Royal Avenue: the far-famed valley of dry bones

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.

Extract from a map in Georgian Belfast, 1750-1850 showing key locations prior to the laying of Royal Avenue including the position of the ramparts and Ritchies Place.

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.

That is here (if you want to know the exact spot)…

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.

Map of key locations discussed in the text.

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).

1696 map of Belfast (published with Irish Historic Towns Atlas Belfast, Vol. 1). Note the incorrect alignment of Peters Hill and North Street.

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).

1685 map of Belfast by Thomas Phillips (published with Irish Historic Towns Atlas Belfast, Vol. 1).

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.

1757 map of Belfast (published with Irish Historic Towns Atlas Belfast, Vol. 1).

We can add these to a growing list of lost burial grounds in Belfast:

1. (St) Peters Hill

2. The Death Pit (possibly Townsend Street).

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.

The Shankill Death Pit

People are often unaware of the history beneath their feet. Sometimes blissfully unaware. In a city like Belfast there are streets that were first established hundreds of years ago. If you stand somewhere like Peters Hill, you can look up towards Divis and down towards the town just like people have down for hundreds of years. This was the main road in and out of Belfast and the graveyard at Shankill is believed to be at the site of the oldest church in Belfast (indeed Shankill, Sean Cill in Irish, means ‘old church’). But it wasn’t the only burying ground in this part of town.

In 1859, the Belfast Newsletter reported that human remains were found buried in Boyd Street when gas was being installed into a house there.[1] Ten years later, it was claimed that more human bones and a cannon ball had been found in Boyd Street around 1864.[2] Then, in 1871, Andrew Mairs, a grocer who lived at the corner of Boyd Street and Peters Hill, was renovating his premises. After demolishing an old building on the site, the workmen cleared away debris and discovered “…within a distance of a few yards, and not more than a foot and a half beneath the surface, no less than nine human skulls, and as many bones as would go to make up nine human bodies… the bones lay in a straight line from each skull in the manner in which bodies are interred in graveyards.” These were laid out by a wall that had been apparently re-used as the foundation to the old building.[3]

So, clearly, there was some sort of cemetery here at the junction of Peters Hill and Boyd Street. The widening of Millfield here and Peters Hill means that this burying ground probably lies beneath the footpath and road. But the finds of human remains don’t stop there.

In 1894, in Carrick Court, on the opposite side of Peters Hill, workmen found “…the bones of a human arm from the shoulder blade to the finger nails were found…” and apparently “…such discoveries have been frequent of late.”[4] Three years later, old foundations were being pulled up at the end of Townsend Street, further up Peters Hill but now back on the same side as Boyd Street. The workmen there also found a skull and bones.[5] Several months later, a grizzly discovery was made in the lane between Library Street and Kent Street, where two young boys found a skeleton of a child.[6] About fifty years ago, a burial was also found in Brennan’s Sheetmetalworks at the top of Kent Street.

So, what is going on?

Viewed on a map the burials lie around the junction of Millfield, Peters Hill, Carrickhill and North Street. While the child’s remains found in 1897 may be unrelated, the other references all appear to be interments of human remains spread across an area measuring 150m across (although the Townsend Street burial lay a further 200m away). None of the accounts mention any objects that could provide a clear date for the burials.

The earliest detailed survey of Belfast (1685) shows most of the area as undeveloped although North Street and parts of Peters Hill were built up.[7] Among the earliest known names and information for Peters Hill are a map from 1696 (which appears to be based on the 1685 map). It shows a rectangular enclosed area with six crosses in the middle that appears to be a cemetery off Peters Hill, apparently close to the later junction with Millfield. Immediately west of the cemetery are features labelled ‘Black Pits’ which usually means tanning pits used to make leather. Further west again is an oval feature on the map labelled ‘Death Pit’. The map labels the bottom of Peters Hill as ‘St Peters Walk’ with the name ‘Shanks Hill’ written further along then ‘Long Walk’. The Old Lodge Road is named as ‘The Rise’. Carrickhill and Millfield are shown as lanes.

1696 map showing the junction of Peters Hill, North Street, Old Lodge Road and Millfield. North is to the bottom of the map.

1900-1907 map (with names of the smaller streets added) showing the locations in which human remains were found. Exact positions are shown as black circles, the rough locations shown as white circles. North is to the top of the map.

The 1900-07 map with the 1696 map inset (in top left) although the 1900-07 map now has north towards the bottom so it is aligned the same as the 1696. Are the two sets of burials the cemetery and Death Pit shown on the 1696 map?

Neither the cemetery nor the Death Pit were remembered in later memoirs of Belfast. This area lies outside the ramparts erected around Belfast in the 1640s. John Grainger, writing about the ramparts in 1861, noted that “A portion of some of the out-works was existing until laterly on the site of Brown’s Square…”. It is clear from other maps that the town ramparts for Belfast were much further east so whatever was visible in Brown Square wasn’t the 1640s rampart. Clearly Grainger knew of some form of earthworks in Brown Square as late as the nineteenth century but these don’t appear to have been described elsewhere.[8] Brown Square and Brown Street were laid out before the 1790s but the space inside the rough area denoted by those two street and Peters Hill and Millfield was developed later. The description of burials being laid close together and apparently associated with the footings of wall at the corner of Boyd Street and Peters Hill also lies within this area.

Other maps show that the area to the south of Peters Hill wan’t developed until the late eighteenth century when the name was applied to the whole junction, with North Street known as Goose Lane. Millfield was known as Georges Lane and the Old Lodge Road was a lane up to a lodge. Carrickhill was originally called Carrickfergus Peters Hill or Carrick Peters Hill (North Queen Street was then Carrickfergus Street). The Shankill Road was the highway to Antrim and sometimes called Bowers Hill. Bower, presumably was original from bóthar in Irish meaning ‘road’ (i.e. that this was the main road out of Belfast).[9]

All of this makes the burials on either side of what is now Peters Hill a bit odd. Do the burials date to before the road or are simply laid either side of it? To date, the identified burials appear to focus on three of the four sides of the Peters Hill, Millfield, Upper Library Street, North Street crossroads. The most detailed account indicates dense burials and a building at the Boyd Street/Peters Hill corner but burials are known from elsewhere in Boyd Street and traces of a burial on the opposite side of Peters Hill and the lower (city centre) side of Upper Library Street. None of the burials produced clear evidence of date. While the burial ground appears to be in the general location of that noted in the 1696 map, the map itself is not, in itself, an accurate survey map. The presence of human remains at the opposite side of Peters Hill, which seems to be a road of significant antiquity, raises questions about the degree of association of all the burials. refers to the Shankill Road as having been known as ‘Bowers Hill’ with ‘Bower’ presumably an anglicisation of bóthar hinting at the Shankill Road as the main road out of Belfast.

A similar issue applies to the burials noted further to the west at Townsend Street. None of the intervening streets appear to have produced records of human remains being discovered. Since this superficially matches the positioning of the cemetery and Death Pit on the 1696 map, it is possible that the latter was located closer to Townsend Street and is 200m from the other burials.

The White Church (Shankill) and ‘Chapels of the Ford’ are noted in the Irish Visitation Roll in 1306. A number of churches in the vicinity of Belfast are listed in the 1604 Terrier of the Bishopric of Down and Connor, including Shankill and six altarages some of which are fairly well known (like Friars Bush, Greencastle, Ballyvaston and Tullyrusk) while two others aren’t. These are Capella De Croockmock, recorded elsewhere, variously as ‘Cranoge in the Tuogh Fall’ and ‘Cramagh’. Croockmuck and Cramagh are clearly Cromac but the actual site is less clear. The other is Capella De Killemna (named elsewhere as as Killonynna, Kilmean and Killeanan) is equally uncertain.[10] During 1690, Young reports a ‘great mortality’ in the town from Schomberg’s fever-stricken soldiers with both Shankill and the High Street graveyard crowded but does not suggest the use of any other site for burial.[11] Belfast wasn’t the scene of significant fighting in the 1640s either but it is possible that a ‘Death Pit’ was opened either then or in 1689-91. Is it possible Boyd Street, though, is one of the six altarages and medieval in date? That it was called ‘St Peters’ Walk in 1696 also hints at the former existence of a ‘St Peters’.

