In 1935, fourteen month old Joseph Walsh died as a result of injuries he received when his family were burnt out of their home in Academy Street. Oddly, histories of the period overlook his death.
During 1935 Belfast saw significant violence, which saw a number of people killed over the period from the 12th July until the end of September. Conventionally, ten fatalities are identified with the conflict that occurred that summer. However, a reading of the press coverage of the period clearly identifies at least two further deaths which should be included in accounts of that summer, that of Joseph Walsh and another, a fifteen year old named Bertie Magowan.
At the end of September, the last major outbreak of the 1935 violence happened over the weekend of the 20th/21st September. On the Friday, two teenage apprenticeships, Bertie Magowan and Bertie Montgomery, were trying to fit an illegally held Webley revolver into a holster while at work in Harland and Wolff. Revolvers had been repeatedly used in street violence throughout that summer. Montgomery discharged the revolver, shooting Magowan in the stomach. He died from the wounds the next day and Montgomery, from Earl Street, was charged with murder. That charge was dropped but Montgomery was still prosecuted for possessing the revolver with ‘the intent to endanger life’ (ie for use during street violence). For that he was fined £5 and bound over to keep the peace. The same day as he shot Magowan, George Clyde was shot dead in trouble in Greencastle and the next day (when Magowan died), in Earl Street a Catholic publican, John McTiernan, was also shot dead in the evening.
Robert (Bertie) Magowan’s death is not typically associated with the conflict in 1935 yet it clearly happened within the context of the violence of that summer.
The story of the second death, of fourteen month old Joseph Walsh, was told by his mother, Rose Ann Walsh, in Belfast Recorders Court at the end of October:
THE WORST CASE
Further stories of mob violence in Belfast during the riots were related to the Deputy Recorder, Mr. ]. D. Begley, K.C., yesterday, when more claims for compensation were heard.
Mrs. Rose Ann Walsh claimed compensation for herself and her infant daughter as the result of a disturbance in Academy Street on I6th July. Mrs. Walsh resided at No. 19, Academy Street along with another lodger, Mrs. Margaret Partington, who also claimed compensation.
Mr. P. A. Marrinan (instructed by Mr. Brian Cosgrove) appeared for the applicant.
Mr. Marrinan said that of all the things that occurred in Belfast the facts connected with the present case were probably the worst. The climax of the attack in Academy Street led to a most terrible tragedy, one of Mrs. Walsh’s three children, who was aged two, dying as a result, he submitted, of the knocking about and trouble that the family sustained. It appeared that the funeral of one of the victims of the riots was in progress along York Street, and was entering the junction of Royal Avenue and Donegall Street when there was a panic among the crowd, following the firing of a shot. The crowd broke into Academy Street, which was off Donegall Street. They entered the house of Mrs. Walsh who had had a baby only two days before, and of Mrs. Partington, who had children, aged three and five years.
SET FIRE TO THE HOUSE
The crowd appeared to have armed themselves with fire-raising material, for they throw paraffin about and set fire to the house. The applicants, with their children, ran upstairs. Mrs. Walsh returned downstairs on realising the danger 6hc was in from fire, and the crowd set upon her and threw her into the street. She- was only 6aved by the arrival of police and soldiers. Mrs. Partington endeavoured to escape by the back of the house from an upstairs window by lowering her children out and jumping herself. Mrs. Walsh” had to so to the Union, and Mrs. Partington, who was the wife, of an English ex-Serviceman, after treatment went to Dublin, where she was attended at St. Stephen’s Hospital. Mrs. Walsh later got shelter in an old empty house, and there her child of two years died from the shock. The other child suffered from debility and inflammation from the suffering which the mother endured. Mrs. Walsh herself was still in a dangerous state of health. Mrs. Walsh being called stating her age was 22, Mr. J. Craig (for the Belfast Corporation) said counsel’s story was substantially correct, and the evidence could be confined to the question of damage. Mrs. Walsh, said she had three children at the time of the occurrence, Catherine being only two days old, Catherine was still in bad health, as the result of witness’s condition. Joseph, her second boy, died mainly from the knocking about that he received. Mrs. Partington said she was lodging with her husband in Academy Street. When the fire was started in the kitchen she ran upstairs. She lowered the children from a window three storeys high on to a scullery roof, and jumped out herself. They went to the Mater Hospital, and later to Dublin. She had not yet recovered her usual health.
After medical evidence-—including that of Colonel Mitchell, who said that while Mrs. Walsh bore no marks, she had evidently come through a very tragic time—judgment was reserved.
[Belfast Newsletter, 1st November 1935]
The Recorder subsequently award £60 to Rose Ann Walsh, £10 to Catherine Walsh and £40 to Margaret Partington. Walsh and her husband, Francis, had lived at 19 Academy Street for a number years in the house where Francis had grown up. His father had worked as a bill poster, and Francis followed him into the same trade. Rose Ann, whose maiden name was Boland, had grown up in Ballymacarrett, later moving to the Market district. After being burned out of Academy Street the empty house they moved into was a former hostel at 42 Frederick Street. It was there that Joseph died on the 5th September, six weeks after the attack on their house. His official cause of death was given as gastro-enteritis but the Recorder’s Court didn’t challenge the statement that his death was a direct result of injuries received during the attack on the house. The Walsh family subsequently moved to Ormond Place (off Raglan Street) in the Falls Road.
For some context on the deaths, below is the recent talk I gave in St Josephs, Sailortown, on the 1935 violence as part of the launch of the new Belfast Battalion book about the Belfast IRA from 1922 to 1969 (which you can order here).
A point that became clear during the recent controversy over an RIC commemoration in Dublin Castle was the various blindspots in general knowledge of the RIC. One clear gap was in awareness and knowledge of the Special Constabulary (from later became the B-Specials or B-men). The Irish Story has just published an overview I’ve written on the Ulster Special Constabulary which you can read it here.
While the Special Constabulary was created under existing legislation (from 1832) it was largely identical to a scheme for arming unionists to oppose Home Rule that had been put forward in 1911-12. Proposed by Sir James Craig to the British cabinet in the summer of 1920, it came in the immediate wake of revivals of the UVF in a number of locations earlier in 1920. At the Twelfth of July demonstrations that summer, Sir Edward Carson had announced that if the British government didn’t accept the assistance of a reorganised UVF, they would ‘take matters into their own hands’. The next day the London Times was scathing:
“If indeed that organisation was revived as a defensive police force for Ulster the most serious consequences would almost certainly ensue. Upon Sir Edward Carson lies largely the blame for having sown the dragon’s teeth in Ireland.”
Many people are familiar with Carol Reed’s ‘Odd Man Out’, an Oscar-nominated film noir starring James Mason set in Belfast. The film was adapted from a novel of the same name, written by Laurie Green and adapted by him for Reed’s film. Green’s novel was first published in March 1945, seventy-five years ago this month. One of the film’s Irish stars, legendary actor Cyril Cusack, dismissed Green’s novel as “…a bad book made into a very good film”. Yet there is much more to Green’s novel than meets the eye.
SPOILER ALERT: If you haven’t even watched the film, never mind read the novel, skip to the end of this post where there is a link to the film on YouTube.
