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

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

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

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

Anna Johnston

Anna Johnston (thanks to Roddy Hegarty for the photo)

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

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

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

Cavehill

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

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

R Johnston 29.3.37 I Press

Robert Johnstone, Irish Independent 29th March 1937

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

John Edwards blood-stained handkerchief

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

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

Jack

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

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

Frank Edwards

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

the-flame-and-the-candle.jpg

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

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

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

indo-25-may-1921.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anti-Partition meeting, New York, 1947

Anti Partition

An Anti-Partition meeting in New York on 4th June 1947. Hosted by Mayo-born Mayor of New York William O’Dwyer, seen here speaking from the podium at the meeting itself in the Manhattan Centre which was calling for the termination by England of the partition of Ireland.

The others sitting on the platform are (left to right): George J. Regan, Chairman of the United Irish of New York; James Comerford, President of the United Irish Counties Association of New York, Rev. Sean Reid; Capt Denis Ireland, President Ulster Union Club; and, Rt. Rev. Monsignor Patrick J. O’Donnell of St. Jerome Church in the Bronx (the picture was published in the Irish Press, 10/6/1947)

Denis Ireland’s Ulster Union Club had been mainly frequented by Protestants but was also a source of recruits to the Belfast IRA. Most famous of those was John Graham, a former divinity student who was a senior member of the IRA at the time of his arrest in 1942 and later went on to become a professional golfer. Denis Ireland was also a sometime associate of Laurie Green who wrote Odd Man Out – I assume Ireland is the source of Green’s apparent familiarity with the Belfast IRA at the time of both the Odd Man Out novel and film.

In the background to these meetings others were agitating for a military camp to end partition citing the emerging successes of anti-colonial insurgency campaigns (themselves often modelled on the IRA campaign of 1919-22). This included Brendan O’Boyle, whose Laochra Uladh group mounted a low key campaign in Belfast in the early 1950s. You can read more about O’Boyle, John Graham and Denis Ireland in Belfast Battalion (which you can buy here).

The banner above the platform reads:

“A Nation mutilated,

A Peoples will defied,

A Puppet State created

A Democracy denied!”

REM 1690, NO POPE HERE: Weaver Street, 13/2/1922

An event I’ve posted about a few times occured today in 1922, the bombing of Weaver Street, in which a grenade was thrown into a group of children playing in Weaver Street after they were deliberately moved there so they could be targeted. The grenade killed four children and two adults and wounded many more. The attackers even opened fire on those coming to their aid. You can read more about it here.

Afterwards Weaver Street was slowly eradicated from the map of Belfast. The residents of February 1922 were mostly burned out or fled in May that year. One grainey image of their flight survives (below).

While another survives from several years later shows the street as it was in 1922 with the residents who subsequently moved in. What appears to be a lamp post in the left foreground would correspond to where the 13th February 1922 bomb exploded.

As Weaver Street and adjoining streets were absorbed into the Thomsons factory, a recent history of the company, Gentle Giant, includes a couple of interesting photos.

The first gives an overview of the handful of little streets in which the 13th February 1922 bombing (and a previous, but less bloody, bombing in Milewater Street) took place. The red dot approximates where the bomb was thrown from, the ‘W’ of Weaver Street roughly where it exploded.

The second shows Shore Street being demolished in the late 1950s, some thirty years after the bombing. Several doors up North Derby Street from the immediate scene of the bombing you can just make out graffitti on the wall above the hoarding: ‘REM 1690’ and ‘NO POPE HERE’.

You can read more about the Weaver Street bombing here.

Who’s That Knocking on My Door: 75th anniversary of the death of Rocky Burns.

Today marks the 75th anniversary of the death of Seamus ‘Rocky’ Burns, the only O/C of the Belfast IRA to be shot dead while he was in the role.
Rocky Burns

Seamus ‘Rocky’ Burns in his coffin, from Resurgence, September 1946.

