Sporadic outbursts of bomb-throwing: Laochra Uladh’s Belfast campaign, 1950-55.

Laochra Uladh was a republican group led by Brendan O’Boyle which was active up to 1955. When he started Laochra Uladh, republicanism in Belfast (and Ireland in general) was fragmented. Commemorations, operations, arrests and weapons finds often involved people and organisations outside official IRA structures. But just as O’Boyle was acquiring money and arms, so too was the IRA establishing it’s pre-eminence in Belfast and elsewhere. By the end of the Laochra Uladh campaign in 1955, the limited number of its operations was now in contrast to the growing activity of the IRA.

O’Boyle had joined the IRA in Belfast in 1940, was then interned in 1941, escaping from Derry jail in March 1943 only to end up being interned in the south. After his release from the Curragh he moved to Dublin and began a jewellery business. On a business trip to New York in 1949 he made contact with Clann na Gael, the Irish-American republican support group. O’Boyle suggested he had support at home in Ireland and asked for funding and arms for a new campaign. As the Clann was still officially affiliated to the IRA while O’Boyle was not, he ultimately only received qualified support from within the organisation.

O’Boyle had not only been interested in creating his own organisation, though, as he reportedly tried, unsuccessfully, to pressurise younger IRA members into supporting him to be installed as IRA Chief of Staff. Before O’Boyle’s visit to New York, Clann na Poblachta, the political project of Sean McBride and other IRA veterans, had been instrumental in the formal declaration of a republic in the south in 1949. The creation of the vague non-party Anti-Partition League was further sharpening the focus on the north and away from challenging the legitimacy of the authority of the southern government. In the late 1940s and 1950s a series of republican groups had been formed as alternatives to the IRA including an Irish Republican Brotherhood in Dublin in 1950-51, Liam Kelly’s Fianna Uladh in Tyrone in March 1952 (and Saor Uladh from 1954), Raymond Ó Cíanáin’s Arm na Saoirse, Gerry Lawless’ Irish National Brotherhood/Irish Volunteers and Joe Christle’s group in 1955, all in Dublin (most of these are discussed in Bowyer Bell’s The Secret Army: The IRA). These groups were mostly disbanded by, or absorbed into, the IRA. The wider global backdrop of anti-colonial campaigns against Britain, including Palestine, Malaysia, Suez and others were taken as evidence that the methodology advocated by O’Boyle and others could bring success.

In August 1949, O’Boyle spelled out his requirements to those willing to listen in Clann na Gael: $10,000, five hundred Thompsons, rifles, grenades and ammunition and the necessary intelligence and support structures for a campaign against the northern government. The same month a Northern Action Committee was formed in New York to raise funds and procure the arms. The committee included the likes of Paddy Thornbury, a former O/C of the Belfast IRA in the 1920s (these details are largely drawn from Tim Pat Coogan’s account in The IRA). O’Boyle had the right contacts and flair to smuggle weapons into Ireland, despite being under surveillance from the IRA to whom he lost the occasional shipment.

It isn’t entirely clear which actions in Belfast or arrests should be associated with Laochra Uladh. There had been a cluster of bomb attacks on the RUC in 1950, none of which had been organised or authorised by the IRA. This included blasts at the Springfield Road (8/3/50), Roden Street (10/3/50), Kane Street at the Bombay Street/Cupar Street junction (30/3/50) and the Cupar Street/Falls Road junction (2/4/50). In each case a bomb was thrown, injuring RUC Detective-Sergeant Peter Heverin at Springfield Road, a workman at Roden Street, RUC Sergeant Denis Sweeney in Kane Street and another RUC man and workman at Cupar Street (see contemporary newspaper reports). The fragmented landscape of republican politics in Belfast was evident at the Easter Rising commemorations in April 1950, as there were at least three separate events held.

The RUC response to the bomb attacks targeted a number of men including Jim McIlvenny and James Murphy. Then, on 10th April 1950, another home-made canister bomb exploded outside a house in Gibson Street breaking the fanlight and two windows, although this was discounted by police as a practical joke (see Irish Times, 12/4/50). McIlvenny was detained again during a visit by British royals the same year and yet again with Billy McMillen following an incident on the Falls Road. There was also at least one reported armed confrontation that may have involved republicans. In February 1951, after the spate of grenade attacks in 1950 had ended, there was an outbreak of graffiti in Belfast that called for recruits for the IRA for a rising that would take place by Easter that year. In response to these incidents, in early March 1951, the Belfast IRA, at that time under Jimmy Steele as O/C and Joe Cahill as Adjutant, issued a statement denying the involvement of any IRA unit in the bombing or graffiti. It said:

The policy of the IRA does not include sporadic outburst of bomb-throwing or the intimidation of individuals.”

During May 1951, an extraordinary army convention had been held to resolve internal wrangling and confirm the effective leadership of the IRA and Sinn Féin as Tony Magan, Patrick McLogan and Tomás MacCurtain. On paper, coalescing with Sinn Féin looked like the IRA was moving more towards politics and away from military activity. That army convention was immediately followed by a number of attacks by groups outside the IRA, clearly intent on making a claim to the IRA’s military role. In the first, the group calling itself the Irish Republican Brotherhood threw a bomb at the British Embassy in Dublin.

Then, early on the morning of the 28th May, the RUC found a home-made bomb alongside the wall of Cullingtree Road RUC barracks in Belfast. The bomb was moved into the road and examined. It was found that the fuse had actually failed and prevented the bomb detonating. This was the first recognisable attack involving the night-time placing of timed charges against the walls of target buildings. Later attacks using the same method were to be claimed by Laochra Uladh in 1954, suggesting a possible overlap in personnel (if nothing else). Whether Laochra Uladh was also behind the 1950 attacks isn’t now clear, although it is possible that all effectively were associated with the same pool of individuals. The Cullingtree Road bomb may also have been intended as a demonstration to O’Boyle’s Northern Action Committee backers in New York as well as conveniently open defiance of the IRA’s March statement and its apparent strategic move towards politicisation at the May army convention.

The re-organised IRA began giving directives on organisation to its units in May 1951 and a call for subscriptions to purchase arms for the IRA went out in Belfast just before the end of May, countering the idea that the likes of the Irish Republican Brotherhood or Laochra Uladh were needed to take on its military role. On the 30th May 1951, in advance of another British royal visit, the RUC interned thirteen leading republicans for seven days under the Special Powers Act as a ‘security precaution’ (eg see press for 31/5/51). Those arrested included Jimmy Steele, Joe Cahill. Joe McGurk, Liam Burke, Paddy Doyle and Jack McCaffrey. Sinn Féin had organised public protests against the royal visit, but to make it clear it hadn’t left the stage, a statement was issued (and reported in the press) under the by-line of the Adjutant, Belfast HQ, IRA:

In connection with the forthcoming visits of the King and Queen, we wish to make our position clear. We resent this visit but we are not prepared to take any action at the moment. If the police carry out any further raids and arrests and give unnecessary provocation to the nationally-minded people, we shall be forced to take action to stop these raids. We call upon all Irish-minded people to boycott this proposed visit and to support us in any action we deem fit.

The thirteen republicans interned in Crumlin Road refused to accept the regulations being imposed on them (some, like Steele, Burke and Cahill had only being released from long confinements in the prison the year before). They were held in isolation from each other for the whole week until the next Monday, 4th June, when they were released (eg see Irish Press, 5/6/1951). That evening, Jimmy Steele and Joe Cahill issued a public statement on behalf of themselves and Liam Burke, Paddy Doyle, Joe McGurk and Jack McCaffrey with a direct challenge to the Stormont Minister of Home Affairs:

We challenge you, Brian Maginness, to produce the evidence on and to state publicly:

(a) The nature of the act which you suspect was about to be committed [the Minister’s detention order stated that they were persons suspected of being about to act in a manner prejudicial to the peace and to the maintenance of order]:

(b) The evidence upon which suspicion was grounded and the person or persons from whom such evidence emanated;

(c) Why, if such evidence was available, was not that specific charge framed against us?

The nature of your reply, if any, should determine not only the future of our own liberties, both physical and economic, but the liberties of all man and women working towards the ideal of a free, independent Irish Republic for the thirty-two counties.