The book (and subsequent film) tell the story of an IRA leader in Belfast who is wounded in a botched robbery and is then hunted through the city’s streets. With ground-breaking direction and cinematography, Reed’s film was, and continues, to receive critical acclaim, infamously being cited by Roman Polanski as his favourite film and influencing later work like ‘Taxi Driver’ and much of more recent film-making about ‘the troubles’. It was even remade in 1969 (as ‘The Lost Man’) with Sidney Poitier, then at the height of his fame, as a black militant on the run in New York.
The film’s opening titles tell viewers that “This story is told against a background of political unrest in a city of Northern Ireland. It is not concerned with the struggle between the law and an illegal organisation, but only with the conflict in the hearts of the people when they become unexpectedly involved.” Similarly, the novel never mentions either the IRA (calling it ‘the Organisation’) or Belfast by name. However, the novel repeatedly name checks locations in Belfast and Mason’s journey takes him from an IRA safehouse somewhere off the Falls Road across the city to Sailortown. While The Crown Bar, which inspired the set used to film a famous scene set in a pub in the film, the bar in the novel is clearly located in Sailortown in the Belfast docks area.
And further, despite the initial denial, much of the description of the IRA in Green’s novel also accurately mirrors historical events from 1943-44 when he was writing the book. More intriguingly, subtle shifts in the IRA’s structure and circumstances between 1944 and 1946 are again reflected in changes in detail between the novel and the film. All of this suggests that Green was, in fact, very much concerned with the historical accuracy of his depiction of the IRA.
Green wrote the novel between October 1943 when he finished his previous novel ‘On the Edge of the Sea’ and August 1944, when he produced the first full typescript of ‘Odd Man Out’. In the novel, the IRA’s Chief of Staff (Johnny Murtah) is hiding out in Belfast. It can’t be a coincidence that the only time an IRA Chief of Staff was ordinarily resident in Belfast was 1942-43 (and again, briefly in 1944-5). This was not necessarily public knowledge.
Even more revealingly, by the time of the film screenplay in 1946, the main character, now called Johnny McQueen is merely “…the leader of the organisation in this city…” and is clearly no longer the Chief of Staff as he states that “…I’ve got my orders and I’ll see them through.” By this time the IRA’s leadership was once again based in Dublin (all of this is described in more detail in the Belfast Battalion book on the history of the Belfast IRA at that time). The background given for Johnny – as having recently escaped prison – matches the IRA’s leadership at the time, like Hugh McAteer, Jimmy Steele and Seamus ‘Rocky’ Burns.
Born in Portsmouth, England in 1902, but with Irish roots in Cork, Frederick Laurence (Laurie) Green had moved to Belfast in 1929 and all fourteen of his novels were published while living in the city. One other novel, ‘Of the Night of the Fire’ was also made into a film. Margaret Edwards, who had married Green, was from a well-known Belfast family (hence his move to the city). Green himself became an integral part of Belfast’s arts and literary community some of whom, like John Hewitt, provided the inspiration for characters that feature in ‘Odd Man Out’. The journey that the IRA leader ‘Johnny’ makes across Belfast in the book takes him further and further from the safety of his hideout in the Falls to the scene of a robbery, onto Belfast’s streets, into a Protestant district and, from there to Sailortown. Green’s Belfast audience would have clearly understood the importance of Sailortown as a location, having been the ‘storm centre’ of violence both in 1935 and 1920-22. He next ends up in the hands of the Belfast arts community with characters lampooning the likes of Hewitt.
This isn’t accidental. In reference to ‘Odd Man Out’, Green reputedly chastised the Belfast arts scene about the lack of political focus in its outputs, saying that “…I’m writing what you and your friends should be writing about, the dramas that are going on here. You people are ignoring what is going on on your own doorstep.” (recorded by W.J. McCormack in his 2015 biography ‘Northman: John Hewitt 1907-1987’).
The Unionist government, though, clearly noted the political undertones in Green’s work and made a point of providing no assistance when the film was being made.
Many episodes in ‘Odd Man Out’ reflect real events that happened during the years just before Green published the novel. The immediate inspiration for the central event was a botched robbery at Clonard Mill in Odessa Street in October 1943 in which an RUC constable (Patrick McCarthy) was shot dead. Teresa O’Brien, who betrays IRA men to the RUC in another key scene, echoes a Teresa Wright, a widow who in 1937 claimed shots were fired at her Quadrant Street home due to ‘ill-feeling against her’ and because “…several people had called me an informer …”.
‘Odd Man Out’ also has a clear sense of internal debates within the IRA (which, again, may not have been widely known). In the film Johnny McQueen says “…we could throw the guns away, make our cause in the parliaments instead of in the back streets…” at the same time as internal IRA memos were discussing how far to get involved in politics. This also foreshadows later disputes within Irish republicanism over abstentionism and political engagement. All this suggests that Green was very well informed about what was going on within the IRA. The likely source for this was Denis Ireland, a prominent figure in Belfast’s literary scene and a leading light in the Ulster Union Club in Belfast which (despite the name) was the main source of Protestant recruits for the IRA. Even Johnny’s brief stay with two Protestant women may be a knowing wink in the direction of safe houses used by the IRA in unionist areas of Belfast like the Shankill Road and the Village.
Taken together the book and movie are filled with cues that would resonate with a wide range of audiences. Green and Reed’s high-brow themes of personal redemption and internal torment chimed with the concerns of many contemporary authors and film-makers. Writers like Ruth Barton (from Trinity College in Dublin) have examined how Reed explores concepts of gender representation, viewing James Mason’s phenomonal performance as Johnny through the prism of (toxic) masculinity in post-war Britain and Kathleen Ryan’s as the antithesis of the quintessential bourgeouis heroine of contemporary British cinema. Green, though, provides rich pickings for a Belfast audience who could knowingly follow and engage with the geography of the book and film in a way that would escape other audiences. As Johnny moves around, they would understand the political and cultural significance of the different parts of the city.
Others too reacted to a perceived realism in ‘Odd Man Out’. Hysterical outrage from Bertie Smylie (using the pseudonym Nichevo), in ‘An Irishman’s Diary’ in The Irish Times has a wonderfully contemporary air: “There is no doubt that it is a really good film. There equally is no doubt that, in essence, it amounts to a glorification of the IRA! If I had been a youth, emerging from the Theatre Royal on Sunday night, and saw on the walls of Trinity College the slogan “Join the IRA”, I have not the least doubt that I should have been sorely tempted to do so! All the romance is on the side of the “the Organisation”. James Mason gives a magnificent performance as Johnny McQueen; and, although the name of the IRA never was mentioned, nobody who knows anything about this country in general, or of Belfast in particular, can have the least doubt concerning the “Organisation’s” identity. So much for that!“
For all the quality of the film, it is the collected work of the novel and film that gives Odd Man Out a historical authenticity that means you need to read the novel to appreciate many aspects of the film.
Parallels were often drawn between the Irish and Indian experiences of colonialism and imperialism in the early twentieth century. The Irish drive for independence was seen as a source of inspiration by many India nationalists. It may even have provided a significant influence on Udham Singh, one of the iconic figures of India’s anti-colonial struggles. Singh was reputedly in touch with the IRA in England in the early 1930s and was also believed to have been influenced by the IRA’s sabotage campaign in England in 1939. Ultimately, though, Singh’s formative political experience was the massacre at Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar .
On 13 April 1919, British troops had opened fire there on Indian civilians, killing maybe 400 people and injuring 1,000 more. Michael O’Dwyer, the Lieutenant-Governor of Punjab at the time of the massacre, was held by many to be ultimately responsible (you can read a more detailed post on O’Dwyer by Sean Gannon here). The President of the Indian National Congress, Lala Lajpat Rai, condemned O’Dwyer saying “No man in the whole history of British rule in India has done such great disservice to the British Empire and has brought such disgrace on the good name of the British nation.” Udham Singh was deeply scarred by the massacre, where his brother and sister were among the dead. In 1940 he shot O’Dwyer dead at a public meeting of the East India Association and Royal Central Asian Society in Caxton Hall,London.
Some of the Indian press, such as the Lahore Tribune (16/3/1940), believed that Singh was attempting to instigate a campaign similar to the IRA’s sabotage campaign of 1939. The New Statesman also noted the parallels between the execution of IRA activists and Singh’s likely fate and the impact that would have on anti-colonial sentiment.
Different writers have presented contrasting versions of the subsequent events. Sikander Singh claims that the experience of political prisoner trials in India meant that it was likely both that Udham Singh would use court proceedings as a platform for anti-colonial political messages . While the officials debated how to conduct his trial and how to limit publicity, on 2 April the Director of Intelligence Bureau of India warned the authorities that censorship was needed as Singh would seek to present himself as a martyr in the cause of Indian Freedom. On being held on remand in Brixton, Udham Singh made various attempts to link up with his contacts on the outside and arrange for a revolver or hacksaw blades to be smuggled in to him for an escape attempt.
Sikander Singh’s sympathetic biography of Udham Singh explores this prison experience in some detail, drawing heavily on contemporary sources. The most recent biographical treatment of Singh, Anita Anand’s The Patient Assassin: A True Tale of Massacre, Revenge and the Raj, though, barely explores that prison experience and seems to assume Singh wanted a hacksaw blade to cut his wrists rather than for an escape.
By the time Udham Singh was brought to trial on 4 June 1940 he was reported to have been on hunger strike for 42 days (the authorities also documented his weight loss over this period). His hunger strike began on 26 April 1940. Hunger strikes as a political weapon in India had often taken their cue from examples in Ireland, particularly that of Terence MacSwiney in 1920, which received global press coverage. In the week before Udham Singh began his hunger strike, two members of the IRA, Tony D’Arcy and Jack McNeela, had died on a hunger strike in Dublin. In the days before Udham Singh embarked on his hunger strike, their deaths were widely reported in the press in Britain including the verdict of the inquest jury that criminal status should not be accorded to political prisoners.
The prison authorities, as was standard in the case of hunger strikes in prisons in Britain, ordered that Singh be force-fed. Anand portrays this as an attempt by the Prison Medical Officer, Dr Grierson, to keep him alive as long as his hanging but the same policy was applied to Irish republican prisoners on hunger strike in England (and also to David Fleming in Crumlin Road in 1946). Singh was force-fed ninety-three times. The process for force-feeding, involving restraints, a clamp for the mouth and feeding-tube was gruesome. Anand present’s Singh’s hunger strike only as an attempt “…to starve himself to death” rather than a political act.
Singh’s apparent revenge for Jallianwala Bagh and subsequent execution on 31 July 1940 transformed him from a relatively unknown figure in Indian politics into a legend. In the years after Jallianwala Bagh Singh had travelled widely through Britain and the United States where he came in contact with the left wing Indian nationalist Ghadar Party. Singh returned to India in 1927 but was arrested for gun smuggling and spent five years in prison. On his release he returned to England.
According to Alfred Draper, on arriving in England, Singh was in contact with the IRA and stayed with one of its leaders in the Isle of Wight . While Singh meeting an IRA figure in England might seem implausible, in the early 1930s Indian nationalist leaders like Krishna Deonarine had been feted by senior Irish republicans like Peadar O’Donnell and Sean McBride at various events in Ireland. Public messages of solidarity and support had been sent by Irish republicans to the Indian anti-colonial movements. In that regard, Singh connecting with contacts from the IRA is entirely plausible although the IRA, in the early 1930s, was struggling to decide on its own purpose and was not in position to provide much in the way of help to Singh.
If Singh was influenced by the actions of Irish republicans it doesn’t appear to have been reciprocated. The surviving republican newspapers from that time and likes of Irish Freedom and Irish Workers Weekly did not make any mention of Singh’s arrest, trial, imprisonment or death. Oddly, though, all clearly identify with India’s struggles against British colonialism. India even features in articles while Singh was imprisoned but without reference to Singh. Further research might shed more light on the level of awareness of Singh’s case amongst Irish republicans.
After being hung in Pentonville Prison, Udham Singh was also buried there. In 1974, his body was repatriated to India and cremated in his home village of Sunam.
 There are various legends around Singh’s early life so it is hard to now which is true. One story (in Kulwant Singh Kooner and Gurpreet Singh Sindhra’s 2013 book Some Hidden Facts: Martyrdom of Shaheed Bhagat) claims Singh had been installing a water tap for protestors to drink from at Jallianwala Bagh on the suggestion of a British agent who was trying to get militants to assemble so they could be shot down.
 Peter Barnes and James McCormack had been hung in Winston Green prison on 7 February 1940 for an IRA bombing that had killed five people in Coventry the previous year.
 Sikander Singh, A Great Patriot and Martyr Udham Singh.
 In his book Amritsar: The Massacre That Ended the Raj.
I’m going to do some posts on James Connolly in the run up to the anniversary of his execution next week, in particular some of the unexplored experiences that may have shaped his politics and values and created the James Connolly that emerges in his later writing and politics. I’m going to start by looking at the 1872 lamplighters strike in Edinburgh. Obviously, the strike is interesting in its own right, but I’ll get to the relevance to Connolly (who was born in 1868) at the end.
Briefly, in August 1872 the Edinburgh lamplighters (the men who lit and extinguished the street lights, among other duties – they were sometimes called ‘Leeries’) went on strike over pay and conditions. Almost immediately, a Peter McBride and three other lamplighters were made an example of by the town council, seemingly as ringleaders. In the end, the four were fined for breach of contract but within a week or so the strikers demands were met (the account below is mainly taken from The Scotsman during August 1872, except where indicated).
To start with, the lamplighters worked seven days a week on a ‘beat’ where they had to light and extinguish all the lamps as well as other duties. The lights sometimes had to be extinguished as early as 3:40 am after extinguishing others at midnight. A worker also had to issue a four week notice to leave their post or miss a day while they could simply be let go. And typically many of Edinburgh’s thirty lamplighters were let go in May each year and some rehired each September although the Inspector of Lighting and Cleaning in 1872, Mr Patterson, claimed they were issued with four weeks’ notice if being let go in May (these details came out in McBride’s trial, see press on 17 August 1872). The terms and conditions of their employment appeared to be completely weighted in favour of the Lighting and Cleaning Committee of the town council. They
There were also tensions over lamplighters being obliged to train new ‘hands’ with the trainers potentially being laid off in May and then replaced with the trainées in September. Lamplighters had to sign a contract confirming their working conditions. Peter McBride had done so in September 1866. However, as he pointed out in court, McBride and others hadn’t been asked to sign up to those conditions since 1866 or each year after regular breaks in their employment and there was no copy posted up anywhere that the lamplighters could read.
