Photo of McKelveys GAC


The above photo was published in Ray Quinn’s history of the IRA in Belfast after 1924, A Rebel Voice. It is a group photo of Joe McKelvey GAC including some of the playing staff. The photo isn’t dated but two individuals are identified, Jimmy Steele in the front row and Joe Hanna in the back row. Joe McKelvey GAC was set up after the  reburial of McKelvey in Belfast in November 1924. The funeral held in St Mary’s in Chapel Lane and the burial at Milltown was a seminal moment in the restructuring of the post-Civil War IRA in Belfast. As the premier GAA club for IRA members in Belfast, the significance of McKelvey’s funeral was reflected in the club’s name.

GAA club names provided an opportunity for republicans and nationalists to create the sort of commemorative monumental landscape denied to them by the northern government. Consistently, GAA clubs were named after leading nationalists and republicans, as well as Irish cultural figures. By doing so, clubs likes O’Connells GAC, McKelveys, Morans or Nashes kept those names in regular usage as fixtures were made, games played and results discussed. Surreptitiously, republicans and nationalists were able to erect an architecture across parts of the city that reflected their political aspirations, rather than accepting that imposed by the northern government. Denied access to the permissions and resources to construct a physical reflection of their historical and political values, nationalists and republicans instead created a virtual architecture from cultural and sporting institutions. This could co-exist with the physical unionist landscape demanded by the northern government and was very resistant to repression.

So as to bypass the restrictions the northern government imposed on political activity, the IRA used GAA clubs as means by which members could meet and organise. Since the IRA had to set up its own clubs, clearly not all GAA clubs were IRA clubs. Constantly under surveillance from the northern government, occasionally successful on the pitch, and overtly political in bringing motions to GAA conventions, McKelveys effectively folded during internment in 1939.

The two figures indicated on the photo are Jimmy Steele (at the front) and Joe Hanna (at the back). Hanna was the Intelligence Officer of the Belfast Battalion at the time of the Campbell College raid and Crown Entry and was shot as an informer in 1937. The figured seat in the row behind Jimmy Steele, with a ball between his feet, is Jack McNally. Otherwise, no-one else in the photo has been identified. Donal McAnallen recorded interviews with some former members of McKelveys in the 1990s but otherwise no history of the club has been written to date.

Belfast Brigade IRA members, 1921-22.

Here are some lists of the members of individual companies of the IRA in Belfast on two specific dates in 1921 and 1922 (transcribed from documents at the Military Archives). There some discussion of the lists at the end of this post. The lists were compiled in the mid-1930s and are based on the memory of various officers and other members. I’ve included A, B and C Companies of the 1st Battalion below (Belfast was expanded from four companies to two battalions in 1921, then to four battalions in 1922 and back to two battalions by July 1922). I’ll add more next week. If you are looking for an individual name it is probably easiest to use Ctrl+F to search for it. Names marked * appear on both the 1921 and 1922 lists, those marked ** appear on the 1922 list only, unmarked names are only on the 1921 list. Spellings of names and addresses are copied from the lists.

Note – the addresses given reflect where the men lived in 1936 rather than 1921-22. If you need to do a bit of research on individuals, there is a great website here where you can check street directories at different dates and you can access detailed data from the 1901 and 1911 census here.

1st Battalion Staff (on 11/7/1921)
Commandant James McDermott 39 Lady Street
Vice Commandant no appointment
Adjutant Joseph Magee 41 Nansen Street
Quartermaster Hugh Corvin Springfield Road
Intelligence Officer John Richards Clonard Street
Engineering Officer no appointment
Medical Officer T. Donnigan Springfield Road

1st Battalion Staff on 1/7/1922
O/C Joseph Magee 41 Nansen Street
Vice O/C Michael Brennan (USA)
Adjutant James McKeating 25 Alton Street
Quatermaster Patrick Murray 63 McDonnell Street
Intelligence Officer Thomas Hawthorn Benares Street

A Company
Company Staff (11/7/1921)
Captain Patrick McCarragher 8 Whiterock Drive
1st Lieut Art O’Donnell (USA)
2nd Lieut Hugh Elliot 31 Britons Drive
Company Staff (1/7/1922)
O/C Art O’Donnell Crocus Street
Adjutant Lawrence Maguire 30 Abercorn Street Adj
1st Lieut Edward Quinn 39 Cyprus Street
2nd Lieut Joseph O’Neill Tralee Street
Intelligence Officer Robert Donnell 40 Barrack Street
Quartermaster Patrick Gallaher Merrion Street

Adams, David 15 Abercorn Street; Allen, Pat 23 Cavendish Street; Allen, Joseph; Allen, Sean 23 Cavendish Street
Barnes, Dermot 12 St Marys Road; 
Begley, Pat Abercorn Street North; Bell, Thomas Harrogate Street; Booth, Frank 10 Alexander Street West; Brannigan, Patrick 19 Abercorn Street; Burke, William 67 Ross Street
Campell, P. Newtownards; 
Carmichael, John Mary Street; Casey, William 6 Grosvenor Place; Collins, John Mulhouse Street; Collins, Patrick Cavendish Street; Cooney, Eamon (TD, Dublin); Connor, Joseph Springfield Avenue; Connor, Michael (England); Connor, John 5 Frere Street; Cooper, Francis (USA); Corr, Patrick Lincoln Street
Dalton William 8 Cupar Street; Darby, James 45 Raglan Street; Dempsey, James Lucknow Street; Dempsey, John Lucknow Street; Dillon, John Gibson Street; Doherty, James Cullingtree Road; Doherty, Edward Cullingtree Road; Donnelly, Robert 46 Raglan Street; Downey, Patrick Rockmount Street; Dunbar, David Braemer Street Adjutant; Dunn, John Tralee Street
Elliott, Hugh 31 Britons Drive 2nd Lieut; Elliot, George 35 Leeson Street
Fitzpatrick, Owen (Belturbet, Cavan); Flavell, James Leeson Street; Fox, John Colinward Street; Fox, Michael Colinward Street
*Gallagher, Patrick Merrion Street; 
Gallagher, Francis Falls Road; Goodman, Bernard Waterville Street; Grant, Bernard Abbysinia Street; Grant, John Crocus Street; Greenan James Cullingtree Road; Guy, Seamus (address unknown)
Hamill, John (Canada); 
Hanna, Joseph Servia Street; Henry, John Leeson Street; Houston, George (USA); *Hughes, Mick 145 Cromac Street; Hyland, Joseph 13 Bosnia Street
**Johnston, James Tyrone Street; *Johnston, George 23 Abercorn Street
Keenan, Joseph Panton Street; 
Kelly, Henry Benares Street; Kerr, Like 14 Lower Clonard Street; Killen, Patrick Whiterock Gardens; 
King, Bernard 8 Alexandra Street West
Lismore, Manus Whiterock Drive; Loughran, Henry Bantry Street
Madden, Bernard Tralee Street; 
Magee, Joseph McMillan’s Place; Magee, Henry Leeson Street; Maguire, Hugh (Dublin); Maguire, Laurence 30 Abercorn Street North; Mallon, Thomas 20 Thames Street; Martin, John John Street; Murphy,  Edward 35 Crocus Street; Murphy, Thomas St James Park; Murray, Patrick McDonnell Street
McAllister, C. Curragh; McAuley, Daniel Albert Street; McAuley, James Benares Street; McAvoy, John Balkan Street; McCarragher, Patrick Whiterock Drive Captain; McCornmick, Patrick Leeson Street; McCurry, William Leeson Street; *McDade, Phil 31 Getty Street; McDowell, Charles 118 Leeson Street; McEntee, Charles King Street; McEntee, Joseph King Street; McEntee, James King Street; *McEntee, Edward King Street; McGahey, Bernard Lincoln Street; McGarry, Liam 19 Getty Street; McGivern, John Falls Road; McGlinchey, Joseph Theodore Street; McGookin, Peter Bombay Street; McGookin, Charles Bombay Street; *McGovern, Andrew Whiterock Road; McGregor, Daniel Irwin Street; McGuigan, Peter (USA); McKeating, James 28 Alton Street; *McKenna,  James 240 Falls Road; *McLoughlin, Philip 137 McDonnell Street; McMahon, Patrick 7 Ormond Street; McNulty, P. McMillans Place; *McWilliams, John Spinner Street
Nixon, James Merrion Street; *Nolan, Michael 93 McDonnell Street; *Nolan, James 93 McDonnell Street
Owens, James Dunmore Street; *O’Donnell, Art (USA) 1st Lieut; **O’Donnell, Edward Crocus Street; *O’Neill, Leonard Balkan Street; O’Neill, Sean (unknown address); *O’Neill, Joseph Tralee Street; O’Toole, John Spinner Street
Quinn, John 39 Cyprus Street; Quinn, Matthew Middiken Street; *Quinn, Edward 39 Cyprus Street; *Quinn, Joseph (USA) QM; *Quinn, Robert 42 Beechmount Street; Quinn, ? Townsend Street
Rafferty, John Nail Street; Rafferty, Hugh (USA); *Rocks, John Abbysinia Street
Scullion, Pat Tralee Street; Simpson, John (USA); Skelly, John Plevna Street; Smyth, Michael (England); *Sullivan, Patrick (Tralee Street)
Tevlin, Thoams Panton Street; *Trainor, Peter Barrack Street; Trainor, John Springfield Road
**Ward, William Bank Street; Wilson, Thomas Dunville Street; *Woods, William 23 Cavendish Street

B Company
Company Staff (11/7/1921)
Captain Patrick Osborne 16 Colinview Street
1st Lieut Thoams Gunn (Dublin)
2nd Lieut Patrick Brady 41 Iris Street
Company Staff (1/7/1922)
O/C Joseph Bradley (USA)
1st Lieut Terence Lee 46 Iveagh Street
2nd Lieut Ted Bannon (USA)

