Joe McKelvey GAC: the IRA’s own GAA club

This is the story of Joe McKelvey GAC, a GAA club formed by the IRA in Belfast. Founded in 1924, the Joseph McKelvey Gaelic Athletic Club was named after the executed former commandant of the IRA’s 3rd Northern Division. McKelvey had been a founder member of the O’Donovan Rossa GAA club in Belfast. The choice of the name and the founding of McKelveys GAC followed the return of Lt. Gen. Joe McKelvey’s remains to Belfast from Dublin for burial in October 1924.

McKelveys burial was regarded by many Belfast republicans as the event which prompted the post-Civil War re-organisation of the IRA in Belfast. Clearly many in the Belfast IRA saw echoes (or wanted to see echoes) in the parallels with the funeral of O’Donovan Rossa. That funeral had catalysed republicans prior to the declaration of a republic in April 1916. The Belfast IRA, including McKelvey, had formed the O’Donovan Rossa GAA club in his memory. At the time the symbolism of forming a club in McKelvey’s name was no doubt well understood. In case it wasn’t, McKelveys GAC made it explicit: while Rossa played in white jerseys with a tricolour panel on the front, McKelveys played in a black jersey with a tricolour panel on the front.

Early photo of McKelveys team, dating to around 1926 (published in Ray Quinn's A Rebel View.

Early photo of McKelveys team, dating to around 1926 (published in Ray Quinn’s A Rebel View.)

