But Éire, our Éire shall be free: Edward Tierney, Belfast and 1916

Among those listed as interned in Frongoch in 1916 is an Edward Tierney whose address is given as the Falls Road, Belfast. There is also a Tierney tentatively listed among the Belfast Battalion volunteers who mobilised that Easter. So who was Edward Tierney?

Tierney’s name and address appear in the list of Frongoch internees compiled by Sean O’Mahony (in Frongoch: University of Revolution). No other details, other than the surname appears on the list of Belfast Battalion volunteers who mobilised in 1916 that is held in the Military Archives in Dublin. However, it is clear from the internment records that the Edward Tierney in Frongoch was more usually known by a Gaelicised form of the name, ‘Eamon O’Tierney’. O’Tierney had arrived in Frongoch quite late, having been transferred there in July. Harry Colley recalled that he and O’Tierney were taken into military custody from the hospital in Dublin Castle. They were marched to Kilmainham before their transfer to Frongoch. According to Colley, he and O’Tierney struggled to complete the next march from Kilmainham to the North Wall, where they were shipped to Frongoch (below). O’Tierney had been in the hospital since the surrender of the republican forces at the end of the Rising.

O’Tierney, who was described by Jeremiah O’Leary as always having being highly-strung, had suffered some form of collapse after being taken prisoner. One account states he was unconscious for as many as six weeks in the hospital. For a number of weeks afterwards, O’Tierney was also subject to severe headaches and what was described as ‘confused episodes’ and ‘loss of reason’. An account of his experience during the Rising appeared in the Irish Independent in January 1953. The area in which he fought, North King Street, witnessed some of the fiercest fighting of the Rising. O’Tierney was called the ‘Hero of Reilly’s Fort’ for his exploits in recovering an Irish Republic flag under fire. The flag had been placed on a lance that had been stuck into the ground at the centre of the North King Street and Church Street crossroads. F Company had used a pub on one of the corners of the crossroads as a stronghold which became known as Reilly’s Fort. It had come under sustained attack from British troops supported by armoured cars.

By the Friday, Reilly’s Fort had been under constant fire for sixteen hours and the decision was taken to evacuate it and retreat up Church Street to a barricade outside the Franciscan Church. The defenders were then joined by O’Tierney and others who had been defending the barricade in Mary’s Lane. When the Reilly’s Fort garrison was criticised for not bringing the Irish Republic flag and lance with them, O’Tierney went out, apparently under intense fire, and retrieved the flag and lance.

O’Tierney’s collapse after the Rising seems to be a manifestation of post-traumatic stress, presumably arising from his combat experience. In Frongoch, O’Tierney took part in the hunger-strike which began in early November. After several days on the hunger-strike, O’Tierney began to present further psychological reactions, but due to the conflict with the authorities in Frongoch he was denied medical care. For some ten days he experienced further confused episodes, including paranoid delusions about being conscripted. On the 20th November he again collapsed, which the other prisoners again described as being down to ‘loss of reason’. A few days later, on 24th November, the internees’ leaders, including Michael Collins, wrote to the authorities expressing their concern at O’Tierney’s condition and stating that he had been denied medical treatment. On 25th November, he was moved to an asylum at Denbigh where he stayed until 1917.

The 1953 series by Piaras Beaslaí that described the ‘Hero of Reilly’s Fort’.

So how had O’Tierney ended up in Dublin for the Rising?

Despite his recorded address, O’Tierney had actually arrived in Dublin from London, not Belfast. Immediately prior to the Rising, he had been in a party of eight that carried over twelve suitcases of arms and ammunition, arriving in Dublin on Good Friday 1916. Realising the Rising was about to take place, he refused to leave. O’Tierney had used the cover of a G.R. (Georgius Rex) armband of the British Home Guard when travelling between London and Dublin. The role of London-based Irish republicans in the Rising and subsequent independence campaigns has often been overlooked (eg Michael Collins spent over nine years in London).

O’Tierney had been one of those who had built up connections with Germany using letters addressed to prisoners of war. This was possible through his work in shipping as he was directly in contact with boats and captains travelling to Scandinavia and Germany. O’Tierney’s shipping connections meant he was invaluable in the attempts to procure arms and he was involved in organising the shipment of arms that was to come with Casement prior to the Easter Rising. He had even brought back one consignment of ammunition from Hamburg personally.

He had also been among the original members of the Irish Volunteers in London, commanded by Michael Collins. Their volunteer unit had, at first, created a relief committee for those affected by the 1913 lockout which then became the United Irish Associations (with O’Tierney as secretary). O’Tierney was also active in the Irish Self-Determination League.

Another one of the early recruits to the Irish Volunteers in London, Jeremiah O’Leary, records that Eamon O’Tierney had actually been born Edward Turnley. In the 1940s, Seamus Kavanagh recalled that Turnley had told him that his family background lay in Fermanagh and Monaghan and that his father was Grand Master of a Masonic Lodge there (Turnley himself was Presbyterian although he apparently converted to Catholicism while in hospital in Dublin Castle). Turnley reputedly said he had come over to London as a child to be educated and ended up fluent in twelve languages. His obituary, though, states that he came from a prominent unionist family in Antrim, rather than Fermanagh or Monaghan. Piaras Beaslaí (in the 1953 Irish Independent article) states that Turnley originally came from Fermanagh and that his father was a freemason and he had uncle who was an admiral. However, the quality of Beaslaí’s information is shown by him mistakenly giving the English form of Turnley’s surname as ‘Tormley’.

Seamus Kavanagh states that Turnley did first joined the Gaelic League to learn Irish, then, as he met various active republicans including some with Belfast connections like Henry Shiels, Alf Monaghan and the Wards, he became an active republican himself. His interest in the Irish language supposedly arose after a period of time in which he had been a heavy gambler and  was drinking excessively. During one such night, a British army officer made, and then lost, a huge gamble. The officer immediately left the room and shot himself. Seemingly, that turned Turnley from drinking and gambling and he took up the study of Irish instead. In the Gaelic League he met Michael Collins and it was Collins that is said to have made an Irish nationalist out of Turnley. Turnley remained active in the Gaelic League as well as the Irish Self Determination League in London. He had first joined the Clapham branch of the Gaelic League in 1910.

In 1917, Turnley was eventually discharged from Denbigh asylum. A letter writer to the Irish Independent in 1953 (in response to Beaslaí’s article) recalled that Turnley was then constantly followed by Scotland Yard in London. His professional skills were such, though, that even after his release, he was still in demand by employers. At the same time, and despite the surveillance, he remained heavily involved in republican activities in London under Sean McGrath and Sam Maguire. He also gave political speeches at various events, such as one where we spoke with Countess Markievicz and Herbert Devine at the Roger Casement Sinn Féin Club in London on 5th December 1919 and was promiment at various Gaelic League and Irish Self-Determination League events.

Aodh de Blacam, who knew Turnley well in London, mentions him in his novel about the London Irish, Holy Romans. He also included a brief memoir of Turnley in the London Gaelic League’s occasional magazine, Guth na nGaedheal, in March 1922. He quoted what he claimed to be Turnley’s own words, “…That we shall win our freedom I have no doubt; that we shall use it well I am not so certain… That should be our final consideration, and we should make this a resolution – our future history shall be more glorious than that of any contemporary State. We shall look for prosperity, no doubt, but let our enthusiasm be for beautiful living; … we shall take pride in our institutions …. as securing happiness of the citizens, and we shall lead Europe again as we led it of old. We shall rouse the world from a wicked dream of material good, of tyrannical power, of corrupt and callous politics to the wonder of a regenerated spirit, a new and beautiful dream; and we shall establish our State in a true freedom that will endure for ever.

Also included in the article were what de Blacam described as verses that Turnley had loved:

I cannot count the years

That you must drink like me

The cup of blood and tears,

Till she to you appears-

But Éire, our Éire shall be free !

 

You consecrate your lives

To her, and you shall be

The food on which she thrive

Till her great day arrives :

When Éire, our Éire, shall be free.

 

She ask you but for faith :

Your faith in her takes she,

Amidst defeat and death

As draughts of Heaven’s breath –

And Éire, our Éire shall be free!

In 1920 Turnley moved from London to Cork where he transferred to the local I.R.A. unit (2nd Battalion). After a bout of appendicitis he needed an operation from which he didn’t recover and he died on 17th December 1920.

So who was Eamon O’Tierney?

Eamonn O’Tierney was indeed born as Edward Douglas Turnley at St George Hanover Square in London in 1890 (this was also the name under which his death was registered in Cork in 1920). His family moved to Ashford, Staines in Middlesex around 1894 after his brother Alfred was born, although their mother died soon after Alfred’s birth. His father, Edward Echlin Turnley remarried in 1895, to Emmie, and had four further children and continued to live in Ashford. Edward Turnley was a senior civil servant. A clue to his Irish connection is given in the name of his house in Ashford, ‘Drumnasole’. Drumnasole, near Glenarm, was the Irish seat of the Turnley family. Edward Turnley himself had been in born in Newcastle-upon-Tyne in 1855 to William Echlin Turnley and Maria White. William Turnley was a British soldier who had join the 54th Foot at the age of 14 in 1845, rising through the ranks to become Quartermaster in 1863 (with the equivalent rank of Captain) and then transferring to the more prestigious 1st Foot Regiment in 1871 and retiring with the equivalent rank of Major. After his retirement he lived in East Brixton and Lambeth in London. Turnley’s military records show that he was born in Belfast in 1831. At his marriage in 1851, his father’s name is given as John Turnley. The name Echlin used by the family suggests that there is some connection here between the Turnley and Echlin families, both of whom had residences near the mouth of Strangford Lough (where John Turnley and John Echlin were Justices of the Peace in the late 18th and early 19th century).

John Turnley had built a new house for himself, Rockport House (now a school), at Craigavad on Belfast Lough while his brother Francis, who had amassed a fortune in the East Indies, built Drumnasole House. The Turnleys were actively involved in Belfast’s business community and there was even a Turnley Street in the city centre (roughly where Stewart Street meets East Bridge Street today).

William (Edward Douglas Turnley’s grandfather) may have been a son of John Turnley of Rockport, although references to him suggest he had no legitimate children. Either way, the Turnley family clearly had some connection to the Drumnasole Turnleys. William, a retired army major, lived not far from his son Edward Echlin Turnley and his grandson Edward Douglas Turnley and died in 1904. It is possible Edward was given some sense of his Belfast roots by his grandfather. This is presumably what later prompted Edward Turnley to give his address as Belfast. How far the Turnley’s were prominent in unionism isn’t clear, though. The surname and Drumnasole appears on the lists of donors to the UVF in the 1910s but there is nothing to indicate that the Turnleys were particularly prominent in unionist politics.

Some of the inaccurate memoirs recorded about Turnley may have been badly remembered. But he may also have casually gave out misleading information about himself as a standard security precaution. Certainly the cumulative impact of his clandestine work importing arms and the physical danger of the Rising itself appears to have brought on some sort of breakdown. At least the Gaelic League in London did remember him, though. From 1937, Feis Lonndhain included an annual essay competition named in his honour which continued until at least the late 1950s.

 

postscript

More recently, another member of the Turnley family, John Turnley, was active in the SDLP in the 1970s, leaving to help found the Irish Independence Party in 1977 (his father tried to disinherit him over his political views). He was shot dead by the UDA in June 1980 after arriving at a public meeting in Carnlough. He was one of two prominent Protestant supporters of political status for prisoners in the H Blocks and Armagh to be shot dead around that time. One of those convicted over his death, Robert McConnell was prominent in the Ulster Unionist Party on his release.

And Rockport House school, which that John Turnley had attended, was based in the house originally built by one of his forebearers and namesake. The school itself was founded by Geoffrey Bing whose own son of the same name attended the school and was later a Labour MP for Hornchurch. In 1950 he published “John Bull’s Other Ireland” a widely read critique of the Unionists abuses of civil rights in Ireland.

Tom Barry’s British Army service records and #Armistice100

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

infractions.png

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

Att.png

Record of Barry’s enlistment.

Military History Sheet

Details of Barry’s military service.

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

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

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

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

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

 

Sailortown and the violence of 1935

Previously, as part of the launch for the Belfast Battalion book, I gave a talk in St Joseph’s Church in Sailortown in Belfast. The talk looked at the experience of residents during the violent, summer of 1935 (rather than at the broader politics of what happened). A couple of themes that emerge from it are, particularly when viewing the press coverage, is the number of children who were eye witnesses (if not actual participants). I think they provided a physical link to the later violence in 1969 which has strong parallels with that of 1935.

While putting the talk together, I also came across a couple of fatalities not usually included in the death toll of 1935, including two year old boy called Joseph Walsh. Among the darkness, though, there was one positive. In 1935, residents recognised that erecting ‘peace walls’ did more harm than good as it actually heightened a sense of siege and perpetuated division.

I re-recorded the audio for the talk over the same slides and you can watch it below or on YouTube.

Thanks to everyone who came to the talk and launch in St Josephs on the Saturday morning and the launch in the evening in the Felons Club.

 

I mentioned Ronnie Monck and Bill Rolstons 1987 book on Belfast in the 1930s (Belfast in the Thirties: An Oral History), but here’s some more reading:

http://cain.ulst.ac.uk/othelem/chron/ch1800-1967.htm

Belfast Riots – A Short History

Sir James Craig’s 1922 border propaganda

Border propaganda isn’t exactly new in Ireland. Here’s some century old invective from the Illustrated London News. The Unionist government was suffering considerable bad publicity from the violence being inflicted on nationalists in Belfast in particular in early 1922. The Weaver Street bombing in February 1922 had drawn Churchill’s ire and the McMahon murders in March had drawn universal condemnation. Moreover, the atmosphere was poisoned by the inherent contradiction in Unionists simultaneously demanding that they be exempt from home rule in Ireland, while insisting that areas which had explicitly supported independence be refused the same. This was in forefront of Churchill’s mind when he made his ‘dreary steeples’ comment in the House of Commons in February 1922 in the aftermath of the Weaver Street bomb. Oddly the ‘dreary steeples’ quote has become a cliché for a sort of generalised ‘sectarianism’ when Churchill was specifically addressing what he saw as the flawed logic being used by Unionists. Amidst the usual parliamentary flourishes, Churchill actually states that “…Fermanagh and Tyrone… may be districts in which—I am not pre-judging—the majority of the inhabitants will prefer to join the Irish Free State” (Hansard, 16th February 1922). Perhaps it is time people actually engaged with the context of that quote.

In this light, the Unionists mobilised friends among the Conservatives and hosted the Punch cartoonist Leonard Raven Hill around the 20th-22nd March 1922. Raven Hill was an overt supporter of the Conservatives and British imperialism. He drew sketches and produced notes that were published in London Illustrated News on 1st April 1922. His article had added importance for the Unionists in the wave of revulsion that followed the McMahon murders on 24th March and the subsequent allegations of official involvement in the killings.

The London Illustrated News article tries to counter Churchill’s dreary steeples argument by depicting the six county boundary as the dividing line between Unionists and Irish nationalist and presenting nationalist interest in the north as being imposed by Irish nationalists in the twenty-six area. This includes a signed sketch from James Craig (the Northern Ireland Prime Minister), helpfully annotated to show the areas ‘claimed by the South’ (below). This is part of the process by which it was intended to counter Churchill’s criticism by trying to get the public to solely associate ‘Ulster’ with ‘Protestantism’ and ‘Unionism’ and present Irish nationalism as somehow alien. Obviously identity politics is not a recent phenomenon.

Craig sketch

The rest of the article, ‘Our Special Artist in Ulster‘, tries to counter the increasingly bad publicity (presumably the McMahon murders happened as the article was being prepared for the press). It pushes a number of key messages. Presumably intending to echo Great War propaganda, Raven Hill (he quotes one as saying “The women of England never had to go through what we are going through…”) and presents a number of stereotypes which, to some extent, persisted into later and contemporary unionist political mythology.

Raven Hill paints a scene populated with what are now familiar political stereotypes from the last one hundred years.

There is the female refugee from the South.

refugee from south

The brave wife of an embattled Ulster farmer.

Farmers wife

By ‘Ulster’, of course, we are supposed to understand ‘Protestant’ and ‘Unionist’ and to solely associate ‘Ulster’ with these terms. These figures are accompanied by the ‘loyalist’ farmer.

Ulster farmer

They live in a lonely cottage which is constantly under fire from raiders who cross from the ‘South’ into ‘Ulster’.

lonely cottage

And there is also a ‘fine type’ of Ulster farmer, an over sixty who uses his spare time to guard bridges. This is presumably intended as an archetype to represent a Special Constable. An Ulster Special Constabulary was set up in the north to perform the same reprisal and counter-insurgency functions as the other Special Constabularies, the Black and Tans and Auxiliaries, carried out elsewhere in Ireland.

fine type

As a contrast, two IRA men are depicted. Notably IRA men are represented as crossing the border, rather than being from within the six county boundary area. As if the caricature wasn’t cartoonish enough, one is described as the son of a Maltese.

IRA men

All of these characters then populate Raven Hill’s main storyline which is an effective justification for cratering and blocking border roads. It begins with an IRA incursion into ‘Ulster’ from the south, allowing raiding parties to fire on the lonely cottages of the doughty farmers and their families as shown above. The County Commandant and Special Constables decide to blow up the local bridge. Raven Hill provides sketches of this being done (see below).

Commandant

Bridge 1

bridge 2

Bridge 3

Bridge 4

Raven Hill also includes a number of images showing different ways that the border roads were closed off or blocked up. This includes:

A simple barbed wire barrier.

barbed wire

A trench dug across to block the road.

trench

A destroyed bridge reduced to a narrow walkway for pedestrians.

walkway

I’ll finish up with this one. What Raven Hill depicts as the ‘last outpost of Ulster on the Dublin Road’ guarded by armed Special Constables who appear to have felled a tree to block the road. I am guessing that, again, the ‘last outpost’ is meant to have deep emotional resonances and be evocative of the great war and, in particular, the western front. These sketches appeared in the Illustrated London News on 1st April in 1922 and, at the time, were largely to counter the increasingly negative publicity the Unionists were attracting for the deployment of violence within the six county area, and, the logical inconsistencies in their rationale for demanding the type of hegemony over districts (the dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone) which they insisted they themselves could not live under. The messaging used by Raven Hill, and some of the stereotypes, have been perpetuated and became almost fixed points in the subsequent political landscape (so much so that they are still used today).

guarded

 

 

.

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

Previously 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 a style that appealed to a contemporary audience, in particular its unashamed sentimentality, but that 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 to 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 mostly 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, caught sight of Mary Ann McCracken herself. He had later got to personally know those who took part in the 1848 Young Ireland revolutionary movement before he himself 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 also a close associate 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-worker 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.

Given his own contribution to history, Robert Johnston choice of memorial was all the more significant. Beneath his own name on his tombstone, in St Mary’s in Greencastle in north Belfast, it simply records 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]

Bernadette Devlin and Gerry Fitt effigies, Shankill Road, 1969

This photograph, from September 1969, shows effigies of Bernadette Devlin and Gerry Fitt on the Shankill Road. Fitt’s is hanging by the wall while Devlin’s has the placard behind it which reads “Would anyone who knows the whereabouts of this vampire please contact the UVF.” The photo was published in the Irish Press on 10 September 1969.

This was in the run up to the publication of the Cameron Report into the violence in Derry, Belfast and elsewhere in 1968 and 1969. The report was published on 12 September 1969. This was the immediate purpose of the erection of a formal ‘peace line’ on 10 September since it was anticipated that there would be further intense violence from unionists as a response to criticisms of the Unionist Party government, its policies, civil rights abuses and the RUC.

 

How to replace the peace lines with the River Farset

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

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

Farset and peace line Map

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Burning of Cork, 1920

On the night of 11-12 December 1920 members of two Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) units, the Special Reserve and Auxiliary Division, shot burned and looted their way through parts of Cork city centre killing and wounding a number of people and causing damage estimated at $194m/€175m (in today’s value). In the immediate aftermath much of the press, particularly the British press, either claimed no-one was able to identify those involved or else attributed to the violence to ‘Sinn Feiners’ (meaning the IRA).

In the days after Cork was burnt by the Black and Tans (as the RIC’s Special Reserve was known) and Auxies (as the Auxiliary Division was known), English newspapers like the The Graphic reported merely that ‘incendiaries’ had set fire to the city. The Illustrated London News claimed it was “impossible to say” which ‘faction’ was responsible but that citizens had requested that General Strickland deploy military patrols to guard the city centre. Within a couple of days, Sir Hamar Greenwood, the British government’s Chief Secretary for Ireland, went even further. He explicitly denied any involvement of the British forces and, instead, unequivocally blamed the burnings on the IRA.

Below, you can see a selection of photographs of the aftermath in Cork as published in contemporary newspapers.

The Graphic, 18 Dec 1920

Another image from The Graphic, 18 Dec 1920

Full page image from The Graphic, 18 Dec 1920

Illustrated London News, 18 Dec 1920

A burned out tramcar, Leeds Mercury 16 Dec 1920

The Sphere, 18 Dec 1920

Sheffield Independent, 15 Dec 1920

Another image of the destruction from Sheffield Independent, 15 Dec 1920

The response was to get Professor Alfred O’Rahilly (of University College Cork) to produce a book containing eye-witness accounts of events over the night of 11-12 December 1920, which were published in January 1921 under the name of the Irish Labour Party and Trade Union Congress. The book was called Who Burnt Cork City? (you can get a copy here). It so successfully counteracted the propaganda put out in the English press that it was to be the model for the Facts and Figures of the Belfast Pogrom which was to appear in August 1922 (also now back in print).

Belfast ‘pogroms’, Rabbi Rosenzweig and Winston Churchill

Famously the term ‘pogrom’ has been used and criticised when applied to political violence in Belfast. But it’s use goes back to at least 1911 when Belfast Rabbi Jacob Rosenzweig wrote about anti-Jewish violence in Wales. Contemporary newspapers widely reported on Eastern European pogroms. So, when people at the time used the term ‘pogrom’ it appears intentional.

In August 1911, Rabbi Rosenzweig wrote to the London Evening News about attacks on Jewish property in South Wales. While German-born, the Rabbi had spent eleven years in South Wales and couldn’t reconcile the anti-Semitic attacks with his own experience of the people of the area. He went on to say “I shudder at the precarious position in which my people in the north of Ireland would be situated, for the first few months at all events, if Home Rule should be granted.

During 1911, Tredegar, Ebbw Vale, Cwm, Caerphilly and Baergoed saw Jewish properties attacked and looted. Tredegar had also seen vicious anti-Irish riots in the past, such as in 1882. This was eventually brought under control by the Home Secretary, Winston Churchill, bringing in the army. At the time, Churchill described the violence as a ‘pogrom’. Recent parliamentary reforms had meant that the end was in sight for the decades long obstruction of the torturous progress of Home Rule Bills for Ireland through the British parliament (albeit, a ‘parliament’ elected by a mere – solely wealthier and male – fraction of the adult population). Now, it could no longer be frustrated in the unelected upper chamber.

The Irish News (29/8/1911) suggested that Rosenzweig’s comments were correct. It stated that “We are told in every issue of the Orange Press that ‘Ulster Unionists will kick up a bloody war’ if Home Rule is granted, and we fancied the only enemy they think of fighting is the Catholic and Nationalist community. But Mr Rosenzweig apparently fears they will enhance the pogrom with a massacre of Israelites.

This seems to have introduced the term ‘pogrom’ into the vocabulary used to describe political violence in Ireland. Early in 1912, the Strabane Chronicle reported on unionist threats to oppose Home Rule by the Ulster Unionist Council calling on “All the scum of Belfast, the worst dregs of the populace…” and asked if the “Ulster Unionist Council is anxious for the pogrom that will result.

On the Twelfth of July in 1912, in particular, it became an issue. The ‘special correspondent’ of the Daily Chronicle wired the following to his paper from Belfast that day: “Here you have a city that has filled the whole world with its wailings about the coming danger of persecution of the blameless Protestants by the Papists. Yet, when you come you find that over 2,000 men dare not follow their usual avocations because they are either Roman Catholics or are known to sympathise with Home Rule. An imaginary fear you will say. Is it? When you hear of scores of the men being carted off to the hospitals with skulls battered in with the iron bolts and hob-nailed shoes of Sir Edward Carson’s lambs, you begin to understand their fears. A Roman Catholic, or a Protestant, if he is a Home Ruler, goes about Belfast in fear of his life just now, so he effaces himself as much as possible. It is quite evident that Unionist leaders are beginning to see that this Belfast pogrom has quite gone just a little too far, so the Belfast ‘Black Hundred’ has been informed that its continued activities might injure the cause.”

The Daily Chronicle writer goes on to say “This morning I walked along the route followed last week by a procession of the Belfast Unionist Clubs. The procession was accompanied by at least 50 policemen, and the windows of every known Roman Catholic and Home Ruler were smashed. I cannot hear of a single prosecution.”

It may not be a coincidence that pogroms in Eastern Europe (and critical public reactions to them) figured in Irish newspaper reports. Indeed, two days previously, newspapers in Ireland, such as the Freeman’s Journal carried reports from Reuters on a pogrom at Sdunska (Zduńska Wola), near Lodz in present day Poland. The death of servant working for a Jewish family was reported as the pretext for a large crowd having attacked Jews in the street and smashing the windows of Jewish houses in Sdunksa in July. The news item itself was entitled ‘Pogrom near Lodz’. Similar pogroms in eastern Europe were regularly reported in the press and clearly general knowledge of them was sufficient for the Belfast Newsletter to use the term ‘Black Hundred’ with explanation (it was the monarchist faction in Russia which frequently instigated pogroms)

The reaction to the coverage of the violence in Belfast turned into a libel trial that ran in to 1913 and included, at one point, as part of the prosecution case, that the number of expelled workers was libelously given as 2,000 or 3,000 rather than 1,400.

But the term ‘pogrom’ had clearly stuck. The Belfast Newsletter ran an article in 1914 (on 26 March) entitled ‘Pogrom Plot’ about the founding and arming of the Ulster Volunteers. At the time, ‘pogrom’ was found in use in the likes of Freemans Journal, Derry Journal, Strabane Chronicle, Western People, Belfast Newsletter, Irish Indo and Irish Times in 1912-14, referring to unionist violence in Belfast. The contrast in official British responses to pogroms in Eastern Europe was usually contrasted with government reactions to pogroms in Belfast (in particular).

And it had now clearly entered the local vocabulary. On 1 September 1919, the Irish Independent reported the Westminster Gazette’s Belfast correspondent as saying that “Absolutely trustworthy information has reached the Nationalist leaders in Belfast theat the Orange shipyard workers who disgraced their city and their cause 7 [ie 1912] years ago by organised attacks on their Home Rule fellow-workers are preparing for another ‘pogrom’.” At the time the Belfast Newsletter vehemently protested both the use of the term ‘pogrom’ and the qualifying ‘another’ (without checking its own archive for use of the term, obviously).

Semantics and terminology are as often used to obscure reality in writing as they are applied to illuminate it. When it comes to use of the term ‘pogrom’ to describe political violence of a particular character, like any shorthand, it’s meaningful use is limited. Even ‘pogromists’ of whatever kind, have been motivated by something or someone, and it servers a wider purpose to interrogate the anatomy of that radicalization process.

The application of the term ‘pogrom’ to anti-Catholic violence in Ireland, first appears in contemporary sources alongside news reports from Eastern Europe describing ‘pogroms’. Despite modern protests to the contrary, the contemporary reports on the violence clearly resonate in scale and scope and indicate a good contemporary level of public knowledge of the characteristics of a pogrom.

Thanks to Kieran Glennon (who prompted this) – check out his book From Pogrom to Civil War on Belfast in 1920-22

Or check out the contemporary book, Facts and Figures of the Belfast Pogrom.

The Al Rawdah prison ship, 1940-41

Here is a history of the Al Rawdah prison ship. It was in use only briefly (in 1940-41) but falls within a longer history of the use of prison ships as internment camps in Ireland, including the Postlethwaite in 1798, prison ships transporting convicts overseas, the Argenta in 1922-24 and more recently the Maidstone in 1971-72.

Al Rawdah PS
Photograph of the Al Rawdah in use as a prison ship with appears to be the barbed wire enclosures on deck (from 1985 edition of Belfast Graves).

On 2nd September 1940, 140 internees were taken from Derry Gaol at 11 am and split into batches of fourteen. Each fourteen then were handcuffed in pairs and put onto a bus with British soldiers. The buses were driven in a convoy, accompanied by Lancia armoured cars, along roads which were heavily guarded. The first destination was Ebrington Barracks in Derry where the prisoners were inspected by the commander of the British 61st Division, Major-General de Wiart. They were then handed over to the RUC. When the convoy passed through Belfast, the internees reportedly sang loudly.
Their destination turned out to be 130 miles away from Derry, at Killyleagh in County Down. Some newspapers reported that as many as 157 internees were brought on the buses from Derry. The transport from Derry left another 80 internees in on-shore prisons, all in the Belfast Prison (Crumlin Road). When the Derry internees arrived in Killyleagh at 3 pm, the pier was cordoned off by the RUC. There was then a roll call of the first batch of men off the buses. They were dressed in everything from labourers clothes to sports jackets and flannels. The men were then transferred in small groups to two waiting boats. When about thirty internees and RUC men were in each boat a motor-boat towed them out to a ship, the Al Rawdah, which was to be used as a prison ship, anchored two miles off-shore. According to the Belfast Telegraph the internees sang the ‘Volga Boatman’s Song’ on the way out. In all it took until 5 pm to transfer all the internees from the buses to the Al Rawdah. One bus load remained on the quay. It included sixteen men who had applied to sign out from internment plus Jimmy McDonnell, Jack McNally and Jim Nolan (all of whom hadn’t participated in the takeover of Derry Gaol in December 1939). Instead they were taken to Crumlin Road where those applying to sign out were placed in C Wing and McDonnell, McNally and Nolan in B Wing.

rowing-out-to-ship.png

A boat travelling between the shore and the Al Rawdah (the ship shown a couple of miles off-shore in the background). This is identical to the first view the internees got of the Al Rawdah in Killyleagh. This is a still from the 1943 film ‘We Dive at Dawn’ which featured the Al Rawdah.

composite with guns
(Above and below) Close ups of the Al Rawdah from the film ‘We Dive at Dawn’ (1943) showing the gun turrets added with other refurbishments after use as a prison ship.bows.png

The Al Rawdah was a 3,930 ton vessel built in 1911 and requisitioned by the British Ministry of Shipping from the British-India Steam Company in 1940. The decision to bring a prison ship into service for internees had become public knowledge in late July 1940. By August it’s identity and destination in Strangford Lough were both well known with the Belfast Newsletter and Belfast Telegraph referring to it as the ‘Ulster Prison Ship’ and ominously noting that it’s intended capacity was 700-800 prisoners. Significant public criticism followed, noting the experience of the Argenta prison ship anchored off Larne in 1922-24 (early in August it was rumoured that the new prison ship would also be anchored off Larne). The cramped conditions, lack of exercise spaces and even difficulty in removing sick internees had all contributed to a significant number of Argenta internees developing tuberculosis and other diseases and a number being released early when they had become terminally ill. On top of that, several weeks previously some 800 German and Italian internees had been killed when the SS Arandora Star was sank en route to an internment camp in Canada. A number of local authorities and other bodies south of the border passed motions condemning the use of a prison ship.

Nationalist politicians protested that internment without trial on a ship was both against international law and presenting a serious danger given the current threat of attack from air or sea. The Unionist Minister of Home Affairs, Dawson Bates, dismissed the claims stating that “Anyone who attacked the Al Rawdah from above or from under the sea would get an unpleasant surprise.” Dawson Bates also repeatedly avoided answering questions about the cost of the Al Rawdah.

A couple of days later, on 10th September, 72 internees were taken from Crumlin Road prison in Belfast, split into batches of around fifteen and placed on five buses for a similar journey to the Al Rawdah via Killyleagh. The number transferred on 10th September varies in different newspaper reports but a statement in Stormont in mid-October confirms it as 72. This brought the number of internees on the boat to around 212. It was also noted that some internees had previously been interned without trial on the Argenta prison ship during 1922-1924. As far as I can make out Richard Ryan definitely spent time on both the Argenta and Al Rawdah. Jack Gaffney and Thomas O’Malley possibly were on the Argenta but certainly both of them and James Doyle had been imprisoned in 1920-24. Other names that feature on the list of internees on the Argenta and Al Rawdah are James Connolly, Mick Gallagher, John Kearney, Sean Keenan, P.J. O’Hare, Patrick Quinn and James Trainor. Other people may be able to shed more light on whether these are indeed the same individuals.

The location of the Al Rawdah’s anchorage presented a problem to the families of internees since Killyleagh was difficult to access. At Stormont, Labour MPs asked whether the Unionist government was prepared to provide financial assistance to the families of internees. Dawson Bates refused stating that he was unaware of any anxiety on the part of the dependents of those interned. He did note that the authorities “…would not interfere in anyway with the disbursement of funds by any body provided it was within the law.” However, money collected by various groups for the dependents of internees was to be repeatedly seized by the Unionists.

By the 19th September the Al Rawdah was joined by a Catholic priest from St Paul’s Retreat at Mount Argus, Belfast-born Fr Enda Elliott, who was to become the chaplain. Four non-Catholic internees were to have their spiritual needs met by the Protestant clergy of Killyleagh. On that day the Unionist mounted a public relations offensive, with Dawson Bates and William Lowry bringing the American Consul in Belfast (John Randolph), the chaplain of Belfast Prison (Fr. McGouran), Nationalist MP Richard Byrne and Labour MP Jack Beattie and some Stormont officials out to the Al Rawdah for lunch and to inspect its newly equipped library, indoor games room and medical and dental equipment. While the press noted their meal did have some delicacies and wine added it claimed that, otherwise, it was the standard fare prepared for prisoners by the ships ‘coloured chefs’ (some of the crew were Indians). The non-unionist visitors to the prison ship declined to make any comment to the press, although the government officials advised reporters that if those visitors were to make any comment ‘it would be favourable’.

By October, there were repeated protests at the inability of families to visit internees on the Al Rawdah (notably media reports were by then using the figure of 180 for the number of internees). Internees were permitted one visit per week from two family members (the Ministry of Home Affairs only allowed visits from two out of a panel of six close relatives which had to be vetted in advance). The authorities only provided facilities and transfers to the Al Rawdah for a limited number of visits per week meaning that after six weeks some prisoners had yet to receive a visit. The remoteness was believed to be a deliberate ploy and it often proved impossible to get internees off the ship for compassionate reasons – when Patrick Doyle’s widower father James was ill in December, although he was an only son, it proved impossible to get home to Colligan Street in time to see him before he died.

Some internees families remembered the difficulty of getting out for visits including the frightening climb up steps to get to the deck of the Al Rawdah. Even before they got there they had to brave the hostility of the locals in Killyleagh who resented the nearby presence of the Al Rawdah and the on-shore presence of armoured cars and barbed wire in their village (Frank McGlade quoted in John McGuffin’s Internment). Turlach Ó hUid (in his 1985 memoir of internment, Faoi Ghlas) says that, at the quay side, Killyleagh resident shook their fists at families visiting internees as they board the boats to take them out the Al Rawdah, shouting “Scuttle the Fenian gets.

steps

Climbing the steps to board the Al Rawdah, from ‘We Dive at Dawn’ (1943).
Al Rawdah with subs
This photograph gives a sense of the height of the Al Rawdah (for those having to climb up steps from a boat at sea level), from when it was in service with surrendered German submarines at the end of the second world war (Wikipedia).

In mid-October it was already rumoured in the press that the Al Rawdah was costing £1 per internee per day (again citing a daily cost of £180). Despite the reputed cost, the food on board was described by internees as abominable. According to Frank McGlade even when braised gosling and dry biscuits were given as a supposed treat, they were so bad even the seagulls wouldn’t eat them. The seagulls did help some internees to occasionally relieve the boredom. Bobby Devlin recounts a story about internees on the Al Rawdah. According to Devlin (in his 1982 memoir An Interlude with Seagulls), “A ploy of some men on the ‘Al Rawdah’ was to tie bits of food scraps onto cord and fling it skywards into a frenzied mass of gulls. A poor gull would grab a mouthful triumphantly then it would have its head nearly jerked off by the rigorous pulling of the men on the ship.” Another story often told about the Al Rawdah was how internees trained a mouse to bring messages between cells (as it knew it would be rewarded with food).

There was quickly speculation (and clearly briefings from Unionist government figures) that the Al Rawdah was only a temporary facility, that the Ministry of Shipping wanted it put back into service and that the internees would be moved an internment camp with the former RUC depot at Newtownards being suggested as the likely location. It was also suggested that the internees could be relocated to Belfast Prison (Crumlin Road) for a short time while a new internment camp was established.

The question of whether the Ministry of Shipping knew in advance that the Al Rawdah was to be used for internees under the Civil Authorities (Special Powers) Act was the subject of a heated debate in Stormont on 15th October. It was claimed that the Ministry of Shipping had demanded the return of the Al Rawdah on discovering that it was to be used for internees (the Unionist government’s uses of the Special Powers Act had been the focus of significant criticism in Britain in the 1930s).

That debate was against the backdrop of internees in Crumlin Road and the Al Rawdah failing to get release after submitting an appeal and sureties to an Advisory Committee that had refused 37 of the 62 applications (applying to the Advisory Committee also caused significant tensions among internees as it was seen as giving in to the Unionist government). Twenty-five had been released. Some of the failed applicants had began a hunger strike by 15th October leading to the release of William Barrett from the Springfield Road in Belfast. He had been interned since May (1940) and his family believed it had seriously damaged his health. He and the other hunger strikers appear to have been in D wing in Crumlin Road rather than on the Al Rawdah.

During the Stormont debate William Lowry revealed that, on that date, there were 268 internees (with 193 of those on the Al Rawdah). Apparently there were roughly 70 in the Belfast Prison and the remainder on the Al Rawdah. It is implied that those in Belfast Prison were engaging with the Advisory Committee (it is possible some were also in the prison hospital there). It was also insisted that, far from being unaware of the intended use of the Al Rawdah, the British military had offered it specifically for that purpose. Not only that, it was claimed by William Lowry that, on hearing that they were to be moved from the Al Rawdah, the internees had unanimously petitioned to be allowed to stay. He also took the opportunity to dismiss criticisms of the use of internment, stating that “There are thankful parents in Belfast and all over the Six Counties tonight because steps were taken at the proper time and a lad was checked on a course that could only have ended in a long term of imprisonment or on the scaffold.” Many of those interned on the Al Rawdah had been arrested in December 1938 and did not get released until the summer of 1945.

On the 18th October, Nationalist Senator Thomas McLaughlin visited the ship and also declined to make any comment to the press. In Stormont a few days later he challenged the Unionist government to admit that pressure from Washington had forced London to demand the return of the ship. This was put down to a warning about the negative impact on American public opinion if the ship was attacked from the air or sea. The Unionist leader of the Senate, John Robb, instead claimed that the British authorities had asked for the ship to be evacuated once they realised they were being asked to carry the full cost themselves. The debate revealed that there had been disagreement among the Unionist government over whether to use the Al Rawdah. It transpired that the pretext for abandoning Derry Gaol had been instructions from the military to remove any internees from the prison population, meaning citizens of hostile powers (eg Germany and Italy) and prisoners of war. The Unionists had sought to use this directive to have the cost of internment transferred to the military authorities. The only cost to Stormont, as it emerged in October, were the salaries of the prison staff (one of whom, Thomas Walker, was shot dead by the IRA in February 1942 although he was mistaken for another warder).

McLaughlin also challenged Robb to read out the actual petition received from the internees on the Al Rawdah to show that they had never requested that they remain on board the ship (the internees were obviously irked by the suggestion that, as a body, they were giving in to the Unionist government). Robb first placed the petition on a table in the Senate but eventually had to read out the wording of the petition for the record: “We, the Republican internees, desire to renew our protests against the injustice of the being detained without charge or trial. We learn with resentment that, in addition to the injustice of our detention, we are to be removed from a place where at least we have the status of political prisoners to a civil prison, where there are no conveniences or amenities for political prisoners and where, we feel, the restrictions and regulations governing convicted prisoners might even, in part, apply to us.

In the Stormont Senate McLaughlin described the circumstances on board for the 183 internees. He said that it did not conform the image of a ‘luxury ship’ given by the likes of Lowry. The only available recreation space was a 160 foot walkway which could only be walked, with care, in single file as there was so much barbed wire sticking out on either side. On the 28th October, the Unionists again announced that arrangements would soon be made to transfer the internees from the Al Rawdah to an on-shore internment camp. However, it was noted that it was unlikely, with winter coming, that any new internment facility would be ready (implying they would likely be moved to a prison instead).

Despite raising the issues on the Al Rawdah, the internees were often suspicious of the motives of Nationalist politicians. The authorities regularly read the internees mail (and raided their homes to intercept any correspondence sent out illicitly). They intercepted one letter which was read out in Stormont in July 1942 to embarrass some of the Nationalists. It was written by a prominent republican, Joe McGurk, to his wife Sally when he was on the Al Rawdah and very blunt in it’s criticism of the likes of McLaughlin, Campbell and Byrne.

It read: “The common sense of the people outside would’ve told them, at any rate, that, irrespective of our Republican outlook and principle in the matter, it was very unlikely that we would petition this Northern Junta for anything after the persecution which we had to undergo several months ago, and also that we don’t give a damn where we go. We had Senator McLaughlin of Armagh on board on Friday and he was placed in a very embarrassing position, as we would not speak to him about conditions, or much more else for that matter, as he probably would have used his official position to perhaps do himself a lot of good. What takes me to the fair is the concern which T.J. Campbell and Dead-Head Byrne have for our welfare now. The ship is a Godsend for them, from a propaganda viewpoint, to ingratiate themselves with the people. It’s about time that Campbell and Byrne and that Ilk ceased to block the road of the young generation and die a natural death. They did not show much concern when we were interned in Belfast and removed to Derry. We would rather they kept away from us. as we look upon them with contempt.

The same day, some of the Indians in the crew of the Al Rawdah got into a fight that ended up in court at the Killyleagh Petty Sessions. It was claimed that Mohammed Essack had been drunk and hit Mohammed Esmail on the collar bone with an iron poker. Essack had been drunk and it had occurred during a special holy season (this isn’t specified). It was claimed that subsequently Essack had also produced a knife and told Esmail that “You kill me, or I will kill you.” Reportedly, Essack was fined £1. Court proceedings were translated into Hindi by one of the crew and some of those present were permitted to swear on the Qu’ran rather than the bible.

It was believed by the internees that the Indians were chosen to staff the ship to minimise communication between them and the internees. But contact was inevitable. Turlach Ó hUid (Faoi Ghlas 1985) records how the internees and Indian crew engaged in good natured banter, with internees typically telling the Hindus among the Indians that “Gandhi man no good. Moslem good.” and telling the Muslims among the crew that “Gandhi man good. Moslems no good.” Overall, despite the confined space, both sides got along well.

The Indians weren’t the only Al Rawdah crew members to face the courts. On the weekend of 9th-10th November, an Al Rawdah storeman, Sylvester Longstaffe, was arrested and charged with the theft of £3 worth of stores from the ship. It was claimed in court that he had just been dismissed from the ship. Evidence given during his arraignment stated that the financial arrangements under which the ship had been chartered it was still being managed by the British-India Steam Navigation Company. The Al Rawdah’s chief steward, Patrick John Connolly, was also charged with theft from the ship. As it was at an agreed rate per person, the cheaper it was run the more profit there was for the company. According to statements made by Longstaffe’s solicitor, there was a monetary incentive for the company to only provide starvation rations. However the case was never brought to court and the charges were dropped in March 1942.

Longstaffe was a married father of five from Liverpool who had been at Dunkirk. By 1943 he had been on boats that had been torpedoed three times. The charges over the Al Rawdah appear to have been dropped due to the difficulty in locating the defendants and witnesses. Longstaffe had taken on a post as a steward on ships to South Africa during 1941 and met and – bigamously – married another member of the crew in Durban for which he was prosecuted in 1943. His 4,000 mile dash to be by the bedside of his wife, Patricia, in hospital in 1947 made the newspapers. The newspapers then had to publish a clarification from his wife, Elizabeth, stating that it was not her in the photo. Neither was it Irene who he had married in South Africa. He was to feature in the press one more time, in 1958, when an Australian woman he met while working as a ship’s purser, Jean Cook, became pregnant and then tried to procure an abortion. The procedure led to kidney failure and she died a week later. Longstaffe was named as the father during the trial of two Harley Street doctors for carrying out the abortion. He gave a statement claiming he and Cook had ‘just been friends’.
Sylvester Longstaffe
Sylvester Longstaffe in the Liverpool Echo, 22nd September 1947 after his 4,000 mile dash to at the beside of Patricia.

On Monday 18th November, Jack Gaffney fell from his bunk and apparently injured his head. While the crew had a doctor, Dr John Moody, there was no doctor available for the internees. Moody examined Gaffney and he was left in his bed, then apparently brought to the ship’s hospital. He died the next day having received no treatment beyond a heart stimulant when his condition worsened. The official cause of death was described as a cerebral haemorrhage brought about by high blood pressure. In her book on the Argenta prison ship, Denise Kleinrichert lists the name ‘John Giffney’ as a prisoner on the Argenta. The surname Giffney is confined to a handful of people in Dublin and Wicklow in the 1911 census so it is possible that it should read ‘John Gaffney’ and that he spent some time on the Argenta (he was definitely imprisoned from 1921 to 1923). Gaffney’s funeral was well attended in Belfast and included the Catholic Bishop of Down and Connor, Mageean.

jack-gaffney.png
I’d not been able to track down a photo of him, but I think this him in a photo of the McKelveys gaelic football team dating to 1931-32 (courtesy of Donal McAnallen).

Neil Gillespie, O/C of the internees on the Al Rawdah, delivered an oration to the internees at the time of Gaffney’s funeral on 20th November. “One of our number has been released, released with honour, released unconditionally into the hands of God who made him. We mourn his passing with that natural sorrow which strikes to the heart of anyone when someone dear to him, someone with whom he ahs been closely associated is suddenly called away, but we’re proud of Jack Gaffney. He was faithful and true to the end. He died for the cause for which he stood, for which he worked, struggled, planned and fought throughout his life, just as truly as if he had fallen on the hillside. At this moment his remains are being brought to their last resting place in a Belfast Graveyard. We gather with those around the grave, we salute the passing of our comrade as a true soldier of Ireland and all humility we pray that God, in his mercy, may have mercy on his soul.” (Oration as quoted by Ray Quinn in A Rebel Voice, 1998).

A Sean Gaffney GAA club was later founded in Belfast in his memory. A 1920-22 IRA veteran, he was well known in GAA circles having played for Kevin Barrys and Morans before joining the Joe McKelvey GAA club in 1927. He played a prominent role in McKelveys’ on field football successes in the late 1920s and early 1930s. The club (which was specifically a club for IRA members) had been highly political in its sponsorship of motions at Antrim and Ulster GAA conventions. Similarly, Sean Gaffneys and other GAA clubs founded by ex-internees and ex-prisoners, like Tom Williams GAC and Seamus Burns GAC promoted political motions, such as in 1947, when they demanded that existing bans by the GAA on ‘foreign games’ and dances be strictly enforced. The years around 1947 were the peak years for Sean Gaffney GAC as it was playing senior football in Antrim. By 1949 the club had been relegated to the Intermediate League and was back playing junior football by 1950.

After Gaffney’s death republicans described the Al Rawdah as the ‘ship from hell’ mimicking British depictions of the German ship Altmark in contemporary propaganda. The Altmark was a German ship carrying three hundred British prisoners of war that was intercepted and the prisoners freed in February 1940. The hardships the Altmark prisoners endured were popularised during the relative lull in the war in early 1940 and were well known to the public and those on the Al Rawdah. According to Turlach Ó hUid (in Faoi Ghlas), Gaffney’s death was compared to the experience of those on the Altmark and that this, more than the threat of any German torpedo or dive-bomber sealed the fate of the Al Rawdah’s use as a prison ship.

At the end of December 1940 it was again announced that the internees would be taken off the Al Rawdah, although in this instance it was reported that the destinations would be Derry Gaol and the Belfast Prison (Crumlin Road). However this move still didn’t transpire and at the start of February (1941) there was an attempt to escape from the Al Rawdah. There are stories about internees on the Al Rawdah making keys out of nails when they were doing arts and crafts. However the escape attempt actually involved an escape onto another boat. Three internees managed to slide down a hawser in the dark and get on to the deck of a collier which had drawn alongside and was unloading coal on to the Al Rawdah (some versions state that it was five internees, such as in McGuffin’s Internment). One of the internees that tried to escape was James O’Hagan. They were discovered trying to lower a lifeboat and after first being mistaken for Germans, there was a scuffle and all but one managed to get back to their cells. The sole internee captured by warders was quickly released when the internees advised they would set the ship on fire if he wasn’t. As it was clear that the internees would be leaving soon, Jimmy Drumm (quoted by John McGuffin in Internment) said that the captain, Watt, told the internees would have had to go soon anyway as they nearly had the ship destroyed stripping it for souvenirs.

As it happened, just over a week later, on Tuesday 11th February 1941, 100 internees were finally transferred out of the Al Rawdah to Belfast and Derry. Motor launches were used to take the men from the ship and then they were escorted in six buses to Crumlin Road by heavily armed RUC men. The remaining 90 internees were transferred to Crumlin Road on the Thursday. Sally McCann, whose husband James was one of the internees, was arrested for waving a handkerchief at a bus transferring internees from the Al Rawdah as it passed on it’s way into Crumlin Road. She was charged with conduct likely to lead to a breach of the peace although it was thrown out of Belfast Custody Court the next day and her arrested was described as “… it savours of nothing if it does not savour of Gestapo methods“.

The physical toll of internment on the Al Rawdah was never really fully documented. Bobby Devlin’s An Interlude with Seagulls account of internment, like many other similar memoirs, clearly highlight a recurring concern among internees about their mental health. Much of this was a clear result of being interned without trial and without a defined period of incarceration, with no actual release date to look forward to. Many euphemisms were used for depression and apathy, like the big ‘D’, the ‘bonk’ and ‘Bangor Reserves’ as it rhymed with ‘nerves’, with ‘bad with their nerves’ being a typical Belfast term for mental health problems. Apart from psychological scars, the constant stench of stagnant sea water and fumes that rose up through the ship created what many on the Argenta, Al Rawdah and Maidstone recalled as an unhealthy atmosphere to even have to breathe in. Given that the internee population was males, mostly in their late teens, twenties and thirties, post-internment mortality was significantly high. Joseph Rooney died in May 1941, John (Seán) Dolan died on 25th October 1941. Dolan was well known in music and Irish language circles in Derry and had been the secretary of the Derry County Board of the GAA and a playing member of the Patrick Pearses club. When it was clear that he was terminally ill, he was released into a relative’s home in July 1941. Some were interned for several more years only to die from ill-health soon after release including Dickie Dunn, Richard Ryan (who had also been interned on the Argenta), Bernard Curran, James Doyle, Michael McErlean and Henry O’Kane. In some cases, such as Michael McCaffrey, the legacy of internment on the Argenta at the age of 26 was continuous ill-health and an early death at the age of 43 in 1957.

The exact number of internees who spent time on the Al Rawdah isn’t clear but, based on the available names, is at least 207 and maybe at least 217. While only a subgroup of those who experienced internment between 1938 and 1945, the fact that ten internees died due to ill-health out of just over 200 on the Al Rawdah does seem inordinately high. This doesn’t account for non-fatal impacts on physical and mental health in the short term, where internment on the Al Rawdah is believed, like in Michael McCaffrey’s case, to have contributed to an early death years later. A number of other internees and sentenced prisoners (including those imprisoned in England) are also known to have died prematurely due to either tuberculosis of what would appear to be otherwise innocuous complaints after their release.

A list of recorded Al Rawdah internees is included on the Mapping the Belfast IRA page, in Belfast Lough (for convenience rather than off Killyleagh). As I don’t have addresses for most of them, I’ve not filtered them for Belfast/non-Belfast and so all internees are included. Anyone who knows of other internees not listed here could add the information in the comments section. Of the 217 names, 177 have assigned prisoner numbers. The highest available prisoner number is 207 (the numbers are sequential), this may mean some internees were to be transferred to the Al Rawdah but never made it that far – again some readers might be able to shed some light on this as they might recognise a name on the list as someone who was never on the Al Rawdah.

Thanks to Brendan Harper, Ciarán Ó Fearghail, Cliodhna Ní Baoghaill, Paul Tinnelly, Cathy Kelly and Gabriel McCaffrey for sharing stories about the Al Rawdah.

You can read more about the background to the Al Rawdah in Belfast Battalion.
An earlier version of this post was originally published on 1st February 2019.

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