Allen, John St James Place
Barry, John Cavendish Street; Barnes, Patrick c/o 118 Leeson Street; Bailey, Patrick Irish Drive; **Bannon, Edward Linden Street; Barry, Patrick Cavendish Street; Bonner, John Ava Terrace; *Boomer, Robert Clondara Street; **Booth, Franics Jr Alexandra Street West; Bradley, Joseph (USA); Bradley, Michael (deceased); *Brady, John Cavendish Street (deceased); Brady, Patrick 4 iris Street; Brawney, J Ava Terrace; **Brown, Edward (USA); **Bunting, Seamus Alexandra Street West; Burns, Fred Norfolk Street; **Burns, James Earlscourt Street
**Carney, Joseph Balkan Street
Corvin, Peter (Dublin); Cromie, Frank (Dublin)
Devlin, Joseph Broadway, Falls Road; *Dinnen, Terence c/o 118 Leeson Street; **Donnelly, G. Falls Road; **Donnelly, Thomas Leeson Street; **Donnelly, ? Leeson Street; **Donnelly, Peter, Cawnpore Street; **Donnelly, Thomas Bread Street; **Doherty, John (USA); **Doherty, Charles (USA); *Doherty, Michael Cavendish Street; Doherty, James 14 Dunmore Street; Doyle, James Balkan Street; Dowd, Henry (unknown); Downey, Joseph (Dublin); Downey, Patrick (Dubliin); Doyle, John Balkan Street
Fanning, Donal Foyle Street Derry; Fanning, Edward Cavendish Street; *Farnan, James 13 Earlscourt Street; Finn, Seamus (deceased); Finn, James Charlemont, Armagh; Forrester, James 66 Balkan Street; Foster, Joseph (unknown); Fox, Anthony 82 Falls Road; Fox, Fred 82 Falls Road; Fox, Thomas (Athlone); Fox, John 21 Earlscourt Street
*Gallagher, Joseph Logan Street; *Galway, Thomas Falls Road; Galway Robert Falls Road; Garvey, Michael (unknown); Gilmartin, James (Sligo); Gillanders, Thomas (deceased); Gleenon, Charles (Dublin); Gleenon, Gerry Andersonstown, Falls Road; *Goodman, George (USA); Goodman, Joseph (USA); Goodfellow, James (USA); Graham, Rory (Sligo); Graham, Gerald Waterville Street; Gunn, Thomas (Dublin); Gunn, Hugh (Dublin)
*Hall, Sean (Dublin); Halley, Charles Cawnpore Street; Hannigan, James (Louth); Harte, Henry Falls Road; Harte, John Falls Road; *Harte, William Falls Road; Hartley, Patrick Iris Drive; Hartley, William Iris Drive; Harvey, John Lower Clonard Street; **Hawthorne, Thomas Cawnpore Street; Healy, Robert Hawthorn Street; Hunter, Thomas Forfar Street; Hunter, Robert (deceased)
Johnston, Alex Albert Street
**Keelagher, Brian Abyssinia Street; **Kellett, Thomas (Canada); Kennedy, Eamon (Tipperary)
Lappin, Charles Ormeau Road; **Lavery, F. Oakman Street; **Lee, Terence Iveagh Street; Leonard, Sean (Sligo); Loughran, Stephen (Dublin); Loughran, Henry Granville Street; Lynch, Michael Lombard Street
Madden, Richard Fort Street; Magee, Laurence (Donegal); Manning, William 55 Divis Street; **Martin, John John Street; Masterson, Brian (Cavan); Matthews, David Tralee Street; Mawhinney, Charles (unknown); Mawhinnney, Seamus (unknown); Menagh, George (unknown); **Morgan, James 80 Abyssinia Street; Moss, James Servia Street; Mulholland, Henry (unknown); **Mullan, George John Street; Murphy, Sean Falls Road; Murray, Robert Moreland Park
**McAtackney, Joseph Lady Street; **McBurney, James Barrack Street; McCarthy, Francis Briton’s Drive; McCann Seamus (Monaghan); Mccagney, Charles Arizona Street; McCann, Leonard (Dublin); McCormick, Patrick Glendun, Antrim; McCormick, James Glendun, Antrim; McCormick, Alex Falls Road; McCormick, Louis 34 Hawthorn Street; McCreely, James 60 Beechmount Street; **McCurry, Francis Cullingtree Road; McDonagh, Gerald (Dublin); McDonnell, Thomas Harrogate Street; McElroy, Leonard Cavendish Street; McErlean, Patrick Toomebridge, Antrim; **McFadden, John Jude Street; McGeown, Hugh 92 Plevna Street; McGivern, Thomas Falls Road; McGivern, Joseph Falls Road; McGowan, Archibald 161 Falls Road; **McGreevy, Joseph Pound Street; McKay, Patrick Dunmore Street; McKee, Charles (Kerry); McKee James, (USA); McKee, Henry (USA); *McKeever, John 6 Beechmount Street; McKenna, James (Dublin); McLarnon, Thomas Cavendish Street; McLaughlin, John Greencastle, Co Antrim; McMahan, Patrick Divis Drive; McMahan, Eugene (deceased); **McManus, John Nail Street; *McMillan, Edward Cavendish Street; McMullan, Alex 21 Bombay Street; McMullan, Michael (Dublin); McMurray, Patrick 35 Balkan Street; McMurray, Thomas Merrion Street; *McMurrough, Thomas Harrogate Street; McNamee, Patrick Holywood, Co Down; **McNeilly, John John Street; McParland, John Cavendish Street; **McWilliams, Patrick Plevna Street
*Nash, George 52 Gibson Street
O’Boyle, Joseph (Dublin); **O’Boyle, Owen Bantry Street; **O’Hanlon, Peter Albert Street; O’Hara, Henry (deceased); **O’Malley, Thomas Norfolk Street; O’Neill, Joseph (USA); O’Sullivan, Sean (Dublin); O’Sullivan, Maurice Walmer, Andersonstown, Belfast; Osborne, Patrick 18 Colinview Street (Captain)
Powderly, Joseph Irish Drive
**Rafferty, John Nail Street; Rafftery, Thomas Donaghmore, Co Tyrone; Regan, Francis 45 Irish Street; Reid, Patrick Whiterock Gardens; Richie, David (Dublin); Ryan, James Falls Road; Ryan, Charles (Athlone); Ryan, Philip (Dublin)
**Steele, James c/o 118 Leeson Street
**Tanney, James Hawthorn Street
**Wynne, Leo Falls Road; **Wynne, A. Harrogate Street

C Company
Company Staff (1/7/1921 C and E Companies were combined by 1922 and only an E Company return exists for that date)
Captain Joseph Murray (Dublin)
1st Lieut Sean McDevitt (Dublin)
2nd Lieut Robert Brennan Beechmount Street
Company Staff (11/7/1922 – all appear to be E Company men)
O/C David Matthews 31 Tralee Street
1st Lieut Bernard Mervyn Currie Street
2nd Lieut James Delaney 103 Balkan Street

Brady, Pat (deceased); Brennan, Robert 3 Beechmount Street (2nd Lieut); Burns, Pat 9 Pound Street; Bartlett, J. c/o 118 Leeson Street; Burns, M Durham Street; Burns, Peter Wall Street
Campbell, D c/o 118 Leeson Street; Crothers, J.  c/o 118 Leeson Street; Creighton, John c/o 118 Leeson Street; Cole, J (Scotland); Crawford, J (USA); Carroll, J. California Street; Croke, J. c/o 118 Leeson Street; Carville, J. (Scotland); Cunningham, James c/o 118 Leeson Street
Daly, Mick 20 Cape Street; Dunne, Louis Antrim Road; Donnelly, Gerard c/o 118 Leeson Street; Donnelly, Dan c/o 118 Leeson Street
Eastwood, John (Dublin)
Fahy, P. (Dublin); Farrelly, Pat c/o 19 Kildare Street; Flannagan, John Kildare Street; Finnegan, M. c/o 118 Leeson Street; Fitzpatrick, ? (Free State); Flannagan, John Kildare Street; Fleming, Patrick 94 Clowney Street; Fogarty, P. c/o 118 Leeson Street
Gunn, J. (Free State); Gibson, ? (Cork); Geehan, Thomas Glenard, Belfast; Galligan, J. (deceased); Guilar? J (deceased); Geoghan, Sean (Dublin)
Henry, D Arnon Street; Hughes, John (Cavan); Hamill, A. c/o 118 Leeson Street; Heaney, Henry (Derry)
Kane, Howard c/o 118 Leeson Street; Kane, Alan (USA); Kearns, C. c/o 118 Leeson Street; Keenan, Pat Tyrone Street; Kelly, c. c/o 118 Leeson Street; Kelly, Thomas (deceased); Kelly, John c/o 118 Leeson Street; Kennedy, Thomas (Dublin)
Largey, Sam California Street; Largey, J (USA); Leonard, J. c/o 118 Leeson Street; Loughran, Pat (deceased)
Magee, Frank (Dublin); Magee, Hugh (deceased); Maguire, J. (Free State); Maguire, Phil (deceased); Megran, D. 13 Upton Street; Monaghan, J. Wall Street; Montague, J. (Dublin); Morgan, J. c/o 118 Leeson Street; Morgan, J. 13 Wall Street; Morrissey, Victor (Dublin); Morton, W. California Street; Mullen, F. c/o 118 Leeson Street; Murray, Joseph (Dublin) Capt; Murray, M. Rockdale Street
McAuley, S. (Dublin); McAleese, Robert Wall Street; McAuley, P.J. Grove Street; McAleese, F. (Canada); McCotter, J. Upton Street; McCann, S. (Free State); McDevitt, Sean (Dublin) 1st Lieut; McDevitt, Brendan (Dublin); McDowell, S (deceased); McErlain, Pat (deceased); McIlvenny, C. (USA); McGuinness, James Arnon Street; McKinney, D 32 Ross Street; McMahon, P.J. 48 Bombay Street; McManus, Joseph c/o 118 Leeson Street; McManus, J. c/o 118 Leeson Street; McNally, A. Alton Street; McRory, Sean Harrogate Street
Nolan, James McCleery Street
O’Brien, James (Carrickmacross); O’Hara, James 13 Alton Street; O’Connor, P. Tyrone Street; O’Neill, H. Arnon Street
Quinn, John Emo Villa, Falls Road
Rainey, Thomas 22 Clonard Street; Redmond, P. (Free State); Reilly, John c/o 118 Leeson Street; Russell, Joseph Stanhope Street; Ryan, Joseph 92 Divis Street
Scott, Henry 42 Alton Street; Smith, Sean Gresham Street; Smith, Patrick (USA); Steele, P (deceased); Stevenson, J. (deceased); Strachan, P. (Free State)
Trainor, Thomas 12 Park Street; Tumelty, J. c/o 118 Leeson Street
Walsh, Pat (deceased)

The purpose of compiling the lists of names was part of a process of putting pension arrangements in place for veterans of the struggle for independence. Obviously, this had political connotations in the south as there were still republicans who refused to acknowledge the existence of the southern state in any form, either political or practical. To some, the pensions issue was one being driven by Fianna Fáil to try and entice more republicans into accepting the southern state.