At least one thing is certain. There are one or more burial sites at Peters Hill.

[1] See Belfast Newsletter 8/1/1859: “Yesterday forenoon, as some workmen were employed in making the necessary preparations for introducing gas into a house in Boyd Street, they discovered the skeletion of a full-sized human being under the window, within a few feet from the house. No person in the locality can give any solution of the mystery which attaches to this discovery.

[2] See Belfast Weekly News 9/10/1869: “…It will be recollected that, about five years ago, a quantity of human remains and a cannon ball were discovered in Boyd Street, continguous to this place…

[3] See Belfast Telegraph 22/5/1871: “Mr. A. Mairs, who for some time past carried on a grocery establishment at the corner of the Peter’s Hill and Boyd Street, has had a number of labourers employed during the past week in taking down the old building that the premises may be reconstructed on an extensive scale. Yesterday morning, about eleven o’clock, some of the workmen, who were making excavations and clearing away debris, prior to putting in new foundations, made an extraordinary discovery of human remains. While they were digging in the rere of the building, the brought up a number of bones, and, on continuing their work, they found, within a distance of a few yards, and not more than a foot and a half beneath the surface, no less than nine human skulls, and as many bones as would go to make up nine human bodies. The place where the remains were discovered would lead to the belief that they must have been interred at some period subsequent to the erection of the old house, as the spot where the excavation were being made was where a doorway existed, leading from one room to another. When the old door-step was removed, the skulls were found resting against the stone work of the foundation, and the bones lay in a straight line from each skull in the manner in which bodies are interred in graveyards. This would lead to the supposition that the wall must have existed against which the bodies were laid. The news of the discovery soon spread, and in a short time thousands of people were attracted by curiosity to the place, and different opinions were formed as to when, and owing to what cause, the remains had been deposited in this place. Some persons who examined the skulls said that at least three of them were those of females. By some they were set down as being the remains of persons who fell during the rebellion of ’98. Others said the house was built upon a prison grave-yard, and that they were the remains of persons who had suffered execution… The matter was reported to the police, and on their making inquiries in the neighbourhood they found that ‘the oldest inhabitant’ remembered a doctor’s shop in existence at this corner at one time. This may account for the bones being found there. When the coroner was informed of the discovery, he ordered the remains to be buried.

[4] See Irish News 23/6/1894

[5] See Irish News 22/6/1897: “Yesterday whilst some workmen were engaged digging through old foundations in Townsend Street, they discovered a human skull and a number of human bones. The remains were collected and taken to the Brown Street Police Barrack, and the City Coroner communicated with. Mr. Finningan, however, did not consider it necessary to hold an inquest, as the remains presented the appearance of being a long time in the ground.”; Belfast Newsletter 22/6/1897: “…at the end of Townsend Street…” and that one of those digging “…, who had been pursuing his operations somewhat deeper into the soil than the others, felt his spade come into contact with a hard substance, which he believed to be a stone. Upon clearing away the earth, however, from around it he found that it was human skull. Beside it were got several human bones.

[6] Belfast Weekly News 16/10/1897: “…a couple of lads who were engaged at some pastimes in the vicinity of Carrick Hill made a very startling discovery. They came across a parcel lying in a lane between Library Street and Kent Street and at the rere of St. Stephens Street. It looked somewhat suspicious in appearance, and on opening it they found that it contained the bones of an infant whose head was separated from the trunk. The remains were wrapped up in a piece of old calico, and bore evidence of having lain there for a long time.

[7] Volume 1 of the Historic Towns Atlas for Belfast contains the early maps (up to 1840).

[8] Grainger, J. 1861 Results of Excavations in High Street, Belfast, Ulster Journal of Archaeology.

[9] The use of Bower and Bowers Hill for the Shankill is discussed in a memoir in the Belfast Telegraph in 1951(7/12/1951).

[10] Reeves, W. 1847 Ecclesiastical Antiquities of Down, Connor and Dromore, consisting of a taxation of those dioceses, compiled in the year 1306, with notes and illustrations, p. 186. Benn, G. 1823 History of the Town of Belfast, p.252. Reeves, in his Eccelesiatsical Antiquities of Down, Connor and Dromore, offers explanations for all six altarages but Benn associates Capella De Killemna with a different site at Suffolk.

[11] Young, R.M. 1892 The Town Book of the Corporation of Belfast, 1613-1813, p.243.

A lost 1798 burial ground in Belfast

“At this disastrous period, when death and desolation are around us, and the late enthusiasm of the public mind seems sinking into despair, when human sacrifices are become so frequent as scarcely to excite emotion, it would be a folly to expect that the fate of a single individual should excite any interest beyond his own unhappy circle.”

Mary Ann McCracken, 22 August 1798

The letter above from Mary Ann McCracken, is quoted by Madden in his nineteenth century study The United Irishmen. She is discussing what Guy Biener calls ‘social forgetting’ the process by which memories of events like 1798 get obscured and confused. After the events of 1798 in Ireland disturbances continued intermittently for a number of years. As Biener notes, some of those who had been active United Irishmen before 1798 subsequently tried to quietly obscure their former political allegiances, neither openly discussing events nor revealing their former sympathies by publicly marking the passing of those killed during the rebellion.

In 1910, F.J. Bigger noted in the Ulster Journal of Archaeology, that “The late Henry S. Purdon, M.D., records the burial of many ’98 victims in May’s fields, a short distance beyond the termination of May Street. Here was a narrow strip of ground, with a row of graves, known as the croppies’ burial ground.” At the time, Bigger and others were trying to erect memorials and plaques at locations such as graves of those associated with the likes of the United Irishmen that had, up to then, been overlooked, forgotten or simply ignored. A letter by W.S. Corken to the Irish News (2 January 1971) about Henry Joy McCracken also states that “…the burial place of the ’98 men – his companions – was in May’s Market where the spot was known as ‘The Felons Plot’. The whereabouts of this sacred spot is unknown today in the Markets.”

Taking Bigger and Corken’s accounts, ‘The Felons’ Plot’ lies somewhere beyond the eastern end of May Street, in the vicinity of May’s Market. They likely layout around 1798 is shown on the map below which represents Belfast in 1791 (not always accurately, though). Given that a variety of markets were held in the area either side of what is now Oxford Street, beyond the limits of May Street, the specific location is unclear. This is the area also formerly known as Mays’ North Field. An 1848 map of Belfast (included with the Belfast Historic Towns Atlas, Vol. II) labels both sides of Oxford Street as ‘Mays Market’. True to the ‘social forgetting’ Guy Biener has noted for post-1798 Belfast, none of the nineteenth century maps indicate the actual position of a graveyard.[1] Nor may there have been an attempt to formally mark the location as the space isn’t recorded on nineteenth century street directories or valuations. As the first reference to this burial ground appears quite late, it is worth then exploring the likelihood that such a burial ground even existed.

1791 Map of Belfast (from Belfast Historic Towns Atlas Vol. 1), a likely location for a 1798 burial ground is between ‘The Bank’ and ‘Mill Dam’

Belfast in 1798

Belfast was the scene of executions in 1798 and 1799 rather than actual fighting. While it is possible that the dead from violent clashes elsewhere in Antrim or Down were brought to the town, it appears that the most likely candidates for burial there are among those known to have been executed in the town. Executions were mainly by hanging on a temporary scaffold erected at the Market House, in some cases on a nearby lamp-post. A Court Martial often sat in the Donegall Arms in Castle Place while the New Inn was often used to hold prisoners.

