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’.

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.

In 1912, Home Rule appeared imminent. Recent parliamentary reforms had meant that the end was in sight for the decades long obstruction and torturous progress of Home Rule Bills for Ireland through the British parliament (albeit, a ‘parliament’ elected solely by the tiny wealthier and male fraction of the adult population). Now, procedural changes meant that Home Rule could no longer be frustrated in the unelected upper chamber.

On the Twelfth of July in 1912, in particular, anti-Catholic and anti-Home Rule violence 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 went 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 recent Irish newspaper reports in mid-July 1912. Indeed, two days before the Twelfth, 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 a 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 that 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 no need for an explanation (it was the monarchist faction in Russia which frequently instigated pogroms)

The reaction to the media coverage of the violence in Belfast in July 1912 turned into a libel trial that ran in to 1913. This included, at one point, as part of the prosecution case, that the number of expelled workers was libelously reported since the press gave a figure of 2,000 or 3,000 expelled workers. The prosecutions claimed that this was a libelous slur on unionism and unionists as the number of expelled workers was only 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 Independent and Irish Times in 1912-14, referring to unionist violence in Belfast. The official British criticism of and responses to pogroms in Eastern Europe was usually contrasted with lack of 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 years ago [ie 1912] 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 (similar to the recent use of ‘sectarian’). 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.

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.

 

The camera doesn’t lie?

One well known image from the 1970s is one of a woman, in leather jacket and knee length skirt with an automatic rifle taking aim around the corner of a building. The photo, by Colman Doyle, has had something of a bizarre afterlife. And Doyle himself is oddly reticent and guarded about the details of the circumstances. The photo is claimed to be (variously) taken in Ardoyne, or West Belfast.

Recently a social media account posted a fanciful claim that the woman was an IRA Volunteer gaining revenge for the death of her IRA partner. In 2006, when Doyle’s photographic archive was donated to the National Library, the Evening Herald (18/7/06) claimed that the woman in the photo was wanted for questioning about the disappearance of Jean McConville. However the basis of the Herald’s claim isn’t stated and isn’t helped by it also stating the photograph was taken in Ardoyne when Doyle himself captions it as in West Belfast.

So what is the truth? Well, I’m hoping someone can finally enlighten us. An image from the set was used in a 1974 republican calendar and one was reproduced without caption or credit on the back page of Republican News in February 1974 (23/2/74). Other images from the same calendar appear back in November 1973 suggesting they were taken from before that date. The set of photos of women carrying guns and searching a man have the clear look of being staged. The photographer (Doyle) appears to have taken pictures while standing in the open, exposed to returned fire. This seems unlikely and while Doyle could well have stumbled on PR photos being staged, the scene has the obvious look of a photo opportunity.

Back page Republican News, 23/2/1974

This last point and the strength of the imagery then has much more significance as clearly the intention was to provide a depiction putting female activists in the foreground and background. Now, it may be up to the viewer to decide if this is an idealized image of a female activist conceived and created by men/for men or by or for women. It may also intentionally resonate with international images of radical female activists and chime with a visual language familiar to second wave feminism (personally, I suspect it is inspired by media reporting of German radicals like Gudrun Ensslin and Ulrike Meinhof in 1971-1972). It also is a reminder that there is much to explore behind much of the imagery used by everyone throughout the conflict here.

Other images from the same scene are included below. Can anyone shed any real light on where they were taken and what were the circumstances (check out the end of this post for an update)?

For what it’s worth the style of the masonry – ashlar drawn onto cement render – seems unusual for either Ardoyne or West Belfast, particularly given the style of windows (I think this is how someone might recognise it). And the single bit of graffiti “Brits Out” is barely noted by journalists before the middle of 1974, although that doesn’t mean it wasn’t current (was it popularised by the photo?).

A family member has been in touch to say that the woman holding the rifle was very much active in the IRA and had even attended the unveiling of a mural that reproduced the image some years ago (see photo below). She had been prominent in insisting to then IRA Chief of Staff Sean MacStíofáin that women be allowed to join the IRA rather than Cumann na mBan. She chose the clothes and imagery herself for the images intending it to signal the role female activists could play, although she remember little about the actual photos being taken (the location may have been in Andersonstown).