In Belfast, the issue was more complex. There was a Pre-Truce IRA veterans organisation set-up in the city in mid-April 1935 (and tolerated by the RUC and northern government). This was the body that formed committees for the various units and helped put together the lists below. Since many from Belfast had followed Collins in taking a pro-Treaty stance (and many had not), there were still significant differences among both current and former IRA in the city. The Pre-Truce IRA had Hugh Corvin, O/C of the Belfast IRA in the mid-1920s, as secretary. It seems, from documents in the Dublin military archives, that it reported to the Director of Intelligence in the Irish Army.

The overt purpose of the lists was to identify individuals across Fianna Éireann, the IRA and Cumann na mBán who might qualify for pensions due to services rendered. Collecting the information was necessary as few formal documentary records survived and it would assist in validating future claims. The lists were to focus on two dates, coinciding with the July 1921 truce and the July 1922 attack on the Four Courts in Dublin. The Belfast returns clearly rely on those former IRA officers and volunteers who were willing to co-operate with the process (I’ve discussed the issue with regard to units of Fianna Éireann, the IRA and Cumann na mBán in North Queen Street before). In some cases, such as the 3rd and 4th Battalions of the 1st (Belfast) Brigade of the 3rd Northern Division, no lists have survived at all (as they were formed after the 1921 truce and folded back into 1st and 2nd Battalions by 1st July 1922). Not only are some unit lists missing, other existing unit lists also seem incomplete such as the 1922 list for C Company in Carrickhill.

Notably too, many (but not all) who were still active republicans have their address given as c/o 118 Leeson Street, Belfast. This was the address of a pub on Leeson Street and, given the link into the Free State’s Director of Intelligence, suggests that the information collected would also have been available for other purposes. As such, the lists are significant but are, at the same time, artefacts of the pensions process of the 1930s  with all the baggage that went with that.

I’ll add further lists next week.

John Graham, professional golfer, divinity student, O/C Belfast IRA

Interesting account of John Graham’s golfing career by Mark Wehrly. Graham was Director of Intelligence on the IRA’s Northern Command and Belfast O/C for a time in 1942. Narrowly missing out on the chance to escape in January 1943, he then spent seven years in Crumlin Road.

Graham’s golf career began in the 1930s when he played for Belvoir, and continued after his release in 1949, when he played for Strandhill. He also was a golf international and played on the Ireland team that beat England for the first time in 16 years in September 1950. He was also married to the actress Sheila McGibbon.

Graham also wasn’t the only republican who had a golfing career interrupted. For more, read Mark Wehrly’s blog post here.

Fianna Éireann in Belfast, 1917-24.

This article takes a look at Fianna Éireann in Belfast in the period after the Easter Rising in 1916, through to 1923-24 when the organisation more or less collapsed. It includes a list of members of the 1st Battalion, Belfast Brigade, for 1921 and more detailed accounts of the north Belfast companies (in 2nd battalion). It also includes some information about Fianna activities and casualties.

Fianna Éireann was a republican youth organisation often just known as Na Fianna or referred to in contemporary media as the Sinn Féin scouts. An individual member was known as a Fian and a unit was known as a sluagh. A sluagh was led by an O/C (officer commanding), with an Adjutant, Intelligence Officer and Quartermaster, while individual sections also had an O/C. Na Fianna in Belfast had been re-organised in July 1916[1] after the Easter Rising, and was intended to take in teenage boys and prepare them for the role of soldiers who would restore the republic as declared in Dublin in 1916. The first North Belfast members, Jack McNally and Brian Convery, joined the James Connolly sluagh based in Berry Street in February 1917[2] with Joe McKelvey as Captain, and Seamus Mallon, Hugh Kennedy, Paddy McDonnell and Seamus ‘Nick’ Bateson as officers. All were 14 or 15 years of age.

Jimmy Steele wrote briefly in 1966 describing how he first became aware of Na Fianna[3] in 1918-19 (he joined Na Fianna in 1920): “There were stirrings too of young boys in green uniforms, Na Fianna, who had pledged themselves to serve Ireland and the older boys and men in the uniform of the Irish Volunteers. There are rumours too that these men and boys will march out one day to fight for Ireland’s freedom.” Jack McNally records how Fianna members staffed church door anti-conscription protests and distributed leaflets[4].  They also trained using miniature rifles and revolvers and raised funds (each sluagh was to collect a fixed amount). Thomas McNally, who later became Quartermaster of the Belfast Brigade of the IRA gives this account of how teenagers received their political formation in Belfast before 1919: On the break-up of this team [Sarsfield Ogs] I went to the Mitchells and played for the Mitchell Ogs. This team had an old military hut as a club room and here I learned something of nationality. Seannachi and Ceilidhes were held and national songs were sung and our own dances performed so that I can say the idea of nationalism was taking root.[5]

In 1919, with the founding of the Dáil, there was a push to expand the Fianna organisation, with a Fian called Sullivan acting as an organiser in Belfast. Recruitment to Na Fianna appears to have been intensive in Belfast in late 1919 and early 1920, apparently through existing members simply inviting friends from school and other acquaintances along to Na Fianna events. It’s probably not a coincidence that the Belfast Schools Hurling League seems also to have been more heavily promoted from 1919 onwards (there was also a schools hurling league centred on Randalstown). Both schools, like Hardinge Street Trades Preparatory School and clubs like O’Connells, supplied teams to the league. Playing Gaelic games was likely seen as a reflection of the political attitudes in a family and helped identify likely candidates for Na Fianna to approach.

Jack McNally has described how he and Brian Convery prompted school friends and others they knew to attend a meeting in the back of a shop on Herbert Street in Ardoyne. Mick Carolan, the O/C of the local company of the IRA came in to the meeting to encourage those present to join Na Fianna. In the end, a new sluagh, the Henry Joy McCracken, was set up, based in the Bone. The first O/C was 17 year old Oliver McGowan, with 16 year old Willie Murray as his Adjutant, Jack McNally as Intelligence Officer and Brian Convery and Liam Mulholland as section leaders.The post of Quartermaster was unfilled. The sluagh was loosely attached to a local company of the IRA. Jack McNally records that the Henry Joy McCracken sluagh in the Bone was then split into two with the William Orr sluagh formed in Ardoyne. The new sluagh was 110 strong with Jack McNally as O/C, with Eugene McCurry as his Adjutant, Tom O’Donnell as Quartermaster and Frank Gallagher as his Intelligence Officer. Others who served as Fianna officers in the Bone and Ardoyne were Owen Miles, Alfie McDowell, Moses McFall, Johnny Wales and James Campbell.

Following the increased recruitment, by 1920, there were four sluagh in the north Belfast battalion (part of the Belfast Brigade of Na Fianna). As well as the Henry Joy McCracken and William Orr sluagh, there were sluagh centred on the North Queen Street and Carrickhill districts. A further sluagh was later added in Greencastle. Peter Carleton records the strength of the Carrickhill sluagh as sixty, aged between twelve and sixteen[6]. When Peter Carleton joined in 1919 John Maguire was the O/C in Carrickhill later becoming O/C of the Fianna 2nd battalion (as one of four officers seconded from the 1st battalion).

Jimmy Steele was thirteen when he joined the North Queen Street sluagh in 1920[7]. Members in the North Queen Street sluagh were drawn from the wider district including the Docks area and New Lodge Road[8]. Prominent figures in the North Queen Street sluagh were Hugh McNally (who was from Artillery Street), Frank Millar (from McCleery Street) and Fossee Lee from the Docks[9]. Jimmy Steele was a Fianna officer by 1922 when he held dual membership (he is listed as a volunteer in B Company, 1st Battalion of the IRA’s Belfast Brigade at the time). In Reminiscing (A Prison Poem, 1946), Steele gives an idea of how he then remembered taking part in some of the activities of Na Fianna, such as country walks and history and political talks:

“The tramp o’er mountain, road and hill,  

Or sitting in the quiet still

Of some lone glen; while someone there

Would speak or sing of Ireland fair.

The story of her ancient right.

The struggle ‘gainst usurper’s might;

Her sons who served and fought and died

In her just cause so sanctified,

And thus our hearts with pride, we’d lace

With love for our unconquered race.”

A raid on a house in Gardiner’s Court, off the Old Lodge Road, at the end of July 1922 illustrates the age profile and military training of Na Fianna in Belfast from about 1919 onwards (and that they stayed more or less the same until then). At Gardiner’s Court, the RUC swooped during a Na Fianna meeting. Those present were aged between 12 and 18. One of the older Fian was armed with a revolver and two further revolvers and ammunition were found to the rear of the property. Gardiner’s Court was in the district covered by the Carrickhill sluagh.

By early 1920 Na Fianna was actively involved in supporting IRA operations. This included acting as scouts, gathering intelligence or general information and observing activity to report it back up through the chain of command. Fianna members did sometimes carry arms and could hold dual membership with the IRA. These were the activities Jimmy Steele was later to recall on the rare occasions when he talked about this period[10] (and corroborated by the likes of Gardiner’s Court raid in 1922 described above).

In April 1920 B and D Company of the Belfast IRA participated in a co-ordinated response to Tomás MacCurtain’s death by burning income tax papers and records in three offices in Belfast[11]. The operations included units of Fianna Éireann, who acted as lookouts[12]. When the fire brigade arrived quickly and put the fire out, the same IRA and Fianna units returned and repeated the action a week later. This time they succeeded in destroying a substantial number of income tax and other related records. Peter Carleton describes how Na Fianna had scouted for attacks on the tax office by carefully recording when staff left work and the main points of access to the buildings[13]. Jack McNally also reports how, on another operation, Fianna members were posted as lookouts apparently forming an outer cordon with armed IRA volunteers posted as guards at key points of an inner cordon[14].

Sean Cusack describes how, in the summer of 1920, a trusted Fianna member went to Lisburn to monitor a target for assassination and then report back to Belfast every evening[15]. Jack McNally names a number of operations involving his Na Fianna engineering unit from the north Belfast sluagh and how combined operations of Na Fianna engineering units and the IRA were causing concerns in Na Fianna Headquarters in Dublin. This wasn’t resolved until April 1921. Until then, the existing sluagh system of Na Fianna remained in place. Afterwards, Fianna units were re-organised and formally attached to a structure matching that of the IRA, with an assumption that a Fian would automatically progress to IRA membership on turning 17.