In 1798-99, the terms of a death sentence often extended beyond the actual execution as prisoners were regularly de-capitated, with their heads displayed in public. Their remains were also not to be released to their family for burial. According to George Benn’s A History of the Town of Belfast (published in 1823), there were seven executions of United Irishmen in Belfast in 1798-99. Based on contemporary newspaper reports the seven were William Magill, James Dickey, Hugh Grimes, Henry Byers and John Storey in June 1798, Henry Joy McCracken in July 1798 and George Dixon in May 1799.

William Magill, from Loughbrickland, was condemned to death on 9th June 1798 in Belfast. The Belfast Newsletter (11 June 1798) reported that he “…was executed on a lamp-post opposite the Market-house, pursuant to sentence of Court Martial, for swearing soldiers from their allegiance.” There is no mention in the newspaper reports of what happened to Magill’s remains.

After William Magill, four more United Irishmen, James Dickey, Hugh Grimes, Henry Byers and John Storey were all hung on a temporary scaffold that was erected opposite the Market House. That a temporary scaffold was put in place seemed to portend many more executions. After being hung, each of Byers, Dickey, Grimes and Storey was then beheaded and his head placed on a spike at the Market House. Dickey had requested, at the time of execution, that his body be given to his friends but it is not stated whether that happened (Belfast Newsletter 29 June 1798). Press accounts state that their heads were to remain on the spikes at the Market House until 16 August 1798. Even then there is no mention of whether their bodies were given to friends.

What then happened to Henry Joy McCracken was different. It is specifically stated in reports of his execution that his body was handed over to his friends (e.g. see Belfast Newsletter 20 July 1798). His remains were then buried in the old graveyard around St George’s Church (and later claimed to have been reburied in the new burying ground behind the Belfast Charitable Society building). In 1799, George Dickson, the last of the seven, was hung opposite the Market House on 17 May, for treason and rebellion. There is no mention of either the display or disposal of Dickson’s remains.

Other individuals condemned to death in Belfast, like David George Woods, were executed elsewhere (Woods was hung at Doagh). There are also some, like Richard Frazer, who were sentenced to death but the execution was apparently not carried out (in some cases sentences were referred to Dublin Castle for confirmation and later commuted to transportation or military service).

McCracken’s treatment seems to have been recorded and reported in the press as it was deviating from established policy. Executions appear to have been the responsibility of the local authorities and carried out in public, and, as noted by Guy Biener, “…As a further humiliation, executed rebels were often denied burial in consecrated ground and their corpses were interred by the gallows, so that they could not be memorialised in accordance with funerary custom.” (Biener 2016, 153).[2] As the gallows in Belfast had been erected at the Market House, burial there was impractical as it was in the middle of the commercial hub of the town. So, presumably, the town council had the remains taken from the Market House out to grounds owned by Belfast Corporation and interred there. The closest suitable location would have been the ground just outside the town in the location suggested by Bigger. Here, maps in the second half of the nineteenth century show it was still the location of Town Council yards on the east side of Oxford Street.

1860s map of Belfast (2nd edition OS Map) showing the markets either side of Oxford Street, the location described by Purdon appears to be within the Horse Market.

So, what can we say about Bigger’s account of a burial ground containing the dead from 1798? Given the lack of fighting in Belfast, those interred there could have included six of those executed in the town (unless the dead from elsewhere were brought to Belfast). Those likely to have been interred in such a plot are William Magill, James Dickey, Hugh Grimes, Henry Byers, John Storey and George Dickson. It is possible some were disinterred and taken elsewhere. Henry Purdon, whom Bigger is quoting, had family connections to Belfast Charitable Society, an organisation in which former United Irishmen like William Drennan and the like of Mary Ann McCracken were active, alongside Purdon’s father. This lends Purdon’s account a reasonable level of plausibility and suggests such a graveyard existed.

The location given, “…in May’s fields, a short distance beyond the termination of May Street.” is not specific enough to identify the exact location. But it does roughly correspond to the area later used by the Town Council as a yard (to the east of Oxford Street). Somewhere on early nineteenth century rental papers and maps, there should be an annotation that identifies what Bigger describes “…a narrow strip of ground, with a row graves”. Once found, this can now be identified as the place called ‘The Felons Plot’ and which held, and possibly still holds the remains of Henry Byers, James Dickey, George Dickson. Hugh Grimes, William Magill and John Storey.

Another United Irishman, James Hope, names some of them in his poem ‘McCracken’s Ghost’:

“While Storey lay martyred and Dickey lay dead,

And the hands of oppressors on spikes placed their heads,

Their spirits in glory triumphed to the skies,

And proclaimed through the air that the Croppies would rise.”

There are some others hints to a possible memory of the location. A John Holness gave a talk in Hewitt Memorial House in January 1930 on “Streets and Placenames in History” with special reference to Belfast. In that he noted that “…Cromac Street had gloomy connections as the name originally meant ‘the way to the gallows’.”(Belfast Telegraph, 25/1/1930). The reason for this association with Cromac Street isn’t clear.

While there are a remarkable number of reported discoveries of burials in and around Belfast city centre, there are none in the most likely areas in which the 1798 graveyard was likely located, despite substantial redevelopment with archaeological testing, excavations and monitoring. I published a paper a few years ago looking at some medieval burials and finds from Belfast city centre (in the Ulster Journal of Archaeology) at High Street, Castle Place and Castle Market. I’ve reviewed the information for finds of human remains around Belfast city centre to produce a Belfast bones map (see below). While there are a handful of known burial grounds around Belfast city centre – St George’s being the obvious one, but also Shankill (the oldest of them), Friars Bush (like the other two clearly medieval in origin) plus there was a paupers burial ground behind Clifton House that predated the ‘new burying ground’ that now lies between Henry Place and the Antrim Road.

There are clearly others, though.

Two long forgotten burial grounds are marked on a 1696 maps in the first volume of the Historic Towns Atlas for Belfast. I’ve managed to relocate these, plus identified discoveries of human remains in other locations that appear to be burials. These include Millfield, at several sites on the north side of Waring Street, a cluster around the Belfast Castle that burned down in 1708 in Castle Place, Castle Market and Cornmarket. A skull found in Castle Market in 1922 was radiocarbon dated and is medieval in date, while the other human remains appear to be formal burials, some clearly indicating former use as a cemetery. None appear to match the location described for a 1798 burial ground (shown on the bones map close to Georges Market). If people are interested I’ll post up information on the other burial sites. Other locations, like Peters Hill, are at least seventeenth century if not earlier. Ironically, newspaper accounts of discoveries of the bones often suggests they date to the 1798 rebellion. But I’ll post more about those another day.

Belfast bones map – discoveries of burials and human remains around Belfast city centre.

Work on the 1798 burial ground was undertaken as part of research for the Market Development Association and the Pangur Bán Literary & Cultural Society as part of a wider heritage project in the area.

[1] It is possible the location is recorded on early rental papers in PRONI (which are not currently accessible).

[2] Biener, G. 2016 Severed Heads and Floggings: The Undermining of Oblivion in Ulster in the Aftermath of 1798. In The Body in Pain in Irish Literature and Culture. pp.77-97. See also his Forgetful Remembrance: Social Forgetting and Vernacular Historiography of a Rebellion in Ulster.

Last day for book orders from Litter Press (for Christmas)

If you’re looking copies of the likes of the Belfast Pogrom or Belfast Battalion books from Litter Press before Christmas, tomorrow’s probably your last chance (but only if you’re in Ireland, as you may be too late already if you live elsewhere, sorry)!

To order click here

Lost Lives 1923-1969 (draft)

Between the end of the Irish Civil War on 1st May 1923 and the upsurge in conflict from 1st August 1969, some 279 deaths occurred relating to the political conflict over sovereignty in Ireland. This post is a brief introduction to the map showing the locations of those fatalities.