There was no answer forthcoming from Stormont, but there was from the IRA the same day as the first in a new campaign of official operations began with a raid in Derry (on 5th June 1951). Publishing of the IRA’s newsletter to its volunteers, An tÓglach, then re-started in July 1951. On 26th July, 1951, an apprentice electrician, Patrick Fagan, was bound over for three years due to his age (17) having been found with two revolvers, a Colt automatic pistol and 31 rounds of ammunition as well as documents confirming the Belfast IRA was organised, re-arming and training in line with the directives after the May army convention (see Irish Times 9/6/51; and 26/7/51). A Belfast-based republican newspaper, Resurgent Ulster, was also launched and its first edition issued in November 1951.

A number of individuals, like Patrick Cunningham, who was sentenced to four years penal servitude at the start of 1952 and Frank McKenna who was found in possession of two Thompsons and ammunition in October 1952 don’t feature in the relevant lists of republican prisoners from this time and so may have been associated with Laochra Uladh. According to Eamon Boyce, around 1952 there were only about half a dozen active IRA men in Belfast with no arms or ammunition (see Bryson’s The Insider, page 431). The extent of the fragmentation in Belfast was evidently a concern of the likes of Jimmy Steele and Joe McGurk in late 1952 as the first birthday issue of Resurgent Ulster, in November 1952, makes explicit references to a need for unity. Steele’s editorial calling on republicans “…to restore that splendid unity which existed during those glorious yeas from 1917 to 1921” and “…to resume the struggle from where we left off when that Unity was destroyed by the Signing of the Treaty.

From April 1953, Resurgent Ulster was produced in a more professional looking format, alongside the start of preparations for the 150th anniversary of Robert Emmet’s rebellion. In Belfast, the commemoration committee encompassed a wide breadth of nationalist organisations, including the GAA, National Graves Association, the Pre-Truce IRA Association and the Gaelic League. The IRA had also established hegemony over other republican and nationalist organisations in being visible in the lead role for a unified 1953 Easter Commemoration (in contrast to the three separate commemorations in 1950). The IRA and Sinn Féin again publicly clashed with the northern government over another British royal visit in May 1953.

On the night of the 19th June a loud explosion rocked Cullingtree Road RUC barracks between 12.30 and 1 am. RUC Constables on duty rushed out to find a hole in the wall of the barracks facing onto Murdoch Street. The bomb had been placed in a ventilator beneath a window in the wall. This was the same method, a bomb set on a timer to detonate during the night that had been used against Cullingtree Road Barracks on 28th May 1951 and was to be used repeatedly by Laochra Uladh in 1954 and 1955. Harry Diamond, the Stormont MP for Falls, claimed he had found no proof that republicans were responsible for the blasts which he said were carried out by the RUC or B Specials as a pretext for the subsequent repression. That may indicate that Laochra Uladh, if it was responsible, was never more than a small group.

Damage done by the blast in Cullingtree Road.
Damage done by the blast in Cullingtree Road on 19th June 1953.

In the days following the blast, Billy McMillen and Liam McBurney were up in court over incidents in May and received several months in prison. During this period the IRA were also successfully carrying out other arms raids, including in Belfast (e.g. see Anderson’s 2002 biography of Joe Cahill, A Life in the IRA).

Judging by the role taken at the Robert Emmet commemorations that took place in October 1953 and the Easter commemorations in 1954, the primacy of the IRA among republican groups in Belfast was confirmed. Outside the city, Liam Kelly had been elected to Stormont for Fianna Uladh in October 1953 and had been arrested in December, receiving a year in prison for making a seditious speech. Sean McBride was then instrumental in getting Kelly a seat in the southern senate in 1954 and it seems the Fianna Uladh group had acquired some high level political backing in the south.

By the summer of 1954, having received weapons and up to $10,000 from Clann na Gael, there must have been pressure on O’Boyle to mount a more substantive campaign, particularly after the IRA’s successful raid on Gough barracks in Armagh in June. On Tuesday 17th August, a bomb was placed at the headquarters of the Royal Artillery on the Antrim Road in Belfast. The bomb had a timer and was packed with high explosives. The British Queen, Elizabeth was due to visit Belfast that day. The RUC searched the Royal Artillery’s premises but found no trace of the bomb or evidence of its impact after detonation. On the Wednesday, a caller to the Evening Herald’s office in Dublin claimed that members of Laochra Uladh had planted the bomb in protest against the royal visit. They claimed that the bomb was “timed to explode at 3.30 am to avoid loss of innocent life.” On 11th October 1954, there was an explosion in the grounds of Cloona House in Dunmurry which again carried all the hallmarks of Laochra Uladh. A bomb, set on a timer, exploded on a path adjacent to the house. The house was occupied by Lt-Gen, Sir John Woodall, the Officer Commanding for the British Army in the north. Woodall was at home at the time but was uninjured.

In the October issue of Resurgent Ulster, the IRA leadership in Belfast was highly critical of comments made by Liam Kelly in Tralee which were taken to denigrate northern republicans. By this time Kelly was publicly claiming to be building up an army of his own to be used “when the time came” (eg see Irish Times 25/11/54). Kelly was now, too, in direct competition with the IRA. On October 17th, the IRA, mainly volunteers from Dublin and Cork, had mounted an arms raid in Omagh which led to the capture of eight of those involved. Their trial ran through the news in November and December of 1954, with some then standing in the upcoming Westminster elections in May 1955. The public disclosure of arms raids by the IRA went some way to undermining the perception being promoted by Fianna Uladh (and the actions of Laochra Uladh) that the IRA was inactive and, more so, hinted at preparations for a forthcoming IRA offensive. The IRA volunteers captured in Omagh remained in the public eye as they became a significant focus of attention in 1955, ironically, drawing out electoral support for Sinn Féin in the May elections.

Meanwhile, the Laochra Uladh campaign continued. A report given to the press in Dublin on 8th November 1954, claimed that the organisation had planted another timer-bomb on the night before. On this occasion, the target was stated to have been the British Ordnance Depot in the former airfield at Long Kesh. The British Army dismissed the report and denied that this incident ever took place. Laochra Uladh then mounted another attack on December 14th 1954 when two loud explosions were heard during the night, at 1.30 am and 1.45 am. The source of the first wasn’t clear but the latter was clearly at Jackson’s Road alongside Palace Barracks in Holywood. In the morning it was found that gelignite had been placed against the barrack railings and a grass bank (eg see press on 15/12/54). When they exploded there was little significant damage.

Following a series of arguments, Billy McMillen and others had left the IRA in 1953 and were later to link up with Liam Kelly’s newly activated Saor Uladh group. The Belfast IRA leadership felt that a suspected informer in Belfast, hinted at in the 1951 statement in June 1951, had been one of the people who had left with McMillen. Then, on 22nd December 1954, the RUC mounted a targeted search in which they found revolvers, grenades and ammunition in an entry to the rear of Oakman Street in the Beechmount area off the Falls Road (eg see Irish Times 23/12/54). According to Joe Cahill, a review of the incident in 1955 suggested that someone at a senior level in Belfast must have given the information to the RUC (Sean Kearney has subsequently claimed the suspected informer was the Intelligence Officer of the Belfast battalion). While Bowyer Bell states that the Belfast battalion began to decline in 1954, (eg in The Secret Army: The IRA, page 340), given Cahill’s suspicions, it may simply have been that recruitment and training in the Belfast IRA was unconsciously slowed to a halt while the threat of an informer hung over the organisation in the city. In 1955, again there was a single Easter commemoration, with other organisations participating under the leadership of the IRA. Jimmy Steele gave the oration:

The hour of decision is at hand for all of who believe in Republican ideals, and, we go forward with quiet confidence to being able to make Ireland free from British aggression. In no circumstances must there be any deviation from the objective of organising the people of Ireland in a full-scale campaign against the British forces of occupation.

Clearly, the IRA was not going to cede ground to either Saor Uladh or Laochra Uladh.

Perhaps under pressure due to the lack of action, on Saturday 2nd July 1955, Laochra Uladh mounted a further attack. This time the intended target was the telephone exchange at Stormont. The odd nature of Laochra Uladh is shown by Brendan O’Boyle’s choice of companions for the attack. Originally, he was to be accompanied by a couple who were neighbours of his in Dublin. At the last moment, his wife, Carmel, took the place of the wife in the couple and the three travelled to Belfast in a newly-imported car O’Boyle had borrowed from a car dealer called George Whelan. When they reached the Belmont Road the neighbour and O’Boyle’s wife Carmel got out of the car and walked up the road.