The Belfast IRA had been re-organised in March 1921, with the four existing companies (A, B, C and D) of the Belfast battalion re-organised as part of the Belfast Brigade of the 3rd Northern Division. This was followed by the re-structuring of Na Fianna in April and the end of the sluagh system. Na Fianna were now fully integrated into the IRA structures and organised into companies and battalions with dual membership permitted for officers. For example the Carrickhill sluagh and North Queen Street sluagh were now linked with C Company of the 1st Battalion and D Company of the 2nd Battalion, respectively, of the 1st Brigade of the IRA’s 3rd Northern Divison. The company and battalions were to be re-structured on a number of  later occasions such as after the Treaty with the influx of new volunteers (who were derided as ‘Trucileers’) and the formation of a 3rd and 4th Battalion. A list of names of Fianna members in 1921 only survives for the 1st Battalion (which covered the Falls), which I’ve added below. It’s worth noting the likely reason for the limited information surviving for some districts. Take, as an example, the North Queen Street company of 2nd Battalion of Na Fianna, D Company of the 2nd Battalion IRA and the Lamh Dearg company of Cumann na mBán. The lack of information for these units seem to reflect the strength of Anti-Treaty feeling in North Queen Street (e.g. Lamh Dearg sent two delegates to the Cumann na mBán convention to vote against the Treaty). The sources for the surviving lists held in the military archives in Dublin were former Fianna, IRA and Cumann na mBán officers who were co-operating with the Free State government to collect the information – few from North Queen Street co-operated (I’ll blog on transcribed lists of names in the future).

The reality of service in Na Fianna was stark in North Belfast (on the Falls, a Fian could openly wear a badge in his lapel, elsewhere in Belfast it was considered unwise). For much of the two years up to July 1922, there were a series of eruptions of fighting, some quite sustained. Some measure of the sheer intensity of the conflict in Belfast can be seen in the casualty figures. A little over 2000 people died across Ireland during this period, about 25% of them in Belfast alone (when Belfast had only 9% of the population)[16]. The casualty statistics for 1920-22 make for stark reading. Kieran Glennon gives 178 fatalities in the area from Carrickhill across North Queen Street to the Docks[17]. That relatively small area saw roughly 36% of all war-related fatalities in Belfast in 1920-22 (about 9% in Ireland, as whole). Those responsible for the fatalities are unknown in 15 cases, with 42 known to be caused either by the IRA itself or others on the Catholic side. The remaining 121 were caused by the crown forces or others on the Protestant side.

Alongside this was a low level of background violence, raids, constant curfews, patrolling and sectarian tensions. As the lulls gave way to more intense violence, Catholics began to break holes into the dividing walls between yards and even within houses. That meant it was possible to move along streets, or between back yards, without fear of being shot[18]. Given the casualties, remarkably little has been published on this period in Belfast.

The exposure to violence is also illustrated by members of Na Fianna killed in Belfast during 1920-22 and are named on the County Antrim Monument in Milltown Cemetery in Belfast. This includes William Toal, John Murphy, Joseph Burns and JP Smyth. Toal’s death is recorded in 1922 (although the date on the monument is wrong), but the others aren’t readily identified in contemporary news reports. It is possible that John Murphy is actually John Murray, killed in the Bone on 28th August 1920. However, Burns and Smyth can’t be reconciled with individuals killed during this period, either in Belfast or elsewhere. The only explanations are that either their deaths simply weren’t reported as the nature of how they died was accidental, or, that their deaths were deliberately kept secret. A further example of the confused air that hangs over Belfast at that time was that Thomas Heathwood, a Fian killed in March 1922 is not normally named on the Fianna roll of honour for this period. Nor are Fianna 2nd Lt Joseph Hurson (from A Company, 2nd Battalion) or Fian Leo Rea who were both killed but don’t get listed on the Fianna roll of honour.

When Civil War broke out in the area under control of the southern government, Fianna Éireann rejected Treaty but remained, officially, neutral (although it effectively took the Anti-Treaty side). However, individual members took sides, including in Belfast, and like the other republican organisations in the city went in to decline for a number of years.

The following is a list of the Fianna members in 1st Battalion, Belfast Brigade, mostly west Belfast (transcribed from Military Archives document FE/34). A number of Fian listed were to remain prominent in the IRA in later decades, such as Liam McAllister, Art Thornbury (also a noted hurler) and Tom O’Malley (who was later to take ill in prison and die a couple of weeks after being released from Crumlin Road in 1959).

1st Battalion (Companies A-D)

Capt Seamus Mallon (A Company); Capt James McShane (B Company); Capt George Breen (C Company); Capt Pat Donnelly (D Company); Quartermaster John Gribben

John Bateson (later attached to 2nd Battalion); Michael Bradley; John Bradley; Thomas Brady; Joseph Brady; William Bramble; John Bramble; Sam Bunting; Eugene Butler

James Campbell (later attached to 2nd Battalion); Pat Campbell (D Company); John Carbury; James Carbury; Joseph Clarke; Joseph Colbert; John Cosgrove; John Creagan; Leo Creagan; Leo Crummey; Malcolm Crummey; John Cullen; Dan Cummins

Michael Dempsey; My Doherty; Pat Donnelly (Leeson St); James Downey

Robert Gilmore; William John Gilmore

Joseph Fagan; Malachy Ferris

Leo Goodson; William Gillespie; Joseph Gum; Robert Graham; Pat Graham

Humphrey Hope; Thomas Hawthorne; Ed Hayes; Thomas Hamill; Thomas Hales; John Hannon; Hugh Hannon; William Harvey

James Kelly; Jim Kelly; Frank Kennedy

James Leddy; Hugh Leddy; Thomas Lee; Joseph Leonard

John Matthews; Sam Maguire; Tom Maguire; Tom Montague

James McMahon; Pat McPhillips; Bernard McIlvenna; Dominic McGuinness; Joseph McLarnon; Donal McDevitt; Thomas McShane; Frank McKenna; John McKenna; George McCann; John McCann; Leo McCann; George McLaughlin; Alphonsus McLaughlin; William McAllister; John McAllister; Tony McMenamin; John McCurley; John McQuillan; Pat McCusker; William McCartney; James McGuinness; John McManus; John McFadden; Patrick McFadden; John McWilliams; John McGivern; Patrick McFadden; John McWilliams; John McGivern; Joseph McCrystal; Charles McLaverty; Patrick McDonnell; George McGouran; A McBrearty; L McVeigh

Thomas O’Boyle; Edward O’Hagan; Thomas O’Malley

Hugh Rafferty; Hugh Rice; David Ritchie; S Robinson

Peter Shevlin; Patrick Shevlin

Joseph Taylor; Art Thornbury; Edward Trodden; Charles Trodden; Michael Trodden

Patrick Woods; George Watters; Peter Watters

2nd Battalion (officers seconded from 1st Battalion):  John Maguire; P Hefler; A Fox; John Trainor.


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[1] Bureau of Military History, BMH.WS0412 by Joe Murray.

[2] McNally,1989, Morally Good Politically Bad, 4.

[3] See Steele, 1966, 1916-66: Belfast and nineteen sixteen, pages 32-34.

[4] McNally,1989, Morally Good Politically Bad, 14.

[5] Bureau of Military History, BMH.WS0410. Seannachi refers to the telling of folk tales and stories. Celidhes are Irish dances (the distinction between ‘Irish’ dances and ‘English’ dances features in accounts all the way to the 1950s and 1960s).

[6] The ages are based on the best fit among the entries for the district in the 1911 Census. McGowan’s father was a plasterer, Murray’s a labourer.

[7] McEoin 1980, Survivors 305.

[8] IRB organisation in North Queen Street included Seamus Dobbyn’s father storing rifles in the 1890s (Bureau of Military History, WS0279).

[9] See McNally 1989, Morally Good, Politically Bad, 14.

[10] Interview with Billy McKee.

[11] See McDermott 2001, Northern Divisions, 28

[12] McNally 1989, Morally Good, Politically Bad.

[13] MacEoin 1980, Survivors 305.

[14] McNally 1989, Morally Good, Politically Bad,14

[15] Bureau of Military History, WS0402

[16] Violent deaths in the south largely ended with the Truce in July 1921 and didn’t start again until the end of June 1922.

[17] Glennon 2013, From Pogram to Civil War, 266.

Thanks to Kieran Glennon and Jim McDermott for discussion of some aspects of na Fianna in Belfast in 1917-1924.

List of O/Cs of Belfast IRA, 1924-69.

The following is a draft list of the officers commanding the IRA’s Belfast battalion (the name normally given to its structures in the city) from 1924 to 1969. The list is based on a variety of sources. There are gaps and may well be omissions since those listed are those named in accounts of different events over 1924-1969. In some instance, sources are ignored (eg Anderson, in Joe Cahill: A Life in the IRA names Jimmy Steele as O/C in 1969 when it was Billy McMillen), in others an inference is taken, such as in 1934 when Jack McNally had to form a staff ( it is implied he was O/C but not stated). Any corrections or suggestions can be added in the comments section.

1924-27 Hugh Corvin

As a Belfast Brigade IRA delegate had supported the Executive against GHQ over the Treaty in 1922. Subsequently interned, he stood for election in North Belfast for Sinn Féin in 1924. Corvin acted as O/C of the Belfast Brigade during the re-organisation that followed after Joe McKelvey’s re-burial in Milltown on 30th October 1924. Continued as O/C until 1927 when he resigned citing business reasons (he had set up an accountancy firm). He was to remain prominent, through involvement in the GAA and as secretary of the Gaelic League in Belfast. He publicly participated in fund raising for Fianna Fáil in Belfast in the early 1930s and stood as an ‘independent republican’ in West Belfast in February 1943.

1927-33 Davy Matthews

From Albert Street. A veteran of 1920-24 campaigns, including the Raglan Street ambush, and a former internee on the Argenta. Took over from Hugh Corvin. Instigated re-organisation of the Belfast IRA in 1929, including training camps (first at Carnlough in Antrim and then Gyles Quay in Louth), Irish language classes and recruitment to Na Fianna. Described by Bob Bradshaw as having a ‘heart of gold and head of ivory’. Also active in Sinn Féin at a time when there were internal divisions within the IRA over whether to co-operate with Sinn Féin, Fianna Fáil or a left-wing political project. In November 1933, Matthews was arrested in possession of IRA documents and received a short sentence. So many other senior Belfast staff were arrested, including Jimmy Steele, Charlie Leddy,George Nash, Tom O’Malley and Jack Gaffney that a temporary staff was formed, including Jack McNally, Jim Johnstone and Sean Carmichael.