The deaths identified to date suggest that the most violent period was 1923-1929 with 118 fatalities, followed by the 1940s (64), then the 1930s (60), then the 1950s (21), with only 13 deaths identified in the 1960s. The most violent locations appear to be Belfast (58 deaths), Dublin (29) and Cork (27).

The deaths recorded here were largely collected as part of the background research for the Belfast Battalion book. The list is very much a draft and is likely to be missing names and events and anyone with suggestion can add them in the comments section and I’ll update the map periodically. The data included in the map is incomplete in any regard as there are individuals where further information is needed as well.

As this is very much a draft, the deaths are grouped by loose themes on the mapping. This include the likes of 1950-60s border campaign, the S-Plan campaign, the mid-1930s pogroms (largely in Belfast) and what the Fianna Fáil Minister for Justice, Gerry Boland, called the ‘Second Civil War’ which was the low intensity conflict between the IRA and both the Dublin and Belfast governments in the late 1930s and 1940s (fatalities where the IRA claimed the individual involved was an ‘informer’ are listed separately here too). Another theme is the violent deaths in period immediately after the Civil War, which are significant in number. Deaths from wounds received before 1st May 1923 is also a notable factor in a number of deaths through the 1920s. Lastly there are fatalities labelled here (for want of a better term) as due to a Left/Right dimension to the political violence including attacks on strikes and strike-breakers and incident involving the Blueshirts and related organisations like the League of Youth – I’ve also included two murders of Jewish men in Dublin the 1920s in this group (it was claimed that the killers were known and actively protected by the Free State government of the day and were later prominent in the Blueshirts).

Defining conflicts solely through fatalities is fraught with problems. The most obvious is the depressing one of defining the parameters of a death due to political violence, which isn’t actually that straightforward. Conventionally it can be taken as a fatality arising from an act of violence with a political motive. Yet this needs further elaboration as it can easily exclude operational losses sustained by state forces where the stresses and pressures of deployment can lead to carelessness and errors with fatal consequences (whereas post-operational reviews will usually include all such fatalities within their own statistically reporting). It also privileges ‘violent’ death over increased mortality where deliberate socio-economic and security policies, generally on the part of the state, can have negative impact on life expectancy and mortality, leading to premature deaths (i.e. due to what is described elsewhere as structural violence). Thus many people who die as a consequence of that type of political action are, almost literally, mere statistics and un-nameable and neither appear nor are remembered as individuals in the historical record. Similarly their collective deaths don’t then contribute to or shape an overarching narrative of the full extent and scope of ‘violence’ (and might better explain why violence occurs and how it is perpetuated).

It is also important to recognise that the ‘political’ policies that promoted the type of conservative, patriarchal society that was perpetuated on both sides of the border in Ireland were responsible for many violent deaths in mother and baby homes and other institutions that do not feature here. Similarly, having reviewed many fatal incidents from 1923 to 1969, the quantum of deaths due to conventional ‘political’ violence is still probably way below those arising from fatal violence against women over the same period (which are surely ‘political’ too as they simply are another manifestation of the misogyny evident in the public sphere).

The data offered here, then, suffers from all these same problems. At least, though, it can address some of them as it includes operational losses on the part of the various security services (north and south of the border) where a death occurred in a setting where security was heightened and could have been a causative factor. Similarly, prison fatalities often arise post-release with the conditions of incarceration leading to a breakdown in health and an early death. In the cases included here the interval between release and death are generally understood to be short, up to twenty-four months. In that sense the numbers of those who died due health issues related to their imprisonment is an underestimation, possibly a significant one. In both of these instances the impact on partners and children is unmeasured – although it is undocumented, we can only presume that security duty and imprisonment (particularly internment as it was open-ended) caused stress and strain on families that might be evident as reduced life expectancies for the partners and children of those involved. Again, none of those deaths would appear here.

There is some information about most deaths (just click the relevant dot on the map). You can also play with the map to show each individual layer (click the icon in the top left of the map and then you can turn on or off each layer). Or you can simply explore the locations and if you know of omissions, please add a comment with further information.

#BloodySunday 1920

Just a quick post on 1920’s Bloody Sunday, with a look at some reporting from the time. These are brief extracts from provincial press in Britain.

This is how the Leeds Mercury reported it the next day, like many papers it is (at best) vague about who actually killed people at Croke Park, while being very precise about the operations carried out by the IRA that morning. Many quote their source as the ‘official report’ on events.

That’s fairly typical, although if you read the account in the Edinburgh Evening News on the next day you wouldn’t actually know that it was Crown forces who killed people in Croke Park and you’d think it was the IRA that did it (that particular propaganda tactic wasn’t somehow invented in the 1970s). That type of misreporting is what prompted the publication of Who Burnt Cork City? after the burning of Cork in December 1920 (one of the next big centenary events).

Here’s reporting from the Edinburgh Evening News:

And to show how relatively instantaneous news reporting could be in 1920, a photo from Daily Mirrors front page the day after Bloody Sunday. Perhaps a reminder that media propaganda is a significant part of the stories around conflict, and always has been.

The Irish Times account of events in Croke Park similar obscures who was responsible for the deaths there (see below). The Irish Independent similarly published the official account along with eye witness accounts that almost invariably describe the shooting but not who was firing the shots although it does describe the military firing shots outside Croke Park, it more typically talks about ‘rifle fire’ without saying who were pulling the triggers on those rifles.

As does the Belfast Newsletter.

The Belfast Telegraph goes beyond the official account and suggests that those who were killed were shot during a gun battle between the IRA and Crown forces.

The Freeman’s Journal, was completely unequivocal, though. It described the day as Dublin’s Bloody Sunday and stated that “Croke Park was turned into Amritzar”.

While the Evening Telegraph, poignantly, included a brief account of the Dublin-Tipperary match itself.

You can now order a couple of new books on the war of independence in Dublin (by James Brady) and the border area (by Gregory Knipe), just check out

Frank Aiken and the Altnaveigh massacre

When Fianna Fáil entered government in Dublin in 1932, Frank Aiken was appointed Defence Minister, barely ten years since he ordered the killing of six Protestants at Altnaveigh near Newry.

The Irish Press front cover on 10th March 1932 showing de Valera’s first Fianna Fáil cabinet with his Minister for Defence, Frank Aiken, on the right end of the front row, less than ten years after Altnaveigh.

A founding member of Fianna Fáil and a TD since 1923, Aiken had been the Commandant of the IRA’s 4th Northern Division during the war for independence. He ordered the IRA to cease offensive operations against the Free State government within weeks of becoming IRA Chief of Staff in 1923. His 31 year ministerial career with Fianna Fáil was to include holding briefs for Finance, External Affairs. In the 1960s he spent four years as Tanaiste and turned down the opportunity to succeed Eamon de Valera as the Fianna Fáil candidate in the 1973 Presidential election (Erskine Childers stood for Fianna Fáil and won).

Aiken’s presence or absence during the killings at Altnaveigh has been debated. A new book by Gregory Knipe, The Fourth Northerners, documents Aiken’s 4th Northern Division and provides more detail on the Altaveigh attack.

Here’s a brief account of Altnaveigh from Gregory:

In the early hours of Saturday 17th June 1922 a special group of about thirty heavily armed IRA Volunteers travelled overland from Ravensdale Forest in County Louth to the village of Altnaveigh in South Armagh – a distance of about 8 miles. Altnaveigh was a small predominantly Protestant village and is described in the memoirs of former IRA members as the ‘stronghold of the ‘B’ Force murder gang’.

Each volunteer from the Newry 2nd Battalion was armed with a service rifle, 230 rounds of .303 ammunition, a service revolver and grenades for this special mission – a murder mission. The purpose of the mission, as stated by one of the participants was to burn every house and shoot every male that could be got.   On completion the Volunteers returned to Ravensdale Park.          

One of the IRA documents in the Military Archives that simply notes the Altnaveigh attack took place but omits any details or lists any of the participants (compare this to those on the days before and after on the same page).