The image also featured in what is reputed to be a hand-made republican children’s book, A Republican ABC, during the 1970s apparently not widely circulated but now in the Northern Ireland Political Collection (NIPC) held at the Linen Hall Library in Belfast. The author and illustrator is unknown – the book begins “A is for Armalite that sends them all running”, with the same image of a short-skirted girl taking aim with a gun, her hair falling over her face.

Lastly, the image has been recoloured by @robcross247.

21 July 1920: what the papers said

So what did the papers say about the outbreak of the Belfast pogroms in 1920? Following Edward Carson’s speech on the Twelfth at Finaghy the annual industrial holiday and taken place and, on the first day back at work, thousands of Catholic workers and socialists were attacked in the shipyards and driven from their jobs. This happened on the 21st July 1920.

In 1920 newspapers did not typically run headlines on their front pages. More often it contained advertising and notices. You had to flick to page 3 or 4 to get your current affairs and news items (some papers ran evening editions that covered events that day) although sport generally appeared on earlier pages as perhaps did an editorial. There was no broadcast media yet in July 1920 as experimental wireless radio broadcasts in Britain had only been started by Marconi’s Wireless Telegraphic Company from Chelmsford in June 1920. Up to July 1920 there had been experimental radio broadcasts and the beginning of commercial radio in the US, Argentina and by Hans Idzerda in the Netherlands. So people got their news from the printed press (morning and evening editions), handbills pasted onto walls and from their friends, colleagues and neighbours.

Here is coverage by four papers (Belfast Newsletter, Belfast Telegraph, Irish Times and Freemans Journal) of events in Belfast as reported on 22 July 1920. You can read the items and see their context (which is often overlooked) alongside what other events are reported and how they were reported.

Was ‘troubles’ related death toll as high as 30,000?

How many people died in the recent conflict in Ireland? You’d think this would be a relatively easy to answer question. But depending on how you decide to define a death as conflict-related, the total, which is usually given as around 3,700, is probably at least 5,733 and may be as high as 30,000.

A quick trawl of existing databases puts a detailed death toll in the region of 3,640-3,760. This is a considerable figure and itself only a fraction of the number who received injuries or were harmed in some other way by their experience over the same period. But a comparison of some of the components of those totals shows that this is an estimation and a very conservative one and doesn’t seem to fully reflect the extent of loss of human life arising from the conflict. Initially, I was looking at this to see the methods employed to determine what might be the best way to estimate the loss of life in the north (and Belfast in particular) in 1919-23. Instead, I noticed that, depending on how you choose to define whether a death is related to the conflict here, you can argue that the actual death toll is at least 5,733. Or you could even put it as high as 30,000.

There are a number of publicly accessible databases recording deaths arising from the post-1966 conflict here. This includes the following: Lost Lives ; Malcolm Sutton’s An Index of Deaths from the Conflict in Ireland 1969-1993 (with a draft list up to the present); and, Michael McKeown’s Database of Deaths Associated with Violence in Northern Ireland, 1969-2001. The latter two databases are hosted, in various formats, along with contextual literature and other resources on the Conflict Archive on the Internet (known as CAIN).

The 2006 edition of Lost Lives records 3,720 deaths from 1966 to that date. The database compiled by Malcolm Sutton covers the period from 1969 to 2001 and records 3,532 deaths (in relative terms, this is 149 less than the total for the same period in Lost Lives). It also includes a provisional total of 88 deaths from 2001 to the end of 2017. The second database available via CAIN, prepared by Michael McKeown, records 3,649 deaths over the period from 1969 to 2005. Compared to the same period covered by Lost Lives, McKeown lists 3,622 deaths, 98 less than Lost Lives. Combining the figures in Lost Lives and those on CAIN for the period up to 2017 gives a total of 3,762 conflict-related deaths from 1966 to 2017.

This variability hints at the complications that underlie what deaths are deemed to be conflict-related and how that is defined. It is also still possible to identify some deaths that have been overlooked in all them, such as Erwin Beelitz in Berlin in 1972. Lost Lives does provide discussions of individual cases that illustrates the scope of what is considered as a conflict-related death. It generally just includes violent deaths and so would not typically include, for instance, someone whose health suffered from conflict-related stresses leading to a premature death. The latter may be much more difficult to determine and be quite subjective (although more on this point below).