1933-34 Jack McNally

From the Bone. Another 1920-24 campaign veteran. Took over as O/C while Davy Matthews served a short sentence in 1933-34. While he was in prison Matthews decided to sign an undertaking that he would cease his IRA membership if he was released just before Christmas. So too did George Nash. Whether Matthews intended to honour the commitment or not, he was court-martialled in January 1934 and dismissed from the IRA. McNally remained active on the IRA’s GHQ staff until his arrest at Crown Entry in 1936. He was interned in December 1938 and was to later be active in the Anti-Partition League.

1934-36 Tony Lavery

From Balkan Street, a Fianna veteran of the 1920s, took over role as O/C Belfast (at the time designated Ulster Area No 1). Despite order from Army Council not to, instructed those charged by the northern government over the Campbell College raid be defended in court. After they were acquitted, the Army Council charged Lavery with disobeying a direct order and was to be court-martialled in Crown Entry on 25th April 1936 (although it was expected, unlike Matthews, he would merely get a slap on the wrists). Crown Entry was raided just as the court-martial was to take place and all those present were arrested including the IRA’s Adjutant-General, Jim Killeen, GHQ staff and senior members of the northern and Belfast leadership of the IRA. Lavery’s Adjutant, Jimmy Steele, and other staff members like Liam Mulholland and Mick Traynor.

1936-38 Sean McArdle

Took on role of O/C Belfast after the loss of Lavery and other Belfast staff members at Crown Entry. By early 1937, McArdle had also been arrested and sentenced to a brief term in Crumlin Road. It is not clear from existing sources as to who took on the role of O/C Belfast in late 1937 following McArdle’s arrest. On his release he remained as O/C Belfast until he was interned in December 1938.

1938-39 Charlie McGlade

Arrested in Crown Entry, Charlie McGlade was not long out of Crumlin Road when he was sent as an organiser to England as part of the S-Plan campaign. He took over as O/C Belfast from Sean McArdle following McArdle’s internment in December 1938. Apparently influenced by Jim Killeen, McGlade was responsible for developing the Northern Command concept that was put in place in late 1939, with McGlade as Adjutant and Sean McCaughey as O/C. He edited the Belfast edition of War News and may have remained as O/C Belfast until 1940 (Jimmy Steele was also to be simultaneously Adjutant Northern Command and O/C Belfast). However, there may be a gap between McGlade and Steele in 1939-40 when someone else was O/C (this isn’t clear from surviving sources).

1939-40? gap in available information

1940 Jimmy Steele

A Fianna veteran of 1920-24, Steele had been imprisoned since the Crown Entry raid, only being released in May 1940. For some time there had been unease at reports that were coming in to the IRA prisoners in Crumlin Road about disciplinary procedures being applied by the Belfast IRA staff. On his release, Steele was appointed to the IRA’s Northern Command staff. He had a dossier on the activities of the Belfast staff and following an investigation they were court-martialled and reduced to the ranks. No-one names the staff involved (and Tim Pat Coogan, who recorded the episode, does not remember if he was ever told). It may be that McGlade was O/C but was busy elsewhere and this was his staff who were reduced to the ranks. Either way, Steele took over the role as O/C Belfast until his arrest in December 1940.

1941 Liam Rice

Bowyer Bell (in The Secret Army) implies Liam Rice was O/C Belfast in May 1941, when he then left for Dublin to assist in the investigation into Stephen Hayes. Rice had been arrested in Crown Entry and also spent time in prison in the south. He was wounded and arrested in Dublin and spent time on the blanket in Portlaoise during the 1940s. It seems likely that Rice took over from Steele as O/C in December 1940.

1941 Pearse Kelly

When Rice left for Dublin, Bowyer Bell states that Pearse Kelly took over as O/C Belfast in May. Kelly too left for Dublin in July to take part in the investigations into Chief of Staff Stephen Hayes. Kelly was eventually to become Chief of Staff himself and ended up in the Curragh.

1941-42 Hugh Matthews

During 1941 Hugh Matthews, brother of Davy Matthews and another 1920-24 veteran, took over as O/C in Belfast, and apparently was O/C during the Army Conference in Belfast in February 1942 (according to Bowyer Bell in The Secret Army). Ray Quinn (in A Rebel Voice) says he took over from Jimmy Steele but dates it to a later Army Convention in Belfast in February 1943. It is not particularly clear from surviving accounts, but Matthews appears to have been O/C as further disputes arose about disciplinary practices of his Belfast staff members (but not direct criticism of Matthews himself).

1942 John Graham

There was a confrontation between the IRA’s Northern Command staff and the Belfast staff in November 1941, again over the disciplinary practices of the Belfast staff. Graham was O/C of an independent unit, mostly made up of Protestant IRA men. This unit was mobilised by the Northern Command staff during the confrontation and ultimately the Belfast staff stepped back in line. Graham took on the role of Director of Intelligence for the Northern Command and (according to Joe Cahill), was also O/C Belfast. He was arrested along with David Fleming in the Belfast HQ on Crumlin Road on 3rd October 1942, where printing presses and radio broadcasting equipment were also recovered. Graham, a divinity student in the 1930s, on his release he was to become a noted professional golfer. He died in 1997.

1942-43 Rory Maguire

Maguire was O/C Belfast in the autumn of 1942, apparently following Graham’s capture in October.

1943 Jimmy Steele

Escaping from Crumlin Road prison on 15th January 1943, Steele re-joined the Northern Command staff as Adjutant and took over the role of O/C Belfast from Rory Maguire.

1943-44 Seamus Burns

Following Jimmy Steele’s arrest in May, Seamus ‘Rocky’ Burns took over as O/C Belfast. Burns had been imprisoned as a 17 year old in 1938, interned in 1939. He took part in the mutiny in Derry jail and was moved to Crumlin Road prison, only to be returned to Derry from where he escaped with 20 others through a tunnel in March 1943. Recaptured in Donegal, he was interned in the Curragh. Harry White had Burns resign from the IRA, sign out of the Curragh, then rejoin the IRA and return north (when he took over as O/C Belfast). He was shot trying to escape from RUC officers in Chapel Lane in February 1944 and died the next day.

1944-45 Harry White

Harry White was O/C of the Northern Command at the time of Burns’ death. He was also on the run continuously. He seems to have taken on the role of O/C Belfast for much of the time and also delegated to others like Harry O’Rawe, Albert Price and Patsy Hicks. By the end of 1944, White was Chief of Staff of the IRA but living under an assumed name in Altaghoney. His cover was eventually blown and he was driven to the border and handed over to the Free State government who (it was assumed) would quickly try him in a military court and execute him. White’s luck held and he avoided execution, only to be sent to Portaoise for a number of years. On his release, he was active in the Wolfe Tone Socieites in the early 1960s.

1945-47 There are gaps here for the years around 1945-47.

1947-50 Frank McKearney

By the late 1940s, Frank McKearney had taken over as O/C Belfast. He had received a six year term for possession of a revolver in 1939. He appears to have served as O/C during the late 1940s, at least until the release of Jimmy Steele in 1950.

1950-56 Jimmy Steele

On release from Crumlin Road in 1950, Jimmy Steele again returned to active service with the IRA and once more took over as O/C Belfast while remaining prominent in other organisations such as the National Graves Association and also Sinn Féin. Stayed as O/C until 1956, when he stepped down (Steele was to remain an active republican until his death in 1970).

1956 Paddy Doyle

Took over as O/C in Belfast in preparation for the coming campaign in December, dubbed Operation Harvest. Doyle was highly though of at GHQ but, due to suspicions about an informer, did not disclose planned operations in Belfast to his own Belfast staff. Doyle spent his time in Crumlin Road completing his education, later qualifying as an accountant, and didn’t get involved in republican activities again on his release.

1956-57 Joe Cahill

Cahill, who had a death sentence commuted in 1942, had been released in 1950 from Crumlin Road. He took over from Paddy Doyle on his arrest in December 1956 until Cahill himself was interned in July 1957. Cahill was to remain an active republican for the rest of his life.

1957-60 There is a gap in available information from 1957 until about 1960.

1960-63 Billy McKee

On his release from internment in 1961, Billy McKee took on the role of O/C Belfast re-building the battalion effectively from scratch. He had been imprisoned in the 1930s and 1940s and was to remain active in republican circles ever afterwards. During the Wolfe Tone commemorations of 1963 he got involved in a dispute with Billy McMillen, eventually resigned first as O/C Belfast and then from the IRA.

1963-69 Billy McMillen

Following the argument over the Wolfe Tone commemorations in June 1963, McMillen took over as O/C Belfast. Having earlier been associated with unofficial bombings in 1950, McMillen had left the IRA in the mid-1950s following an argument and linked up with Saor Uladh. After his release from internment in 1961, he first went to England then returned to Belfast and rejoined the IRA. He remained O/C through the 1960s and was interned just before the pogrom in mid-August 1969. As part of the fallout over the failure of the Belfast IRA to adequately prepare to defend areas during the pogrom, McMillen was forced to restructure his staff and withdraw its supports for the Goulding leadership on 22nd September 1969. Later killed during an internal feud.

The Northern Directory of Republican Clubs, 1967.

As a brief follow up to the footage of the Barnes-McCormick reburial in 1969 and much of the mythology that has developed around the IRA split, here’s a news item from The Irish Times on 18th March 1967:


The Northern Directory of Republican Clubs announced yesterday that it will hold a public meeting at Divis street, Belfast, tomorrow afternoon “…to defy the unjust banning of the Republican Clubs in the Six Counties by the Northern Ireland Minister of Home Affairs,” and “…to protest against this flagrant abuse of civil liberties and democratic freedom which this action entails.”
The meeting will be held at the 43 Club, Divis street, Mr James Steele, Belfast, chairman of the directory, will preside. The announcement from the directory stated that the meeting will be attended by delegates from Republican clubs all over Northern Ireland, members of civil liberty and trade union organisations and Labour Members of Parliament from both Westminister and Stormont.

Typically, Jimmy Steele (and many of those involved in the formation of Provisional Army Council of the IRA in December 1969) are presented as being ‘…physical force men… whose methods would be purely military as opposed to the new socio/political methods advocated by Goulding’ (as described in Rosita Sweetman’s 1972 book On Our Knees, Ireland 1972, p.190). A review of contemporary news sources suggests the context given to the 1969 split, largely developed over the early 1970s against the backdrop of sometimes violent disputes between the different factions, merits some reconsideration and that the picture is more complex than is usually presented.

Irish Times, March 18, 1967.