O’Boyle had 1lb of high explosives and a detonator on the floor in front of the passenger seat. He appears to have been bent over the explosive device, priming it to make it ready, when it detonated prematurely. The car roof and passenger side doors were blown off, scattering debris over a 30 m radius. The blast blew off O’Boyle’s right hand and right foot and reduced his face to a pulp. Carmel and the neighbour were close enough to the car for Carmel to have been injured by the blast.

William Ferns, the gate lodge keeper at nearby Victoria Girls Home was first on the scene and found O’Boyle gasping and moaning. This continued for a few moments before O’Boyle died. The driver and conductor of a passing trolleybus also arrived very quickly and they noticed Carmel, bleeding from the face, being led away by the neighbour who was telling her “Come on now, you will be alright. Don’t look back.” Carmel went straight to O’Boyle’s mothers house and, from there to hospital where she was arrested. The neighbour managed to return to Dublin whereas Carmel was later released without charge (eg see Irish Times 4/7/55).

The Laochra Uladh campaign died with O’Boyle. The main beneficiary seems to have been Liam Kelly’s Saor Uladh to whom the Northern Action Committee switched allegiance after O’Boyle’s death. Saor Uladh appears to have received around $5,000 and gained access to the arms received by Laochra Uladh. It was to remain active during the 1956-62 Operation Harvest campaign after which it was largely absorbed back into the IRA.

There was no lasting enmity between O’Boyle and his former colleagues in Belfast. In 1966, when Jimmy Steele and the National Graves Association produced Antrim’s Patriot Dead, O’Boyle was given an entry, although he was stated to have ‘severed his connections‘ and was carrying out what it describes as ‘unofficial operations‘.

Brendan and Carmel O'Boyle on their wedding day.
Brendan and Carmel O’Boyle on their wedding day.


The banning of An Phoblacht, January 1926.

On 7th January 1926 the northern government made possession of An Phoblacht an offence under Regulation 26 of the Civil Authorities (Special Powers) Act. The dual purpose of censorship and criminalisation was to provide the northern government with a recurring method of repressing political opposition, starting as soon as An Phoblacht was banned.

The publication of An Phoblacht had started again from June 18, 1925 and was, at that time, the sole official republican newspaper in circulation. It was published weekly from 12 St Andrew Street in Dublin and was then edited by Patrick Little. By January of 1926, An Phoblacht had come to the attention of the Home Affairs department of the northern government and it was banned for a year from the 11th January (the ban was renewed, annually, up to 1945).

The first significant case relating to An Phoblacht arose on the 20th January during routine searches of letters and packages that had been posted in the Free State (see PRONI H.828/2531 and contemporary newspapers). A package containing 110 copies of An Phoblacht intended for Cumann na mBán was found and seized by the Post Office (under Post Office regulations). The package had been addressed to Mr James Steele, 57 New Lodge Road. A number of short-lived republican publications like Éire, The Irish Nation, Poblachta na hÉireann and Sinn Féin had been banned between March 1924 and January of 1925. Possession of a copy exposed the owner to the possibility of facing prosecution under the Civil Authorities (Special Powers) Act. But the exact protocols to deal with illegal publications under the Special Powers Act weren’t always clear. When the publication was intercepted in the post – could the intended recipient be prosecuted for someone else sending them a copy of an illegal publication? And if an illegal publication was seized by the Post Office the Special Powers Act might not even be applicable. This type of issue absorbed the attention of the northern government in early 1926.

The future direction a case against Jimmy Steele might take wasn’t immediately clear. In the interim, the obvious response was for the RUC to search the address. A melodramatic secret Department of Home Affairs memo of the 23rd January states:

Secret Memo: 23.1.26 (20042)

Subject: Search of 57, New Lodge Road 

Information from a reliable source has been received that copies of the newspaper “An Phoblacht” prohibited from circulation in Northern Ireland is being received at 57, New Lodge Road, for circulation to the members of Cummna-na-mBhan (sic).

The occupiers of this address are named Steele, whose sympathies are well known to favour the IRA.

Please have a careful search of this house carried out to-day (Saturday) at about 3.30 pm if possible for any copies of the papers names, or other seditious documents.

Please report result of search.

Clearly, the department of Home Affairs was at pains to appear in the know, even to the RUC and its own employees since it doesn’t reveal the mundane details of the circumstances of the discovery of the copies of An Phoblacht. The specified timing for the search, about 3.30 pm, implies that Jimmy Steele was under surveillance, if not being directly informed on, but it could be pure chance to also reinforce the impression that the northern government was acting on intelligence rather than good fortune. Seemingly, it badly felt the need to try and impress its own employees. The memo gives the clear impression that the Department of Home Affairs went in for melodrama and presenting itself as ‘in the know’.

Unsurprisingly, the sympathies of the whole family, the memo observed, ‘are well known to favour the IRA’. Jimmy had joined the North Queen Street slua of Fianna na hEireann in 1920, been arrested in 1923 and imprisoned for three months as a 16 year old in 1924, when he was arrested alongside Mary Donnelly of Cumann na mBán. His brother Bill and other family members had been active in the IRA during 1920-22 in Belfast. Cumann na mBán and Na Fianna were active with the IRA in the re-organisation in Belfast that was kick-started by Joe McKelvey’s funeral at the end of 1924 and given added importance by the failure of the Boundary Commission at the end of 1925. Jimmy Steele had joined the IRA in 1925. IRA volunteers in the north of the city were part of an independent unit, and Steele appears to have been liaising with Cumann na mBán in Belfast, whose membership at the time is presumably reflected in the 110 copies that were sent to him.

As directed in the memo, a search was carried out the same day (Saturday 23rd January). Between 3 and 4 pm in the afternoon, RUC Constables Blackburn, Porter, Clarke and Cremin arrived at Jimmy’s aunt Mary Ellen’s shop at 57 New Lodge Road. The only people in the house at the time were Mary Ellen and Jimmy’s youngest brother Dan. When they entered the house, Constable Blackburn asked Mary Ellen if there were any copies of An Phoblacht in the house. She said there wasn’t as she didn’t sell newspapers.

Constable Blackburn then informed her that they were going to search the house for copies of An Phoblacht.

When she was asked if she minded, Mary Ellen said “Not in the slightest.

When the RUC searched the shop and house, they found five copies of An Phoblacht under a cushion on a seat in the kitchen. They showed them to Mary Ellen and Dan who both denied all knowledge of them. The issues found under the cushion were dated 25th December 1925, 1st January 1926, 8th January 1926 and there were two copies dated 15th January 1926. The banning order for An Phoblacht only applied from 11th January, so technically only the issue dated 15th January 1926 could be deemed as illegal. The RUC Constables confiscated all the copies of An Phoblacht and returned to their barracks, despite not having talked to Jimmy. Constable Blackburn submitted a report on the search which was forwarded to the Minister of Home Affairs for further instructions.

On the 26th January, Major Shewell wrote to the City Commissioners Service to advise them that the 110 copies of An Phoblacht had been seized by the Post Office. As they hadn’t actually been seized under the Civil Authorities (Special Powers) Act, Shewell sought advice on their disposal. This raised a problem for the Ministry of Home Affairs. Technically, no offence had been committed since the Post Office had seized the copies whilst in the Post Office’s possession (since they were in transit). As they weren’t in Jimmy’s possession, nor was the sender resident in the area under the control of the Northern government, they had no guilty party to prosecute.

The lack of a victim to repress clearly irked the northern government. Someone in the City Commisioners Service office then added a note to Shewell’s minute suggesting that they relieve the Post Master of responsibility for this area so that seizures, and prosecutions, could be made under the Special Powers Act in future. The note suggested there should be a parallel with how possession of firearms was treated under the Special Powers Act. Shewell received advice from the Ministry for Home Affairs on the 29th January, ordering that the 110 copies of An Phoblacht be destroyed. The Minister of Home Affairs, R Dawson Bates, signed the order on the next day. Bates secretary also wrote to the Inspector General of the RUC on the 1st February saying “Will you please report what is known concerning the address?