Not that the lamplighters’ pay demands appeared out of the blue. In mid-July 1872, immediately before the lamplighters’ strike, the one hundred and forty Council ‘scavengers’ in Edinburgh had gone on strike (‘scavangers’ was the term used for dustmen and street cleaners). After around a week the scavengers strike committee met with the Council and their requested pay increase of 2s was met. A number had initially been prosecuted for going on strike and given two days to return to work before being penalised. But the agreement with the Council specifically included protection for those prosecuted or dismissed during the strike. The agreement that concluded the strike was made on 20 July 1872 (see North Briton, 24/7/1872). The lamplighters seem to have originally have submitted a collective request for improved pay and conditions of 2s per week in a petition to the Council as early as mid-July 1872, possibly in tandem with the scavengers. Lamplighters had been typically paid 3-4s more per week than the scavengers. The lamplighters’ request was referred to Patterson and his Committee who dismissed it as ‘informal’ despite being in line with the similar to requests for pay raises that were being met by council.
As a group, the lamplighters then ‘formally’ wrote to the Inspector of Lighting and Cleaning on 5 August with their request for improved pay and conditions and threatened to go on strike on 13 August. They quickly withdrew the strike threat after being advised that the Lighting and Cleaning Committee would discuss their request. But by Friday 9 August, though, an issue had arisen over a lamplighter, George Leslie, refusing to train new ‘hands’. That day the lamplighters re-instated the threat to strike on the morning of the Tuesday (13 August) if their request for improved conditions was not met or if any of them were punished over the threatened strike action. The timing of the strike threat was not incidental. Queen Victoria was to be in Edinburgh during the threatened strike. According to the Glasgow Herald (14/8/1872), it was difficult to say whether the royal visit or the lamplighters strike was exciting the most interest among the public.
The Lighting and Cleaning Committee then met twice on the Monday (12 August) but refused to even consider the pay demands only considering the terms on which lamplighters could resign. Instead some of those involved were dismissed and a policeman sent to their house to instruct them not to extinguish the lamps on the Tuesday morning and to return their tools to the Committee. Those dismissed included Peter McBride and at least three others, Charley Riley, John Fegan and George Leslie (these were the four charged and brought to court on the Friday, 16 August). The lamplighters then posted placards around Edinburgh advising the public of the strikes and their petition to the Council for an increase in wages. A reference to the placard in The Scotsman on the Wednesday implies that the strike was being directed by a committee (possibly made up of the four dismissed lamplighters).
In response to the dismissals, strike action then began on the Tuesday morning and, without lamplighters, the Council had to suffer the embarrassment of leaving the lamps burning all day while Queen Victoria was in town. The lamplighters’ petition was discussed by the Council that day. Before dismissing it, the Council debate was interrupted by at least one member of the public, an old woman dressed in mourning clothes who demanded the right to address the council (what she said wasn’t reported). The police also had to prevent ‘public-spirited citizens’ from extinguishing the lamps on the Tuesday. With strike taking place, there would be no lamplighters to put a flame to them again that evening and the town streets would be left in darkness. But on Wednesday, the Inspector of Lighting and Cleaning, Mr Patterson, advised the council that he had hired new ‘hands’ to cover every ‘beat’ of those on strike. He had also instructed the Sherriff to issue the warrants against McBride and the others for ‘desertion of service’ under the Master and Servant Act.
Attempts to simply replace the lamplighters were resisted. On the Tuesday evening, Patterson had already dispatched some new lamplighters to try and re-light some of the lamps leading to confrontations and violence. Presumably these were lamps that had been extinguished that morning, either by the ‘public-spirited citizens’ or lamplighters who hadn’t gone out on strike (as yet). A carter named George Thomson received ten days in prison for trying to prevent a lamp being lit on the Tuesday evening in Cockburn Street while Alexander Clunas was fined 5s for intimidating a lamplighter on High Street. In both cases the lamplighters were new ‘hands’ and Thomson and Clunas had tried to dissuade them from breaking the strike.
Previous lamplighter strikes had taken place in Glasgow (1855), Blackburn (1867), Limerick (1870) and Brussels (1871) and strike action in general was not uncommon in August 1872. On 14 August, for instance, The Scotsman and other papers reported strikes in Glasgow (miners), Dundee (shoemakers) and Hawick (spinners), while compositors were also out on strike. The Scotsman even sued a London compositor that it had hired as a strike-breaker for breach of contract when he refused to break the strike (eg Shepton Mallet Journal, 6/9/1872). It is also notable that new lamps had just been tested in Glasgow in July-August 1872 which took less time to light the globe. Trials suggested an eighty-five minute route could now be completed in fifty-five minutes. It was being proposed that the cost of introducing the new globes would be offset by reducing the number of lamplighters by a quarter. The report was submitted to the Council in Glasgow just after the strike but the trials must have taken place before the strike began and knowledge of the results may well have spread to the lamplighters in Edinburgh (eg see Glasgow Herald, 27/8/1872). Notably a lamplighter strike also followed in London later in 1872.
As with the posting of handbills to explain the strike action, the lamplighters were also ready for the court action against McBride, Riley, Fegan and Leslie on the Friday. That day, a letter was published by The Scotsman, from ‘a lamplighter’. It was entitled ‘Duties of Lamplighters’ and read:
“Sir, as the public generally imagine that the duties of a lamplighter only consist of cleaning, lighting and extinguishing a certain number of lamps, would be so kind as to give space to the following correct statement of the duties which a lamplighter is compelled to perform? 1st. In addition to cleaning, lighting and extinguishing our lamps, which is considered sufficient work for any man when it is borne in mind that, for eight months in the year, we have to turn out at 12 o’clock each night to extinguish half the lamps, we are compelled to water the streets in dry weather, which every one is eye-witness to. 2nd. To work with the blacksmith, tinsmith and joiner; and, in fact, any other work that our inspector may send us to.
I am, etc Lamplighter.”
In court on Friday 16 August, Peter McBride was found guilty for his role in the strike and fined £5 plus a guinea costs (his weekly wage was 19s) or, in default, ten days in prison. The others received similar sentences. The Council though, by the next Wednesday, was reported to have revisited the petition the previous day and authorised that the pay and conditions requested by the lamplighters be accepted.
Peter McBride, who seemed to be regarded as the ringleader of the strike, lived in Carrubers Close. McBride, was also a Sergeant in the Army Reserve, having joined the 26th Foot, the Cameronians in 1855. He and his wife were later recorded running a coffee stand in 1881 when both their birthplaces are recorded as County Monaghan. McBride had spent nearly four years in Bermuda while in the British army, leaving full-time service in 1865 shortly before he began working as a lamplighter in Edinburgh in 1866. The address he lists as his intended residence is Corrybreany, Ballybay, presumably Corrybranan on the southern side of Ballybay in County Monaghan. His sons, Robert, Thomas and John, were likely playmates of James Connolly’s older brothers John and Thomas as they were around the same ages. The Connollys lived next door to the McBrides in Carruthers Close in 1871 and John Connolly, James’ father, was himself a lamplighter. John must have been on strike with the lamplighters too (this may well be the strike that various James Connolly biographers mention). Legend has it that Connolly and McBride both lost their jobs soon after the strike, which is consistent with later census records.
What is more, various biographers mention Connolly’s ‘uncle’, variously mentioning the names ‘Peter’ and ‘McBride’. He is claimed to have walked many paths along which his nephew James followed: this ‘uncle’ was a socialist and Fenian who had joined the military under a false name. Some remembered an older uncle who was a socialist and Fenian who seemingly introduced Connolly to left wing activism in Edinburgh from 1890. James Connolly’s daughter Ina also mentions (in a witness statement to the Bureau of Military History) an ‘uncle’ Peter in Edinburgh, his father’s brother, who came over to Belfast and tried to get James to come to Monaghan to sign over a family farm to him in 1912.
Peter McBride’s marriage record names his parents as Robert McBride and Margaret McBride, née Connolly. His military records provide no next of kin information but he gives his address as Corrybranan, Ballybay, Co. Monaghan. The dates of his military service are consistent with dates for other ex-servicemen who joined the Fenians (and Edinburgh had ‘green scares’ in the 1870s over a mobilized ‘Irish’ vote and ‘Fenianism’). His socialist and syndicalist credentials are shown by the 1872 strike. He is very much the almost mythological figure conjured up by James Connolly’s biographers. Was he just a neighbour of John Connolly’s? A fellow lamplighter? Another Monaghan lad he met in Edinburgh? McBride enlisted in Edinburgh in 1855, roughly when Connolly first arrived in the city. John Connolly’s mother was named Mary and his father John (or Owen). Perhaps Peters mother was John Connolly’s mother’s sister (‘uncle’ being meant as an older male relative rather than, strictly, as a brother of your mother or father). Maybe McBride’s ancestry was entirely fictional as he was indeed John Connolly’s brother (there is a lesson there I’ll come back to in a future post). Ina Connolly also gives her father Ballybay roots – but Corrybranan has no obvious candidates to match McBrides father or mothers name in Griffiths Valuation or the Tithe Applotment Books, so that is yet to be confirmed.
Ultimately, it doesn’t matter as it is now clear that the socialist ‘uncle’ Peter, possibly a Fenian too, was a very real figure rather than a romantic device concocted by Connolly’s later biographers to explain his political formation. McBride’s (and John Connolly’s) involvement in the strike was surely retold down the years and may have ingrained in James Connolly, who was only 4 in 1872, that it was a template for successful industrial action. Both Peter McBride and John Connolly rapidly lost their jobs as lamplighters after the strike, so they may well have borne the real cost of a successful action for workers.
Royal Avenue is another street in Belfast that most people walk along without realising that underneath their feet are human remains. So if you’re superstitious or squeamish it’s probably best not to read on. Sorry.
At the same time, you might also not have heard that the same street lies on the former town defences of Belfast and the reports of bones being found might be telling us quite a lot about the development of the city. Belfast was enclosed by a rampart and fortified gates in 1641-42. Construction of the rampart at North Street may have disturbed the burials which suggests that they are earlier in date. North Street linked the fording point of the Lagan and Farset (that gave Belfast its name) with a principal road out of Belfast and the main church site at Shankill. There are known to have been castles in Belfast from at least 1262 and a borough (i.e. a nucleated settlement) from the fourteenth century. Belfast then became the focus of attempts at establishing a more significant urban settlement from the 1570s onwards.
The street now called Royal Avenue, though, has only really existed in its current form since the 1880s. Two earlier streets, Hercules Street and John Street, were remodelled and then renamed Royal Avenue by 1882. The City Hall end of Royal Avenue had been Hercules Street which ended at North Street, with John Street running from North Street to the Donegall Street/York Street junction. The staggered crossroads formed by Hercules Street, North Street and John Street was also the site of the North Gate in Belfast’s defensive rampart, believed to have been constructed in 1641-2. Some of these are shown on the map below.
Since the rampart (as it was known) was almost wholly removed by the end of the nineteenth century, its exact route and actual form aren’t entirely clear. The earliest detailed survey maps of Belfast – by Thomas Phillips in 1685 – appear to show a bank of earth with a wall or facing of stone on the outside. The rampart is known to have had a relatively shallow ditch on its outside as this has been found on excavations in the likes of Queen Street. With street widening and re-alignments the position of the rampart on the ground hasn’t been clearly established everywhere. Based on later mapping, John Street was outside the rampart while the North Gate lay somewhere across the junction of Hercules Street and North Street.
Following the demolition of the houses fronting onto the southern side of John Street in May 1882 (as part of the construction of Royal Avenue) workers found a human skull eighteen inches below the ground twenty yards up from North Street, in front of what is now the Cathedral Quarter offices. The early accounts note that the bones were in good condition but had clearly been there for a considerable amount of time.
This was the ‘cut’ for the footpath on that side of Royal Avenue, a strip measuring about six feet wide and four feet deep. The human skull turned out to be from one of two burials uncovered. Within a couple of days more burials had been found beneath the new footpath at the North Street end of Royal Avenue and continuing for about twenty yards along North Street. In some cases the bones had been disturbed previously, with the skulls often move a short distance from the rest of the remains.
The burials lay within the stiff clay under the rear yards and foundations of buildings that had stood in John Street. Within two or three days at least twenty-one burials were identified. While numerous theories were advanced and the discovery attracted widespread attention from the public and antiquarians, there was no firm memory of the spot being used as a cemetery. In July 1882 the Belfast Telegraph referred to the new Royal Avenue as the ‘far-famed valley of dry bones’.
In March of 1883 construction work began on some buildings at the North Street/Royal Avenue junction. At least two further burials were found and ‘a few feet from North Street’ they uncovered what was called “…the remains of the wall of the old garrison. The wall, which is five feet thick, appears to have been skillfully constructed, and consists of outer layers of solid masonry, the centre portion being filled up with ‘puddle’ the whole forming a very strong wall.” They also noted the presence of wooden water pipes (these had been installed by Belfast Corporation in 1681). There was also what was described as ‘not less than one thousand cow horns’ which suggested there had previously been a tanyard at the site.
Despite the conjecture nothing else was uncovered at the site where clearly there had been at least twenty-three burials in an area measuring roughly twenty yards by two yards wide. Then, in February 1894, Steel and Sons, just over twenty yards up Royal Avenue, suffered a fire. Subsequent rebuilding works turned up four further skulls and other bones, tenatively identified as an adult male, an adult female and at least one child. One of the skulls evidenced a trauma (this skull was later donated to the Belfast museum by the contractors Fitzpatricks). The burials were again at a depth of three feet but the various accounts note that they were not intact burials but rather appear to be bones that had been uncovered and re-buried. There were some traces of lime (probably lime mortar) in the soils which were described as slightly damp. A fifth child skull was uncovered a day or two later. An ancient brick wall was also noted close to the burials, extending three feet into subsoil and resting directly on Belfast’s estaurine clays (known as ‘sleech’). Some coins were found in Steel & Sons during the works, dating to 1742, but not said to be directly associated with the burials.
In July of that year, electric lighting was being installed along the footpaths in Royal Avenue and further human bones were uncovered, with the location (on this occasion) noted as ‘opposite the Northern Bank’. In 1905, when work was being done at the rear of the Northern Bank premises, five human skulls were found in a wooden box – apparently some of those found in 1883 were simply re-buried on the site. An account of the 1894 discovery in The Irish News had reported that “During yesterday the remains attracted the attention of great crowds of the passers by, who seemed to enjoy the ghastly exhibition very much. The skulls will be buried today, as nothing can be gained by keeping them overground.”
On the other side of North Street in 1879, workers pulling down houses in Ritchies Place had also reportedly found a human skull buried two feet under the ground. Ritchies Place was a laneway parallel to Hercules Street (before it was remodelled as Royal Avenue). It’s location is shown on the map from Georgian Belfast above.
The line of the 1640s ramparts, the position of the North Gate and the main area in which human remains were found is shown on the map above (with a burial at Ritchies Place and one below the ‘John’ of John Street). Some of the burials found in Royal Avenue in 1882-3 and 1894 appear to lie within the bastion adjoining the North Gate in a deposit of stiff clay but had suffered some disturbance. The five feet thick section of wall found in 1883 may be the bastion wall itself. The description of the soils containing disturbed human remains at Steel & Sons were notably in a damper soil containing lime. This sounds like the type of soil that would be found in the ditch on the exterior of the rampart, with the lime having washed down from lime mortaring on the stone facing of the rampart or the bastion wall. Steel & Sons was at 113 Royal Avenue, the furthest to the north-east that burials are described. The location of human remains in Ritchies Place and the opposite side of Royal Avenue may be indicating that this is a more extensive burial site that spans North Street and significantly pre-dates the construction of the 1642 rampart. An archaeological excavation at Church Street, to the immediate southwest of the burials described above, did not reportedly find any human bone (see results published by Cormac McSparron and Emily Murray in 2004 Ulster Journal of Archaeology).
There are two areas that appear to be illustrated as burial grounds as well as a ‘death pit’ shown on a map of Belfast from 1696. One burial ground and the ‘death pit’ are in Peters Hill, at the upper end of North Street (I’ve posted about these recently). I’ve included an image of the map above (from the Irish Historic Towns Atlas for Belfast) with the burial grounds shown in red. The perspective on the map is distorted as North Street and Peters Hill are not aligned but it appears to be partly based on Thomas Phillips 1685 map (see below).
The Royal Avenue burials are clearly not the second burial ground, though, since it’s position can be calibrated from the 1696 map. That map shows the burial ground in the corner of a large enclosed space diagonally opposite the buildings to the immediate east of the North Gate, which the 1685 map shows to be much longer and narrower than depicted in 1696. These can be identified on another map in the Irish Historic Towns Atlas from 1757, where I’ve highlighted the buildings close to the North Gate in red and the distinction triangular built up area in red. Aligning the position based on features on the map, the second burial ground lies at the junction of Edward Street and Great Patrick Street (ironically there do not appear to be reports of human bone from this area). There are suggestions that an engagement was fought in an area outside the Belfast ramparts in 1644 in Bullers Field (as this space was known). It isn’t clear whether there were many fatalities or if those who were killed were buried somewhere close by but it is one possibility. It is also notable that the extramural communities around Belfast all had burial grounds other than around the Corporation church (St Georges) on High Street.
We can add these to a growing list of lost burial grounds in Belfast:
3. The Felon’s Plot used for burying some of those executed in Belfast (including in 1798).
4. An unestablished location close to Great Patrick Street/Edward Street (shown on 1696 map).
There are others which I’ll look at in a future post, including Thompsons Embankment an inter-tidal area used for particular burials. In the meantime, hopefully the Ulster Museum can locate the skull donated in 1894 and we’ll see where we go from there.
Thanks to John O’Keeffe for the map from Georgian Belfast.
Here’s an interesting angle to explore the impact of violence during the War of Independence. The Irish in America had responded to the war by founding and supporting the American Committee for Relief in Ireland. It raised funds to mitigate suffering arising from the war which is dispersed through the Irish White Cross which had been set up for that purpose in 1920. In 1922 the Irish White Cross published a report on its activities and expenditure.
The Irish White Cross Report includes accounts of the experiences of those it assisted and testimonies from recipients of the relief. The amount of relief paid is listed by location along with examples of specific relief works (famously including Amcomri Street in Belfast which takes its name from the American Committee for Relief in Ireland). Under the prevailing legislation which held local authorities and rate payers liable for victims, those who lost family members and property could pursue their local authority for compensation if they could demonstrate that the loss was incurred under specific circumstances. I’ve not seen that quantified anywhere (as yet), but it would likely mirror the distribution of relief by the Irish White Cross. Major incidents such as the burning of Cork in 1920 also gave rise to significant compensation and insurance claims. The Irish White Cross used its resources to support people in the short term (as well as in longer term projects) and so the relief figures likely reflect the day-to-day impact of violence. Combining this information and collating figures for the likes of local authority compensation claims would help map out and visualise local impacts of violence during 1919-1923.
The two areas which required the highest amount of relief from the Irish White Cross were County Antrim (including all of Belfast) and County Cork. Almost half of the total amount of relief paid went to Belfast, while Cork received around one quarter. A map showing the distribution by area is shown below along with the totals by county (by amount).
Relief by county (rounded to nearest £ with modern equivalent in brackets). County Antrim £362,409.00 (£18.12m); County Cork £180,126.00 (£9m); County Dublin £54,990.00 (£2.8m); County Kerry £25,958.00 (£1.3m); County Down £13,303.00 (£665k); County Galway £12,410.00 (£620k); County Tipperary £11,096.00 (£555k); County Limerick £10,061.00 (£504k); County Clare £9,090.00 (£454k); County Mayo £9,048.00 (£452k); County Roscommon £7,223.00 (£361k); County Westmeath £5,336.00 (£267k); County Longford £4,859.00 (£243k); County Donegal £4,831.00 (£242k); County Cavan £4,645.00 (£232k); County Sligo £3,857.00 (£193k); County Waterford £3,519.00 (£176k); County Louth £3,423.00 (£171k); County Wexford £3,316.00 (£166k); County Leitrim £2,895.00 (£145k); County Kildare £2,685.00 (£134k); County Monaghan £2,656.00 (£133k); County Carlow £2,377.00 (£119k); County Armagh £2,205.00 (£110k); County Offaly £1,802.00 (£90k); County Meath £1,713.00 (£86k); County Laois £1,564.00 (£78k); County Wicklow £1,169.00 (£58k); County Tyrone £1,141.00 (£57k); County Derry £754.00 (£38k); County Kilkenny £728.00 (£36.4k); County Fermanagh £316.00 (£15.8k)
This was published five years agoand still holds true, despite the persistence of the family’s in trying touncover the truth.
Forty-five years on from the McGurks Bar bombing there is much that is yet to be understood not only about the bombing itself, but also the context in which it happened. Mindful that the human legacies of such a tragedy may never be mitigated by any amount of revelations, a full and accurate account of events is required if broader societal and political aspirations towards achieving genuine conflict transformation are to be realised.
The last point is significant, though. Much of what we know about McGurks Bar have been painstakingly pieced together by Ciaran MacAirt, in the face of considerable and sustained obstruction on the part of the British government and its security forces. Key to understanding what actually happened on 4th December 1971 is having a meaningful insight into the roles played by the northern government (and its armed forces), it’s interactions with those that planned and planted the bomb, and also those of the British army. To date, it seems inconsistent to argue that there is any evidence in the actions of the British government to suggest that it is actually seeking real conflict transformation in Ireland.
A number of key themes emerge in reviews of the bombing, in particular the actions of the RUC and the British Army, including Frank Kitson who has become a lightning rod for attention due to his documented lead in counterinsurgency and disinformation strategies. Kitson’s previous career in Kenya and Malaya identify him and his staff as potential sources for the campaign of disinformation that followed in the aftermath of the bombing. However, there is also an intersection here with a deep native capacity for disinformation and black propaganda amongst the RUC and northern government. A brief exploration of incidents predating the 1970s shows that the RUC were already adept at the strategies applied at McGurks Bar.
Many parallels can be seen as far back as the 1920s. On 13th February 1922, a bomb had been thrown into children playing in Weaver Street, killing four children, two adults and wounding many others. The actions of Special Constables before, during and after the attack (and their role in it) were never to be disclosed or explored by the northern government. At the time, the RUC issued erroneous statements implying they had come under attack. Subsequent comments by James Craig and reporting by the press even gave the impression that the IRA may have thrown the bomb after shots were fired at an armoured car. This deliberately blurred culpability. In fact there was no armoured car present and the bomb had been thrown by men in the company of Special Constables. Not only that, two Special Constables had forced the children into a crowd so the bomb, thrown at a distance of thirty yards, would inflict maximum damage. To compound matters, the RUC had refused to take statements from witnesses at the scene or collect forensic evidence such as bullet casings and bomb fragments. All of these were subsequently produced by residents at the inquests before the City Coroner.
There are many echoes in the Weaver Street bombing in attacks that took place decades later: the acquiescence (if not direct participation) of security forces, the failure to investigate and the deployment of disinformation. Notably, much of this was exposed and reported on during the inquests, which may have influenced official attitudes towards such process at a later date.
The need to control legal proceedings is shown by another example, from 1935. On 12th July, during violence in Lancaster Street, John McKay, a cattle drover who lived in Great Georges Street, was shot dead. The inquest was perfunctory, but his wife lodged a compensation claim with the Belfast Recorder. During the hearing before the Recorder, RUC headquarters sent instructions that the two reports by RUC Constables into McKay’s death were not to be disclosed to the court. The Recorder inspected the reports and then declared them covered by privilege despite the fact that such a right was only available to a cabinet minister.
Even today we know very little about the unionists who carried out the bombing in Weaver Street in 1922 or the likes of those who shot John McKay in 1935. Who was responsible, how they were organised and who ultimately directed their violence is not clearly understood. Nor are these minor details of historical dilettantism. There was no intention on the part of the northern government to work towards any meaningful societal reconciliation after 1922. The net effect was that violence against Catholics (in the sense that that was who was understood to be the target) was never deconstructed away from having a sort of monolithic ‘unionism’ as it’s source. Despite all the subsequent protests to the contrary, a failure to divest an understanding of who the real protagonists were, the motivations and modus operandi amounted to a continued co-option of the moral responsibility for all those actions onto the ‘unionist’ body as a whole. An unraveling of this, faced with scrutiny by the print and broadcast media, can be seen in the events of 1966.
In May that year the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) publicly threatened that “…known IRA men will be executed mercilessly and without hesitation.” On the 27th of that month, UVF members shot John Scullion in Oranmore Street. The RUC immediately reported that Scullion had been stabbed and that they believed he knew the name of his attackers. The emotional framing around Scullion is classic black propaganda. Not only did Scullion ‘knowing his attacker’ detach the incident from contemporary unionist violence, it also very subtly (and unsympathetically) profiled him as associating with a man who would stab someone. It was reported months later, following Scullion’s inquest, that the RUC had been given a bullet that had hit Scullion the night he was shot and that they had been told by witnesses that they heard the two shots.
Against a backdrop of increasing violence in Belfast (with significant exposure across the broadcast and print media), John Scullion died of his wounds on 11th June. The RUC continued to perpetuate the myth that he had been stabbed, repeatedly reporting that he knew his attacker and that were merely awaiting him to regain conscious and give them the name. They then reported that he had passed away without divulging the name (even though an exasperated UVF had been claiming responsibility and rang the press to confirm their claim). The State Pathologist in Belfast had to subsequently order that John Scullion’s remains be exhumed to review the cause of death. That revelation and further deaths in UVF violence over the same weekend forced the northern government’s Prime Minister, Terence O’Neill to climb down on a refusal to proscribe the UVF. Arrests and convictions then followed.
A mere five years later, the UVF planted the bomb that destroyed McGurks Bar. As early as 8 am on the morning after the blast, despite being briefed following forensic examination of the scene, the RUC were providing politicians with disinformation that identified the bombers as the IRA and cast doubt on the innocence of some of those caught up in the blast. The RUC persisted with this false version of events for many years even though they had been immediately exposed by eye witness testimony and a telephoned claim of responsibility by unionists. In 1966, Terence O’Neill (unlike the RUC) had been unable or unwilling to continue to providing political cover for the UVF. By 1971, the intersection of RUC, unionist and British Army (and indeed Gerry Fitt’s) interests coalesced sufficiently that no public unraveling of the disinformation was permitted.
So what was the difference between 1966 and 1971? Certainly the scale of the human loss at McGurks would suggest that it should have been less likely that political cover would be provided for the UVF. The only additional participant between 1966 and 1971 is Frank Kitson and the British Army. As Kitson has become something of a bête noire or pantomime villain it is perhaps too easy to see him as the key difference.
At the same time, it is clearly consistent with Kitson’s known methods that the British Army seamlessly grafted itself onto well established practices within the RUC and northern government and, by doing so, assimilated itself into that violent unionist monolith. Subsequent understandings of any events after the McGurks Bar bombing, who directed them, how and why, were and still are completely compromised by the internal dependencies created by that monolithic entity.
Here’s the current map of Belfast IRA members and suspects spanning a period of around 60 years. It includes lists of Cumann na mBan, Irish Volunteer and Irish Republican Army members and suspects from 1916 onwards as well as lists of internees and sentenced prisoners for various periods. As some sets of names did not include addresses, some names are clustered at locations such as Crumlin Road Gaol, Milltown Cemetery and the docks (used for Al Rawdah internees – the Al Rawdah prison ship had been moored in Strangford Lough).
If you are struggling to work out how to view or play with the information on the map (obviously it is easier to view it on a bigger screen than a phone) – here’s some tips: Firstly, click the symbol in the top right and open it in a new window in your browser – on the left it should allow you to see the different sets of names, click them on and off on the map and read a list of names included. There should also be search window at the top to allow you to search for individual names. Remember – some individuals lived in streets that are no longer there and some may have plotted automatically and their location might be slightly incorrect – if you see any – flag it in the comments section.
The maps were put together as part of the research for the Belfast Battalion book about the Belfast IRA – postage is free to addresses in Ireland and Britain on the book from now until Christmas (or stocks run out!) – click here to buy a copy.
In 1939 some newspapers reported about how an Irish-American lawyer called Albert Coyle managed to secure the escape of more than 500 Jews from Germany to the United States. Coyle, though, rapidly fades from the pages of history and died in relative obscurity in 1956. But are the stories about him really true? And what else do we know of Albert Coyle.
This is how The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser reported the story on 18th May 1939:
“Gestapo not a bad bunch”
Energetic Mr Albert F. Coyle, international lawyer visiting London from New York, prefers to conduct his interviews in the street. “Now we can talk,” he said, beginning to move westwards. By the time Charing Cross was reached Mr Coyle had revealed that he has spent the last three years travelling backs and forwards between New York and Berlin arranging the emigration of Jews from Germany to Cuba and Mexico. He said “I act on behalf of relatives in the United States. They pay me to negotiate with the German authorities and entrust me with the necessary finance.”
Trafalgar Square traffic was bearing down on Mr Coyle as he went on: “Right now I am fixing things for 36 people to quit Germany. I make four or five trips to Europe a year and in the past three years have obtained the freedom of nearly 500 people. Many of them were either in prison or in concentration camps. I rarely see the people themselves but deal direct with the Gestapo, the German secret police. They are not a bad bunch of boys when you handle them the right way.”
Albert Freeman Coyle had been born in California in 1891. His father, Joseph Albert Coyle, had died when Coyle was still young. Joseph was reputedly born in New Orleans in 1852 apparently to Irish immigrants. Joseph had been a notary and worked in real estate and so had the means to send Albert to Stanford, where he obtained a degree in law. While there he obtained a scholarship to complete further studies including a doctorate, in divinity, at Yale. Coyle identified himself as a Methodist and occasionally preached in church. While at Stanford, Coyle had worked for the college President (later Chancellor) David Starr Jordan and had established a reputation for himself as a public speaker, in particular on themes around economic and social justice. Coyle also married a fellow student, Margaret Kennedy.
After failing to gain entry to the military when the US entered the first world war (due to poor eyesight), Coyle enlisted as a YMCA ‘secretary’. The YMCA provided canteen and support services to the US Army both at base camp and at the front. In early 1919 he went to the Arkangelsk front in Russia with the 339th Regiment of the US Expeditionary Force in North Russia. The US Army and British Empire troops were there supporting the Northern Army of the ‘White’ Russians in the civil war against the Bolsheviks under Lenin and Trotsky. When the American detachments were withdrawn in mid-June 1919, local Russian units decided to go over to the Bolsheviks. Coyle and another YMCA secretary called Clinton Arenson had been staffing a facility at Chekuevo on the Onega River and remained at their posts to be captured by the Bolsheviks in July.
The American Expedition had lost numerous men during their deployment on the Arkangelsk front, fighting in freezing conditions in an unforgiving landscape. The ‘Polar Bear Regiment’ (as they were known) wrote their own ‘Roll of Honour’ memorial including this verse:
In Toulgas woods we scattered sleep,
Chekuevo and Kitsa’s tangles creep
Across our lonely graves. At night
The doleful screech owl’s dismal flight
Heart-breaking screams in Russia.
(See Joel R. Moore and Harry H. Mead and Lewis E. Jahns The History of the American Expedition Fighting the Bolsheviki).
Coyle was held by the Bolsheviks for almost two months and was one of the last US prisoners of war to be released. By the time he returned to the US via Bergen in Norway he was now competent in Russian as well as German and French with first-hand experience of life under the Soviets. Given his existing record of public speaking on social and economic topics, it is perhaps unsurprising that Coyle drifted into labour and left wing politics, taking up a role with the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers (one of the main railway unions) for much of the next ten years.
In November 1920, seemingly through the offices of his former Stanford mentor David Starr Jordan, Coyle became the official reporter for the inquiry held by the American Commission on Conditions in Ireland in Washington, DC. While Starr Jordan had spent time in Ireland and was a supporter of the Irish Republic, the Irish Republic was also one of the few states to officially recognise the Soviet Union. Coupled with Coyle’s own Irish roots, he was a perfect fit for the role and acted as notary for the hearings through the end of 1920 and into early 1921. When the evidence had been presented, Coyle compiled and published the material to counter British propaganda. This was to some extent the template for both Who Burnt Cork Cityand Facts and Figures of the Belfast Pogrom.
The rest of the 1920s saw Coyle engage in labour and class-based actions in the United States and Europe. At one point ‘outed’ as a communist, he was under the scrutiny of the authorities at various times through his life. Active in the Sacco and Vanzetti reprieve campaigns, he remained involved in the unions and in 1927 was part of a delegation that travelled to the Soviet Union to report on progress in the ten years since the revolution of 1917. The delegation also went to Britain, Belgium and Germany and Coyle made a number of return trips to Europe in the late 1920s meeting both Stalin and the former Kaiser as well as other luminaries such as Sir Horace Curzon Plunkett.
His union activities, and possibly the investment of union pension funds in risky bonds in projects in the Philippines, Cuba and Bolivia saw him embroiled in a number of scandals with high profile US Senators in the 1930s. Notably these were to be some of the countries that were considered as routes by which European Jews could gain indirect entry to the United States. By the late 1930s, then, Coyle again appears to be a regular traveller to Europe. At that time almost every state operated limited entry visa and immigration policies, with some having even stricter regimes for Jews.
Coyle’s name can be found buried in the correspondence around individual cases. In April 1939, Irene Harand, a prominent anti-semitic campaigner in Austria who had stayed in London after the Anschluss, commissioned Albert Coyle to go to Vienna and intervene on behalf of Moriz Zalman and Hertha Breuer (both prominent Jewish lawyers). Coyle made it clear to the Viennese judge that all efforts were made by Harand and the foreign relatives and friends to save Zalman’s life. The attempts were in vain. Moriz Zalman died in Sachsenhausen in May 1940 while Hertha Breuer died in 1942 at the age of 37 (see Christian Klösch, Kurt Scharr and Erik Weinzierl’s Gegen Rassenhass und Menschennot).
Coyle corresponded with prominent individuals in the campaign to open up the United States to Jewish refugees, such as Felix S. Cohen and Joseph Chamberlain. Coyle described to Cohen one of the routes that was used, presumably based on his own experience, as “only one little freight line running every six weeks or so from Genoa to Vera Cruz and accommodating at most eight to ten passengers” (see Dalia Tsuk Mitchell’s biography of Cohen, Architect of Justice).
Albert Coyle appeared to specialise in rescuing Jewish lawyers and jurists. He is known to have tried to obtain a non-quota visa for an international lawyer, Martin Domke, who was imprisoned in a French internment camp in 1940 (see Laurel Leff’s Well Worth Saving: American Universities’ Life-and-Death Decisions on Refugees from Nazi Europe). He also acted for Martin Exiner, a German Jewish lawyer and prominent Zionist who managed to escape to Palestine (see Daniel Wildmann’s Der veränderbare Körper).
So there appears to be plenty of evidence to back up Coyle’s claims in 1939. However, in the early 1940s bypassing regulations to facilitate Jewish immigration wasn’t universally popular in the United States. Coyle, already embroiled in bondholder scandals over the Philippines and Cuba, was prosecuted for failing to have the appropriate license to practise law. Then in 1941-42 he was pursued through the courts over money that had been supplied to him to assist the passage of Jews from Europe. By that time, with war having broken out, routes out of Germany and Austria had become even scarcer and it is unclear whether Coyle was really facing legal action over frustrations at a lack of progress.
Either way, Coyle spent much of the 1940s fighting his way through the courts. In the late 1940s and early 1950s his name pops up as a guest speaker at Rotary Clubs and other venues championing the Soviet Union. Watch this space though, as he merits significantly more attention as it would be worthwhile trying to corroborate his claim to be Irish-America’s own Oskar Schindler.