Barnes & McCormick funeral footage, 1969

Quick link to footage posted up on youtube…. (see link below).

Famously, this is where the 1969 IRA split was articulated. Jimmy Steele gave a well-known speech at it (reproduced in various histories of the IRA). Ironically, the commentary on events that day is largely from those who ended on the other side of the split. In reality, the split dates back to 1939 when the IRA formed a Northern Command. Even afterwards, the Officials referred to a ‘Provisional Alliance’ reflecting the presence of multiple factions rather than two sides. The blurry podium footage seems to be from just before Jimmy’s speech.

Some possible additions to the @IELeftArchive timeline of the Irish Left

The following are some suggested omissions from the Irish Left Archives twentieth century timeline of the Irish Left. The groups below appear to be consistent with those included in the timeline and are in no particular order here.

Irish Citizens Army: Roddy Connolly had wanted to form a Workers Defence Corps in 1929 (the organisation was proscribed in 1931) and Republican Congress temporarily reinvigorated the Irish Citizens Army, with Connolly, his sister Nora Connolly O’Brien and Mick Price all active. The Connolly’s ended up in two competing factions in 1935, with Price on Nora’s side. By 1936 the Irish Citizens Army had faded away (see Hanley, The IRA 1926-36).

Laochra UladhA republican group led by a former member of the IRA’s Northern Command staff, Brendan O’Boyle, active from 1949 to 1955 (see here for more). The group never issued a political programme and O’Boyle also tried to become Chief of Staff of the IRA. Laochra Uladh appears to have largely been a project to pressurise the IRA into mounting operations in the north. O’Boyle may have saw creating a pipeline of weapons and funds as a route to gaining the Chief of Staff post, to simply a kickstart a campaign, or both. O’Boyle was killed on an operation in 1955 marking the end of Laochra Uladh.

Anti-Imperialist League: Active in the early 1930s, included the likes of Maud Gonne, Madame Despard and leading IRA figures. Organised public protests against imperialist events and symbols (see MacEoin, The IRA in the Twilight Years, 1923-48). Despard was involved in various other organisations promoting social justice, feminism and other left agendas, including the Irish Women’s Franchise League, the Women’s Prisoners Defence League and Saor Éire. The latter two were on a lengthy list (see below) of left and republican organisations banned by the Free State government in October 1931, that also included the IRA, Cumann na mBán, the Fianna, the Irish Labour Defence League, the Worker’s Revolutionary PartyIrish Working Farmers’ Committee, Worker’s Defence Corps, Workers Research BureauIrish Tribute League and The Friends of Soviet Russia.  Saor Éire had held its first congress in October 1931 (see below), with no sense of irony Fianna Fáil was to immediately claim it was the real target of the bans.

Official notice of proscription of various republican and left organisations by Free State government in October 1931.
Official notice of proscription of various republican and left organisations by Free State government in October 1931.
First Saor Éire congress, October 1931.
First Saor Éire congress, October 1931.

Irish Republican Brotherhood: This is the name of a group formed in Dublin in 1950-51 and disbanded by Cathal Goulding (see Bowyer Bell, The Secret Army).

Saor Uladh: Liam Kelly’s organisation Fianna Uladh, founded in Tyrone in March 1952 and it’s military grouping, Saor Uladh, active from 1954. Kelly had been expelled from the IRA for mounting unofficial operations. He was elected to Stormont and was appointed to a Seanad seat at the behest of Sean McBride, flagging support for Fianna Uladh/Saor Uladh from Clann na Poblachta (and hinting at a previous McBride project, Saor Éire). Joe Christle’s group that broke from the Dublin IRA in 1955 also aligned itself with Saor Uladh. Gerry Lawless had founded a group calling itself the Irish National Brotherhood and Irish Volunteers, been absorbed into the IRA and then broke alongside Christle. The Christle-Lawless group began mounting operations on the border to try and force the IRA and Saor Uladh into action. In the end, a composite Saor Uladh-Christle-Lawless group mounted attacks along the border. In the north, relations between imprisoned and interned members of these groups and the IRA remained largely amicable. In the Curragh, they were tense. Echoes of these difference were to continue throughout the 1960s (see Bowyer Bell, The Secret Army).

Wolfe Tone Societies: The bicentenary of Wolfe Tones birth saw the founding of the Wolfe Tone Societies to try and find support among parts of the working class community, including those in the north that traditionally voted for unionist candidates. It was initiated from within the republican movement late in 1962. According to Roy Johnston, it seems to have been more likely from the IRA than Sinn Féin, although those involved at an early stage, like Uinsean Mac Eoin, Harry White, Lorcan Leonard and Richard Roche don’t appear to have still been active within the IRA. Known as the Wolfe Tone Bi-Centenary Directories, it was a political project supported by the IRA and Sinn Féin becoming the Wolfe Tone Society in 1964 with a role in the emerging Civil Rights movement (see Johnston, Century of Endeavour). The idea of the Wolfe Tone Society displacing Sinn Féin as the political ally of the IRA was being mooted by 1966 (see Swan, Official Irish Republicanism, 1962-72). Instead the Republican Clubs were formed in 1967, while they are seen as the predecessor of the Workers Party, their history appears more complex as the chair of the Belfast Directorate of Republican Clubs was Jimmy Steele, who was prominent on the Provisional Army Council side of the IRA split in 1969-70.


The Daring Escape from the Crumlin Road Jail

At 8.30 am on Friday 15th January, 1943, Jimmy Steele, Paddy Donnelly, Ned Maguire and Hugh McAteer escaped from A wing in Crumlin Road. In a well planned escape they broke through the roof, descended a rope to the yard and then scaled the perimeter wall in the morning before it got light. Only for a prison officer, Lance Thompson’s, son raising the alarm after seeing McAteer (the last over the wall), a second official escape team of three men would have followed them at 9 am and then the escape route was open to any others that could make it after that. The escape caused a sensation and significant embarrassment to the northern government which offered a £3,000 reward for information leading to the capture of any of the escapees. Details of the escape were published in Republican News in March 1943 and by Hugh McAteer in the Sunday Independent in 1951.

Diagram from Hugh McAteer shwoing where the prisoners exited the roof (black down arrow), direction they came from, and where they scaled the front wall. Published in Sunday Independent, 22nd April 1951.
Diagram from Hugh McAteer showing where the prisoners exited the roof (black down arrow), direction they came from, and where they scaled the front wall. Published in Sunday Independent, 22nd April 1951.
This is the view from the same spot today (note that the outer wall has been raised in height since).
This is the view from the same spot today (note that the outer wall has been raised in height since).

The Dublin edition of the March 1943 Republican News reported:

The Belfast Escape

The following Communique was issued from Northern Command Headquarters in the afternoon of 15th January 1943.

“At 8.30 this morning a daring and successful escape was made from Belfast Prison by four Irish Republican prisoners. The names of the four men are Lt.-General Hugh McAteer, Comdt.-General Seamus Steele, Capt. Patrick Donnelly and Lt. Edward Maguire, and all four reported to Command Headquarters within four hours of leaving the prison.”

Interviewed at Command Headquarters one of the men said: “The plan almost failed when we reached the outer wall. We had miscalculated the height of the gaol wall and the overtopping barbed wire, and the pole for placing the hook on top of the wall proved to be too short. We tried to reach the top of the wall by placing one man on another man’s shoulders, but the height was too great, and thrice the men slipped and fell. For the next attempt a third man climbed on to the second man’s shoulders and reaching up he raised the hook to his utmost, and saw it barely clear the top of the wire and drop securely into position. The success of the escape was then assured.

In his 1986 biography, Harry. written with Uinseann MacEoin, Harry White mentions a poem about the escape published in the March 1943 Belfast edition of Republican News (which was edited by Jimmy Steele at the time, while on the run). I’ve not tracked down a copy of the March 1943 Belfast edition, but I found a poem in an undated issue of Rushlight magazine from the 1980s called The Daring Escape from the Crumlin Road Jail (which I’ve reproduced below). I suspect this is the same poem. The tone is correct for February/March 1943 as Ned Maguire was recaptured in Donegal on 22nd March (after assisting in the mass escape from Derry prison the day before). The poem may even be a first hand account, as internal details appear accurate, such as the escapees being named in the order in which they seem to have gone over the wall, as well as the line “it seemed like a dream“.

The Daring Escape from the Crumlin Road Jail could have been written by Jimmy Steele himself as he published numerous self-penned poems and songs (and wrote much of that Belfast edition in March 1943). His work was published in newspapers and magazines that were banned under the infamous Civil Authorities (Special Powers) Acts (or expected to be banned), so author’s names were usually omitted. A brief list of publications he contributed to, or edited, from the 1930s onwards includes An Síol, Wolfe Tone WeeklyAn tÓglach, War News, The Critic, Republican News (in the 1940s and again in 1970), Resurgent Ulster (also printed as Ulaidh ag Aiséirighe), Glór Uladh, Saoirse and Tírghrá. He also produced a number of publications for the National Graves Association in the 1950s and 1960s containing some poems and songs under his own name that were published anonymously elsewhere.  I’m also pretty sure my granny (Jimmy’s sister-in-law) once told me that he also wrote Our Lads in Crumlin Jail. Billy McKee recalls that Jimmy wrote the original version of Belfast Graves to which verses were later added (and lines from which feature in Brendan Behan’s play Borstal Boy).

The Daring Escape from the Crumlin Road Jail was also popularised as a song. My mother remembers that it was sung to the tune of The Old Orange Flute (I’ve linked a version recorded by The Dubliners). The melody used for The Old Orange Flute is really just an archetypal music hall standard also used for Six Miles from Bangor to Donaghadee (the link is a recording by Richard Hayward from 1948). The versions of The Old Orange Flute by The Dubliners and The Clancy Brothers from the 1970s incorporated lines from both songs. I’ve inserted breaks in the lines of The Daring Escape from the Crumlin Road Jail to create verses that match The Old Orange Flute’s phrasing since it is a better fit. The premise of The Old Orange Flute – a dystopia where inanimate objects acquire political agency all of their own, is found in at least one other comic song – The Fenian Record Player. I’m sure there are others, too.

I’ve reproduced the poem below as it appears in Rushlight. The punctuation doesn’t fit the verses when put to the melody of The Old Orange Flute which does seem to be consistent with it originating as a poem. There is one error – the reward was £3,000 not £500 – and one spelling mistake – ‘dispair’. Obviously, the punctutaion and errors may have been faithfully reproduced, or originated, in Rushlight. There may have been other verses written about this particular escape, but I’ve not come across any others to date (or the March 1943 Belfast edition of the Republican News).

The Daring Escape from the Crumlin Road Jail

Oh gather round boys and I’ll tell you the tale

Of the daring escape from the Crumlin Road Jail,

It was the neatest and sweetest thing you ever saw,

When four Irish rebels broke all Prison law.

Oh, the deed was well planned and I’m sure you’d agree

That if you break out of prison you deserve to be free,

Well it seemed like a dream but in fact it was real,

And one of those lads was our own Jimmy Steele,


And then was Donnelly and the third was Maguire,

And now that they’re free they’ll set England on fire,

The peelers and Specials all trembled with fear,

When they heard that the fourth lad was Hugh McAteer.

The Police were all standing outside the big gates,

When up drove a car and out stepped Dawson Bates,

He said “This is an awful and terrible disgrace,

To let four Irish rebels break out of this place.”


He ordered a search throughout Belfast that day,

And £500 was the price he would pay

If anyone came forward to tell him the tale

Of how four Irish rebels broke out of his Jail.

But no-one came forward, the reward is still there,

The whole British forces went mad in dispair,

They searched every place where they thought they might be,

But the search it was useless … the rebels are free.

Some notes on the prison experience in Crumlin Road in the 1940s.

Here are some notes on the conditions in Crumlin Road by 1943-44. They cover the deaths of seven prisoners, conditions inside the prison and accounts of beatings handed out to individual prisoners over that two year period.

The dismissal of a prison officer and warders from A wing following the report into the January 1943 escape also saw the beginning of what Joe Cahill refers to as Lancelot Thompson’s ‘reign of terror’. That was to last for three years (and Thompson was also to be governor during internment in the 1950s). By 1943 there were around 100 sentenced republican prisoners in A wing. Internees, some of whom had been imprisoned without trial or charges since 1938, numbered in the hundreds. It included prisoners who had been on the Al Rawdah and moved back. Others were interned in Derry jail, while there were also women held in Armagh prison.

In March 1944, Jack Beattie, a Stormont MP for Pottinger, gave an account in Stormont on the 22nd March, detailing conditions in the prison since 1943[1]. Beattie was a regular visitor to the prison and, despite the fact that the IRA prisoners regarded the politician’s interest as purely self-serving, it is clear Beattie’s information was collected directly from A wing in particular. He said that “In the first place, the cells of the men are searched almost daily. Not only that, but the men are stripped periodically and their persons subjected to the indecent searching of the warders, who accompany the searching with vulgar and obscene language. The Governor promised that men would be stripped only once every three weeks. Yet men are being searched twice and three times every week. It should be noted that all these searches are without result…This searching is a violation of the code laid down in the King’s Regulations for the treatment of these long term prisoners…we brought them [long-term prisoners] to our jail on the Crumlin Road, which was unsuitable, and where, the accommodation was not in accordance with the King’s code laid down for the treatment of these men.

Now I want to draw attention to the food. The food rations are considerably less than the authorised allowance. It is badly cooked, almost cold, and is given to prisoners in vessels which bear visible traces of the previous meal. Cocoa and tea have been served in tins with considerable pieces of porridge or boiled turnips stuck to the bottom. Frequently during the past few months, when the orderly came into the Wing with the dinner or supper, he was told to take it back to the Circle, as the warders at the moment were searching the prisoners. This meant that the food was cold when brought back. Well, now, you would have thought that if the humanitarian touch had been there at least this process of search would not have taken place at the hour when the prisoners were to receive their food. Some have suggested that this was done deliberately. I do not know whether that is true or not. It often happens that some of the men cannot eat their porridge. The reason for this is that they cannot digest the half cooked inferior meal.

About nine months ago a man complained to the doctor that the milk was being watered. The doctor told an official to get him a mug of milk which at the moment was just coming into the wing. The official got a mug and skimmed the top of the milk. The prisoner objected, saying the test was not fair. He was brought before the Governor the following day and sentenced to three days bread and water for interfering.

I go on to recreation and exercise. It is deliberately set out in the regulations how these men must get recreation. They must get exercise. I will now show you what exercise these men get. During the winter months the men getting exercise must spend their time in an air-raid shelter which passes for a recreation hall.

This is approximately 20 feet broad by 50 feet long, but 120 men gather in this shelter and there is bound to be overcrowding. The exercise yard is approximately [2]15 yards by 30 yards. It can easily be seen that this yard is not large enough to allow 120 men to exercise in a proper manner. There are no sheds or shelters in this yard to shelter the men from the wind and rain. When it rains the men must await the warder’s judgment as to whether it will continue to rain or not. If he thinks it will not, they must remain outside. If he thinks it will, they are taken inside to exercise in the wing or to sit in the air raid shelter. The men exercise daily from 11 to 12. On Sunday they receive three hours’ exercise, never any more. Except for the time they are at church or chapel, they are locked up for 21 hours every Sunday. Considering the ill-ventilated workshops and the length of time they are locked up in their cells this system of exercise is totally inadequate.

Now in the British prisons to-day and in the prisons throughout the world at least justice is meted out to the prisoners in the grades which I am speaking of. Northern Ireland is the only place in the world where you find cruelty existing to the extent that I have outlined.

Beattie then went on to describe the treatment of one particular prisoner:

One of the prisoners, partially crippled in one leg, has during the past three years been allowed a bucket of hot water daily to bathe his leg, but on 29th February an official put colouring stuff in the water in case, he would use it for any other purpose. He put colouring stuff into the water the man was going to bathe his crippled leg with. Nobody knows what that colouring stuff was. What sort of conduct or treatment – certainly not Christian treatment – is taking place in this particular jail?

He was also scathing of the prison authorities attitude to complaints:

The questions which I have outlined have all been brought to the notice of the authorities, and here is what happened without any of these people reporting the matter to the proper authority. Here we have a man named Charles McCotter who, for reporting, was punished ten times and was put on bread and water eight times. Because he found it humanly impossible to exist under such conditions he took the only way, the legitimate way, of making his report, and because he did that he was punished ten times and placed on bread and water ten times. That is a boy of 24 years of age.

Another case is that of James Kane. He also found the conditions of life so unbearable that he reported eleven times. He was punished eleven times, and was placed on bread and water five times, all for crying out for the justice and treatment for which the law provides.

Then we have another case, that of Edward Dalzell. He reported seven times. He was punished seven times, and he was put on bread and water six times. Again I say people would think that those Gestapo methods of dealing with long term prisoners could be used only in Germany, and yet we find them operating in Northern Ireland. I say now that my statement in London was correct and to the point-that we were more akin to the Nazis in Germany than we were to the democratic world outside it.

Then we have Francis Dunlop who is 22 years of age. He was punished twelve times and put on bread and water seven times for reporting against the unchristian and unlawful method of treatment which is being inflicted upon these people. I will be told that the majority of these people are political prisoners. They are prisoners who have been brought to trial and sentenced, it may be, for political crime, but because it is for political crime there is no justification for the Minister of Home Affairs allowing these things to go on as they are at the moment. Because they are political prisoners cruelty cannot be justified. If they were in any other country in the world they would be graded as political prisoners; in Northern Ireland they are graded as criminals.

Eddie Dalzell and Jim Kane may well have been singled out for their particular treatment as they had been orderlies in A wing on the day of the escape in January 1943. Frank Dunlop had been on the receiving end of ill treatment for a number of years. According to Billy McKee, after the escape in January 1943, the warders selected for duty in A wing, in particular, were chosen for their physicality and brutality. He says that Beattie’s description is accurate for that period and you could expect rough treatment and your cell to be searched and tossed at least twice a week, every week. Tossing the cell – throwing everything onto the floor in a heap – served no purpose other than to humiliate the prisoner. McKee also remembers that you could be, and were, regularly placed on punishment for practically anything and nothing. Geordie Shannon recalled that a prisoner found part of a dead mouse in his porridge and complained. He was given three days bread and water[3].

After the calamities that followed in the wake of defending the Campbell College defendants, the northern government could usually rely on IRA prisoners to refuse to engage with the courts system for redress. Formal complaints to the prison authorities were seen by the IRA as similar to recognising the courts. But that wasn’t always the case with younger prisoners. Bobby Hughes, from Cavendish Street, was one of those arrested at the Clay Pits on the Springfield Road in 1943 (with Jimmy Steele’s nephew Arthur). While on remand in Crumlin Road in the summer of 1943, James Sloan, a warder, struck Hughes in the face, knocked him down and kicked him, then beat him across the back with a leather belt. Another warder, Harper, also beat Hughes on the back of the neck. The two warders also forcibly stripped Hughes. The defence claimed that the treatment had been given because Hughes and other prisoners were whistling, shouting and singing, and, that Hughes had refused to remove his coat or strip and had kicked out at the warders when they tried to strip him. Hughes father brought the case against Sloan but the authorities refused permission for Hughes solicitor to interview any of the six other prisoners who had witnessed the beatings. Despite that, Hughes was still awarded £12 damages by the court. According to Geordie Shannon, the internees in D wing were largely left alone by the prison staff and had political status (although the food and living conditions were still dreadful). The politicals, mainly the prisoners in A wing, were “kicked up to see the governor and kicked back down again” says Shannon[4].

Another measure, not described by Beattie, was the reality of being sentenced to solitary confinement. The solitary cell had nothing at all in it. Once penalised with solitary confiement you didn’t get out at all for the duration of your punishment. At night you were given a mattress and slept on the floor. The diet was a mug of water and four ounces of bread three times a day[5]. To put that in context, four ounces of bread is about 350 calories, not even 20% of recommended daily intake. The use of solitary confinement and the number one diet was commonplace after January 1943.

Official punishment also meant receiving marks that counted against remission. Jimmy had accumulated 200 remission marks during his Treason Felony sentence, adding 40 days to his term in Crumlin Road in 1940.

One cruelty that features in every memoir of the prison in the 1940s was the use of the whip (called the cat, or birch). When the courts sentenced prisoners, they were often, and apparently quite randomly, given an additional punishment of receiving ten or twelve strokes of the whip. This was to be carried out by the prison staff at an unspecified time. In their accounts of A wing in 1943, Joe Cahill and Liam Burke go into detail of how it was administered[6]. Without any notice, and sometimes months after the sentence, the prisoner would be brought to a cell in C wing where he would be stripped to the waist and left there. He would then be brought out through a gauntlet of off-duty prison staff and down to an underground boilerhouse where the prison staff would assemble to watch. There the prisoner would be suspended off the ground tied to metal rings while an unidentifiable warder administered the strokes of the whip, counted out by the governor. The prison doctor would check the prisoner’s heart after each stroke. Liam Burke was told this punishment was being carried out in accordance with instructions from the Ministry of Home Affairs. The birch was regarded as a particularly cruel punishment and deeply resented by the IRA prisoners.