Shewell’s report said:

Report (Minute)

On 23-1-26 the police searched premises at 57 New Lodge Road Belfast of which the occupier is Miss Mary Steele (aged 50) who carries on a small grocery and confectionary business. Her 2 nephews James Steele (18 yrs) and Daniel Steele (14 10/12 years) live in the house with her.

The police asked Miss Steele whether there were any copies of “An Phoblacht” in the house. She said there was not as she did not sell papers. On searching the house 5 copies of this paper were found under a cushion on a seat in the kitchen. 1 dated 25/12/25, 1 dated 1/1/26, 1 dated 8/1/26 and 2 dated 15/1/26. Miss Steele denied all knowledge of them. Her nephew Daniel also denied all knowledge. James Steele was not in the house at the time. The police believe that Miss Steele knew nothing of these papers and that probably they were brought there by James Steele.

IG [Inspector General] 73 Submits the case for instruction.

On the 2nd February Shewell went further, offering guidance on how they might proceed. He pointed out that while An Phoblacht was banned from the 11th January, Jimmy was guilty of possession. Shewell went on to write a note encapsulating the creative bureaucracy that underpins repression: “Although there seems no evidence of ‘circulation’ presumably the possession would constitute an offence under Sect 2 (2) CA SP Act74 as an “an act preparatory to” a breach of the Order.” This is the relevant text from the Act:

The schedule of the Civil Authorities (Special Powers) Act include sections on the banning of newspapers:

25. No person shall by word of mouth or in writing, or in any newspaper, periodical, book, circular, or other printed publication —

(a) spread false reports or make false statements; or

(b) spread reports or make statements intended or likely to cause disaffection to His Majesty, or to interfere with the success of any police or other force acting for the preservation of the peace or maintenance of order in Northern Ireland; or

(c) spread reports or make statements intended or likely to prejudice the recruiting or enrolment of persons to serve in any police or other force enrolled or employed for the preservation of the peace or maintenance of order in Northern Ireland, or to prejudice the training, discipline, or administration of any such force; and no person shall produce any performance on any stage, or exhibit any picture or cinematograph film, or commit any act which is intended or likely to cause any disaffection, interference or prejudice as aforesaid, and if any person contravenes any of the above provisions he shall be guilty of an offence against these regulations.

If any person without lawful authority or excuse has in his possession or on premises in his occupation or under his control, any document containing a report or statement the publication of which would be a contravention of the foregoing provisions of this regulation, he shall be guilty of an offence against these regulations, unless he proves that he did not know and had no reason to suspect that the document contained any such report or statement, or that he had no intention of transmitting or circulating the document or distributing copies thereof to or amongst other persons.

26. The civil authority may by notice prohibit the circulation of any newspaper for any specified period, and any person circulating or distributing such newspaper within such specified period shall be guilty of an offence against these regulations

The part of the letter where it says “an act preparatory to” was underlined by JRM (the judge John R Moorhead) on the 2nd February and marked ‘Yes’. Moorhead then directed that a prosecution should be brought. This was authorised by ‘AWD’ on the same day. In a memo written the next day, there was an instruction to Inspector O’Beirne of the RUC to prosecute Jimmy Steele under the Special Powers Act. The instruction was signed EWS (Shewell).

On 15th February Inspector General RUC reported that on 3rd of February, Steele was summoned to appear before the Belfast Summons Court on 11th but failed to appear. A warrant was then issued for his arrest and he was brought to court. Solicitor John Semple Osborne represented Steele at the court and entered a guilty plea on his behalf (given that IRA members typically refused to recognise the court, to enter a guilty plea was unusually pragmatic). When asked by the court how the issues of An Phoblacht had come into his possession, Osborne noted that he was a newsagent and habitually kept papers, in this case copies of An Phoblacht. Osborne went on to inform the court that he had those copies of the journal in his possession out of curiosity. The court was not impressed and Steele got a 40s fine (two pounds) or a month imprisonment.

Following Jimmy Steele’s case, the possession of banned publications was to become a favoured method of imprisoning political opponents of the northern government, including some left wing activists. Mainly, though, it was to be used against republicans. As well as An Phoblacht, the list of publications to be banned through to the 1970s included newspapers such as An Síol, The Critic, War News, Republican News, Resurgent Ulster, Glor Uladh and others produced by the Belfast IRA and now only known by a handful of surviving copies, mainly buried in files in PRONI.

The Campbell College raid trials, 1936.

The Belfast IRA’s attempt to raid the OTC Armoury in Campbell College on 27th December 1935 had ended in exchanges of gunfire with the RUC inside and outside the Hope family’s gate lodge home, a foot chase through the grounds and adjoining streets, the arrest of IRA volunteer Eddie McCartney and the wounding of RUC Constable Ian Hay. Immediately, further arrests followed and, whilst the Belfast IRA staff mulled over the possibility of an informer, they and the northern government squared up to each other across a court room and a case in which pretty much everyone lied through their teeth.

On the Saturday morning after the Campbell College raid[1], Eddie McCartney was charged in the Police Court with illegal possession of a revolver and twelve rounds of ammunition with intent to endanger life. The court was presided over by Resident Magistrate, PJ O’Donoghue and the case against McCartney was made by District Inspector Geelan. McCartney was also now charged with possession of an explosive substance[2].

First off, Sergeant John Connolly gave evidence against McCartney. He said he had been on duty with other police at 8.30 pm in Hawthornden Road when he heard shots from the gate lodge. He said he then saw seven men together at the main entrance, a group which included McCartney. When the RUC approached the gate, two ran towards the city direction and five away from the city.

At that point, McCartney (who, up to then, was following IRA convention and simply ignoring proceedings) interrupted the proceedings saying: “That’s a lot of lies; there were only three of us.

McCartney then turned to Connolly and shouted: “What are you sitting there telling lies for?

But Connolly continued with his evidence: “I called on them to halt and they opened fire with revolvers. We returned the fire and pursued them. I held up the accused with my revolver while two constables gripped him, and I ordered him to put up his hands. He did so. He had no weapon in his hands. A fully loaded six-chambered revolver and six rounds of ammunition were found upon him. He made no statement.

The court clerk asked if McCartney had anything to say and he replied: “I refuse to recognise this court, but I want to ask questions.” McCartney clicked his heels and came to attention, then did an about turn, before leaving the dock. He was remanded to appear in court the next Friday (3rd January 1936).

That evening the RUC carried out numerous raids including houses and premises on the Falls Road, and on the Saturday night, in several public houses. Given that Connolly had inflated the number present at the gate, the suspicion was that the northern government would use the raid as a pretext to haul in a large number of republicans and intern them for a few months (such as happened in 1933). In one case, three plain clothes RUC men called at the home of Bernard Rooney in Thompson Street. Rooney was an IRA Second Lieutenant. Rooney had joined the Fianna around 1929 and in September 1931, he and his brother Patrick were among a Fianna slua from Ballymacarett who were arrested for suspected drilling in the Castlereagh Hills. He and Patrick spent a week in Belfast Jail but were released without charge. Since then he had been listed as a suspected republican[3].

He was brought straight to Mountpottinger Barracks and detained there for the night. While there he was questioned about the Campbell College raid and put into an identification parade. Billy Hope, and his wife both failed to pick him out from the identification parade. On the Monday, Rooney was to be brought in front of the police court. Despite not being picked out during the identification parade, he was still charged with having a revolver and ammunition in his possession. Whether Billy Hope and his wife couldn’t, or hadn’t been able to, identify Rooney, isn’t clear (nor whether Rooney was actually present at Campbell College). But Rooney was detained in the Belfast Jail at Crumlin Road, all the same, as an RUC constable, Hopper, had testified against him and this was deemed sufficient evidence to hold him.

The Sunday papers were full of stories about the raid. Constable Hay was 45 years old and married with one child. He had been in the RIC prior to the formation of the RUC and had served as a police officer in Belfast for 14 years[4]. As Hay had been wounded a number of times, he was still in the Royal Victoria Hospital and had had an operation to remove two bullets, one from his right and one from his back. On the Sunday, the Belfast Commissioner of Police asked for information about a party of 8 young men who travelled on a Belmont tram from High Street out to Hawthornden Road, leaving the city centre at 8.10 pm[5]. This was widely reported in the press on the following Monday.