The outcome of the raid was the killing of 6 Protestants and the wounding of many more (those killed included Thomas Crozier, Elizabeth Crozier, Joseph Gray, John Heslip, Robert Heslip and James Lockhart). The concern within the ranks of the participants were such that no reference was made to the event in the official records. A large number of the participants also left Ireland after the Truce.

Subsequently, I.R.A. members said that the attack was in revenge for four Volunteers killed by the ‘Specials’ and Altnaveigh was seen as a village of loyalists which had a high recruitment into the Ulster Special Constabulary.

Regardless of the controversy over whether he was present or not, as O.C. of the 4th Northern Division Frank Aiken would have to have given approval for such a mission. He was named by one Volunteer as being present on the attack, but this is disputed as he was involved on another mission on the same day – this was an attack on ‘A’ Specials at McGuill’s pub. This was as a response to a raid on the pub of a local republican and close friend of Frank Aiken.

Another file relating to the event cover up the murder of the Altnaveigh Protestants is shown in the image below.

In this record of operations carried out by Aiken’s 4th Northern Division, Altnaveigh is only alluded to half way down the page as ‘Special job carried out at – – -‘. It is notable that when these documents were created in the 1930s, Aiken was Minister for Defence.

So while Aiken wasn’t present at Altnaveigh, he was the one who had issued orders to the two IRA parties that left Ravensdale that night.

You can order The Fourth Northerners

Malachy Hughes: from South Armagh I.R.A. to Ballymena R.U.C.

Prof. Greg Knipe’s new book The Fourth Northerners, about the IRA’s 4th Northern Division during the war for independence, has just gone to print. Among other things, it includes a range of documentary records, a detailed chronology of events and participants and the surviving membership rolls for individual units including Cumann na mBan and Fianna. Buried among all that, in the membership roll of the Aughatarragh Company of the 3rd Brigade’s 2nd Battalion is the name of the Company Captain, Malachy Hughes, and his address at the time the rolls were compiled in the 1930s, which is given simply as ‘R.U.C.’.

So – can anyone shed any further light on Malachy Hughes? According to bits and pieces in the press he joined the R.U.C. in 1924, serving as part of the Governor’s Guard at Hillsborough Castle and on the border, based in Clogher and Sion Mills (prior to 1924 he doesn’t seem to have joined the National Army south of the border or been imprisoned). He was involved in at least one subsequent incident with the I.R.A. (the arrest of Frank Morris) and was an explosives Inspector for the R.U.C. in the 1940s and 1950s. He was transferred to Ballymena around 1945 and retired from the R.U.C. there as a Sergeant around 1956-57.

Perhaps people might share this around to see if it gets to someone who can add some more information to what looks like a very intriguing life journey.

I’ll be getting some posts from Greg over the next few weeks, but in the meantime you can check out his book here.

Rolling Home to Kevin Barry

At the start of February in 1932, a soloist with a name that ‘rarely belongs to a Protestant’ (according to the Belfast Telegraph on 8/2/1932) got up to sing at a function at an Orange Hall in County Antrim. In the Tele’s view, the hall was “…tastefully decorated with Union Jacks, while, in addition, the usual Orange pictures and the lodge banner, depicting King William crossing the Boyne, were in their accustomed places.” The soloist proceeded to sing, as the paper put it, ‘with the greatest feeling ‘Kevin Barry’ a red-hot Sinn Fein song’. To the huge surprise of the reporter, “…the audience was held spellbound – not from amazement but because they failed to grasp the import of the song – and at the finish there was not only thunderous applause, but a general demand for an encore.” The artiste neglected to provide a second song and, as the Belfast Telegraph states, ‘All’s well that ends well.’

That Orange Hall rendition of Kevin Barry serves as a useful illustration of the sort of emotional pull of music and songs and performance. And the role of ballads and poetry in political formation and messaging has been significant throughout Irish history. The song Kevin Barry is such a well-known ballad that it has been sung not just by the Wolfe Tones and the Clancy Brothers but many others like Pete Seeger, Paul Robeson (below), Lonnie Donegan and Leonard Cohen (you can hear their versions by clicking the links).

Sean Prendergast, in a Witness Statement describes the role the song had in building the subsequent political impact of Barry’s execution in 1920: “Around his heroic sacrifice the songster and the ballad singer weaved the story of his life, of his service as a Volunteer and his glorious death. Ballad sheets were printed in laudation of ‘Kevin Barry’ and sold in the tens of thousands – not merely sold, but sung at all times and in all places. The young people, particularly, fell prey to the strain of the ballad…”. Prendergast recounted that the likes of Joe Stanley’s ‘Gaelic Press’ and his printing establishment in Proby’s Lane printed and distributed song sheets.

Public singing of republican ballads was clearly part of the routine of political street theatre in the 1920s (indeed, to this day, many people’s most public political act is to join in when some well-known ‘rebel song’ is being played). The song about Barry quickly caught on in 1921. By July 1921, according to the Belfast Telegraph, youths outside the Anglo-Irish Peace Conference in the Mansion House reportedly sang a song “…having reference to the late Kevin Barry” (8/7/1921). This is presumably the same song, although there were a glut of songs written about Barry (you can see some more here in the Kevin Barry Papers at UCD). Another Kevin Barry ballad was the subject of a court case by Fred Cogley (the composer) in the Circuit Court in 1925, trying to restrain the Minister for Posts and Telegraphs from permitting gramophone recordings of his song entitled “To Kevin Barry”. The Northumberland Fusiliers regimental magazine St George’s Gazette (of 30/9/1921) also recorded that “In addition to the curious and inquiring glances and the gestures of dislike and defiance to which we are subject by the riff-raff which support Sinn Féin we have ‘Kevin Barry’ sung after us.”

[By the way – there is a whole TG4 series – Ceol Chogadh na Saoirse – looking at the impact of songs during the war for independence.]

Sometimes also referred to as ‘In Mountjoy Jail One Monday Morning’ the original author of ‘Kevin Barry’ is unknown. According to a story related by Seamus de Burca in 1961, “During Christmas 1920, an Irishman living in Glasgow was on holidays in Dublin. He came into the dairy shop, 8 Fleet Street, and presented the manuscript of a song he had just written to Kathleen Barry, one of Kevin Barry’s sisters. Miss Barry showed the song to her mother and her brothers and sisters and returned the song to the author, informing him that the Barry family had no objection to its publication. The song appeared in ballad sheet form and was an instantaneous success, even amongst us schoolboys. The melody, like the words, belongs to the man who wrote it, who gave both to the Irish Nation without any reward.” A later letter by De Burca (in the Evening Herald, 2/12/1992) repeats the same story and he also notes that his father was a first cousin of Barry’s mother.

A handwritten copy of the lyrics in the Kevin Barry papers in UCD contains basically the same story noting the author likely worked with a ‘Paddy M’ in Glasgow and was given £20 for it. It states that the air was ‘Roaming Home to Bonnie Scotland’.

Katherine Barry and Constance Markiewicz on a publicity tour.

Barry’s sister Katherine was a prominent member of Cumann na mBan (long predating her brother’s political activism). She was to continue to have a high profile at many events in Ireland and abroad in leveraging the political power of the Irish diaspora. The song was to become an integral part of the Kevin Barry legend. It was to become so well known that it appears in Carl Sandburgs famous American Songbag from 1929, where he states he learned it from ‘Irish Boys and Girls in Chicago’.

And people were very protective of the Kevin Barry song (and legend). De Burca’s story had appeared in a letter he sent to the Dublin Evening Mail (on 5/8/1961) criticising the appropriation of the melody for ‘The Irish Patrol’ a song written by Dick O’Donovan to honour Irish soldiers who had served in the Congo. Five days later O’Donovan pointed out in reply to De Burca, in the same paper, that ‘Kevin Barry’ was set to the air of a sea-shanty, and an English one no less, ‘Rolling Home to Merry England’ also known in the United States as ‘Rolling Home to Old New England’. It had also been used in a song about Terence McSwiney (‘Shall My Soul Pass Through Old Ireland’). Lonnie Donegan’s 1959 recording of the song had also attracted criticism in the media as disrespectful.