Another, and even more damning, measure of the severity of the prison regime may be taken from another statement made later in Stormont in May 1946[7], this time by Harry Diamond, as Stormont MP for Falls. He stated that: “If any proof is needed about the conduct of the prison warders towards those prisoners over a number of years, there is the fact that seven of those young men who got out died almost immediately as a consequence of the treatment they received, and that others were taken off to lunatic asylums absolutely insane owing to the conditions they endured.” No-one on the Unionist benches denied that this was the case.

The prison authorities in Belfast were usually careful to release prisoners whose health was in terminal decline to their families so that they didn’t die within the prison. Curiously, many republicans who died in this way, such as Pat Nash, Frankie Doherty and Thomas O’Malley (in 1959) aren’t usually included in the republican Roll of Honour for the early 1940s while others, like Jack Gaffney, who died aboard the Al Rawdah, Joe Malone and Terence Perry who died in Parkhurst Prison, John Hinchy who died in Mountjoy, and Charlie O’Hare who died in the Isle of Man internment camp are included. Jimmy, though, does include Doherty, O’Malley and Nash in his song Belfast Graves and his poem In Belfast Town[8]. Some of the young men who were released from Crumlin Road prison to die at home were Richard Magowan, Dickie Dunn, John McGinley, Peter Graham, Mickey McErlean and Bernard Curran[9]. There were also four confirmed cases of tuberculosis (one of which was Richard Magowan).

To take one example, Bernard Curran had been interned in May 1940 and first complained of illness to the medical officer in the summer of 1941. He was sent out to hospital for a minor operation but on his return, received no treatment and the wound kept re-opening for the next six months. It was still discharging when he was transferred to the prison hospital in January 1942. While there, the doctor still did not provide any treatment or bandages and he had to use toilet paper to stop his shirt sticking to the wound. After 28 days in which he didn’t receive any treatment, and even though the wound began to fester, he was returned to his cell. He was among the internees sent to Derry prison in November 1942. From there he was sent to the Derry Union hospital where he was put in isolation, with poor food and hygiene and no reading materials or newspapers. His health declined even further until his unconditional release was ordered and he was carried on a stretcher to a police car and returned to his home. He never recovered and died in October 1945[10].

At least six prisoners ended up in mental institutions, although one prisoner, Charlie McDowell, who built a spaceship from fruit tins to try and escape, and, claimed he had a paste that could dissolve prison bars, surprisingly didn’t end up in care. At least one internee tried suicide and ended up having to be accompanied by Jack McNally in his cell for a time[11].

The following are a couple of documented cases of beatings of prisoners from the 1940s:

On Thursday 7th October 1943, at 12.30[12], Jimmy Steele was in his cell after dinner when two prison officers came to search his cell, Joseph Boyd and William Pyper. As Steele had joined the strip strike immediately upon returning to A wing in August (having escaped in January and been recaptured in May), he had spent most of the time naked and on punishment in his cell. For the couple of weeks after the strike ended, he had experienced the regime that had been in place since his escape in January. When Boyd and Pyper ordered him to strip so they could search him, Steele refused. The refusal brought a serious beating. It was raised in Stormont in July 1944, and he provided a statement on the beating which Harry Diamond read out on 21st May 1946 during a debate on the treatment of prisoners:

At the latter end of September or the beginning of October-I cannot remember the exact date-my cell was visited by two prison officers named Joseph Boyd and William Pyper, for the purpose of searching it. The day was Thursday, the time about 12-30. On entering my cell Boyd approached me and ordered me to strip off my entire clothing. As this was the first occasion on which I had received such an order I naturally refused to obey it, as I deemed it rather humiliating to have to strip under such circumstances.

Upon my refusal to take off my clothing Boyd said to me, “We’ll soon see about that.”

He immediately grasped me by the waistcoat and pulled it off my back. He then threw me down on my back on a mattress which was lying on an iron bedstead about three feet from the ground. In the process of doing so he had managed to pull my shirt up to my head. In this position he then pushed his knee into my chest and pulled the shirt completely off me. After that he pulled me from the bed on to the ground, holding me by the feet in doing so, with the result that my back hit the concrete floor in falling. He then trailed me by both feet along the ground, at the same time pulling the trousers off me, and while doing so he also kicked me on the left side. After this both men left the cell leaving me completely naked. I may mention that Officer William Pyper did not in any way take part in the assault. I was then locked up in my cell until the following day when, at 12 o’clock, I was paraded before the medical officer, Dr. McComb, who examined me. I still bore a mark on my left side from the kick I had received, but the M.O passed me fit for further punishment. At three o’clock on the same day I was paraded before the governor and charged with (1) refusing to obey an order; (2) attempting to assault an officer; (3) threatening an officer; and (4) making false allegations against an officer to the effect that he had kicked me. I admitted No. (1) charge; giving my reasons for same, but I emphatically denied all other charges, and I pointed out that I had actually been kicked. The governor replied that according to the medical officer’s report there were not any marks on me to prove my allegation. I replied that I still bore the mark on my side, and I offered to strip off my shirt, so that he could see the evidence for himself, but he refused my offer and said that he had to accept the officer’s evidence before mine. I was then sentenced to two days’ No. 1 solitary confinement diet. My diet during these two days consisted of four ounces of bread morning and night, whilst at dinner time four ounces of bread and two potatoes were supplied. No liquids were supplied except cold water. All utensils were removed from my cell, except my chamber and drinking water. Even my stool was removed, whilst my bedding, mattress, etc., were removed each morning at 7-30 a m and handed in again at 8 o’clock each night. I was denied all exercise. I may mention that I have been afflicted with a bad chest and a weak heart since boyhood, whilst I have also developed lung trouble since 1936, after a hunger strike in that year. The late Dr. O’Flaherty, Dr. McComb, and his assistant, Dr. Dickie, have all warned me about my weak heart. Before my arrest I had also pleurisy (twice) and congestion of the lungs. The doctors who attended me for same were the late Dr. McLaurin, Antrim Road; Dr. Alex. Dempsey, Clifton Street (April, 1935); Dr. R. McNabb, Donegall Street-(January, 1935, and June, 1940). Also X-rayed in the Royal Victoria Hospital, June, 1940.

Diamond also added that Jimmy had included a footnote that said “…Officer J. Boyd is about 6 ft. 4 in. in height and about 13 st in weight, whilst I am about 5 ft. 3 in in height and 8 st. 6 lbs in weight.” Jimmy wasn’t the only one. Samuel Holden and Dan Rooney also were on the receiving end of beatings.

On Thursday 15th June 1944, Gerry Adams and David Fleming were working beside each other in the shoe shop. As there was no work, Adams went to another prisoner’s bench. That prisoner, Dan Duffy, was a non-political and former British soldier. A warder, Jackson, then ordered Adams into the middle of the floor, saying, “You are raising a storm.” Duffy did as ordered and turned to face the wall and was told to leave. Jackson then ordered Adams to face the wall, which was not a typical order given to prisoners, telling him “I’ll soften you”. Adams refused and was then punched by Jackson while Thompson hit him with his keys. Adams was put on report and ordered to see the doctor. On the way to the doctor, Adams was pushed downstairs by another warder, Noble. A short time later, Jackson was joined by twenty warders including Moore, Kearns, Thompson and the chief, Crowe.

By this time, Adams, David Fleming, Charlie McCotter, Frank Hicks and Kevin Barry McNulty were stood with their backs to the wall outside the doctors office. The warders lined up facing the prisoners and Boyd and Moore ordered them again to face the wall. Boyd and another warder started beating Adams to try and turn him around to face the wall. Boyd started kicking Adams from behind. Foster, Jackson, Moore and Noble started beating Fleming, with McCotter, Hicks and McNulty receiving similar treatment. The prisoners tried to put up resistance, but Adams recalls Fleming, in particular, being badly beaten, with Foster hitting him on the head with his baton until Fleming collapsed, bleeding heavily from a head wound. When Fleming managed to get back to his feet, thirty seconds later, he was dragged into Hugh McAteer’s cell on A1. Among the sound of violence coming from the cell were Fleming’s body hitting the wall, groaning from Fleming and Moore shouting “Take that you republican bastard.”

Adams states that they were then brought to the doctor but he was beaten again by Noble, Moore and Boyd while being returned from A1 to his cell on A3. The beating started again when Adams was being brought down to the face the governor that afternoon. At the grill gate, he was assaulted again by warders Moore and Neeson, with Neeson grabbing him by the hair and hitting him with his knee, to the extent that Adams recalled “…water came from me”. Adams fell to the ground. Moore continued to beat him and Neeson tried to pull him by his hair to force him back up onto his feet. When he was finally brought in front of the governor, Adams was charged with refusing to face the wall. Adams’ punishment was three days’ bread and water and the loss of three months’ privileges. He was barely 18 years of age.

At mid-day, Hugh McAteer returned to his cell to find that “…the west wall of my cell was spattered with blood over a space of 42 square feet… On the north wall, where it joins the west wall, was a large, streaky, blood-stained patch which looked as if a blood-stained head had been pressed against it. The stains remained clearly visible until whitewashed out about a week later.” Fleming also received three days’ bread and water punishment, after which he confirmed to McAteer that he had received a further beating in McAteer’s cell. The prison staff didn’t even acknowledge the blood stains on the cell wall and they were whitewashed over a week later.

[1] See Stormont Hansard for 22nd March 1944 for the full debate.

[2] This must have occurred in June 1943.

[3] McGuffin, Internment, 1973, 139.

[4] McGuffin, Internment, 1973, 139.

[5] Anderson 2002, Joe Cahill: A Life in the IRA, 94.

[6] In Anderson 2002 and MacEoin 1997 The IRA in the Twilight Years

[7] Stormont Hansard, 21st May 1946

[8] Brendan Behan heard Belfast Graves sung in a pub in Belfast and has himself singing the lines about Frankie Doherty in Borstal Boy.

[9] McGuffin, Internment, 1973, p75, also details on Curran were given by Harry Diamond in Stormont on 30th October 1945.

[10] When Harry Diamond related the account of Curran’s death and the deaths of seven internees. William Lowry.

[11] McNally 1989, 91.

[12] On 27th July 1944, a question was asked in Stormont dating this to October.

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