A propaganda photo and some Corr family stories (by Dominic Corr)

 


Corrs BT

This is another classic example of propaganda from 1920-1922. The photograph above was reproduced in the Belfast Telegraph on 20th September 1921 with a second photo (see the end of this post for the second photo). The caption said, “So bad have conditions become in Vere St., Belfast, that the loyalists have had to tunnel the walls of their backyards so as to get to and from their business, the street being under continuous fire from a Sinn Fein locality. Here is a man and child standing in the tunnelled back gardens.

This being the Belfast Telegraph, the family in the foreground are actually Catholics and the houses shown were occupied by Catholics in the upper end of Vere Street. The story behind the photo is even more incredible.

Vere Street had repeatedly witnessed serious violence including in the weeks leading up to the shooting of two women Margaret Ardis and Evelyn Blair on 18th September 1921 (the area subsequently had its own curfew imposed). Two other women had been wounded several days previously and the streets had been swept with machine gun fire earlier in September (one judge referred to Vere Street as the ‘toughest street’  in Belfast). The incidents earlier in September appear to have attracted the press interest that saw the tunnelled back yards being photographed. This happened before the 18th September 1921.

The man in the foreground and the woman in the photo are John and Mary Ann Corr. Far from being loyalists, John and Mary Ann were one of the Catholic families that lived at the North Queen Street end of Vere Street (residents at the upper half of Vere Street were mainly Catholic, the lower half mainly Protestants). What is more, on the evening of 18th September, after Margaret Ardis and Evelyn Blair were killed in lower Vere Street by a shot fired from the upper end, the Corrs had their house searched and John was arrested and charged with their double murder (he was refused bail hence the photograph must date to before the 18th September). This is an example of the type of disinformation and propaganda described by Fr John Hassan in his Facts and Figures of the Belfast Pogrom 1920-1922. The subsequent trial fell apart as eye witness testimony that identified John Corr firing the fatal shot from a rifle fell apart as a soldier testified to being served in Corr’s shop by him at the time of the shooting and post-mortem evidence revealed that the fatal shot had come from a revolver.

Here is Dominic Corr on this story along with some more of the Corr family history. This includes some stories from the 1920s, including the tunnelling of the walls shown in the photograph above. In the same week the photo appeared in the press his Grandfather was framed for the shooting dead of two women on Vere Street during a riot. He had ammunition planted on him during a search (this must have immediately followed the publication of the photograph) and was then brought to trial on a double murder charge (he was acquitted). Dominic includes more details on the Corr family in the 1930s and 1940s, including the imprisonment of his father and uncle and the death of his grandmother and another uncle during the blitz. I’ve included some additional links to previous posts which mention the Corr family at the end.

My grandparents John and Mary Ann Corr reared their family in different homes they lived in north Belfast in and around districts such as Little Patrick Street in Little Italy in the Docklands, Hardinge Street off the New Lodge Rd and Vere Street in the Fenian Gut off North Queen Street. I remember my Da telling me he was born in the room of a house when they lived in residences in a house in Little Patrick Street in an area known as Little Italy off York Street
This district was called this due to the amount of Italian families which had emigrated to Belfast and set up home in this area. My Granda John Patrick, Johnny Corr and his wife Mary Anne moved to a room in another house in Hardinge Street and then to a house they got in Vere Street off North Queen Street when they got their own rented house sometime between 1916 and 1919 close to the district known as the Fenian Gut (see map below).

fenian-gut-map.png
The Fenian Gut was an area long since gone of a few streets that were nestled in between York Street Mill and North Queen Street close to the top of Henry Street. Just beyond it were Sussex Street, Vere Street, Grove Street and Earl Street with Cross Street running along one end at the North Queen Street end and Dale Street running along the bottom of Vere Street and Grove Street. All in the shadow of York Street Mill.
Between living in Little Italy, Hardinge Street and the Fenian Gut they had a family of eight children four girls Winnie, Bridget, Josie and Debbie and four boys Arthur (Arder), my father Kevin Barry, Johnny and Freddie.
My Granda Corr had four sisters and my Granny Corr had a twin sister who died in infancy and a brother who lived until 1960 when he died in Manchester. Her maiden name was Bloor which had been anglicised from the Belgian name Bleur and her family emigrated to Ireland from Congelton, Cheshire in England in the mid-1800’s though its believed they originally came from Belgium.
What brought a family originally from Belgium who lived in Cheshire to Ireland during a time of poverty and starvation around the time of an gorta mór? Is anybody’s guess. Her father Frederick was registered as a steeplejack while brother Frederick Bloor was registered as having left a workhouse in Cheshire to emigrate to Ireland. He also joined the navy.
The Corr side of the family came to Belfast from Ballnagilly in Cookstown on the Tyrone side of Lissan. Lissan is a townland situated on a borderline  which straddles both county Tyrone and county Derry  and as far as I know it was my Granda Johnny’s father, also called John, who made that move. After he and his wife Bridget Corr nee McAleer had returned to Ireland from Burrow-on-Furness where they had emigrated to from Ballnagilly in Lissan.
They set up home at 9 Pinkerton Street in the New Lodge area of Belfast after they had lived in Union Place and Columbia Street in Belfast. It has been passed down the family in an oral storyline that when they moved to Belfast he and Bridget had separated  around eight or nine years later and that he may have had other families in Burrow-on-Furness and Coalisland. All that I know his my own Da and his brother Arder hadn’t much of a good word to say about their grandfather John after whatever had happened.

Baker Corrs

The Corrs photo as it appears in Joe Baker’s book The McMahon Murders.

The photograph shown above was taken from a book a while ago after two old New Lodge residents Annie Kelly and Josie Wiggins RIP had brought it to a family members attention and confirmed that the man with the moustache in the front was my Grandfather John Patrick (Johnny) Corr and the woman was his wife my Granny Mary Ann. The picture is said to have been taken in the back yard of a house in the Vere Street, Earl Street, Grove Street and Sussex Street area sometime around 1920/22. When residents dug holes in back yard walls to use as access and escape routes during the unionist/British military  pogroms and sectarian terror attacks which paved the way for the establishment of the six county Stormont state.
My Granda Johnny and his family like many other Irish Catholic families in Belfast had witnessed and been on the receiving end of unionist state violence, harassment and injustice. My Granda Johnny was at one point arrested and charged with a double killing in North Queen Street. Two women, Margaret Ardis aged 22 years old and Evelyn Blair aged 22 years old, who were part of a unionist crowd attacking Vere Street were both killed by a single bullet as a sniper shot them on the 18th of September 1921.
Local folklore had it that both women were dressed in a provocative manner as Mary and Joseph one on a donkey and the other walking the donkey on a leash shouting anti-Catholic profanities at the time of the shooting. The bullet is said to have struck Miss Ardis on the head killing her instantly  passing through her and striking Miss Blair who  died a short time  later in hospital.
My Granda John (Johnny) Patrick  was arrested after the British military raided the family home in Vere Street. My aunt Winnie, who was his oldest daughter, told him not to touch his coat and to register a complaint right away as she had seen a soldier attempting to place ammunition in the pocket of her fathers coat. Johnny asked to speak to whoever was the officer in command of the search telling him to take the soldier who placed the ammunition in his pocket aside.
He explained what Winnie had seen and asked that the commanding officer search both his coat and the soldier to ascertain if he had any missing ammunition. This was done and the bullets found in the coat pocket matched the same number of bullets missing from the magazine of the soldiers rifle. John was still arrested and charged.
The death knell for the case came when another British soldier said that at the time of the shooting he had seen Johnny Corr working in a shop in Garmoyle Street which was around a quarter of a mile away serving someone tobacco.
Johnny maintained his innocence from the time he was arrested right through the trial on charges of this double murder for which he would’ve been hanged if found guilty. This soldier who gave evidence that wrecked the crown case had been involved in an incident in Clonard in which a priest had been shot dead the year before. In July 1920, a Redemptorist member, Brother Michael Morgan, aged 28, was shot dead by a British soldier as Brother Michael was looking out from an upper-storey window of the monastery adjoining the church.
Johnny was released as the crowns case against him collapsed. Family members have gained access to the actual charge sheet and witness statements which contradicted each other and some made little or no sense. Despite several attempts  to gain access to documents relating to this actual trial and acquittal from PRONI public records office by members of our family we have yet to have any success.
In the years later he moved between Belfast, the south of Ireland and England to work as the candy and tobacco shop he ran in Garmoyle Street closed. In 1928 Johnny and Mary Ann had a young son Johnny he died as an infant a year later as a result of cardiac failure due to chronic bronchitis and pneumonia. In the mid 1930’s onwards Arder, Kevin Barry and Bridget were involved in the IRA and Cumman na mBan in Belfast.
Arder was sentenced in the late 1930’s to seven years in Belfast prison Crumlin Road Gaol. It was during this term of imprisonment as a republican political prisoner that his mother Mary Ann and youngest brother Freddie, who was 11 years old, both died on Easter Tuesday 1941 during the Luftwaffe blitz on Belfast.
They were killed when bombs dropped by the Luftwaffe exploded on York Street Mill which was said to have been the biggest spinning mill in the world at that time. The main side wall of the six storey mill collapsed on top of their home and many other houses in Vere Street and Sussex Street off North Queen Street killing and injuring many of the residents.
Their bodies along with many others were brought to the Falls Road bath’s which at the time was turned into an emergency morgue. When my Granny Corr died she was 48 years old along with her youngest child Freddie who was 11 years old. She left behind her husband Johnny Patrick, four daughters Winnie, Bridget, Josie and Debbie and two sons Arthur and my father Kevin Barry who was 19 years old at the time.
My aunt Josie received burns to her arm and chest in a different house in Vere Street as she was blown onto the hearth of the open fire and my aunt Debbie was found in another house in Vere Street trapped inside the chimney as in the panic they couldn’t make it to their own family home at the time the bombs were being dropped. People had been running in and out of houses in panic as the Luftwaffe planes dropped the bombs.
My father was at a dance in St Marys Hall off Chapel Lane and they were locked in as the bombs dropped.
When the air raid had finished and word spread of the houses demolished in Sussex Street and Vere Street my father was told his mother and younger brother had been killed and were taken to the Falls Rd baths. My Da who at that time was an active republican made his way to the baths and was shown in by a friendly attendant where he was able to unofficially identify his mother and brother. My Granda Johnny Patrick  had been working in England at the time. As a result of this the coroner said the oldest son would have to identify my Granny and Freddie’s bodies.
My uncle Arthur (Arder) was the eldest son at 25 years old but was a sentenced republican prisoner in Crumlin Road Gaol at the time. He got compassionate parole to identify his mother and brother. He was brought from the Gaol to the Falls baths in handcuffs which he wore throughout the process of identification and his return to the Gaol.
I watched a documentary programme from the 1990’s about the blitz. When a man who had worked in the Falls baths as an attendant at the emergency morgue almost cried as he recounted how Arder was handcuffed and a detective stood between him his mother and brother making sure he couldn’t touch them or have any physical contact with either of them.
After Arthur was returned to Crumlin Road Gaol the Catholic Bishop at the time had to intervene on the family’s behalf so Arder could get paroled a second time for his mother and brothers joint funerals. My Granda was contacted in England and told of the deaths of his wife and their youngest child. He returned to his family to bury his wife and son.
A year later our Granda Johnny died on the 17th of July 1942 from throat cancer and his son Arder was refused compassionate parole to visit his father yards away in the Mater hospital next door to Crumlin Road Gaol or go his father’s funeral.
Less than two months later my father Kevin Barry and Arder were to lose their friend and comrade Tom Williams a nineteen year old political prisoner and IRA member hanged in Belfast prison Crumlin Road Gaol.
Tom was hanged as a result of being involved in an IRA operation in which an RUC constable Patrick Murphy was shot dead. My uncle Arder who was a fellow Irish republican political prisoner at the time wrote a song in tribute and honour of Tom, The Ballad of Tom Williams, while he was in his cell in Crumlin Road Gaol shortly after Tom Williams was hanged on the 2nd of September 1942.
Within months Arder was to get a pleasant surprise, well all depending at what way you look at it. A screw opened his cell door to tell him he had a special visitor, and it would be a long visit, as his younger brother, my father Kevin Barry, was pushed into his cell.
He had been arrested after months on the run when he was found in a warehouse in Belfast docks having taken ill with pneumonia.
He was brought under armed guard to the Mater hospital where he was held under guard for almost a fortnight and then brought to the Gaol next door. On his introduction both my father and Arder started a protest in refusing to share a cell as it meant the prison authorities were attempting to double men up in cells. Meaning they could make room to bring more Irish republican political prisoners into the Gaol. Arder had a habit of protesting and annoying the screws and governor so much so that he was whipped with the cat-o-nine-tails.
In this instance the governor and a screw called Witherspoon who were trying to act clever. Saying as they were brothers and due to all they and their family had been through, they should be glad to be reunited and share a cell together. Both refused and in an act of vindictiveness the governor moved Arder to Derry Gaol and kept my Da in the Crum. He was escorted to Derry gaol by the screw Witherspoon who took great joy in telling him what he was going to do to his younger brother now he was in the Crumlin  Road Gaol without Arder. The screw’s joy ended in a wisely judged silence as Arder recounted to him a lot of personal details about himself and other members of the Witherspoon family.
Arder received a sentence within Derry Gaol which resulted in him being forcibly tied to a rack and flogged with a whip which was known as the cat-o-nine-tails. It was a whip which had nine strands which had weights on the end of each one. It was a brutal method of torture inflicted on political prisoners who the prison authorities deemed as dangerous and problematic figures who posed a threat to the status quo within a prison.
By that stage their sisters had moved in with aunts and Bridget in particular came under serious harassment from the RUC as she was in Cumann na mBan in Belfast. My father was released after being interned for three and a half years and Arder was released after serving his sentence.

You can read more about Arder Corr and the Ballad of Tom Williams here and the Corr family, including Dominic’s aunt Bridget are mentioned in this account of the violence in the area in 1935. The trial of Margaret Ardis (22) and Evelyn Blair (22), eye witnesses claimed two men, one of them they claimed was John Corr, had come out of a house close to the Corr’s house, went to the corner of Dale Street and fired two shots, the second hitting both Ardis and Blair as they leant out of the doorway of 6 Vere Street. In court, it was stated that the two women were killed with a revolver bullet, not a rifle bullet, and military witnesses testified that they were exchanging fire with a single gunman further up Vere Street when the two women were hit. None of the military witnesses could identify the gunman and John Corr’s alibi was sufficient to prove his innocence.

The second of the two photographs that features in the Belfast Telegraph on 20th September 1921 is online in Getty Images and was taken by George Rinhart (see below). The photo on Getty Images shows the same tunnelling between backyards in Vere Street with John Corr’s left arm appearing (out of focus) in the foreground on the left of the picture. In the top left, just over the yard wall, you can just make out the chimneys of houses on Sussex Street. Behind them, you can see the upper storeys of the York Street Mill looming over Sussex Street and Vere Street. On 16th April, 1941, German bombers brought the six storey high mill wall down on top of Sussex Street and Vere Street killing at least 35 people including the Corrs and my own grandfather’s first cousin, James O’Boyle.

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Time must pass as years roll by:

Early in the morning of 2nd September, 1942, seventy five years ago, prison staff moved a cupboard aside in Tom Williams’ cell in C Wing of the Belfast Prison, on the Crumlin Road. It revealed a door that led into the execution chamber. Williams was led into the chamber where he was hung at 8 am. Visitors to the prison today can visit the cell and are walked through the same doorway into the execution chamber. However, even after his execution, Williams remains were effectively imprisoned in Crumlin Road for nearly sixty years until his reburial in 2000.

Shirt in which Tom Williams was executed (in Republican Museum, Conway Mill).

Williams was executed as a reprisal for the death of an RUC Constable, Patrick Murphy, in April that year in Cawnpore Street (you can read the full story in Jim McVeigh‘s Execution: Tom Williams). Williams and Murphy were two of a handful of fatalities during the low intensity conflict between the IRA and northern government between 1938 and 1944. This included four other RUC officers, a prison warder and three IRA volunteers (a greater number died from the poor conditions in the prisons over the same period).

Only a matter of days before the execution Williams five co-accused had saw their own death sentences commuted. But a broad-based reprieve campaign (in the south) for Williams fell on deaf ears. The day of the execution was fairly chaotic. Crowds of nationalists who had gathered to pray for Williams outside the prison were jeered by unionists who sang songs and taunted them. A subsequent protest march into the city centre after the execution had led to small disturbances but these paled into significance alongside the trouble that followed a large scale swoop by the armed forces of the northern government. Large numbers of Catholics were detained, many eventually served internment notices (having no charges proferred against them). The subsequent violence and, weeks later, a number of reprisals for Williams execution led to a protracted curfew in the Falls.

There were over one hundred sentenced republican prisoners in Crumlin Road at the time of Williams’ execution and several hundred internees. They fasted on the day of Williams’ execution. Mass was to be said at 8 am and the chaplain had arranged to time a key point in the service, when he was to raise the communion host, would coincide with the exact time of Williams execution. The resonance of the symbolism of sacrifice in Catholic theology was easily understood and it broke up many of those present.

One of those present, Jimmy Steele, later published a poem called ‘The Soldier’ which was dedicated to Williams. Another sentenced prisoner who was in A wing the morning of the execution, Arthur Corr, wrote a song called ‘Tom Williams’ (early versions of it in print appear anonymously). Corr wrote it in his cell in A wing after Williams’ execution.

It was published in the Belfast IRA newspaper, Resurgent Ulster, in 1954. It has been subsequently recorded by various people without assigning credit to Corr. I’ve linked a version recorded here by the great Eamon Largey who knew both Steele and Corr and would have learned it from them (it is also uncredited on the Flying Column album ‘Folk Time in Ireland‘). I have also reprinted it in full below. Corr undoubtedly wrote other songs for also which he appears not to have received any credit.

In that sense, the sentiment of the opening lines “Time must pass as years roll by, But in memory I shall keep, Of a night in Belfast Prison, Unshamefully I saw men weep…” is very much real.

The extent to which songs and ballads communicated political messages is probably worthy of more attention. A striking emotional theme and a catchy melody was surely the most effective of propaganda tools and, as we all know, once a tune is stuck inside your head, it’s hard to get it out of there.

Tom Williams

by Arthur Corr

Time must pass as years roll by

But in memory I shall keep

Of a night in Belfast Prison

Unshamefully I saw men weep.

But a time was fast approaching,

A lad lay sentenced for to die,

And on the 2nd of September

He goes to meet his God on high.

To the scaffold now he’s marching

Head erect he shows no fear

And while standing on that scaffold

Ireland’s Cause he holds more dear

Now the cruel blow has fallen

For Ireland he has given his all,

He who at the flower of boyhood

Answered proudly to her call.

Brave Tom Williams we salute you.

And we never shall forget

Those who planned your cruel murder

We vow to make them all regret.

Now I saw to all you Irish soldiers

If from this path you chance to roam

Just remember of that morn

When Ireland’s Cause was proudly borne

By a lad who lies within a prison grave.

[This is the updated version of a previous post]

Tom Williams, 75 years on

Early in the morning of 2nd September, 1942, seventy five years ago, prison staff moved a cupboard aside in Tom Williams’ cell in C Wing of the Belfast Prison, on the Crumlin Road. It revealed a door that led into the execution chamber. Williams was led into the chamber where he was hung at 8 am. Visitors to the prison today can visit the cell and are walked through the same doorway into the execution chamber. However, even after his execution, Williams remains were effectively imprisoned in Crumlin Road for nearly sixty years until his reburial in 2000.

Shirt in which Tom Williams was executed (in Republican Museum, Conway Mill).

Williams was executed as a reprisal for the death of an RUC Constable, Patrick Murphy, in April that year in Cawnpore Street (you can read the full story in Jim McVeigh‘s Execution: Tom Williams). Williams and Murphy were two of a handful of fatalities during the low intensity conflict between the IRA and northern government between 1938 and 1944. This included four other RUC officers, a prison warder and three IRA volunteers (a greater number died from the poor conditions in the prisons over the same period).

Only a matter of days before the execution Williams five co-accused had saw their own death sentences commuted. But a broad-based reprieve campaign (in the south) for Williams fell on deaf ears. The day of the execution was fairly chaotic. Crowds of nationalists who had gathered to pray for Williams outside the prison were jeered by unionists who sang songs and taunted them. A subsequent protest march into the city centre after the execution had led to small disturbances but these paled into significance alongside the trouble that followed a large scale swoop by the armed forces of the northern government. Large numbers of Catholics were detained, many eventually served internment notices (having no charges proferred against them). The subsequent violence and, weeks later, a number of reprisals for Williams execution led to a protracted curfew in the Falls.

There were over one hundred sentenced republican prisoners in Crumlin Road at the time of Williams’ execution and several hundred internees. They fasted on the day of Williams’ execution. Mass was to be said at 8 am and the chaplain had arranged to time a key point in the service, when he was to raise the communion host, would coincide with the exact time of Williams execution. The resonance of the symbolism of sacrifice in Catholic theology was easily understood and it broke up many of those present. One of those present, Jimmy Steele, later published a poem called ‘The Soldier’ which was dedicated to Williams. Either Steele or another sentenced prisoner who was in A wing the morning of the execution, Arthur Corr, wrote a song called ‘Tom Williams’ (early versions of it in print appear anonymously and neither were later credited with song). It was published in the Belfast IRA newspaper, Resurgent Ulster, in 1954. Steele edited the paper and usually included his own poems without any credit. Jimmy Roe, though, believed Corr, a noted singer but not known as a songwriter, composed the song. It has been subsequently recorded by various people without assigning credit to either. I’ve linked a version recorded here by the great Eamon Largey who knew both Steele and Corr and would have learned it from them (it is uncredited on the Flying Column album ‘Folk Time in Ireland‘). I have also reprinted it in full below.

Whether it was Corr or Steele (both of whom came from North Queen Street), when hearing the opening lines “Time must pass as years roll by, But in memory I shall keep, Of a night in Belfast Prison, Unshamefully I saw men weep…” it should be born in mind that both were present in A wing and in the prison chapel at the time of the execution.

 

Tom Williams

Time must pass as years roll by

But in memory I shall keep

Of a night in Belfast Prison

Unshamefully I saw men weep.

But a time was fast approaching,

A lad lay sentenced for to die,

And on the 2nd of September

He goes to meet his God on high.

To the scaffold now he’s marching

Head erect he shows no fear

And while standing on that scaffold

Ireland’s Cause he holds more dear

Now the cruel blow has fallen

For Ireland he has given his all,

He who at the flower of boyhood

Answered proudly to her call.

Brave Tom Williams we salute you.

And we never shall forget

Those who planned your cruel murder

We vow to make them all regret.

Now I saw to all you Irish soldiers

If from this path you chance to roam

Just remember of that morn

When Ireland’s Cause was proudly borne

By a lad who lies within a prison grave.