The song regularly caused confusion too, particularly when just the tune was played by a band. The tune had often been played to accompany British Army regiments embarking in colonical ports to sail back to Britain, with variations on the ‘Rolling Home…’ lyrics such as ‘Sailing Home to Merrie England’ and ‘Roaming Home to Bonnie Scotland’. According to ‘Trumpeter’ (in the Dublin Evening Mail of 29/31/1959) when British soldiers evacuated Dublin in 1922 the regimental band played ‘Sailing Home to Merrie England’ as the boat sailed out along the Liffey while people on the quays thought it was playing ‘Kevin Barry’.

The handwritten lyrics in the Kevin Barry Papers state that the tune is ‘Roaming Home to Bonnie Scotland’, which may be referencing a song that features in at least one late nineteenth songbook by ‘Claribel’ (the English poet and composer Charlotte Alington Barnard). But the air was indeed familiar in other settings too. James Connolly had written a song to the same air, ‘The Call of Erin’ which was used to close Dublin Labour meetings from before 1916 and well into the 1920s. Later songs about Erskine Childers and the Blueshirts reused the same tune too.

It may be tempting to think that the song ensured that Barry’s name became inextricably linked to Irish republicanism and kept him constantly in the public eye. But as early as 1929, a columnist in the Derry Journal (4/11/1929) was scathing about official attitudes to Barry barely nine years after his execution:

“It is bad form to mention Kevin Barry’s name in the circles of the new aristocracy. The cult of the all embracing Imperialism with its dances and its dinners and its garden parties, patronised by “the best people” from the remnant of the old garrison party, and carried out according to the most approved standards of English etiquette, looks disdainfully on the principles for which Kevin Barry and so many like him, sincere as they believed all their leaders to be sincere, gladly and heroically laid down their young lives. The hands-across-the-Irish-Sea policy has no place for the martyrs of the Anglo-Irish war. To remember them would be to cast a doubt on the blueness of the blood from which “high society” in the Saorstat loves to make the world believe it has sprung.”

Litter Press has just published two books covering different unit of the IRA from the war for independence, With the Sixth Battalion by James Brady (about south Dublin) and The Fourth Northerners by Greg Knipe (about the Fourth Northern Division). You can read more on those here.

Fiftieth anniversary of the death of Jimmy Steele

Today is the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Belfast republican, Jimmy Steele.

Steele was born on 8th August 1907 in Artillery Street in the North Queen Street area of Belfast. When his mother, Catherine, died from tuberculosis on 3rd March 1912, Jimmy was just four years old. His younger brother, Dan, was two weeks short of his first birthday. Jimmy, Dan and their three older brothers were mainly brought up by their aunt Mary Ellen in her small shop on the New Lodge Road, rather than by their father, Arthur, a fitter originally from Randalstown (an older sister, Mary Ellen, had died as a baby).


Jimmy was later to write of hearing politics discussed as a child, of Home Rule, Joe Devlin, John Redmond, the Hibernians, Connolly and Larkin. He also recorded how he remembered hearing someone whistling ‘A Soldiers Song’ and graffiti on a wall in the street after the Easter Rising and of “…the wounded Connolly, idol of the Belfast dockers and mill girls being shot to death as he sat strapped to his chair”.

Arthur remarried in October 1919 to Sarah Scullion, who owned a pub on the New Lodge Road. Even before Catherine had died Arthur already had a reputation of being overly fond of drink (Jimmy was to be a lifelong teetotaller). Arthur’s drinking led his eldest brother, Charlie, to emigrate to New York in April 1920. His brother Arthur emigrated too. Jimmy was attending school in Hardinge Street where he apprenticed as a plasterer. He got involved in gaelic games there and played on the school’s hurling team.

The Steele’s came to the attention of the RIC in July 1920 when a revolver was found during a search of Mary Ellen’s shop. By then Jimmy and his older brother Bill were active in Fianna Eireann’s North Queen Street sluagh and D Company of the IRA’s 2nd Battalion in Belfast (his uncles were also involved in the IRA). Raids and arrests were to become a constant feature of Jimmy’s life. In 1921 the RIC came looking for Bill as his handcart had no light on it. As he wasn’t at home, they arrested Jimmy instead. North Queen Street saw some of the most intense violence of 1920 to 1922. His father’s brother James received serious head wounds in a grenade attack on his home in August 1921 and other relatives, like his uncle Dan and his fathers cousin Patrick Steele, were also injured in the violence.

As a Fianna officer, Jimmy had dual rank and was also attached to B Company of the 1st Battalion of the IRA. He remained active after the split in 1922. He and Bill kept a small arms dump stored on waste ground behind Mary Ellen’s shop which was given away by a tip-off to the RUC in September 1923. At that time Charlie was home from New York and he and Jimmy were arrested as the RUC could not find Bill. While Charlie was quickly released, Jimmy was to spend three weeks in Crumlin Road. When Charlie returned to New York, he and Arthur repeatedly offered to pay for Jimmy and Bill to join them. Jimmy was to be arrested and imprisoned for a while again in 1924, with Mary Donnelly of Cumann na mBan.

By now he was part of an independent unit in the Belfast Battalion that covered north Belfast, under Jack McNally. He avoided the round-up of IRA suspects that coincided with the news of the failure of the Boundary Commission in November 1925, but was detained in January 1926 following the discovery in the postal sorting office of a package of 110 copies of An Phoblacht addressed to him (the paper had been banned the same month). The unionist government struggled to find scope in the Special Powers Act to prosecute him and he escaped with a fine for possession of a banned edition of An Phoblacht that was found in Mary Ellen’s shop.

He was involved in the setting up of Joe McKelvey’s GAA club by members of the Belfast IRA in 1925. Throughout the late 1920s and into the 1930s he was to be an active playing member for the club in both hurling and football, mainly in the half forward line. He won South Antrim junior and senior football championship, league, South Antrim Cup and Madigan Cup medals. He also played in a number of junior and senior hurling finals. The pinnacle of his sporting career was probably 1931 when, as South Antrim champions, McKelveys played in the Antrim Senior Football Championship final against the North Antrim Senior Football champions Cuchullains, from Dunloy, eventually losing a replay 1-4 to 0-3. The next week McKelveys lost the South Antrim Senior Hurling Championship final to O’Connells. He played in all three matches.

In 1927 he and Tony Lavery had been tasked by the Belfast Battalion O/C, Davy Matthews, with rebuilding the Fianna organisation in Belfast. This led to a tripling in size of the Belfast IRA by the early 1930s as individuals progressed from one organisation to the other. This was accompanied by more arrests and detentions. In 1928 he was arrested with posters that were to inform people of an Easter commemoration but again the authorities found that their intended charges were not covered by the Special Powers Act. Arrested yet again with posters that were deemed ‘illegal’ in 1929, the unionist government had its prosecution thrown out of court as it transpired that no prohibited organisations were actually mentioned on the posters. Documents reportedly found on him during one 1929 arrest showed he was then learning Irish and writing poetry.

As sectarian tensions began to simmer in Belfast again in the early 1930s, the Belfast Battalion staff began to fight a running battle with IRA GHQ in Dublin over how to confront the issue. The Battalion staff refused to get visibly involved at an organisational level in the Outdoor Relief strike in October 1932 as it would give the authorities a pretext to put it down violently. Many IRA volunteers were actively involved as individuals, though. As the suppression happened anyway, the Battalion got officially involved in the railway workers strike in January 1933, carrying out bomb and gun attacks at the request of the unions. This wasn’t sufficient to placate those in IRA GHQ who were trying to leverage the Belfast Battalion so that the IRA would more fully engage in political activity. By various means over 1933 and 1934, existing Battalion staff like Davy Matthews, George Nash and Dan Turley were forced or pushed out and Tony Lavery and Jimmy then took over as Battalion O/C and Adjutant.