By the Monday the Belfast IRA staff and members of the unit involved in the raid were still in hiding to avoid the various swoops and arresting parties. Detention under the Civil Authorities (Special Powers) Act could mean being held up to four weeks, regardless of involvement or knowledge of the Campbell College raid, and refusing to answer questions put to you by a magistrate could then mean two months in jail (for not answering questions put to you by a magistrate). The IRA was  also getting nervous about what had transpired on the night. How had so many RUC men happened to be in the vicinity?

As part of IRA procedure, the Ulster No 1 Area Adjutant Jimmy Steele had to organise interviews with the various members who had participated in the Campbell College raid to prepare a report which was then sent on to the IRA’s Adjutant-General at GHQ in Dublin, Jim Killeen (Killeen was deputise as A/G since the actual A/G Donal O’Donoghue was  serving a short prison term in Dublin). In this case the report would be more significant than usual and, despite the big RUC operation it would have to be done quickly in case more members of the unit got arrested.

The Belfast staff began their analysis of the raid. It wasn’t clear from the statements given by the RUC in court whether the raid had failed through bad luck, or whether someone had tipped off the RUC. McCartney had been arrested at the scene by the RUC who were already there, either in waiting, or simply by accident. The Irish Press was reporting that the arms had been moved from the college prior to the raid, causing serious anxiety among the IRA on both sides of the border[6]. As the proposal to raid Campbell College had originally come from GHQ, this partly explained some of the nervousness about the report in Dublin. The Commandant General of Ulster No 1 Area, Tony Lavery, asked Joe Hanna, as his Director of Intelligence, to check out the truth behind the statements that had been made just after the raid saying the arms had been moved from Campbell College in advance. Hanna told Lavery that his sources confirmed that the arms had not been shifted[7]. More would become clear after Rooney was up in court on the Tuesday. Would the court, or even the RUC, dismiss the evidence given and drop the charges?

On Tuesday morning, Constable Hopper gave evidence that he had picked Rooney out of an identification parade as one of the party of men who had approached the gate lodge on Hawthornden Road. As Rooney was an IRA man he was bound by Army Standing Order 24, which forbade recognition of the court, even asking questions about evidence that was being given was frowned upon. But Rooney was so incensed by Hoppers evidence, he asked if he could ask Hopper questions to prove “…he was telling nothing but lies”.

Rooney began: “What was I wearing?

Hopper: “The same clothes you have on in court.

Rooney (to the court): “The first time this witness recognised me under a lamp was in Mountpottinger Barracks on Saturday night.

Hopper: “I never saw this man in Mountpottinger Barracks at any time.

Rooney: “You were in the barracks on Saturday night when I was brought in.

The Magistrate then interrupted Rooney, saying he could give evidence at the proper time and must now confine himself to asking questions. “It is useless asking anything,” said Rooney (it isn’t actually clear from  surviving sources whether Rooney was even involved in the raid).

By the Tuesday, it was now clear that RUC did intend to press the charges against Rooney and also that they were going to perjure themselves in doing so. With a remand hearing scheduled for the Friday, the Belfast staff had to make a quick decision about what to do next. Rooney was in the IRA and so was bound by Standing Order 24. But he was a young man with a young family. The RUC were going to give false evidence that would see him convicted and receive a heavy sentence of, at least, several years imprisonment. McCartney, though, had been caught red-handed.

Direction was sought from GHQ via Michael Traynor, the Communications Officer. The message was clear, those arrested would have to conform to the policy of non-recognition of the courts as set out in IRA Standing Order No. 24. According to Traynor, the Belfast IRA staff believed if they “let them away with this, they’ll have the whole crowd of us in jail.[8]”

Despite the direction from GHQ, Tony Lavery [9], authorised his Director of Finance, Liam Mulholland, to organise the funding for Rooney’s defence. Lavery had his own reasons to have Rooney defended in court. In trials involving republicans the RUC had little experience of being cross-examined. It was expected that defendants would conform with IRA Standing Orders and simply not recognise the court. So the RUC was relatively inexperienced in putting cases together and didn’t expect to have their evidence probed by a solicitor in an open court. But Lavery wanted to flush out enough details to decide if there was an informer and, as he saw it, an open court was the only way to do that. During that week the plan was laid, Lavery would defy GHQ and provide Rooney with a defence. His solicitor would challenge the evidence given, get Rooney off, and secondly, discover if the RUC were lying in wait at Campbell College.

On Friday, the 3rd of January, McCartney and Rooney were brought in front of O’Donoghue again. McCartney continued to refuse to recognise the court. To the surprise of those present, Rooney recognised the court and was represented by a solicitor, Bernard Campbell. Acting for Rooney, Campbell addressed the court when the charge was put to Rooney: “It is a clear case of mistaken identity.

O’Donoghue, turning to RUC Inspector Geelan, remarked: “Some evidence should be brought against this man, since none has yet been brought.” Geelan responded by referring to the evidence given by Hopper the previous Tuesday. O’Donoghue agreed that this was evidence, whether it proved the charge or not. Campbell then requested to cross-examine Hopper but didn’t get the chance. O’Donoghue remanded McCartney and Rooney for another week. Campbell’s real cross-examination and, any evidence of an informer for the Belfast IRA staff, would have to wait.

As reports of the trial spread, GHQ became increasingly irate about Rooney being defended in court. Having been so unequivocal in its stance over recognition of the courts and abstentionism on either side of the border, Rooney being defended left GHQ, senior IRA men and supporters feeling they were open to ridicule from their Free State counterparts (and at an awkward time with a new abstentionist political project, Cumann Poblachta na hÉireann, under development). At a meeting of the Army Council it was discussed and agreed that it would be best if Rooney read out a statement to the court to the effect that he no longer wished to be defended.

But the delay in the trial reaching court dragged on. Rooney and McCartney were remanded again on the 10th January and appeared in court again on the 17th. On the 17th January, Campbell challenged the courts refusal to even bail Rooney pointing out that it was a great injustice to refuse to bail a man who was wrongly arrested. McCartney, who had ignored the court until then, even broke his silence during the proceedings insisting that: “Previous to my coming here I did not know this defendant (Rooney). He was not with me on the night of December 27. I did not know him until I saw him in prison.” However, McCartney was also anxious to make clear that he hadn’t exactly gone soft: “In making this statement, I do not change my attitude to the Court.” P.J. O’Donoghue, the Resident Magistrate, dismissed McCartney’s statement: “You have already rejected the Court as not being fit to try you. You cannot do two things that are contradictory at once.

He again remanded the two men for another week, by which time the RUC insisted they would have the case completed. The day after the hearing, McCartney’s words were widely reported in the press, making GHQ even twitchier in case McCartney too recognised the court to help Rooney fight his case. On the 20th January, the Adjutant-General of GHQ, Jim Killeen, wrote to Tony Lavery in his capacity as Commandant of No. 1 Division in the Ulster Area stating that the Army Council had ordered that legal aid to Rooney was to be withdrawn. From this point on, the stakes were getting increasingly high as Lavery was now guilty of disobeying a direct order from GHQ.

The next Friday, the 24th came and went and McCartney and Rooney were remanded again. The main explanation given for the delay in the presentation of the RUC case was the condition of Constable Ian Hay who was still recovering from the wounds he received at Campbell College on the night of the raid. After the hearing Rooney was informed that he was being charged with attempted murder of Hay based on statements given by Hay in the hospital.

On being informed of the charge Rooney replied: “Nothing to say. It is a frame-up.

A further week elapsed and at the remand hearing on the 31st January, Geelan announced that the Attorney General was bringing the further charge against Rooney of the attempted murder of Constable (since promoted to Sergeant) Ian Hay and that McCartney would also be charged with having documents related to the Irish Republican Army. On being charged, McCartney again refused to recognise the court while Rooney pleaded not guilty on all charges.

Evidence was given against McCartney by Constables Massey, McTavish and Sergeant Connolly. Connolly again gave evidence against both Rooney and McCartney on the firearms charge. In McCartney’s case Connolly claimed that examination of his Smith and Wesson showed that an attempt had been made to fire two of the bullets but they hadn’t worked[10].

Campbell did get to cross-examine Connolly on Rooney’s behalf and asked why the attempted murder charge had not been brought previously. Connolly claimed this was due to Hay’s condition, reminding the court that Hay was seriously ill in hospital.