On the 10th February 1944, he and another member of the IRA left the Continental Café on Chapel Lane (now St. Mary’s Repository and the Holy Shop beside the Hercules Bar) and walked along Chapel Lane where they were stopped by two plain clothes RUC men and asked to produce their identification. Burns had previously evaded arrest when he had faulty identification by asking the RUC Sergeant who had challenged him for advice and then sitting through a lecture on how to go about getting the correct identification. On this occasion, Burns and his companion were turned around and told they were being brought back along Chapel Lane to Queen Street RUC Barracks. As they were walking crossing into Queen Street, a uniformed RUC Constable, John Trainor, from the Waterside in Derry, was on the other side of the road. In a later compensation hearing it was stated that Trainor had recognised Burns and was intending to join the others at Queen Street Barracks. Trainor was an ex-British soldier and former Army light heavyweight boxing champion.
After his death, the RUC stated that they had wanted Burns in relation to an attempt to shoot a prison warder, Nathaniel Robinson, on 25th January 1944 (just over two weeks previously). Relations between the republican prisoners in Crumlin Road, Derry and Armagh and the prison staff had rapidly deteriorated following the escapes of January and March 1943. This had culminated in the sentenced prisoners holding a strip strike in the middle of 1943 followed by a hunger strike by women prisoners in Armagh in the winter of that year. Since internment had recommenced in 1938, confrontations between the IRA and prison staff had oscillated wildly between a modus vivendi and a number of violent episodes in which warders had been attacked outside the prison, killing at least one, Thomas Walker, in February 1942. Since 1940, a significant number of republican prisoners had either died in the various prisons or been released when terminally ill only to die at home shortly later (eg see the account of the Al Rawdah here). Indeed, while he had been interned himself, Burns had been vociferous in calls for the Belfast Battalion of the IRA to carry retaliation against prison staff on the outside.
In 1939, Burns, then only 18, was in Derry Gaol when the republican internees took over a wing on Christmas Day. Like the rest, Rocky was subject to indiscriminate beatings by the Specials, RUC and British soldiers when the internees lost control of the wing again. When the B Specials, RUC and fire brigade were trying to break into the wing, they used a battering ram on the barricaded steel door, accompanied by Rocky singing ‘Who’s That Knocking At My Door?’ (click the link below to hear a popular version of the song from the 1930s).
On the 25th January, two men had confronted Robinson as we walked down Alliance Avenue on his way into Crumlin Road prison. One shot was fired at him. While the bullet did hit his hand, Robinson’s belt buckle deflected it, preventing a more serious injury. When he was brought hospital it was widely reported that he had identified one of those involved, following Burns death the press identified one of his attackers as Burns. This may be an incident referred to by Harry White in his own biography (Harry) in which he was involved in an IRA operation against a prison officer and in which he too was identified. In Harry, White doesn’t identify the second man with Burns on February 10th although it doesn’t appear to be White himself.
Whether Trainor had been deliberately positioned to cover Burns or not, according to the statement made at the inquest on 21st February, as the party crossed Castle Street onto Queen Street Burns pulled his revolver and tried to make a run for it. The official account claimed he had shot one of the RUC men then ran along Queen Street for twenty yards and then collapsed.
The reports from the subsequent inquest (on 21st February) are slightly unclear. Burns was shot through the liver and received three other bullet wounds. Bullets hit the window frame of the radio shop, two doors down from Queen Street RUC Barracks, while Burns gun had discharged five rounds, with one remaining in the chamber. The initial RUC statement on the incident, reproduced in the Northern Whig on 11th February, stated that Trainor had already joined the two plain clothes RUC men while they were escorting Burns and his companion to Queen Street Barracks. However, the exact sequence of events is unclear.
Trainor was hit by a single bullet that hit him in the arm, passing through his shoulder and neck which suggested that he had his arm raised and was firing his revolver. Whether he had approached Burns and the others as they walked on to Queen Street and told the others who Burns was, or had pulled his gun to cover Burns on realising who he was, he was the only RUC officer wounded in the exchange. Harry White seems to have believed that all Burns wounds came from one of the plain clothes officers. Burns companion managed to escape in the confusion.
Queen Street

The scene of the fatal shooting today. The spot where Burns tried to break away is the foreground of the image, he collapsed roughly just before where the bus is pulled in. 

Dr Eddie McEntee, who had his practice in King Street, was brought around to attend to the wounded. McEntee was himself a former member of the Belfast IRA and brother of Sean McEntee, then a minister in the Free State government. Burns was brought to the Royal Victoria Hospital where his condition never improved and he died on the morning of Saturday 12th February 1944. Trainor was later discharged from the RUC due to his wound (in September 1944 he was awarded £1,250 compensation).
Burns had first been imprisoned as a seventeen year old Fianna member in April 1938, for possession of a banned publication.  Released that September he joined the IRA, only to get picked up in the September 1939 internment sweep that coincided with the outbreak of World War 2. Interned in Crumlin Road, then Derry Jail, he was one of those who escaped and was recaptured in March 1943, spending time in the Curragh before making a pre-arranged resignation from the IRA, signing out of prison, then returning to Belfast where he took over as Belfast O/C following the arrest of Jimmy Steele in May 1943.
IMG_0974

Burns and other recaptured escapers on a lorry in March 1943.

Burns was such a larger than life figure that his death was keenly felt (you can read more about him here). He is also one of those who Laurie Green based his main character on in the novel and film, Odd Man Out.
Seamus ‘Rocky’ Burns is buried in the Harbinson plot in Milltown cemetery.