The IRA had increasingly come in to conflict with the RUC during 1933 and RUC constables were killed during confrontations in January and October 1933. The latter led to widespread arrests of IRA suspects, including Jimmy and he spent several months in prison. He was to take over as Battalion Adjutant on his release in 1934. Protests over the arrests and a huge election rally in support of republican candidates in the November 1933 election saw the IRA candidate run Joe Devlin close in Belfast (the unionist government response was to introduce a non-abstention oath for candidates). During the election campaign the Belfast IRA also began to produce its own occasional newspaper, An Síol to which Jimmy began to contribute (particular from 1935 when it began to appear weekly). He also continued to play for McKelveys although the club was struggling due to the repeated arrests of its players.

The formation of Republican Congress in 1934 took some of the IRA GHQ opponents of the previous Belfast Battalion staff out of the IRA. In Belfast sectarian violence was now leading to occasional deaths and the growing threat of a sustained assault on Catholic districts such as had happened in 1920-22. Drawing on its experience of 1920-22, the IRA tried to replenish its stock of rifles and train its members as preparation for defence of threatened districts, leading to further confrontations with the RUC as it intercepted drilling parties and searched for weapons. Jimmy was arrested again in late 1934, with habeas corpus suspended the unionist government denied it was even holding him as a prisoner. His treatment was bad enough to require medical assistance on his release in January 1935.

Despite increasing street violence, the Belfast Battalion agreed to attend a training camp at Gyles Quay Louth in July 1935. As violence erupted in North Queen Street on the 12th July, Free State forces swooped on the Belfast Battalion’s training camp, confiscating weapons and imprisoning twelve of those present. On the 13th, Jimmy managed to disentangle enough volunteers to return and take over the defence of the North Queen Street district where violence continued until late summer.

In November, Jimmy acted as Director of Elections to Charlie Leddy (who had been imprisoned over Gyles Quay) in West Belfast during the general election. In December, the Belfast battalion ambitiously tried to clear out the two hundred rifles of the OTC armoury in Campbell College. Instead, it was surprised by the RUC and fought a running gun battle in which one volunteer was captured (Jimmy and Tony Lavery had to go to the scene to call off the operation). The aftermath saw a wave of arrests and the Battalion investigated whether there was an informer among the staff.

Jimmy acted as Battalion O/C when Tony Lavery was ordered to a courtmartial for having some of those arrested defended in court (against GHQ orders). On 30th March, he lined out at centre half forward for McKelveys as they won the Biggar Cup final. He was the only remaining player from the team that had played in the 1931 senior county final. Lavery’s court martial in Crown Entry the next month, which was doubling up as a conference of senior IRA commanders in the north, was given away by the same informer and Jimmy and most of the IRA northern leadership were arrested. They were charged with treason felony and given varying sentences in Crumlin Road (Jimmy got five years penal servitude). He had been preparing to marry his childhood sweetheart, Anna Crawford, prior to his arrest. Prior to the sentencing he wrote a poem called ‘A Prayer From My Prison Cell’ that was to be published in the Wolfe Tone Weekly on September 11th 1937. During that summer he also wrote ‘Belfast Graves’ which was to be a popular song among Belfast republicans. Lines from the song are quoted in Brendan Behan’s novel Borstal Boy (Behan later recalled Jimmy staying with his family when visiting Dublin).

The treason felony prisoners demanded they get recognised as political prisoners (there were twenty-three long and short-term republican prisoners in Crumlin Road by August 1936). After several clashes with the prison authorities a hunger and thirst strike began on 18th August, although they began taking water again by the sixth day. By the 1st September only Jimmy remained on hunger strike. Weakened by the initial thirst strike, he became weak on the 3rd and Bill was called into the prison to see him. A supposed deal was brokered by the 5th and Jimmy ended his hunger strike only to restart it on 17th and continue to the end of the month (by now the authorities had at least agreed to deal with a nominated O/C of the republican prisoners). This protest took a long term physical toll on his health as it damaged his lungs.

Jimmy was forced to observe the unfolding of the IRA’s English campaign from inside Crumlin Road, only to be released in May 1940, immediately reporting back for active service (on 1st August he was also to finally marry Anna). Assigned as Director of Training to the Northern Command, he took over as O/C Belfast around September 1940 having been involved in disciplinary proceedings against members of the Belfast Battalion who were believed to have had ‘fascist’ leanings. He also appears to have edited the Belfast edition of War News (the forerunner of Republican News)At the start of December he was arrested in the backyard of Anna’s father’s house on North Queen Street. A revolver and cash found in his coat were used as a pretext to later give him a ten year prison sentence and was he returned to Crumlin Road. The expanding number of republicans in Crumlin Road had saw the internees and sentenced men divided into two battalion structures, with Jimmy as O/C in A Wing. He continued to write poetry and articles that were smuggled out and published anonymously in War NewsAn tÓglach and The Critic. Like the other prisoners, he was confined to Crumlin Road during the blitz when bombs fell around the prison (his cousin James O’Boyle and Mary Donnelly, who had been arrested with him in the 1920s, were both killed during the German bombing in April 1941). The authorities also identified him as having a role in procuring equipment for the escape of five prisoners in June 1941 but they made no attempt to punish him. During 1941 and 1942 relations were strained within the prison when the IRA killed a prison warder in February 1942 and Tom Williams was hung there in September the same year.

The latter was followed, on 15th January 1943, by the escape of Jimmy, Hugh McAteer (the recently arrested IRA Chief of Staff), Ned Maguire (brother of the Belfast IRA O/C) and Pat Donnelly from Armagh. They had accessed the roof space over A wing and broke through the roof, climbed down a rope made of sheets and scaled the outer wall. The unionist government was severely embarrassed at its inability to recapture the escapees. This became even more acute when twenty one prisoners tunnelled out of Derry jail in March (Jimmy was involved in the operation on the outside). In between, Jimmy had taken over as the IRA’s Belfast O/C and Adjutant of Northern Command and also edited Republican News. In April, when Liam Burke was arrested, he took over as Adjutant General of the IRA. At the end of the month, he and McAteer further embarrassed the unionist government by staging a public Easter Rising commemoration in Broadway cinema in Belfast. Within a week the northern government’s Prime Minister, J.M. Andrews, resigned.

The intense searches that followed saw Jimmy re-arrested in Amcomri Street in May and he was returned to Crumlin Road (this time with a further twelve years added to his sentence). His seventeen year old nephew, Arthur, received a ten year sentence the same day. On returning to A wing he immediately joined the blanket protest taking place at the increasing harshness of the prison regime which ended in September. After the blanket protest ended he received a beating in his cell at the hands of prison staff. Although the women in Armagh Jail had shown up the difficulties in mounting a hunger strike in late 1943, the men in Crumlin Road didn’t heed the lessons and began their own hunger strike in February 1944. Starved of publicity and looking increasingly likely to lead to fatalities, the strike was ended by orders of the IRA Chief of Staff on 6th April. Jimmy had spent forty days on hunger strike. Beatings and violence from warders continued to be a feature of prison life until the end of the war in May 1945 and the release of internees in August that year. However, despite the demonstrably political nature of sentencing policy, the unionist government was slow to accept that it had also to release the sentenced prisoners and Jimmy was the last to be released, in September 1950. Earlier that year, he had been stood as the Sinn Féin candidate in West Belfast in the general election but had polled poorly.