What got me interested in the divergence from the general quoted figures of around 3,700 was in the officially declared military death toll. I’d thought that a relatively obvious way of checking how robust the available figures were, was to compare figures for individual groups against published records. In December 2012, the UK Ministry of Defence provided a breakdown of British military personnel who died during Operation Banner (the British army deployment to the north). For deaths as a “…result of operations in Northern Ireland or Irish Terrorism in other countries…” it gives a total of 1,441. Lost Lives gives an overall figures for the British Armed Services of 503 along with 206 UDR and RIR. The breakdown for Operation Banner, provided by the Ministry of Defence, though, is 814 regular army, 548 UDR and RIR, and a further 79 for other branches (making up that total of 1,441). This is 732 in excess of the figures provided for in any of the relevant databases. This underestimate, by some 103%, is considerable. As the term used in the letter detailing the figures very specifically says that the deaths were as a “…result of operations in Northern Ireland or Irish Terrorism in other countries…” this would be appear to be the official total.

Critically, to understand the methodology, the existing databases all list every individual who is included. The official figures for Operation Banner do not provide individual details.

It is also possible to look at the figures given for republican fatalities. A ‘Roll of Honour’ was published in An Phoblacht in 2010, identifying the deaths of those named as having being conflicted-related. This gives a total of 336 conflict-related IRA deaths (it also lists 25 Sinn Féin members). Using the tables provided by Sutton, his equivalent figure appears to be 292 (excluding Sinn Féin members) suggesting there were a further 44 deaths on top of those conventionally associated with the conflict. A further 83 republican combatant casualties are recorded by Sutton (including INLA, Official IRA etc). McKeown reports some 271 IRA deaths, of a total 350 republican dead, while Lost Lives provides a combined total of 396. If the An Phoblacht figure reflects deaths deemed to be conflict-related but not conventionally captured by the methodologies employed by Lost Lives, Sutton and McKeown, the existing method may underestimate republican conflict related deaths by around 15%. So, if extrapolated for republican casualties as a whole, a figure of around 455 may more accurately reflect the scale of loss. If it might be argued that similar factors would be at play, the Lost Lives figure for unionist paramilitaries, 167, should probably be revised upwards on the same basis to 192. Neither of these figures would necessarily capture conflict-related deaths that are due to factors connected to their experience as combatants, incarceration or self-harm.

The issue of self-harm, more particularly suicide, is one that arises in a variety of contexts. The number of recorded RUC fatalities is given as 301 by Sutton, 303 by Lost Lives and 304 in McKeown. But on a number of occasions, official statements and figures have been given for suicides among serving RUC members, with 55 recorded by 1996 and 75 recorded by 2007. Without trivialising such a complex and emotive issue as suicide, it may never be known how many of these could be directly attributed to conflict-related factors. However, as noted with the difficulty of assessing the factors in any individual death, a review of overall figures might show any increased mortality that, in the context of the north during the conflict, is likely to have arisen from factors related, at least in part, to the conflict.

Occasionally, individuals who took their own lives are included amongst the conflict-related deaths. Patrick Sheehy, an IRA volunteer who appears to have shot himself in Nenagh in County Tipperary on 1st January 1991 is listed in Lost Lives (3170), although not in either Sutton or McKeown. It seems difficult to argue that it wasn’t related to the conflict and so it’s inclusion seems reasonable. On the same basis, it would seem that RUC fatalities should also be included. Taking Samaritans figures, it is possible to make wider comparisons with suicide rates across Ireland and Britain to see if the broader impact of the conflict on mental health is reflected in elevated suicide rates. There doesn’t appear to be any evidence for this until 2007, after which time an apparent rise by about 6 deaths per 100,000 since around 2007 is considered by some to be attributable to earlier conflict-related stresses. This would amount to around 1,080 deaths and continues to this day.

Combined with other additional deaths noted above for Operation Banner, the IRA, RUC etc, this would suggest the total number of deaths is closer to 5,733.

To follow this through, a similar comparison of general mortality for the north in the 1970s through to about 1998, makes for equally grim reading. Typically the male mortality rate was at a level significantly below that of the UK and the south of Ireland, by around 200 deaths per 100,000 per year. By the early 1980s, this had closed to around 100 per year and the mortality rates were then roughly comparable throughout the 1990s. The female mortality rate was significantly higher in the north than the UK and south of Ireland average in the early 1970s, by around 210 (per 100,000 per year), staying just under 200 higher in the early 1980s, rising to around 220 higher in the 1990s and the dropping back to just under 200 deaths higher (per 100,000 per year) by the end of the 1990s. Taking the overall differential in the mortality rates over the period from the early 1970s to 1998 suggests that maybe 24,000 more people died than would be expected, based on the rates prevalent in the UK and the south. Are there a series of complex factors underlying the increased mortality rate? Undoubtedly, but it is hard to see how it is likely that any complex factors are not, in themselves, somehow connected to systemic and structural issues related to the conflict. In that sense, it could be argued that these 24,000 should also really be regarded as conflict-related and arise from what is known as ‘structural violence’ where socio-economic places limitations on a population’s quality of life causing harm and increased mortality.

So is it plausible that we should consider the death toll from the recent conflict to be 30,000 or roughly 5,733 rather than around 3,700? The currently used conservative estimates of the quantum of deaths arising from the conflict has at least two origins. A concern of many of those who complied the databases was in painstakingly researching and detailing each individual death. Where the deaths are anonymised into collective data (such as the casualties from Operation Banner), it seems that there is no mechanism for either Lost Lives or the likes of Sutton or McKeown to include them.

Another factor, though, is that acceptance of the reduced figures is also an artefact of the same security policy that sought to minimise the nature and intensity of violence and brought us terms like ‘ulsterisation’ and ‘criminalisation’ but didn’t speculate on the capacity of those same policies to inflict structural violence on a population. This isn’t to imply that Lost Lives, Sutton or McKeown are somehow complicit in furthering the same policy. They are simply following convention and documenting instances of violence in which lives were lost. This differs significantly from British (and Irish) government strategy that sought to present violence in the conflict in the language of decontextualized, criminal acts. A logical outworking of this would be to continue to adopt a minimalist approach in assessing the human cost of the conflict even where, for instance, the official death toll of Operation Banner is way in excess of the figure normally cited for military losses. Unfortunately this attempt to promote a conservative estimate minimises the actual impact and adds to the dissonance between the official narrative and the impact of structural violence as experienced by individuals, families and communities. For them, perhaps we need to recognise that the scale of related fatalities is much greater. In that regard, a fresh consideration of how we define the death toll from the recent conflict may be worth further exploration and debate.

…for fear of alienating the Unionist vote… #Brexit

A pivotal moment in the relationship of London and the European community, Unionist votes holding a precarious balance of power, Conservative government policy (including security policy in the north) subject to the need to keep the Unionist votes on side. While no-one seems to have drawn the parallel, we have been here before and the outcome is perhaps worth noting.

Over the course of 1971 and 1972 Edward Heath was trying to push his European Communities Bill through a reluctant House of Commons. The Bill was instrumental in the UK joining the European Economic Community (as the EU was then known). Following the 1970 General Election, Heath had come to power intent on legislating for UK membership of the EEC. With 330 MPs he had a slim majority of 14 and that included the 8 Unionist Party members returned in the north (along with Ian Paisley, Gerry Fitt, Bernadette Devlin and Frank McManus).

Over the summer of 1971, in the lead up to the early stages of the Bill, the press speculated on the extent to which Heath’s reliance on the Unionist votes was a factor in deciding security policy, including in the lead up to the widespread arrest and internment of Catholics in August 1971. At an early stage, in October 1971, most of the Unionist MPs (who were joined in a formal parliamentary grouping with Heath’s Conservatives) voted against the Bill. All of this provides a notable backdrop to the Heath’s perceived need to win Unionists support for his European project for the crucial votes that would happen later in 1971 and early in 1972. Notably, over this period, security policy continued to fall in line with Unionist demands. Political reform was largely ignored (you can see the types of proposals under consideration at the time). And formal scrutiny of recent events was heavily sanitised, such as the Compton report issued in November 1971. During critical events such as the McGurks Bar bombing in December 1971 and Bloody Sunday in January 1972, UK government policy remained favourably aligned on Unionist needs and wants despite significant international opprobrium.

On 17th February 1972, Heath finally got his European vote over the line with a bare majority of eight (the sum total of the Unionist MPs). His biographer, John Campbell, called it ‘Heath’s finest hour’. Within weeks, there was a shift in security policy as first Stormont was prorogued and then the British government began talks with the IRA that appeared to open up all sorts of political possibilities of British withdrawal to the IRA.

This isn’t to suggest that the guiding factor in Heath’s security policy in the north in 1971 and 1972 was predicated upon needing Unionist support to pass the European Communities Bill. But, whatever it’s significance, it was a factor. And once the need for those Unionist votes was passed, the shift in emphasis in political policy against the Unionists was relatively swift.

The following editorial captures all this under the headline “Heath’s Close Call”, it appeared in the Irish Independent on 18th February 1972.

To Irish people who are used to Dáil cliff hangers coming out in a majority of two or three for the Government, Mr. Heath’s majority of eight in Westminster last night on the crucial E.E.C. Bill will seem small beer. But in a Parliament with over 600 members this vote was proportionately as close as any we have seen in Leinster House in recent times.
Now that Mr. Heath has won his vote, however, it is fair to say that the crisis is over for him on this issue. He can expect a gradual improvement from last night’s lowest ebb. With luck the coal and power crises will be things of the past in a few months’ time; a “handout” budget can be expected in an effort to stimulate the economy and fight unemployment; and Rhodesia has already caused the Westminster Government its fill of embarrassment.
There remains Northern Ireland. Certainly Mr. Heath has personally taken political punishment as a result of his handling of the North. However, last night’s critical vote may now free his hand a bit to make some concessions to the minority viewpoint. Up to this, with this crucial vote pending, Mr. Heath has had to be careful what political initiatives he even hinted at for fear of alienating the Unionist vote for last night’s test. Six of the eight Unionist M.P.s had voted against the principle of the Common Market on October 28th; but last night’s vote had turned into a straight political fight, an issue larger that the E.E.C. question. Three of the six anti-Market Northern Unionists were thus free to support the Government on the basis, presumably, that the E.E.C. with Heath was preferable to Wilson with no E.E.C.
His failure to secure a bloc Unionist vote, however, on an issue which had turned into a vote of confidence in the Government means that Unionist opinion is not solidly behind him. One reason for this could be that some Northern Unionists feel that he is about to “do a deal” with the Northern minority. His hands certainly seem less tied after this vote than before it.

European Union flag

William Falconer, another International Brigade volunteer from Belfast?

I was recently asked to see if I could find anything on William Falconer who, as a 46 year old, had fought with the International Brigade in Spain in support of the Spanish Republic. He was at Jarama and Brunette then, due to ill health, was repatriated from Spain (this, as with the image below, are courtesy of @hullbhoy).

Falconer’s name appears on lists of Irish volunteers in the International Brigade (eg see information compiled by Ciaran Crossey). It was also believed that, although Falconer had left from Hull in England, that he was from Belfast. Electoral records show that William Falconer was already in Hull in early 1920 and was enlisted in the Labour Corps having formerly served, during the first world war, in the East Yorkshire Light Infantry.
Given Falconer’s age, the only real potential match in the census and birth records for Belfast was born on 27th June 1891 to Samuel and Eliza Falconer in Westmoreland Street off the Shankill Road (roughly where Dover Place is today). The family used the spellings Falconer and Faulkner making them difficult to track through various records. Samuel and Eliza Hamilton had been married in Templepatrick in 1888 when he was 30 and she was 23, his family appear to have been from Ballyrobin while the Hamilton’s were from nearby Ballynabarnish. The couple then moved to Belfast where Samuel found work as a carter and they lived in the area to the north of the River Farset. While other carters and general labourers lived in Westmoreland Street there were also skilled workers and oher better off residents. The family then moved across the Shankill Road to Hopeton Street. Samuel and Eliza had a big family with Samuel (1888), William (1891), Mary (1893), Annie (1894), Maggie (1896), Lizzie (1899), James (1900) and Ruby (1905).

Westmoreland Street, Belfast just off the Shankill Road.

No name survives for a ninth child that likely died very young. Child mortality was high in city districts like the Shankill, Millfield and the Dock Ward due to tuberculosis and respiratory diseases. This reflected endemic poverty, poor diets and housing and sanitary conditions. The same tragedically poor life expectancy haunted the Falconers. Their eldest son, Samuel, died in April 1903, aged only 14. His youngest brother, James, died at the age of 3 in 1904. Eliza herself died of tuberculosis in November 1908. After Eliza’s death the family moved to Charleville Street Upper (off Crimea Street).

When William reached the age of 14 he went to work in the Ulster Spinning Company at the corner of North Howard Street and the Falls Road. There he apprenticed as a fitter and was later described by the factory manager, Richard Gribben, as sober and quiet. Then, in July 1908, he left the Ulster Spinning Company and enlisted in the Royal Iniskilling Fusiliers at their depot in Omagh. He was first attached to the Iniskillings 3rd Battalion then, from October 1908, to the 2nd Battalion (his regimental number was 9449). His mother Eliza had already contracted her fatal dose of tuberculosis when he had enlisted.
Despite the setback of his mother’s death, William had progressed himself within the regiment. He had completed second- and third-class army certificates of education. He had passed the third-class certificate at the Iniskillings depot in Omagh in September 1908, before his mother’s death, and the second while posted in Dublin in May 1909. These certificates had been introduced by the army in 1861 (see Skelley’s The Victorian Army At Home: The Recruitment and Terms and Conditions of the British Regular, 1859-1899.). The third-class certificate was required for promotion to the rank of corporal. To be awarded the certificate, a candidate had to read aloud and to write from dictation passages and to demonstrate he could complete examples of the four compound rules of arithmetic and the reduction of money. To be awarded a second-class certificate, a soldier had to complete writing and dictation from a more difficult text (than third-class) and show familiarity with all forms of regimental accounting including proportions, interest, fractions and averages. The second-class certificate was a requirement to progress to the rank of sergeant. Continuing on to completion of a first-class certificate meant the possibility of being commissioned from the ranks.

Evening Telegraph, 10 July 1909

But tragedy was to strike again in the Falconer family as William. His sister Annie had contracted tuberculosis and had been moved to the sanatorium in Whiteabbey, where she died in July 1909 (see death notice above).

Two months after Annie’s death, William was promoted to Lance Corporal having already completed the necessary army certificates that would allow him to advance as far as sergeant in the future. Yet William’s own army career was also cut short by illness. After attending an assessment in Dublin on 19th March 1910 he was deemed medically unfit and formally discharged from the army on 11th April 1910. He then moved back to the Falconer family home to Charleville Street Upper.
The army files give no hint as to the reasons but, by the summer of 1911, William himself had been certified with tuberculosis. It was to be the scourge of the Falconer family. William’s younger sister Mary died in March 1912 and Maggie in December 1912. Two years later, in 1914, one of his two remaining sisters, Eliza, also died. His youngest sister, Ruby, only five years old when he was discharged from the army, was also to die from tuberculosis in May 1917 having moved from Belfast to Ballynabarnish near Templepatrick to live with her late mother’s family, the Hamiltons. Her father, Samuel, had remained in Charleville Street Upper. But by 1920 Samuel had been moved to a lodging house, Carrick House, run by Belfast Corporation (on Lower Regent Street). Samuel then was hospitalised in the former union workhouse on the Lisburn Road where he died from heart problems in April 1920.

Samuel Falconer’s mark (X) even though he identified as able to read/write in 1901 and 1911 census (was that a false claim due to shame over illiteracy/poverty).

At 62 years of age he had been predeceased by his wife and all nine of his children, including William, who had succumbed to tuberculosis on 6th April 1912, only weeks after the death of his sister (and Samuel’s daughter) Mary. William had been brought to the Abbey hospital (in Whiteabbey) after being diagnosed in the summer of 1911. Samuel himself was present at his son’s death. Samuel had to mark an ‘x’ rather than sign his name as witness to his son’s death. While this may be age related, Samuel had recorded that he could read and write in the census of 1901 and 1911. But had Samuel did that out of shame to hide his own illiteracy (in the 1901 census less than 10% of carters recorded that they couldn’t read or write). Noticeably, Samuel only used the spelling ‘Falconer’ consistently from when his children were of school age, prior to that and in his last years he used both ‘Faulkner’ and ‘Falkner’. He may even have hidden his own lack of literacy from his children.

Clearly though, this William Falconer wasn’t the William Falconer who lived in Hull and joined the International Brigades in Spain to fight for the Spanish Republic (seems more likely he was from Scotland). But this William Falconer’s own family’s story of poverty and disease was all to familiar to those who travelled from Belfast, including those from the Shankill Road and what the brigadiers witnessed there in their own childhoods undoubtedly inspired many of them to fight in Spain.

 

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