Campbell then asked: “Have you any evidence of Rooney having firearms in his possession?”

Connolly: “I personally have none.

Massey gave evidence next. He described how he and a party of policemen were on duty at Hawthornden Road when they heard shots from the gate-lodge and bumped into a group of men, to whom they gave chase and then exchanged gunfire but only managed to capture McCartney. McTavish corroborated this story.

Hay then gave his account of the evening to the court, describing how he had been on duty at the Hawthornden Road entrance and observed two short men and a taller man at the cottage, the last delaying outside and being framed by light emanating from the door of the cottage. Hay identified this last man as Rooney and went on to describe how he had wrapped a scarf around his head before entering the cottage. Hay related how he heard a scream, ran to the gate-lodge, losing his cap and then receiving a bullet wound on the shoulder as he reached the door. At the door, he saw Rooney, again, in the porch and, as he forced his way in, was wounded four times by Rooney and a second man who opened fire on him at a distance of around ten feet. Hay claimed that Rooney and the other IRA volunteer who opened fire used the younger woman and her children in the gate-lodge as shields. Hay also related how he got away shots and hit a third IRA man who collapsed to the ground[11].

On being questioned by Campbell, Hay said that the exchange lasted around one minute. Billy Hope and his daughter, Mrs Gethy, also gave accounts of the shooting in the kitchen although neither gave testimony against either defendant. Based on that evidence, McCartney and Rooney were to be returned for trial on the charges next week.

Now that Hay had recovered sufficiently, the RUC carried out more raids and arrests over the weekend. At 6 am on the Monday morning, John Monaghan was arrested and brought to a police station[12]. Monaghan and others were then put into an identification parade. Hay identified Monaghan and a second man as having been at the gate-lodge on the night of the raid. The second man turned out to be a stand-in for the identification parade. Hugh Keenan was also brought in as part of the swoops. His house was raided by an RUC party under Head Constable Reid but they found nothing they could describe as incriminating. Regardless, Keenan was brought in and was put in an identification parade.

Keenan, like Rooney, had been recruited into Na Fianna as part of Jimmy Steele and Tony Lavery’s re-organisation, begun in 1929. He had also been arrested for the suspected drilling in the Castlereagh Hills but had been allowed to go home (he was only 16 at the time). Since then, though, he was regularly detained for questioning, such as when RUC Constable Charles Anderson was shot dead guarding George Gibson’s house in Roumania Street Belfast in October 1933.  He had also been hauled in after the tarring and feathering of a youth at St Matthews Church, after an arms raid at Ballymena and had been imprisoned with much of the Belfast staff, including Jimmy Steele, in November 1933.

Hay picked him out too and he was also brought to the Police Court and charged.

On the 15th February, John Monaghan and Hugh Keenan were brought to the magistrates’ court to have charges put to them. Despite the opposition from GHQ, Lavery and the Belfast IRA staff decided to continue with the defence and offered the same option to Keenan. As far as GHQ was concerned, not only was Rooney being defended in court a problem, it also claimed that defending him was responsible for the RUC deciding to go and arrest the two other men (implying it would manage to convict someone even if Rooney got off)[13]. This still had to be balanced against the risk that refusing to recognise the court would be tantamount to an admission of guilt by Monaghan and Keenan since Rooney, unlike them, was being defended.

The newsletter produced by the publicity department of the Belfast IRA,  An Síol, even made it  clear in February that while both Rooney and Keenan were active republicans, Monaghan was not. For good measure, the northern government decided to ban An Síol. Tensions were clearly rising. On the 10th February, two republicans were confronted by some RUC men at Turf Loney, off the Springfield Road. Shots were fired and one of the RUC men was wounded.

Peter Fanning (from the Springfield Road), was charged by DI Hamilton, with being in possession of a copy of the 1916 proclamation, a document that Hamilton claimed was likely to cause disaffection. It was seized in a raid on the Wolfe Tone club (Fanning’s arrest was also put down to an informer).

When Monaghan and Keenan appeared in court on the 14th February, both had legal representation. Monaghan was charged with the attempted murder of Constable Ian Hay, whilst Hugh Keenan was charged with possession of a weapon. Keenan was also represented by Campbell, like Rooney, whilst Tughan represented Monaghan. Tughan took a much more aggressive line of questioning than Campbell. Some of his questions may have come directly from Lavery or other members of the Belfast staff. The brief the legal team representing the three men had was simple – find out if the RUC had advance notice of the raid.

Geelan continued in his role of making the RUC case, with O’Donoghue presiding again. Hay began his evidence by saying that Keenan was one of three men that he saw taking up position at the entrance to the gate-lodge. Geelan then started to ask Hay questions about what had happened on the night. However, Campbell objected to O’Donoghue that Geelan was simply leading Hay in giving evidence. O’Donoghue even sustained the objection and made Hay tell his story without Geelan’s prompts.

Hay went on to describe how he saw various IRA men at the gates and then the gate-lodge and how he had picked out Monaghan. Tughan, representing Monaghan, then intervened and asked Hay about the parade and got him to admit that he had also identified a second man who had nothing to do with the raid.

Tughan then asked the key question that was concerning the IRA: “Was there not a regular cordon of police around Campbell College that night?

Hay replied: “I know nothing about that. I was given my instructions..”

The Campbell College raid trial finally began at Belfast City Commission on the 20th February in front of Lord Justice Best at Crumlin Road court house with a jury sworn in[14].

Keenan, McCartney, Monaghan and Rooney were all charged with shooting at Constable Ian Hay (since promoted to Sergeant) with intent to kill. All but McCartney, who continued to refuse to recognise the court, pleaded not guilty. The prosecutors for the crown were McGonigal and Dougherty (instructed by Dr Mills, the crown solicitor). Lowry and J.H. Campbell represented Rooney and Keenan, while Sheil represented Monaghan. The RUC men returned to the stand to give their evidence again.

Hay gave his evidence again, saying that he was on duty at Hawthornden Road entrance at 8.30pm and that he had stood between the laurels and the walk. He claimed one of the IRA men who went into the gate-lodge was Rooney whom he had known for 10 years and another was Monaghan. He now claimed that after being shot at outside, the three IRA men inside had fired at him with revolvers and he had returned fire (contradicting his previous testimony where only two had fired at him). The only person hit at the gate-lodge was Hay.

Hopper then repeated his testimony saying that he had recognised Rooney and Keenan among 10-12 men who stopped nearby under a lamp where he was also on duty at the Hawthornden Road entrance. He (Hopper) exchanged shots with this group once the shooting started at the gate-lodge.

Connolly then told his story. He said he was in charge of a party of police 275 yards from the scene, and how he and Constable McTavish chased five IRA men and caught McCartney. Constable had chased two more but didn’t catch them. Connolly estimated that four IRA men had fired 20-25 shots and that they had returned fire. No-one appeared to have been hit on either side.

At this point, Lord Justice Best interrupted proceedings sarcastically: “There was bad marksmanship on this night.”

Mrs Gethy and Billy Hope both gave accounts of what happened on the night.

Next up, Rooney gave his testimony stating how he had been arrested and how he failed to be picked out at the identity parade and that it was only later that Hopper identified him. He recounted how he had been at work until 6.40 pm, had his tea at 7.30 pm, and then stayed at home with his seven week old child while his wife went out, and she had returned with friends at 8.20 pm.

Lowry, acting for Rooney, pointed out that he was only hauled in because his name was in the police books since he had been suspected of illegal drilling in 1931.

That ended the day’s proceedings and the jury was sequestered for the night.

The next day, the 21st February, Rooney’s wife gave evidence that Rooney was at home all night (on the night of the raid). Rooney denied the charge and that he was a member of any illegal organisation. He said that Hay and Hopper had made false statements against him. McGonigal, for the prosecution, brought up that Rooney had been detained in September 1931 and claimed that he was engaged in illegal drilling at the time. Lowry (the barrister acting for Rooney) objected saying that it was being suggested that Rooney had been guilty of an offence on that occasion.

Lord Justice Best said he would allow the prosecution to bring out the facts and that “This is one of the results of counsel making too good a case.” Lowry then retorted to Best that he resented the remark both for himself and for Rooney.

Hugh Keenan told how he had been out on a walk with his girlfriend, Nellie McLoughlin, on the night of the raid until 11 pm. Nellie also gave evidence.

John Monaghan testified that he didn’t know the other accused. How he was never a member of any organisation and had never been in police custody. He had been at Clonard Picture House the night of the raid with other young men.

To the surprise of the court, Edward McCartney offered to be sworn in to make a statement from the witness box:

“Gentlemen of the jury, I am a soldier of the Irish Republic…”

Lord Justice Best interrupted him: “You are nothing of the kind. There is no such army. If you are going to give evidence, give it; but you are not going to use the witness box to make a political speech.”

McCartney: “On December 27th I went to Campbell College. The three men in the dock were not with me. That is all I have to say.”

Mr J McGonigal: “How many men were with you?”

McCartney: “I won’t answer that question.”

McGonigal: “I am afraid you will have to answer.”

McCartney: “I am only making a statement to the jury. I don’t care whether it is accepted or not.”

McGonigal: “Do you refuse to answer any questions put to you except about these three men?”

McCartney: “Yes.”

McGonigal: “Do you know these men?”

McCartney: “I never saw them until I met them at exercise in the Crumlin Road Jail.”

Lord Justice Best then addressed the jury: “I ask you gentlemen, what value do you put upon the evidence of that man? You may acquit all of them or some of them but I do not think you will acquit them on the evidence of this so-called solder of a so-called Irish Republic.”

Campbell, closing for the defence, said a colossal blunder had been made by the police. To cover up the blunder, Campbell said the RUC thought: “We will arrest the baby drillers, they will refuse to recognise the Court, but the Court will recognise them, and then all will be well.”

Rooney, Keenan and Monaghan were all acquitted and discharged. McCartney was found guilty as charged.

Sentencing, Lord Justice Best said: “That you were guilty I have not the slightest doubt. Personally, I think you must have tried to fire shots, because when you were arrested a full-loaded revolver was found in your possession. One of the cartridges bore the mark of the hammer, which shows that an attempt had been made to fire it, but fortunately for you and for someone else the revolver jammed and the cartridge was unexploded. I have no power in the present case to order you to be whipped but I have power to impose a very heavy sentence. The maximum sentence for attempted murder is penal servitude for life.”

He gave McCartney 10 years.

While the acquittals were a partial success for Lavery’s strategy (and defiance of GHQ), the RUC evidence was still ambiguous. Clearly an unusually large number of RUC men were on duty around the Hawthornden Road entrance to Campbell College, including a Head Constable in the immediate area and a second party nearby. However, no-one appeared to have alerted Billy Hope and his family to the imminent raid and, as Hanna had assured him, the rifles had not been moved.

Back on the 20th January, the Adjutant-General of GHQ, Jim Killeen, had written to Tony Lavery as Commandant of No. 1 Division in the Ulster Area stating that the Army Council had ordered that legal aid to Rooney was to be withdrawn. Since Lavery had not withdrawn the legal aid, GHQ debated what it should do. It decided that Lavery should be subjected to a court-martial in Crown Entry. That produced an even bigger disaster for the IRA which I’ll cover another day.

[1] 28th December 1935
[2] The RUC and Ministry of Home Affairs typically added separate charges for both possession of a weapon and ammunition, the latter as possession of explosive substances.
[3] From evidence given at trial, see Irish Independent 20/2/36
[4] Drawn from Sunday Independent 29/12/35 and Irish Press 30/12/35
[5] Irish Press 30.12.35
[6] Letter from Adjutant General to Belfast Battalion, dated 20th January and captured at Treason cites the impact the Irish Press report had (see Irish Independent 30th May).
[7] Irish Independent May 30th states that, in documents uncovered later, assurances had been given to the Belfast Battalion commander (Lavery) that the arms had not been moved. I assuming this came from Hanna as Intelligence Officer.
[8] Munck and Rolston 1987, 183.
[9] His actually position was Commandant-General of Ulster Divisional Area No 1 (which was, effectively, Belfast).
[10] This is actually plausible as a number of people remember that ammunition left in dumps was often there too long and ended up ‘dozed’, that is, it wouldn’t discharge when an attempt was made to fire it.
[11] Little of Hay’s story appears corroborated by evidence at the scene or other eye witness testimony, such as wounding the third IRA volunteer.
[12] Irish Independent 22.2.36
[13] This IRA communiqué was later captured and read out in court (eg Donegal Democract 6.6.36).
[14] Events in between: A group of republican students met at Moira, where they were addressed by George Gilmore, Seamus Mallin, Mrs Margaret Buckley, Tom O’Hanrahan, Con Lehane, Sighle Humphreys and Frank Ryan. Hugh Carson, of Foundry Street, on the Newtonards Road, was found on a mid-week morning, tarred, feathered and chained to a lamp post in Comber Street (MacEoin 1997, 365).


27th December 1935: the IRA raid on Campbell College OTC Armoury.

The IRA raid on the Campbell College OTC armoury on the night of Friday 27th December 1935 had repercussions that were to echo through the next decade and beyond. The suggestion to raid the OTC armoury had come from GHQ in Dublin, where Moss Twomey was Chief of Staff and Sean McBride, Tom Barry, Sean Russell and Stephen Hayes were all active. The previous few years, including the Outdoor Relief Riots and then the mini pogrom of the summer of 1935 had shown up the limitations of the IRA’s arms stocks in Belfast. Since the dump arms order at the end of the Civil War, the IRA had not officially engaged in offensive operations in the north beyond those occasional arms raids, mainly to replenish stocks captured by the northern government.

The IRA’s response to the aftermath of the raid was to lead to the imprisonment of its Adjutant General Jim Killeen and Donegal O/C (officer commanding) Sean McCool, two GHQ opponents of Russell’s proposed bombing campaign in Britain. Buried somewhere in the fog around the Stephen Hayes affair, was his chief prosecutor, Sean McCaughey, who had participated in the raid. GHQ’s role in proposing the raid may have figured somewhere in McCaughey’s mind. More locally, in Belfast, the raid marked the politicisation of sentencing policy. Through to the 1940s, a conviction in a northern court for illegal possession of a revolver attracted a fine of £2 or £5 depending on whether it was loaded or not. However that tariff only applied if you were a unionist. If you were a republican, from 1936, a similar conviction brought a sentence of ten years or more.

The plan for the Campbell College raid was for an IRA unit to seize the gate lodge, tie up the occupants and dismantle the telephone lines[1]. The IRA unit was composed of eight volunteers from different companies in Ulster No 1 Area (the IRA’s designation for the Belfast district), including Ballymacarrett (Eddie McCartney), Ardoyne (Sean McCaughey) and the Falls (Peter Fanning). The volunteers were to assemble at three mobilisation points and then, acting as sections, move into positions for the raid which was to begin at 8.30pm on Friday night. Once the gate lodge had been secured, the unit would use a scouting car and a commandeered car and strip out the 200 rifles in the OTC armoury and move them to IRA arms dumps which were to be organised by the Quartermaster, Charlie McGlade[2] and command staff like Tony Lavery, who was O/C of Ulster No 1 area and Jimmy Steele, who was Adjutant. The use of cars would be a step up from the previous year when arms netted in the Ballymena raid were transferred to the Falls in a horse and cart.

Members of the IRA unit travelled out on the tram to Belmont Road from High Street. They then walked down Belmont Road and then down Hawthornden Road, when they split up into smaller groups. One section assembled at the gates on Hawthornden Road and took up positions outside the gate. A second section then arrived, checked the time with the first section, then passed through the gate and went to the gate lodge door. It was now 8.30pm. At the gate lodge they pulled scarves up and tucked them under their caps, concealing their faces. An IRA volunteer then knocked on the door of the gate lodge.

Inside the gate-lodge were William ‘Billy’ Hope[3], his wife Cassie, daughter Jean and two grandchildren. Hope was a renowned piper, making and playing both the uilleann pipes and highland pipes, he also had a pipe shop on Agnes Street. Hope taught various pipe bands and knew the renowned cultural nationalist FJ Biggar as early as the 1900s, as well as a wide circle of people involved in pipe and fiddle music across Belfast and further afield. Hope was so taken with Biggar that he even named one of his sons Francis Joseph Biggar Hope[4]. He was pipe instructor at Campbell College and lived in the gate-lodge with his wife and some of his children. He also taught woodwork in the College. Billy Hope also proudly claimed he was a direct descendant of Jemmy Hope, the United Irishman (another son was called James White Hope).

A Cumann na mBan member, Winnie McGuinness was also married to a house painter called Bobby Hope from the Shankill Road in Belfast who Harry White states also claimed descent from Jemmy Hope and so may well have been a relative of Billy Hope[5].

Hope’s musical contacts[6] are likely to have included senior Belfast IRA figures like Jim Johnston who organized the Craobh Ruadh Pipe Band. This may even have meant that the IRA had been able to use him as a source of information on the OTC armoury at Campbell College, either with or without his knowledge. That would also explain why his gate-lodge was the one being targeted in the raid. In this context, his apparent pride in his descent from Jemmy Hope hints at a certain political sensibility, although there is no reason to believe that it may have extended to any sympathy towards Irish republicanism, never mind facilitating an arms raid by the IRA.

Inside the gate lodge, Hope was sat in the kitchen with Cassie, Jean and two of Jean’s children. Hearing the knock on the door, Jean left the kitchen and went to answer it. She opened the door to find three men who had each masked their face with a handkerchief[7]. They were standing one behind the other and each was pointing a revolver at her. One thing that all accounts of the raid agree upon is that, at that exact point, Jean Getty screamed. For the next few minutes, confusion reigned.

The first two IRA volunteers entered the little hallway behind Jean and followed her into the kitchen while a third paused at the door, then entered and followed them into the kitchen (the RUC later claimed the third IRA volunteer was Bernard Rooney). In the hall, the kitchen door was directly opposite the front door while a doorway into the parlour was on the left. The O/C of the IRA section told Jean Getty to stay quiet as they were not going to harm her. Billy Hope was sitting on a chair with his shoes off, Cassie, Jean Getty and her children were all sat down. They then asked if there was anyone else in the house and Getty and Billy Hope both said “No”. The IRA commander then said to the one at the back to go and close the front door while he and the other IRA volunteers stood, revolvers in hand, in the kitchen.

RUC Constable Ian Hay had been on duty in the grounds of Campbell College, on the opposite side of the entrance road from the gate lodge. Hay moved towards the gate lodge on hearing the scream, and had about ten to twelve metres to cross from cover in the bushes to the door of the gate lodge. RUC Head Inspector Reid was also there and, after delaying for a moment, followed Hay to the gate lodge. At the same time the scream seems to have drawn the attention of the IRA section at the gate. Hay had to pass within five metres of the IRA volunteers at the gate, and they saw him as he approached the gate lodge. One volunteer opened fire with a revolver hitting Hay on the arm. As Hay reached the gate-lodge door, he then saw that the third IRA volunteer, who had stayed outside for a minute, was now visible just inside the hall where he was going to close the door. The IRA volunteer in the hallway shouted a warning and then retreated back inside to the kitchen. As Hay’s momentum carried him into the hall and then the kitchen, he came face-to-face with the IRA volunteers inside. The kitchen, which measured about three and half metres by three metres, now contained Billy and Cassie Hope, Jean Getty and her two children, RUC Constable Ian Hay and three IRA volunteers. Both Hay and the IRA volunteers opened fired at each other with their revolvers at what must then have been a range of less than three and half metres across the kitchen. Hay was hit by four bullets and had fired off all six rounds from his revolver. Hay was later to claim that he shot one IRA volunteer in the stomach, just as he was about to fire on Hay, the IRA volunteer then dropped his fully-loaded revolver after being shot.

Layout of the gate lodge occupied by the Hopes. From trial documents.
Layout of the gate lodge occupied by the Hopes. From trial documents.

The IRA section then retreated back through a curtain that covered a doorway at the opposite end of the kitchen from the hall. This door led back into a scullery containing a pantry (to the right) and, to the left, stairs and passageway down to a back bedroom. There was also a door out to the rear of the gate lodge. Hay followed the IRA volunteers through the curtain but found that they weren’t in the scullery and the door was locked. He reloaded his revolver then returned back into the kitchen, keeping guard over the curtain into the scullery.

Head Inspector Reid had followed Hay into the gate-lodge and, leaving Hay in the kitchen, quickly searched the rest of the interior to confirm the IRA volunteers had left. All sources agree that the back door was still barred from the inside (but no-one actually explains how the IRA volunteers actually escaped[8]). Hay then lay down on a couch to await an ambulance.

RUC Constable Hopper was also close to the Hawthornden Road gate (about ten metres further away from the gate lodge than Hay). Hopper had observed IRA volunteers around the gate. Once they opened fire on Hay at the front door of the gate-lodge, Hopper returned fire towards the IRA section at the gate and what he claims were further IRA volunteers located further up Hawthornden Road. All three IRA volunteers who had been in the gate lodge then rejoined the section at the Hawthornden Road gate. They conferred and quickly decided to call off the raid. The combined IRA sections then continued firing to cover their escape route towards Belmont Road. They had 350 metres to cover to reach the junction with Belmont Road.

Map showing the position of RUC Constables Hopper and Hay relative to the gate and gate lodge. From trial documents.
Map showing the position of RUC Constables Hopper and Hay relative to the gate and gate lodge. From trial documents.

At this point, more RUC men arrived on the scene. RUC Sergeant Connolly, Constables McTavish and Massie and had been nearby at Ormiston Castle, on the other side of Hawthornden Road, 200 metres southwest of the gate lodge. On hearing the shots the RUC men moved towards the gate lodges and closed to within about fifty metres of the gate, just as the IRA raiding party apparently split in two at the Belmont Road junction. Some of the IRA volunteers were now heading towards the city centre via Belmont Road whilst others were heading away from it. Connolly later claimed 20-25 shots had been fired at them in pursuit. He, McTavish and a third RUC man got close enough to apprehend Edward McCartney who appears to have paused and was later claimed to have been considering confronting, or firing on, the pursuers. Given the distances involved, it appears that McCartney turned the wrong way in Belmont Road and, realising his mistake and that he was alone, tried to double-back only to run straight into the pursuing RUC men. When the RUC men managed to overpower McCartney he was found to have a loaded Smith and Wesson revolver in his pocket. Five minutes or so had elapsed since the scream in the gate-lodge.

McCartney was now a prisoner of the RUC. They took him back to the gate lodge where he was met with the image of Hay, bleeding from numerous wounds and still sprawled on the couch. A search seemed to confirm that was no trace of the IRA volunteers in the vicinity. Not was there any trace of bloodstains despite Hay believing he had shot one IRA man point-blank. Eventually, Hay was brought off to be seen to at the Royal Victoria Hospital. The RUC then took McCartney to an RUC barracks.

Meanwhile, the other members of the IRA team, including Hugh Keenan, Sean McCaughey and Peter Fanning had got away. Keenan had the presence of mind to wait at a tram stop and was even searched by the RUC as they combed the area immediately after the raid. RUC searches and raids began straight away on the Friday night.

Next up, the trials ….

[1] An IRA report on the raid was later captured and read out in court (eg see Donegal Democract 6.6.36).

[2] Belfast was part of Ulster No 1 Area (which was effectively the Belfast Brigade area).

[3] See http://www.seanreidsociety.org/SRSJ3/3.16/William%20Hope.pdf for more on Hope and pipe music in Belfast, Antrim and Derry (article from The Seán Reid Society Journal, Vol 3. 2009).

[4] Hope and his family are recorded in King’s Road in 1911.

[5] See Harry (Uinseann MacEoin 1985, p.39).

[6] Jim Johnston, on the Belfast Battalion staff as recently as 1933 and described by Harry White as being a member of a shadow battalion staff that filled in during crises, trained the Craobh Ruadh pipe band (see MacEoin 1985 Harry, 41). The connections between Hope and various IRA and Cumann na mBán figures are certainly noteworthy.

[7] This account is based on the statements given by Jean Getty and Billy Hope to the RUC and the various statements given in court by the RUC and reported in the press (see below). Where contradictions appear, the exact source is identified.

[8] Billy Hope and Jean Getty say the volunteers didn’t return via the kitchen. Hay says the door was barred from the inside. Clearly there is a discrepancy in the eye witness statements here. The obvious explanation is that Hay locked the door, forgetting he did so in the confusion.

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