After his release he was given work doing deliveries for Hughes Bakery and he and Anna tried to settle into some sort of married life. In April 1951 his father, Arthur, died at the age of 81 (his second wife, Sarah, had died in 1948). He and Anna had their own child, a son called Colm, in 1952. On his release Jimmy had also reported back for duty to the IRA and took over again as O/C Belfast. Much of the Belfast Battalion’s energy and resources were taken up with the publication of a newspaper, Resurgent Ulster (from November 1951), but there were still occasional confrontations with the authorities and periods of detention for Jimmy. Much of the early 1950s was taken up with re-establishing the Belfast IRA as the pre-eminent republican organisation in the city. Jimmy began to be publicly involved with the National Graves Association in Belfast and more openly associated with political activity with Sinn Féin. The Battalion didn’t seem to fully engage with IRA GHQ’s emerging plans for a border campaign though. By the time the campaign started Jimmy had stood down as Belfast O/C in favour of Paddy Doyle (an organiser sent up by GHQ). Doyle’s arrest on the eve of the campaign meant that Belfast never fully participated as subsequent swoops by the RUC detained many active republicans. Jimmy avoided arrest until 1957 but was to be held until 1960, spending much of the time as O/C of the internees and famously rallying them following mass beatings after a failed escape attempt.

By the end of his time in Crumlin Road, his health had begun to suffer and on his release, while he was re-employed by Hughes Bakery, he eventually had to take up work in the Bakery shop rather than carry out deliveries.

In October 1961 tragedy struck when Colm was knocked down and killed in a hit-and-run incident at a pedestrian crossing on the Falls Road. Although the driver was eventually caught, the inquest in December 1961 returned an open verdict on Colm’s death.

On his release from Crumlin Road Jimmy had again reported for duty to the IRA. The Belfast IRA resumed publishing its own newspaper, Tírghrá, in December 1962 and tried to rebuild some sort of capacity under Billy McKee. Over the next couple of years, Jimmy worked closely with National Graves in developing the republican memorials in Milltown which coincided with the Wolfe Tone commemorations of 1963 and then the Easter Rising commemorations in 1966 by which time Jimmy had published Antrim’s Patriot Dead and Belfast and nineteensixteen. In so far as the state organised the 1966 commemorations in Dublin, the IRA largely organised those in Belfast, with Jimmy as President of Directorate of the Commemoration Committees.

As with the Wolfe Tone societies set up earlier in the 1960s, all of these coalesced groups into the organised ‘Republican Clubs’ which the IRA saw as an outlet for political activity. Jimmy continued as President of the Directorate of Republican Clubs. Over the course of the 1960s, the Divis Street riots and UVF attacks in 1966 had become reminiscent of the 1930s with the threat of intensifying violence against Catholic districts. Billy McKee had resigned as Belfast O/C in 1963, to be replaced by Billy McMillen. Throughout the rest of the 1960s the IRA concentrated on political activity with little emphasis on procuring arms or carrying out training. Publication of Tírghrá ceased by 1965 as control centralised in Dublin and considerable disaffection was growing among republicans in Belfast over IRA policy. Jimmy’s continued involvement in the Republicans Clubs into 1967 to some extent validated the policy, but he began to make muted statements criticising the direction the IRA was taking at the Manchester Martyrs centenary events in Manchester in November 1967. He made a nuanced comparison with the ‘New Departure’ initiative of John Devoy in which leading IRB figures pursued a personal initiative to break with abstentionism as policy when it was not official IRB policy. Late the next year, Cathal Goulding, the IRA’s Chief of Staff, pushed through changes to the IRA that expanded membership of the Army Council which would have a majority of Goulding supporters until the next Army Convention when the membership would have to be re-elected.

With unrest growing on the streets of Belfast and the IRA totally unprepared to offer any defence to districts likely to face violent attacks, Jimmy decided to make his criticisms of the IRA leadership public at the reburial of Peter Barnes and James McCormack in July 1969. His words were aimed directly at Goulding: “There comes a time in every generation when men try to re-direct the republican movement along a different road to that upon which our freedom fighters trod… And Connolly’s words on this matter should give us all food for thought when he said, “Unity is a word used by many with ulterior motives, to achieve political ambition, or ultimately, to seek power and control in a united movement.” Therefore in striving for genuine unity we must be careful that such efforts may not lead to that seizure of power and control by the wrong people as defined by Connolly.

Within days, Goulding had Jimmy immediately dismissed from the IRA without courtmartial. Within weeks, the unionist government had interned McMillen and much of the IRA leadership just before the widespread attacks on Catholic districts on 15th August. The parlous state the Belfast IRA had reached was illustrated by Broadway being defended by Jimmy and Joe Cullen, another 1920-22 IRA veteran.

In the immediate aftermath of the August violence, Jimmy and many others immediately returned to service with the IRA. Jimmy chaired a meeting a week later to try and backfill some structure where the IRA had all but disappeared. Districts were visited and organised, parties were dispatched to recover long forgotten arms dumps and distribute them to areas where they would be needed. When McMillen was freed a month later, Jimmy joined a deputation that went to where he was meeting the Belfast Battalion staff with demands on changes that had to be implemented. McMillen agreed to break communications with IRA GHQ until changes were made, including Goulding’s removal. The next day, McMillen resumed communications and the Belfast IRA divided into individuals and units willing to recognise Goulding’s authority and others, like Jimmy, who wanted a new leadership elected.

As the split in the IRA formalised in 1970, Jimmy was reputedly offered the role of Chief of Staff and Adjutant General but turned down both. He did help restart publication of Republican News by the summer of 1970, alongside the likes of Hugh McAteer. McAteer, whose health had been weakened by long years in prison died in June 1970 at the young age of 53. Jimmy gave the oration at his funeral. Rather than take that as a warning that he needed to slow down, Jimmy continued to edit Republican News and be active for long hours every single day. Then on 9th August 1970, Jimmy’s poor health also gave way and he died of heart failure. It was the day after his sixty-third birthday.

Here is a poem he wrote in 1946.


(A Prison Poem 1946)

The whitewashed cell is cold and bare,

As perished with the chilly air,

I sit and muse on times long past.

To feel the melancholy blast

Of longing, for the day I knew,

When sorrows with me then were few.

The home where all my youth was spent,

Advice and counsel kindly meant

From those dear ones, who felt for me

And sought to guard and keep me free

From every trouble, pain and care,

A wicked world gives as its share.

The pleasant nights of dance and song

Has set me reminiscing long.

To hear the voice of colleen sweet

The rhythm of the dancers feet,

The lilting tune of jig and reel,

That made our aching feet e’er feel.

The urge to dance and be so gay

And all our worries to relay.

The tramp o’er mountain, road and hill,

Or sitting in the quiet still

Of some lone glen; while someone there

Would speak or sing of Ireland fair.

The story of her ancient right.

The struggle ‘gainst usurper’s might;

Her sons who served and fought and died

In her just cause so sanctified,

And thus our hearts with pride, we’d lace

With love for our unconquered race.

The haunting sound of Gaelic tongue,

Enchantingly around us clung;

The hours we spent to win its fame,

And preach our gospel in its name,

The grip of caman in my hand,

Amidst a stalwart hurling band,

To glory in the rugged play,

Enthusiastic in the play.

Whilst in my ears the roars still clung

As eager fans made welkin ring.

The joy and fervour of it all,

E’en yet I feel it in recall.

More poignant thoughts seep through my mind,

And comrades faces there I find,

Who entered through the door of death

With martyred step and patriot breath,

Brave heroes in our country’s fight,

God grant them heaven’s place tonight.

What joy ‘twould give to wander back,

Along that old familiar track;

To greet old friends – old scenes again,

To shelter from the prison rain;

That soaks me with its sombre showers,

And turns the minutes into hours.

I’d intended to have a biography of Jimmy Steele completed for the fiftieth anniversary of his death but obviously this year hasn’t gone to plan. In the meantime – for the next few days anyway – there will be a special offer on the Belfast Battalion book (£10 including postage) which provides the backdrop to much of his life – click here for the special offer.

%d bloggers like this: