour of universal adult suffrage for local elections (the ‘one man, one vote’ demand of the civil rights campaigns). It didn’t save O’Neill’s premiership, though, as he finally resigned on 28th April and was replaced by Chichester-Clarke, who had resigned as Minister of Agriculture when universal adult suffrage had been passed. With O’Neill’s resignation, this phase of the UVF bombing campaign ended.

British troops awaiting deployment, Belfast Telegraph 26/4/1969
After arrival at Aldergrove, Sunday Independent, 27/4/1969

The 1969 bombing campaign is revealing on a number of levels. Since the 1930s, if the IRA had carried out a bomb attack, the RUC immediately responded with a wave of searches and arrests. A key (and revealing) signature of past unionist bombings was the clear absence of an RUC response. The 1969 bombings were little different, suggesting the RUC (and Unionist government) were aware from the very start that the bombings were being carried out by the UVF. By the end of April 1969, the UVF campaign had led to the British army being deployed to the north. The further deployment in mid-August is the one that subsequent histories have tended to stress and so the introduction of British soldiers is often associated with the later violence of mid-August. This overlooks the start of the British Army deployment and, by doing so, underplays the significance of the UVF bombing campaign and its purpose. That campaign had intended to stop Terence O’Neill initiating basic reforms such as introducing universal adult suffrage (if you need reminding of the range of civil rights abuses, you can read the Campaign for Social Justice’s The Plain Truth report published in mid-June 1969 here).

It is also worth noting that security and intelligence apparatus began to be put in place in April 1969 as part of the initial deployment (for more on that see here). And in advance of that initial deployment it is maybe worth pointing out it is possible that overall thinking around the use of troops and the degree of force permitted had already received the following guidance from the British government, “…that the judgement of the necessity for military forces and the degree of force used are entirely the responsibility of the military commander.” That kind of thinking clearly has had a long term influence.

Revisiting 1969: the myth of a pre-August 1969 split

I have a few posts on events in 1969 taking a fresh look at some key events. This will include the deployment of the British Army, the introduction of internment and the split in the Belfast IRA in September 1969. But they are for another day. Firstly, I’m going to wrap up the previous post on the speeches given at a major IRA event in Mullingar in July 1969 (you can read them here and see some more here).

So, was Jimmy Steele’s speech in Mullingar really the first sign of the 1969 split in the IRA, or was the treatment of Steele simply an example of methods and attitudes of the IRA leadership at the time? Steele, a former IRA Adjutant General, had been President of the Directory of Republican Clubs in the north as recently as 1967-68. The excerpt from his speech quoted by Peter Taylor (in Provos) is used in most accounts of the 1969 IRA split to support an argument that the split reflected broad left/right divisions within the republican movement. The surviving audio of his speech neither corresponds to the text quoted by Taylor nor provides much evidence that left/right ideological issues were really the major factor in the later IRA split.

Jimmy Steele at Mullingar in 1969 (from Joe Cahill: A Life in the IRA).

That the speech prompted internal ructions within the IRA isn’t at doubt. The day after it was given, the IRA Chief of Staff, Cathal Goulding, had Steele removed from Sinn Féin’s official panel of speakers for republican events. Steele had been involved with Fianna Éireann and the IRA since 1920, spent numerous periods in prison or interned and edited a variety of republican newspapers and pamphlets. According to Belfast IRA veteran Billy McKee, on the Wednesday evening he was in Steele’s house when Malachy McGurran (an IRA Army Council member) and Jim Sullivan (the Belfast IRA Adjutant) arrived. McKee, who had not been active in the IRA since the early 1960s, was asked to leave as Sullivan and McGurran told him they had IRA business to discuss with Steele. When McKee met Steele again a couple of days later, Steele told him that McGurran and Sullivan had been sent by Goulding to inform him of his immediate expulsion from the IRA. Any reference to Steele’s speech was omitted from the subsequent coverage of the event in the subsequent issue of the main republican newspaper, The United Irishman.

Steele’s speech had been delivered in front of crowd of 10,000 at Ballyglass cemetery, Mullingar, at the reburial of Peter Barnes and James McCormick. Barnes and McCormick had been hung in England in 1940 after a 1939 IRA bombing in Coventry in which five people died. A repatriation committee had campaigned for the return of their remains since 1949 and Steele spoke at the reburial on its behalf. Various other people spoke from the platform including Sinn Féin President Tomás MacGiolla (who had chaired the repatriation committee). The main speech on behalf of the IRA was by Cork man Jim O’Regan, an International Brigade veteran who had also been active during the 1939 English campaign and imprisoned along with Barnes.

 

Peter Taylor’s text

Taylor published the following text as a quote from the speech: “Our two martyred comrades who we honour today … went forth to carry the fight to the enemy, into enemy territory, using the only methods that will ever succeed, not the method of the politicians, nor the constitutionalists, but the method of soldiers, the method of armed force. The ultimate aim of the Irish nation will never emerge from the political or constitutional platform. Indeed, one is expected to be more conversant with the teaching of Chairman Mao than those of our dead patriots. [At this point there is applause and shouts of ‘hear, hear’ on the tape.]

From the graves of patriot men and women spring living nations, said Pearse. May we hope that from these graves of Barnes and McCormick will emanate a combination of the old and new spirit … a spirit that will ensure the final completion of the task that our martyrs were compelled to leave unfinished.”

Subsequent references to the speech all seem to be solely quoting Taylor. This includes the likes of Patrick Ryan’s The Birth of the Provisionals, Robert White’s biography of Ruairí Ó Brádaigh and Sean Swan’s Official Irish Republicanism 1962-72 (which specifically cites Taylor’s quote as a transcription). Almost all use it to support an analysis of the ideological split within the IRA over opposition to a ‘leftward’ drift under Goulding.

Taylor gives his source as a tape recording of the speech played for him by McKee. The recording had been made in Mullingar by another Belfast IRA veteran Leo Martin who later donated it to the Republican History Museum in Conway Mill in Belfast before his death. The surviving recording includes the speeches by O’Regan and Steele. Despite the dreadful weather the audio quality is still remarkably good although the very start of Steele’s ten minute speech is missing.

 

Steele’s speech

The extant audio (you can read the transcript here) starts with Steele criticising People’s Democracy’s Michael Farrell and the Derry Labour Party’s Eamon McCann for refusing to march behind a tricolour at a recent James Connolly commemoration in Belfast. Here Steele chimes exactly, in tone and language, with coverage of the same issue in the June and July 1969 issues of United Irishman, and with recent statements by people close to Goulding like Tomás MacGiolla and Derry Kelleher, all  of whom emphasised James Connolly’s combination of socialism and republicanism.

The excerpt below, following his criticism of Farrell and McCann, illustrates Steele’s theme of Connolly’s vision of left-wing Irish republicanism. “Barnes and McCormick did not accept this position. They acted as Connolly would have acted and fought to the death against it. That was why they died. There are those who would decry their sacrifice and speak of the futility of martyrdom and cynically refer to glorious sacrifices. I will let Connolly answer those people as he answered the judges at his own court martial, “Believing that the British government has no right in Ireland, never had any right in Ireland and never can have any right in Ireland, the presence in every one generation of Irishmen of even a respectable minority read to die to affirm that truth, makes that government forever a usurpation and a crime against human progress.”

The reference to “the teachings of Chairman Mao” then appears in a different context in the audio than that implied by Taylor’s account: “A period that cost the lives of twenty-six soldiers of the Irish Republican Army, nine by execution in England, Belfast and the Twenty-Six Counties, five in gun battles with enemy forces and the remainder on hunger-strike or in the prisons. Yet, until recently, there seems to be this deliberate blackout of that glorious period. Could it be that it is so fashionable to be tinged a deep red, to be militantly anti-British in the Forties, as Barnes and McCormick and their comrades were, is now considered to be tantamount to being dubbed fascists. These men were not fascists, nor were they Communists, nor murderers as their enemies allege them to be. They were simply guilty of the unpardonable crime of being Irish patriots, imbued with a deep love of Ireland and her cause of freedom.

Today, in many places, pure and raw patriotism is frowned upon. As is adherence to the policy of non-compromise and force. Indeed, one is now expected to be more conversant with the teachings of Chairman Mao than with those of our dead patriots. Barnes and McCormick were not intellectuals, they were just ordinary working class lads who looked upon it as their duty to right Ireland’s wrong. Can we assume that most of you who are assembled here today consider their cause and their methods just and necessary? Or will you assemble afterwards, in small groups, the more progressive as some of you like to be called, and speak of these poor misguided men and then propagate your ideas as to how Ireland’s freedom can be attained without fighting, without suffering, without martyrdom.

There comes a time in every generation when men try to re-direct the republican movement along a different road to that upon which our freedom fighters trod. When, Liam Mellows a few hours before he faced the firing squad, wrote about that road, he said “The signposts on that road are plain and broad and straight. It is the road on which Tone and all our martyrs are the guides. A road marked by truth, honour, principle and sacrifice.” That was the road upon which Barnes and McCormick trod, even onto martyrdom.

A great deal of propaganda is still being made on the question of unity among all who claim to be working for cause of unity and independence of our country. And Connolly’s words on this matter should give us all food for thought when he said, “Unity is a word used by many with ulterior motives, to achieve political ambition, or ultimately, to seek power and control in a united movement.” Therefore in striving for genuine unity we must be careful that such efforts may not lead to that seizure of power and control by the wrong people as defined by Connolly.” [Text in bold is the quote given by Taylor].

Despite Taylor’s annotations, there is no interruption in the audio for applause or shouts of ‘hear, hear’. Some of the text Taylor quoted could come from the start of the speech that is missing on the audio held in the Irish Republican Museum in Conway Mill. That, however, doesn’t explain other discrepancies with the text and annotations here.

 

A Raw Nerve

The final section of Steele’s speech also varies from the text given by Taylor (the text missing from Taylor’s quote is marked in bold): “From the graves of patriot men and women spring living nations, said Pearse. My real hope, is that from these graves of Barnes and McCormick, will emanate a combination of the old and new spirit, a spirit that will inspire men and women with the noble idealism of Pearse, the social and economic philosophy and aims of Connolly, and the fighting and courageous heart of Cathal Brugha. A spirit that will ensure the final completion of the task which our martyrs were compelled to leave unfinished.”

The missing reference to the “…social and economic philosophy and aims of Connolly…” again continues that James Connolly zeitgeist that ran through Steele’s speech, MacGiolla’s Bodenstown address and recent United Irishman articles. Clearly, though, given the speed of his dismissal from the IRA, Steele hit a very raw nerve. But what raw nerve did he hit? Politicisation? Left wing policies?

A longer term view suggests neither of the latter was much of a problem for the Belfast IRA (and the likes of Steele who had been active republicans for much of the previous fifty years). Steele had stood as a candidate and acted as an election agent in previous decades, and the IRA had ran candidates in Belfast in the 1960s. The Belfast IRA had also engaged with a series of political projects since the 1920s which usually included collaborating with the left although that relationship was often fraught. Tarlach Ó hUid, in his 1960 memoir Ar Thóir mo Shealbha, recounts how the IRA and various left wing groups formed an anti-imperialist republican club in Belfast in the late 1930s, only for it to fracture in 1941 when communist members withdrew support on the entry of the Soviet Union into the war as an ally of Britain. Publications like Irish Freedom and statements by leading communists like Billy McCullough show a shift in tone in 1942 away from ‘anti-imperialism’ (which included colonial powers like Britain and France) to ‘anti-fascism’ (i.e. Nazi Germany, Italy etc). Betty Sinclair later claimed Belfast communists were accused of passing the RUC information on former allies in the IRA leading to arrests and arms finds. That fallout in 1942 coloured the Belfast IRA’s perceptions of the Communist Party as an entity rather than left wing politics itself (and, based on that experience, Sinclair’s own prominence in the Civil Rights Movement was viewed with suspicion). This attitude was reinforced by the role local communists played in defending the Soviet Union’s suppression of national movements like the Hungarian uprising in 1956 and ‘Prague Spring’ in 1968.

Those present at Steele’s speech like Joe Cahill, Sean Dunne, Roy Johnston and John Kelly all show they clearly understood the references to control and strategy as direct criticisms of Cathal Goulding. Goulding himself, in an interview with Seán Ó hÉalaithe published in Comhar in 1973, claimed that despite regularly meeting Steele, Steele had never raised any concerns with him over politicisation or left-wing IRA policies. Although there is evidence of Steele previously criticising the direction Goulding was promoting within the IRA policy. Steele had been the main speaker at the Manchester Martyrs centenary in Manchester in November 1967. His speech had carried criticisms of the ‘New Departure’ of Davitt and Devoy, a deal between the Irish Republican Brotherhood and constitutional nationalists over attendance at Westminster. This was obviously allegorical and cut across Cathal Goulding’s own push to end abstentionism, but this clearly wasn’t that raw a nerve since Goulding took no action against Steele after the 1967 Manchester speech. Notably, though, Goulding had pushed through an expansion of the IRA’s Army Council, from seven to twenty members in September 1968 which enabled him to co-opt supporters of his politicisation strategy and force through reforms of the IRA. Goulding’s methods here may have been one focus of Steele’s criticisms.

The Mullingar speech also took place in the shadow of loyalist bombings in April, May and June 1969 and increasing concerns in Belfast at Goulding’s refusal to relax his control over access to IRA arms. In May and then again in July, Goulding told meetings of IRA GHQ staff that there were plans in place to defend northern nationalists in the event of unionist violence. However, he told a meeting of local IRA O/Cs that, in a crisis, it would be the British government who would have to step in and disband the B Specials and bring in reforms. In May the northern O/Cs had met and had a request for weapons approved but they never got them. Matt Treacy, in The I.R.A. 1956-69: Rethinking the Republic, records that Roy Johnston, then on the Army Council, claims Goulding intended to leave Belfast undefended as he hoped that a backlash to any sustained violence against Catholics would lead to the disbanding of the B Specials. Goulding himself admits that G.H.Q. had arms but they withheld them from the north as they had not believed what they had been told about the threat of violence (Goulding as quoted in Tony Geraghty’s The Irish War: The Military History of a Domestic Conflict). I am a little dubious about this last point though, as on 16th August 1969, when the IRA demanded Goulding issue weapons, it seems clear that there no longer were any significant dumps of IRA weapons for Goulding to release.

Cathal Goudling (centre) being spoken to by Jim Sullivan (with armband) while Tomas MacGiolla stands behind him.

While Goulding’s plans to end abstentionism were a clear focus of Steele’s speech, I think the atmosphere around the Mullingar event was created by Goulding’s policy on weapons. The Belfast IRA had collected its existing stocks of weapons prior to the 1956 border campaign and then transported outside Belfast to be redistributed to units involved in the border areas during that campaign. Afterwards, throughout the 1960s, the Belfast Battalion only had access to a handful of weapons. Steele and others may have been conscious that Goulding’s intention was to leave Belfast undefended (as claimed by Johnston). The Belfast IRA was acutely aware of how its lack of weaponry made it unable to respond to the kind of crises that occurred in 1920-22 and 1935 and which its older members had directly experienced.

Whether over constitutionalism or weapons for the Belfast Battalion, Steele’s quote “unity is a word used by many with ulterior motives” intentionally insinuated that Goulding was now acting in the interests of someone other than the IRA (clearly meaning the Communist Party). All of this obviously hit a raw nerve. Despite his speech never referencing the weapons issues in Belfast, those present seem to have understood Steele’s point (and it seems unlikely that a long time IRA veteran like Steele would breach IRA protocols by openly discussing IRA business at a public event). What perhaps made matters worse was the fact that there were almost always longstanding enmities between Belfast and Dublin over control of IRA strategy. While rarely discussed openly, this clearly had been a recurring problem for the IRA and had been central to previous crises, such as in 1922 and the Stephen Hayes affair of 1940-41. Rosita Sweetman’s 1972 book On Our Knees actually quotes Steele as saying he would “Get his own back on Dublin” after his expulsion.

So arguably, the real tensions within the IRA were over access to the weapons that everyone believed Goulding had securely under his own control. On 16th August 1969 when violence began to consume the north, Goulding was besieged by IRA units demanding he open up all the dumps. Only then did it became clear that the IRA’s stocks of arms and ammunition, that were central to that crisis in the IRA that summer, did not really exist.

While Mullingar clearly represented an event in the journey towards the split in the IRA later in 1969, I suspect it was actually less significant than is claimed. It was later to suit those on both sides of the subsequent split in the IRA to reach back before the events of August 1969 for the split’s origin. As far as the Official IRA was concerned, this served two purposes. It allowed it to claim that the basis of the split in the IRA was one between what it could present as ‘progressive’ versus ‘militant’ republicanism. The second purpose was that this neatly deflected from the criticism of Goulding and the IRA’s failure to respond to unionist violence during mid-August 1969. More so, in extremis, the likes of Roy Johnston have even sought to actively implicate those who were on the Provisional IRA side of the split as intentionally complicit in fomenting the violence of mid-August 1969 and cite Steele’s speech in Mullingar as evidence. As far as those on the Provisional IRA side of the split were concerned, though, Steele’s speech evidence of internal resistance within the IRA to the policies that led to the IRA’s own failures in mid-August 1969. Thus the Provisional IRA could also disassociate itself from Goulding and the events of that August by placing the roots of the schism before that August.

It that regard, it is hard to see beyond the IRA’s failure to prepare to counteract the extreme violence of mid-August 1969 as the real basis for the IRA split later that year but I’ll cover that another day.

 

You can read a full transcript and hear some audio of Steele’s and O’Regan’s speech here. Notes on 1969 meetings of Sinn Féin’s Coiste Seasta are available on Roy Johnston’s website (see www.rjtechne.org). The account of Steele’s dismissal from the IRA is based on information from Billy McKee.

There is more on the context of the Mullingar speech in Belfast Battalion: a history of the Belfast IRA, 1922-1969.

IRA split, July 1969

This is fiftieth anniversary of the 1969 IRA split. Here is some footage and audio of Jimmy Steele’s speech in Mullingar in July that year, regarded as a key event in the split.

Both Steele’s speech and that of Jim O’Regan (the official speaker for the IRA on the day) are transcribed here. You can decide for yourself whether the content suggests the IRA split on left/right lines or not (I’m not convinced).

I’ve posted some audio from O’Regan’s speech here:

https://drive.google.com/file/d/1scJPUheft8ndRtIUb00laeWJFiI6OT3N/view?usp=drivesdk