In 1925 McKelveys fielded a team in the South Antrim Junior Hurling League. A surviving line-up from a hurling league game against Sarsfields in Donegall Park in June 1926 gives a flavour of the club’s early playing members. That day the team was G. Donnelly, Davy Matthews, J. O’Boyle, Hugh Matthews, Joe McGurk, A. Johnston, Frank Pimley, J. Ralph, Hugh Corvin, F. McGoldrick, M. Maguire, O. McGeough, A. O’Donnell, J. Curran and James Thompson. The report on the games notes that regulars N. Donnelly and George Nash were both missing (McKelveys still won 2-1 to 1-0). The same year, McKelveys’ footballers beat Parnells, then lost to Stephens in the South Antrim Junior Football Championship semi-final. The Irish News report on the semi-final (which McKelveys lost 3-4 to 4-0) includes the following line-up: E. Colligan, J. Meighan, J. Dempsey, H. Laverty, J. Doherty, O. McGeough, N. Donnelly, G. Nash, J. Havlin, D. Matthews, A. O’Donnell, H. Corvin, F. Pimley, G. Donnelly and E. Quinn. McKelveys N. Donnelly also played on the Antrim team that defeated Cavan in the final of the Northern Division of the National Football League in 1926.
Hugh Corvin (the Belfast IRA O/C), Davy Matthews (who was later Belfast IRA O/C), Hugh Matthews (Davy’s brother and another future Belfast IRA O/C) and George Nash, O/C of one of the Belfast IRA companies were all prominent Belfast IRA staff members. Others, like Joe McGurk who had been imprisoned the previous year for possession of arms and weapons, are well-known IRA men. Visibly, McKelveys was very much an IRA team drawing on the small pool of active republicans left in Belfast. It was also very much an anti-treaty IRA side. The O’Donovan Rossa club, which McKelvey helped found, was associated with Belfast IRA staff who had taken and, in 1924, still remained, on the pro-treaty side. If other prominent South Antrim clubs, like Morans, Kevin Barrys (also originally an ‘IRA club’), Stephens, Parnells and Ardoyne had any associations it could equally have been to organisations such as the Ancient Order of Hibernians or Irish National Foresters. In that regard, McKelveys being left as the sole IRA-sponsored GAA club may be a reflection of the political landscape of nationalist Belfast in 1924-25.
An early photograph (above) survives of a McKelveys’ football team, which appears to date around 1925-26 and must presumably be one of the first junior football teams fielded by the club. Those that can be identified in the photo include Hugh Corvin, Jack McNally, Davy and Hugh Matthews, Joe Hanna and Jimmy Steele. McNally, Hanna and Steele were also intimately involved in the IRA in Belfast from 1924. McNally dropped out of republican activities for a number of years after 1927 and doesn’t seem to feature in any recorded line-ups for McKelveys from that date onwards, suggesting this photo dates to 1927 at the latest.
The club had a base in Rockmount Street, just off the Falls Road, where an old wooden building, known as the McKelvey hut, was used. It is also clear, from various accounts in the 1920s, that it was openly known to be a base of the Belfast IRA as individuals who wished to join the IRA went there to ask about joining. Its official name, when it is mentioned in the press, was McKelvey Hall, later (in the 1930s) being known as the McKelvey Recreation Club. By the mid-1930s McKelveys also used Pearse Hall, in the city centre, as their base.
By 1927, McKelveys had attracted a number of transfers, including Jack Gaffney from Morans and Art Thornbury from O’Connells, both of whom were closely associated with the IRA. While the McKelveys’ footballers came bottom of the South Antrim Senior Football League, they did well in the Senior Football Championship that year and came up against Jack Gaffneys former club, Morans, in the semi-final. The line-up for the semi-final in Shaun’s Park was A. O’Donnell, J. McCrealey, Jack Gaffney, P. Rafftery, M. Maguire, R. Boomer, H. Lavery, Art Thornbury, T. Carabine, D. McGregor, J. McKeown, J. Steele, Hugh Corvin, E. Quinn and A. Johnston.
Morans were too strong for McKelveys, though, winning 2-9 to 1-1. The Irish News reports that the best back was McCrealey, Corvin and Steele best of an indifferent forward line, and Thornbury was the outstanding player on the pitch. Jack Gaffney, only returned from six weeks out due to illness, was described as not fully fit. The hurlers made it to the South Antrim Junior Hurling Championship final in 1927, losing heavily to Parnells, 8-4 to 2-0, who were winning their first honours, while the footballers made it through to the South Antrim Junior Football Championship final the same year.
In 1928, McKelveys lost Art Thornbury and Jack Gaffney who were arrested along with others at an Easter Commemoration in Milltown cemetery. They also lost George Nash to a three year sentence for illegal possession of documents. But McKelveys did make the final of the South Antrim Junior Football Championship where they met Kevin Barrys on 20th May at Corrigan Park. By half-time, McKelveys were 1-4 to 0-0 ahead. They didn’t score again in the second half and two Kevin Barrys goals reduced their lead to a single point. But that was how the game ended and McKelveys survived to become South Antrim Junior Football champions. They then played Lamh Dearg, Toome a week later in Toome in the final of the Antrim Junior Football Championship. By half-time, McKelveys were 1-1 to 0-1 behind. McKelveys inched closer during a scrappy second half, trailing by 1-2 (5 points) to 0-3 (3 points) with a few minutes to go. But, a goal from Lamh Dearg put the final result beyond doubt and it ended 2-2 to 0-3.
McKelveys also made the final of the Ben Madigan Cup on the 10th June where they played O’Connells in Corrigan Park. The McKelveys’ team was A. O’Donnell in goal, D. McCann, J. McCreely and J. McKeown in the full-back line, Joe O’Neill, T. Carabine and H. Laverty in the half-back line, Frank Pimley and Davy Matthews in midfield, Hugh Corvin, Jimmy Steele and J. Conkey in the half-forward line, T. Cunningham, P. Rafferty and A. Johnston in the full-forward line. Jimmy Steele scored one of the first half goals (the Irish News describing him as a live wire during the game), as McKelveys went into a 2-2 (8 points) to 0-0 half-time lead. The second half was fairly tame and McKelveys cruised home 3-2 (11 points) to 0-1 (1 point).
By 1929 McKelveys’ players like Matthews, Boomer, Pimley, Ward and O’Neill were being called up to the Antrim county sides, both football and hurling, and in Art Thornbury, the club had a dual inter-provincial player who was the outstanding player in the county, in both codes, in the 1920s. He had won a number of Ulster Senior Hurling championships. He playing on the side that defeated Cavan 4-3 to 3-1 for the 1926 Ulster title. Cavan had led for much of the game until Thornbury set up McCarry for the crucial third goal. In the 1927 final, Thornbury also played a lead role as Antrim again overcame Cavan, this time on a score-line of 5-4 to 3-3 at Breffni Park on 3rd October. Thornbury continued to star in Antrim’s defence throughout the 1920s, and played on Antrim teams which won further Ulster titles. In mid-April 1931, when Antrim entered the National Hurling League for the first time, Thornbury was a central part of the squad (he had also played regularly in the National Football League for Antrim). Antrim filled a place in Group B in 1931 that had been vacated by Wexford’s withdrawal. The first game, on 24th May 1931, at Portlaoise, finished Laois 4-4 Antrim 0-4. The other game was played against Dublin at Corrigan Park in Belfast on 2nd August and Antrim again lost, this time on a score of 4-4 to 2-2. Antrim weren’t to re-enter the National Hurling League until 1945 (although in some seasons a Northern Division was contested by some Ulster counties).
A lot of Belfast republicans were subjected to routine harassment by the northern government and some, including McKelveys players, were charged and sentenced to terms of imprisonment. As in 1928, Thornbury missed a portion of the 1930 season as he was arrested again at the 1930 Easter commemoration and received three months in prison, along with Hugh Matthews.
Despite the loss of players to arrest and imprisonment, by the early 1930s, the club was fielding teams in the Senior and Intermediate football, hurling and (from 1929) camogie leagues. McKelveys won the South Antrim Senior Football League in 1930-31 (the league itself was completed in November 1931) as well as the Senior Football Championship and the South Antrim Cup in football. As South Antrim champions, McKelveys contested the final of the Antrim Senior Football Championship against Cuchullains Dunloy on July 12th 1931 at Dunloy.
McKelveys were without Thornbury and Ward who had been suspended the previous week for being sent off when playing for the Antrim county side. Cuchullains, playing with a strong breeze in the first half, led 1-3 to no score at half time. McKelveys, who (The Irish News notes) also had to contend with playing uphill in the first half, began the second half strongly. As per regulations at the time, both clubs had supplied umpires to the referee, John Osborne, but on a number of occasions the umpires disagreed over scores. Carabine and Jimmy Steele were both guilty of wasting chances before Joe O’Neill got McKelveys’ first point of the game. Chances then began to come for McKelveys and Joe Pimley had a shot saved, then Finnegan had a shot deflected wide. Carabine managed to win the ball after a placed kick from O’Neill, and directed a shot on the Cuchallains’ goal. The score was signalled with a red flag by one umpire (indicating a goal) and a white flag by the other (indicating a point). A Cuchallains’ player then pulled the red flag from the umpire and a McKelveys’ forward tried to influence the other umpire to award the goal (The Irish News, which published a report of the game on 14/7/31 diplomatically does not name those involved). The referee decided to award a point but such a heated row then followed between the spectators and umpires that the referee decided to halt the game. The County board decided the game had to be replayed.
The replay was on 10th August and was refereed by the chairman of the County Antrim board, Padraig McNamee with selected umpires. McKelveys had Thornbury back for the replayed game, although Ward was still absent. The team that started the game was A. O’Neill in goals, James Pimley, Jack Gaffney and W. Connolly in the full-back line, Joe Pimley, Art Thornbury and P. O’Neill in the half-backs, P. Boomer and Joe O’Neill in midfield, W. Cochrane, Gene Thornbury and M. Finnegan in the half-forwards and Jimmy Steele, T. Carabine and R. Boomer in the full-forward line. There was a strong cross-wind that reduced the accuracy of the passing and the game was frequently interrupted with frees for minor infringements and some bad blood that spilled over from the abandoned first game. McKelveys, playing uphill for the first half, were 0-4 to 0-0 behind at half time. Joe O’Neill then got McKelvey’s off the mark at the start of the second half but a Cuchullains goal left them 1-4 to 0-1 behind. The game then got scrappier and Gunning (Cuchullains) and P. Boomer were sent off. Joe O’Neill then gave McKelveys some hope with two further points to reduce the gap to 1-4 (7 points) to 0-3 (3 points). Cuchullains continued to break up the game and also had Dillon sent off, later followed by R. Boomer (McKelveys). But time ran out and McKelveys lost.
The season wasn’t yet over, though, as McKelveys had also reached the final of the South Antrim Senior Hurling Championship against O’Connells. This was played at Corrigan Park, and the McKelveys’ team was S. McKeown in goal, James Pimley, Davy Matthews and W. McFadden in the full-back line, Joe O’Neill, Art Thornbury and J. Walsh in the half-back line, T. Carabine and P. O’Neill in midfield, Joe Pimley, P. Boomer, and Jimmy Steele in the half-forward line, and, W. Connolly, R. Boomer and Gene Thornbury in the full-forward line. The game started up even enough, tying at 0-1 to 0-1 but O’Connells added a goal and two points before McKelveys scored again. Another goal before the break left McKelveys 2-3 (9 points) to 0-2 (2 points) down at half-time. Despite the best efforts of the Thornburys and Boomers, McKelveys couldn’t reduce the gap and a third goal for O’Connells effectively killed off the game. At the final whistle, O’Connells won by 3-5 (14 points) to 0-6 (6 points).
Hugh Corvin’s absence from the McKelveys’ teams by 1931 is interesting. In 1927, he had stepped down as O/C of the Belfast IRA but was to remain prominent in the McKelveys club for the next couple of seasons. His replacement as O/C, Davy Matthews, was one of those who represented the club at South Antrim Divisional Board. By 1930, Corvin appears to have less association with the club (and the IRA).
In 1931-32, the South Antrim Senior Football League contained nine teams, O’Connells, Rossa, McKelveys, Sarsfields, Ardoyne, St Galls, St Johns, Tir-na-nOg and Shamrocks (Aughagallon), while there were eighteen teams in the Intermediate and Junior leagues. But for the new 1931-32 season McKelveys struggled. In the same year the club also played games against clubs from outside Antrim, such as against a Lurgan team as part of a benefit tournament in January 1932, (which McKelveys lost 3-1 to 1-2). They struggled early in the league in 1932 at which time Art Thornbury and Jack Gaffney were suspended (along with two other senior players). Thornbury, along with another IRA man, was arrested over an attempted arms raid that month and subsequently sentenced to eighteen months in prison. His brother, Gene, also was dragged into the case. Other McKelveys men, such as Willie McCurry, were arrested and imprisoned over the summer (in McCurry’s case, for printing posters protesting Thornbury’s imprisonment).
McKelveys lost to Tir na nOg in January 1932, by which time they had dropped 3 points in the league, as much as in all of the previous season. They then lost to Ardoyne, although they did beat St Galls and St Johns in February. By the time the 1932 South Antrim Senior Football Championship came around in April, McKelveys were no longer contending for the league but easily beat Sarsfields in their first round tie, although eventually going out in a heavy defeat to Tir-na-nOg, 4-5 to 0-1 in October (when many IRA members in Belfast were involved, albeit unofficially, in the Outdoor Relief riots).
The political leanings of the GAA in Antrim at this time was heavily influenced by McKelveys, as can be gauged by its sponsorship of motions with regard to the status of British soldiers, sailors and police being beyond the pale of the GAA in 1930 and again, specifically proposed by McKelveys, in 1932. The later motion called for a definition of the position of the Civic Guard and Army in the Irish Free State, and specifically referred to the issue of the naming of clubs. The motion was eventually withdrawn and referred to the GAA’s Central Committee. McKelveys also had Art Thornbury proposed for position of secretary of the Ulster Council, but he lost out in a ballot.
That summer, McKelveys organised a training camp at Harp Hall near Carnlough. On July 19th, at 4 am, the RUC stormed into the camp. In the main hut, Farrell John Leddy from Rockdale Street in Belfast, a 22 year old doctor and son of a former RIC man, was detained. A bugle was reportedly found in Leddy’s bag, whilst a book with notes about the use of arms was found on a table in the hut. The twenty-five young men found at the camp had their details taken then were transport back to Belfast and released.
The camp had consisted of a wooden hut for the officers and instructors, and, four canvas tents for those attending the camp (the hut was owned by a J. McKeown of Belfast, who also happened to be secretary of the Antrim County board). A tricolour was flown from a flag pole (the flag was confiscated by the RUC). It is clear from accounts of the camp that it was an IRA training camp organised by the McKelveys club. At the start of August the wooden hut used at Harp Hall by Farrell Leddy was burnt down.
The McKelvey’s Senior Hurling team were heavily beaten in Glenarm a week after the camp was raided (they received another heavy defeated from Glenarm in October the same year – somewhat offset by beating Queens University in the Senior Football on the same day). That autumn, McKelveys fortunes were mixed, losing heavily (3-3 to 0-2) to St Galls in October, and then to O’Connells in November (2-1 to 1-2) and narrowly to O’Donnell’s in December (0-3 to 0-2), although going well in the Intermediate Football. That October, the Outdoor Relief riots saw significant street disturbances in Belfast, many involving IRA members (and McKelveys heavy loss in the championship).
Despite the distractions, McKelveys fared a bit better in the 1932-1933 league campaign, with Finnegan, O’Neill and Cochrane playing well, but were hampered by the increasingly regular loss of players to arrest and short-term detentions (as well as longer term imprisonments of a few months). When Art Thornbury was released from prison in October 1933 he was hounded by the northern government, detained again for a month, then deported to the south. This was against the backdrop of a further outbreak of violence in Belfast. It was hoped to run Thornbury as an election candidate that autumn and the RUC, expecting a selection convention to be held, raided McKelvey Hall in November 1933. The convention was held elsewhere and Thornbury was selected (although, as the prison authorities prevented Art signing the nomination papers, his brother Patrick stood in his place in the end). As the convention wasn’t taking place, the RUC arrested fifteen 14-19 year olds who were present instead. They were charged with drilling and, in the end, eight received two months including John McKenna (who got hard labour for refusing to recognise the court), Patrick Lavery, Thomas Graham, Francis Doherty, Patrick McCann, Rory Campbell, Vincent Kelly and Francis McGoldrick. In court, it was claimed that McKenna was giving words of command to the others, such as “’Shun! About turn!”, “Form fours!” and “Quick march!”.
Doherty died soon after his release from prison and was commemorated in the song Belfast Graves, the original version of which was written by Jimmy Steele. The lines of the song mentioning Doherty also feature in Brendan Behan’s Borstal Boy.
As well as the youths arrested at McKelvey Hall, that November, more senior players and former players were sentenced to between one and three months in prison for refusing to answer questions put to them by a magistrate. Refusing to answer was an offence under the Civil Authorities (Special Powers) Acts. Those arrested included George Nash, Jimmy Steele, Jack Gaffney, Frank Pimley, William Connolly, William McCurry, Davy Matthews and Hugh Matthews. A club delegate to various county meetings, Brendan Kielty (who was later to travel to Spain with Eoin O’Duffy), was arrested for speaking at an illegal rally in support of republican detainees on 5th November 1933.

In his biography, Harry, Harry White recalls that he would drop in at the McKelveys’ base “…and look up the line-out and composition of the team only to find there were gaps – some of the lads had been arrested; they were replaced by that well-known chap, A.N. Other.”
And the arrests did not end in November. On 15th January 1934, Gerald O’Toole from Spinner Street was in the McKelvey Republican Hall in when the RUC entered. A Constable Fannin questioned O’Toole and three others about their activities and they said there were arranging football fixtures. Fannin then searched O’Toole (who he says refused to answer any more questions) and found a letter on him from a man named Crilly addressed to Jimmy Steele.
There were other problems for the club that month. Davy Matthews had taken an opportunity to sign out of prison for Christmas, as did George Nash. This was against IRA policy as it was giving recognition to the courts and prison service. Matthews was expelled from the IRA. Neither he nor Nash are mentioned again in accounts of McKelveys.
On the field the team was depleted for a visit to Aughagallon to play the Shamrocks in January 1934, where they were beaten 1-8 to 2-1, despite goals from Jack Gaffney and Maguire and a point from Joe O’Neill. That month the team continued to have ‘team troubles’ due to arrests and fielded without key men like Ward, Gene Thornbury and Pimley (although they could still rely on the likes of Jack Gaffney, McGeough, Boomer, O’Neill and Cochrane). They also lost out to Ardoyne in the Senior Football Championship in January 1934, after a replay.
The team continued to struggle, though, even when players returned. On top of being outside contention for the league, McKelveys struggled to be competitive at all in 1934, despite the likes of Gene Thornbury, Adams, Joe O’Neill, P O’Neill, Cochrane, McKeown, Pimley and Boomer doing well. They shipped heavy defeats to the likes of St Galls (3-4 to 0-1) in February and narrowly to O’Connells (1-4 to 0-5) the same month. For the next season, O’Connells also put McKelveys out of the Senior Football Championship in the first round in April.
At the end of 1934, the club proposed a motion on political prisoners that was ruled out of order at the Antrim Convention, at which there appears to have been some dispute as to the maintenance of the ‘non-political’ nature of the GAA.
The club had also continued to field a team in the senior hurling in 1933 but, paralleling the decline of the footballers, slipped down to the Intermediate League where they continued to struggle. At the end of the 1933-34 season, McKelveys’ footballers were relegated and fielded in the Intermediate and Junior Leagues in the winter of 1934 (as well as the Ben Madigan Cup instead of the South Antrim Cup). The 1934 season began equally badly as they struggled in the Intermediate League, losing to Rossa II, O’Donnells, Gaedhil Uladh and Davitts, eventually picking up points by beating St Galls II in January 1935, 2-0 to 0-1. The decline also saw the loss of the players, with the likes of Pimley moving to Gaedhil Uladh to continue playing senior football.
Further violence, including an attempted pogrom in Belfast that summer, as well as arrests at a Belfast IRA training camp in Louth further weakened the club in 1935. In the autumn resumption of the league, McKelveys began strongly in the Intermediate Football League beating O’Donnells 1-2 to 0-2 in November 1935, then St Galls 3-1 to 1-0. In February, Ardoyne were beaten 1-3 to 1-2. By late February, McKelveys were close to the top of the Intermediate League but not in contention for promotion (at the same time the junior team were struggling badly, close to the bottom of their league).
Of the McKelveys’ senior footballers who lined out against the Shamrocks in the Ben Madigan Cup in March 1936, only Jimmy Steele survived from the side who had played in the 1931 Antrim Senior Football Championship Final. The full McKelveys’ line-up was J. O’Rawe, P. Quinn, J. Kelly, J. McManus, J. McCaughan, T. Morris, P. McKenna, M. Clarke, L. Dooley, M. Higgins, J. Steele, H. White, J. Teague, J. Hamill and W. Mooney. McKelveys lost the game 0-3 to 0-0. In its report on the game, The Irish News singled out Morris, McKenna, Steele and McManus for praise. The next week, McKelvey’s made amends, winning the Biggar Cup. By May, Steele too was gone following the Crown Entry raid. By the end of 1936 the club could only field a team in the junior league.
Pearse Hall, which was also used by the McKelveys, was destroyed in a bomb explosion on May 27th 1938. On November 23rd 1938, a raid on the McKelvey Recreation Club off the Falls Road led to the detention of nineteen young men under the Special Powers Act. Those arrested included Matthew Bunting, Thomas Cairns, Kevin Barry Hughes, Michael Mullan, John O’Rawe, Thomas Gourley, David McKay, Joseph McKenna, John McKee, Billy McKee, Frank McCusker, Harry McGurk, Joseph Adams, Hugh Molloy. Most were aged 16-18 and it was claimed in court that they were members of Fianna na hÉireann and were being drilled by John McKee in the hall. All were found guilty and John McKee was given two months, while the others received fines or imprisonment.
On 28th November an attempted bomb attack on the McKelvey Hall damaged the adjoined Rockmount Social Club. By the end of the 1938, the McKelvey club was barely competing even at junior level and, in the face of the introduction of internment and the continued loss of members it eventually folded in 1939. In Antrims Patriot Dead, published in 1966, Jimmy Steele (clearly stating that McKelveys was an IRA club) says that those arrests and internment finished the club in 1939.
In 1940, McKelveys’ veteran Jack Gaffney died on the prison ship Al Rawdah. After his funeral in St Johns, his remains were brought to Milltown. At the funeral, the tricolour was produced which had been placed over Joe McKelvey’s coffin when he had been buried in Belfast in 1924. It was placed on Gaffney’s coffin in the church. It was again placed on Gaffney’s coffin when it was brought to Milltown where he was buried in the republican plot.
When the internees and sentenced prisoners, including many McKelveys’ men and women, were released after 1945 the club was not reformed, instead the main republican GAA club in Belfast was named after Tom Williams, who had been hung in 1942.

Was a Belfast IRA commander expelled over a pension application?

Was a Belfast IRA commander expelled from the IRA for making a pension application? One of the files included in the latest release of files from the Military Archives is a pension applications made by Davy Mathews starting in 1933 when he was O/C of the Belfast IRA. In January 1934 he was expelled from the IRA. Nominally the reason for his expulsion was that he had allowed prisoners to sign out of Crumlin Road jail for Christmas in 1933 (against IRA standing orders). But now Mathews pension application documents have been published, it looks like the IRA may have had other reasons to expel him too.

Mathews

Davy Mathews (from Jim McDermot’s ‘Northern Divisions’ book)

Mathews formally made his application for a pension on 1st January 1933. In his application letter he recorded that he had joined the Willie Nelson Sluagh of Fianna Éireann in 1914, progressing to join the Irish Volunteers after 1916. He was then a member of the James Connolly Sluagh whose O/C was Joe McKelvey while Mathews himself was First Lieutenant (Fianna officers held dual membership of Fianna Éireann and the IRA). He was arrested and questioned for a day in 1917 after being observed taking charge of Fianna party drilling in the open. Matthews continued active in IRA throughout the War of Independence and was eventually arrested in September 1922 with Belfast Brigade commander, Paddy Nash, and was imprisoned for possession of a revolver. After his release he was pressed to accept a commission in the newly formed (pro-treaty) National Army but instead he agreed to take charge of an (anti-treaty) IRA flying column in Longford. Before he got there, he was arrested at Easter 1923 and spent time on the Argenta prison ship and Larne Camp from where he was sent to Derry Gaol to spend six weeks in isolation before embarking on a hunger strike. A son born while he was imprisoned was a year old before Mathews saw him when he was released in August 1924.

Interned again in 1925 during the collapse of the Boundary Commission, his mother died on Christmas Day but he was refused leave to attend the funeral. The 1925 internees were only released when the Labour government in London put pressure on the Unionists at the end of January 1926.

Mathews remained active in the IRA as well as a prominent member of the Joe McKelvey GAA club. He recorded in 1933 that he had been O/C of an IRA Battalion three times and arrested each time. In September 1933 he submitted a pension application, giving his own rank as O/C Belfast Battalion since 1928 and recording that he had been made O/C Ulster in 1931 on the IRA’s Army Executive. He named some of those who could vouch for his service in his 1933 application including Maurice Twomey (as IRA Chief of Staff) and Joe McGurk, George Nash and Jimmy Steele (as members of the Belfast Battalion staff). Imprisoned in November 1933, he was then dismissed from the IRA in January 1934 for encouraging prisoners to sign guarantees to get early release for Christmas.

Page_7_Image_1

Page from Davy Mathews pension application on 4/9/1933 naming Moss Twomey as IRA Chief of Staff and Joe McGurk, George Nash and Jimmy Steele as members of Belfast Battalion staff (for original see militaryarchives.ie file 1RB1254 David Mathews)

Since the IRA refused to recognise the authority of either administration in Belfast or Dublin in the 1930s, Mathews application for a pension would have been in violation of IRA standing orders at the time. While this may seem a little odd now, even in later decades the IRA, and Cumann na mBan, refused to let member hold service posts in the north (as they had to take an oath of allegiance to the crown) just as members did not recognise the courts, legal systems or electoral assemblies. Not only that, but Mathews names members of his Belfast Battalion staff and the Chief of Staff (Moss Twomey) on his application. While the IRA enjoyed a quasi-legal status in the south at the time, it seems unlikely that either Twomey or others in IRA GHQ would have been happy with Mathews. Mathews was on the IRA’s Army Executive as O/C Ulster from 1931 and so held a very senior post within the organisation. While the pretext given for his expulsion in January 1934 did not mention the pension application it seems unlikely that it would have been approved or gone unnoticed as part of the process was writing out to those named by applicants to get statement corroborating information on the application.

There is much more on Mathews time as Belfast O/C in the Belfast Battalion bookBelfast Battalion book.

The time line of Belfast IRA commanders has also been updated to reflect the dates given by Mathews (I’ll post more on this another day).

Belfast Brigade IRA files, new release by MSPC

Next month will see a further release of pension files from Military Archives in Dublin. The files are scanned copies of the applications made for a pension by individuals who were active in IRA, Cumann na mBan or Fianna Éireann over the period from 1913 to 1923, or the families. While the files contain information about the applicant they often include accounts of their activities, names of commanding officers and other bits of data that help put together a bigger picture of what was happening. I’ve mapped the 1540 files in the new release (see bottom of this post) to make them searchable by area and name (just click on the map to get a search window). The locations are approximate and you can find more on the address listed in the release from MSPC listing the files (you can view that here).

The files related to the Belfast Brigade due to be released in October 2019 are listed below and include some prominent names such as Dan Branniff, Mick Carolan, Rory Haskins, David McGuinness and Davy Matthews and span the period from before 1916 to the 1930s (when Matthews was O/C of the Belfast Battalion). They includes files on the IRA, Cumann na mBan and Fianna Éireann in Belfast and cover districts like Ardoyne, the Bone, the Falls, Hannahstown, Carrickhill, Smithfield and Sailortown. It is possible that other files with addresses outside Belfast will also contain information on Belfast Brigade activities.

The files released with Belfast addresses are listed below the map at the end of this post.

To search files that are currently available go to the Military Archives website (see here) and then use the search fields. Files can be quite large but include applications, transcripts of interviews about military service, administrative information, supporting letters and other information.

I’ll put together some updates based on the information in the files when they are released.

The map on the October 2019 release is below. You can see more maps on the Belfast IRA here (including maps of the Irish Volunteers in Belfast in 1916, Belfast Brigade of the 3rd Northern Division, Argenta internees etc and much more). And you can read some more about a book on the period (Facts and Figures of the Belfast Pogrom 1920-1922) in Belfast written by Fr John Hassan and suppressed in 1922 here.

Belfast files in the upcoming October 2019 release:

Boomer, Robert John 23 Clondara Street, Belfast

Branniff, Daniel 16 New Dock Street, Belfast

Carolan, Alphonsus 4 Chief Street, Crumlin Road, Ardoyne, Belfast

Carolan, Andrew 80 Chief Street, Belfast (Address in 1921)

Carolan, Michael 80 Chief Street, Belfast (Address in 1916 and 1920)

Cunningham, Edward 15 Wine Tavern Street, Belfast

Donegan, Benedict 12 Ardmoulin Street, Belfast

Elliott, George 8 Slate Street, Belfast (address in 1923)

Flynn, Thomas 3 Raglan Street, Belfast

Graham, Robert 73 Belmont Church Road, Belfast

Gray, Thomas 21 Earl Street, Belfast

Haskin, Robert Columcille 12 Glen Crescent, Falls Road, Anderstown, Belfast

Heathwood, Thomas 31 Upton Street, Belfast

Hegarty, William 449 Crumlin Road, Belfast

Keenan, John 28 California Street, Belfast

Matthews, David 70 Bombay Street, Belfast

McAlea, Joseph 42 Falls Road, Belfast

McCorry, William Braefoot, Hannastown/Hannahstown, Belfast

McGeown, Brigid 58 Earlscourt Street, Belfast

McGrattan, Peter 51 Walton Street, Crumlin Road, Belfast

McGuinness, David 42 Leoville Street, Belfast

McWhinney, Charles 61 Mill Street, Belfast (address in 1915)

McWhinney, James 118 Upper Library Street, Belfast

McWilliams, Patrick 121 Falls Road, Belfast

Moan, Owen 36 Glenview Street, Belfast

Moore, James Ardoyne, Belfast

Stewart, Charles McCaull 18 Parkview Street, Oldpark Road, Belfast

Who was in charge of the Belfast I.R.A.?

Who was in charge of the Belfast I.R.A. from the 1920s to the 1960s? Formally, the I.R.A. designated Belfast as either a Battalion or Brigade from 1922 through to the late 1960s with it’s commander usually listed as O/C Belfast. As a clandestine organisation, the identity of it’s leadership was not usually transparent. Occasional arrests and seizures of documents by the R.U.C., particularly internal I.R.A. correspondence, strongly suggests the roles different individual held within the I.R.A., such as when correspondence addressed to the Belfast Adjutant was found in Billy McAllister’s house in January 1937.

Individual memoirs provide much more substance, corroborating some of what is known from court reports and documents. In many cases, though, they tend to roughly pinpoint in time who led the Belfast I.R.A. rather than provide a clear picture of who was in charge, how they came into the post and how they left it. Theoretically the O.C. was elected, where practicable, and many held the role until arrested. As I.R.A. posts were vacated on arrest, someone else typically acted in the role until the previous holder was either released or a formal appointment made in their place. The value in knowing who was in charge, how stable their leadership was and what direction it took the I.R.A. all contributes to a better understanding of how the organisation developed and how it impacted and influenced the course of events.

The list below is based on a variety of sources. I’ve highlighted where there are gaps and, obviously, there may well be significant errors of omissions, given the nature of the source material (and some of this is just guess work).

As ever any corrections or suggestions can be added in the comments section.

1922-23 Hugh Corvin

Former Quartermaster of the IRA’s 3rd Northern Division, he had replaced Pat Thornbury as O/C Belfast which had by then been re-organised as a Brigade in October 1922. Corvin had supported the Executive against GHQ over the Treaty in 1922. Subsequently interned in April 1923, he was elected leader of the I.R.A. prisoners and was involved in various prison protests. Corvin was involved in the Irish Volunteers prior to 1916.

AOC

Hugh Corvin

1923-24 Jim O’Donnell

O’Donnell replaced Corvin as O/C while Corvin was interned. When Corvin was released from internment at the end of 1924 O’Donnell appears to have stepped back and Corvin took over again as O/C.

1924-26 Hugh Corvin

When Corvin returned as O/C of the Belfast Brigade it was during the re-organisation that followed after Joe McKelvey’s re-burial in Milltown on 30th October 1924.

1925-1926 Jim Johnston

When the Belfast I.R.A. shot Patrick Woods in November 1925 the R.U.C. arrested one individual for questioning but detained a further fifty men, more than twenty of whom were interned until January 1926 including most of the Battalion staff. This included Hugh Corvin. Barely a week after the arrests the outcome of the Boundary Commission was leaked into the press. Judging by correspondence recovered in his house in February 1926, Johnston seems to have acted as O/C while Corvin was interned.

1926 Hugh Corvin

Corvin returned as O/C but only stayed in the position until April 1926 when he resigned citing business reasons (he had set up an accountancy firm). He had been arrested in November 1925 and held until the end of January 1926 along with twenty others following the shooting of an informer.

He was to remain a prominent public figure, through involvement in the G.A.A. and as secretary of the Gaelic League in Belfast. He publicly participated in fund-raising for Fianna Fáil in Belfast in the early 1930s and when he stood as an ‘independent republican’ in West Belfast in February 1943 he was largely portrayed by the IRA as a proxy for Fianna Fáil. His later political activity and the coincidence of the Fianna Fáil split suggest it may have been a motive in his resignation.

1926-7 Dan Turley

In Belfast I.R.B. Circle with 1916 leader Sean McDermott as early as 1907, Turley mobilised at Easter in 1916, was director of elections for Sinn Féin in Belfast at the 1918 elections and was Head of Intelligence in 3rd Northern Division. He was interned on the prison ship Argenta. He took over from Corvin but, apparently clashing with personalities at GHQ, he was portrayed as being difficult to get on with and unpopular. He remained active as Belfast Adjutant and in other staff posts, although he was a recurring target in clashes between the Belfast IRA and GHQ. The RUC used this tension to conspire against him and he was court-martialled and expelled from the IRA in 1933, then later shot dead in 1936 (his innocence was effectively admitted by the IRA in 1944-45 when it pursued those involved in allegations made against him in 1933).

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Dan Turley

1927-33 Davy Matthews

From Albert Street. A former O/C of C Company, 1st Battalion in the 1920-23 campaigns, including the Raglan Street ambush, and a former internee on the Argenta. Took over from Dan Turley who remained as part of his staff. Instigated re-organisation of the Belfast IRA in 1929, including training camps, Irish language classes and recruitment to Na Fianna. Described by Bob Bradshaw as having a ‘heart of gold and head of ivory’. Also active in Sinn Féin at a time when there were internal divisions within the IRA over whether to co-operate with Sinn Féin, Fianna Fáil or a left-wing political project (or if they were to co-operate with anyone at all). In November 1933, Matthews was arrested in possession of IRA documents and received a short sentence. So many other senior Belfast staff were arrested, including Jimmy Steele, Charlie Leddy, George Nash, Tom O’Malley and Jack Gaffney that a temporary staff was formed, including Jack McNally, Jim Johnstone and Sean Carmichael.

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Davy Matthews

1933-34 Jack McNally

From the Bone. Another 1920-23 campaign veteran. Appears to have taken over as O/C while Davy Matthews served a short sentence in 1933-34 (this is implied but not explicitly stated in his memoir Morally Good, Politically Bad). While he was in prison Matthews decided to sign an undertaking that he would cease his IRA membership if he was released just before Christmas. So too did another veteran, George Nash. Whether Matthews intended to honour the commitment or not, he was courtmartialled in January 1934 and dismissed from the IRA. McNally only stayed as O/C for a number of months but remained active on the IRA’s GHQ staff until his arrest at Crown Entry in 1936. He was interned in December 1938 and was to later be active in the Anti-Partition League.

Jack McNally Jack McNally

1934-36 Tony Lavery

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

[By the way – you can read more about all of this in a new book on the Belfast IRA]

1936-37 Sean McArdle

Took on role of O/C Belfast after the loss of Lavery and other Belfast staff members at Crown Entry. In October 1937, the R.U.C. raided what appears to have been a battalion staff meeting in Pearse Hall in King Street. McArdle was arrested and sentenced to six months in Crumlin Road for having I.R.A. documents in his possession.

1937-38 Chris McLoughlin?

While McArdle was in prison for three or four months, Chris McLoughlin may have acted in the role as O/C Belfast (he may have attended at least one I.R.A. convention in that capacity).

Chris McLoughlin

Chris McLoughlin

1938 Sean McArdle

On his release, McArdle returned as O/C Belfast until he was interned in December 1938.

1938-39 Charlie McGlade

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

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Charlie McGlade

1940 Jimmy Steele

A Fianna and IRA veteran of 1920-23, Steele had been imprisoned since the Crown Entry raid, only being released in May 1940. For some time there had been unease at reports that were coming in to the IRA prisoners in Crumlin Road about disciplinary procedures being applied by the Belfast IRA staff. On his release, Steele was appointed to the IRA’s Northern Command staff. He had a dossier on the activities of the Belfast staff and following an investigation they were courtmartialled and reduced to the ranks. No-one names the staff involved (and Tim Pat Coogan, who recorded the episode, does not remember if he was ever told). It may be that McGlade was O/C but was busy elsewhere and this was his staff who were reduced to the ranks. Either way, Steele took over the role as O/C Belfast until his arrest in December 1940.

Jimmy Steele 1940

Jimmy Steele in 1940

1941 Liam Rice

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

Liam Rice Liam Rice

1941 Pearse Kelly

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


Pearse Kelly Pearse Kelly

1941-42 Hugh Matthews

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

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Hugh Matthews

1942 John Graham

Prior to 1942, Graham had been O/C of an independent unit, mostly made up of Protestant IRA men. Graham took on the role of Director of Intelligence for the Northern Command and (according to Joe Cahill), was also O/C Belfast. He presumably after Hugh Matthews some time after February 1942 although the timing is unclear. He was arrested along with David Fleming in the Belfast HQ on Crumlin Road on 3rd October 1942, where printing presses and radio broadcasting equipment were also recovered. Graham, a divinity student in the 1930s, on his release he was to become a noted professional golfer.

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John Graham

1942-43 Rory Maguire

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

1943 Jimmy Steele

Escaping from Crumlin Road prison on 15th January 1943, Steele re-joined the Northern Command staff as Adjutant and took over the role of O/C Belfast from Rory Maguire (Maguire’s brother, Ned, had escaped with Steele). He remained O/C Belfast when he took over as IRA Adjutant General after Liam Burke’s arrest.

1943-44 Seamus Burns

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

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Seamus ‘Rocky’ Burns

1944 Harry White?

In February 1944, Harry White apparently took over as O/C Belfast after Burns’ death. He was also on the run continuously. He seems to have taken on the role of O/C Belfast for much of the time and also delegated it to others.

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Harry White
Harry White

1944-45 Harry O’Rawe?

By April 1944, Harry White went underground to Altaghoney in County Derry seemingly leaving O’Rawe as O/C Belfast. In his memoir, Harry, Harry White implies that he and O’Rawe may have alternated in the role of O/C Belfast.

1945 Johnny Murphy?

When Harry O’Rawe was arrested in March 1945, it seems likely Johnny Murphy took over as O/C Belfast. Murphy was one of a number of I.R.A. volunteers that were induced to sign out of internment by Harry White. White himself had resigned from the I.R.A. then signed out of internment in the Curragh and then was reinstated in the I.R.A.. He later got others to do the same to replenish the Belfast Battalion staff. An organiser sent by the I.R.A. in Dublin, Gerry McCarthy, visited Belfast in April 1945 and that may have prompted the reorganisation of the various roles.

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Johnny Murphy

1945 Seamus Twomey?

In reality the identities of the O/C Belfast after Rocky Burns’ death are repeatedly unclear. A profile of Seamus Twomey (in The Irish Press on 15th July 1972) states that he was O/C Belfast in 1945. As he was only released from internment in the summer of that year, if this is true, it would have to be in the latter half of the year. Since arrests tended to be the catalyst that lead to a changes in O/C, it is possible that Twomey took over in October 1946 and Murphy replaced White as O/C Northern Command.

Seamus Twomey

Seamus Twomey

194?-49 Seamus McCallum

Richard English names McCallum as O/C when Des O’Hagan joined the IRA in 1949. Frank McKearney had taken over as O/C when Joe Cahill was released in November 1949, by which date McCallum may have moved to Liverpool (where he became O/C of the an I.R.A. unit). As noted above, it is not always clear who was in charge of what was left of the Belfast IRA between early 1944 and 1949, so the date that McCallum took on the role is unknown.

1949-50 Frank McKearney

By the late 1940s, Frank McKearney had taken over as O/C Belfast. He had received a six year term for possession of a revolver in 1939. He appears to have taken over as O/C during 1949, at least until the release of Jimmy Steele in 1950.

1950-56 Jimmy Steele

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

1956 Paddy Doyle

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

1956-57 Joe Cahill

Cahill, who had a death sentence commuted in 1942, had been released in 1949 from Crumlin Road. He took over from Paddy Doyle on his arrest in December 1956 until Cahill himself was interned in July 1957.

Joe Cahill

1957-60 There is a gap in available information from mid-1957 until about 1960. Jimmy Steele may have taken over again from Cahill until his own internment that summer.

1961-63 Billy McKee

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

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Billy McKee

1963-69 Billy McMillen

Following the argument over the Wolfe Tone commemorations in June 1963, McMillen took over as O/C Belfast. Having earlier been associated with unofficial bombings in 1950, McMillen had left the IRA in the mid-1950s following an argument and linked up with Saor Uladh. After his release from internment in 1961, he first went to England then returned to Belfast and rejoined the IRA. He remained O/C through the 1960s and was interned just before the pogrom in mid-August 1969.

Billy McMillen

Billy McMillen

1969 Jim Sullivan

When McMillen was interned from mid-August to late September, Sullivan acted as O/C Belfast in his place. He was imprisoned for a number of brief periods, such as 1966, when he was presumably replaced by an acting O/C by the likes of Jim Sullivan, who was his Adjutant.

Jim Sullivan


Jim Sullivan

1969 Billy McMillen

As part of the fallout over the failure of the Belfast IRA to adequately prepare to defend areas during the pogrom, on release from internment McMillen called a Battalion staff meeting to seek confirmation that he would continue as O/C. When he was forced to restructure his staff, he was also asked to withdraw supports for Cathal Goulding as Chief of Staff on 22nd September 1969.

Thanks to all those who have supplied further information, photographs etc.

You can read more about the Belfast IRA in the new book.

List of commandants of Belfast IRA, 1924-1969 (updated)

The following is an updated version of the previously posted list of officers commanding the IRA’s Belfast battalion (the name normally given to its structures in the city for most of this time) from 1924 to 1969. The list is based on a variety of sources. Despite the revisions and corrections there are still gaps and may well also contain omissions since those listed are those named in accounts of different events over 1924-1969. Some of the published also contain (eg Anderson, in Joe Cahill: A Life in the IRA names Jimmy Steele as O/C in 1969 when it was Billy McMillen), in others an inference is taken, such as in 1934 when Jack McNally had to form a staff (it is implied he was O/C but not stated). I have also noted where the commandant was arrested or imprisoned since IRA volunteers automatically lost rank on imprisonment. In each instance, presumably, someone was O/C of Belfast in an acting capacity.

As ever any corrections or suggestions can be added in the comments section.

1924-26 Hugh Corvin

Former Quartermaster of the IRA’s 3rd Northern Division. As a Belfast Brigade IRA delegate Corvin had supported the Executive against GHQ over the Treaty in 1922. Subsequently interned, he stood for election in North Belfast for Sinn Féin in 1924. Corvin acted as O/C of the Belfast Brigade during the re-organisation that followed after Joe McKelvey’s re-burial in Milltown on 30th October 1924. He continued as O/C until April 1926 when he resigned citing business reasons (he had set up an accountancy firm). He had been arrested in November 1925 and held until the end of January 1926 along with twenty others following the shooting of an informer.

He was to remain a prominent public figure, through involvement in the GAA and as secretary of the Gaelic League in Belfast. He publicly participated in fund-raising for Fianna Fáil in Belfast in the early 1930s and when he stood as an ‘independent republican’ in West Belfast in February 1943 he was largely portrayed by the IRA as a proxy for Fianna Fáil. His later political activity and the coincidence of the Fianna Fáil split suggest it may have been a motive in his resignation.

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Hugh Corvin

1926-7 Dan Turley

In Belfast IRB Circle with 1916 leader Sean McDermot as early as 1907, Turley mobilised at Easter in 1916, was director of elections for Sinn Féin in Belfast at the 1918 elections and was Head of Intelligence in 3rd Northern Division. He was interned on the prison ship Argenta. He took over from Corvin but, apparently clashing with personalities at GHQ, he was portrayed as being difficult to get on with and unpopular. He remained active as Belfast Adjutant and in other staff posts, although he was a recurring target in clashes between the Belfast IRA and GHQ. The RUC used this tension to conspire against him and he was courtmartialled and expelled from the IRA in 1933, then later shot dead in 1936 (his innocence was effectively admitted by the IRA in 1944-45 when it pursued those involved in allegations made against him in 1933).

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Dan Turley

1927-33 Davy Matthews

From Albert Street. A former O/C of C Company, 1st Battalion in the 1920-23 campaigns, including the Raglan Street ambush, and a former internee on the Argenta. Took over from Dan Turley who remained as part of his staff. Instigated re-organisation of the Belfast IRA in 1929, including training camps, Irish language classes and recruitment to Na Fianna. Described by Bob Bradshaw as having a ‘heart of gold and head of ivory’. Also active in Sinn Féin at a time when there were internal divisions within the IRA over whether to co-operate with Sinn Féin, Fianna Fáil or a left-wing political project (or if they were to co-operate with anyone at all). In November 1933, Matthews was arrested in possession of IRA documents and received a short sentence. So many other senior Belfast staff were arrested, including Jimmy Steele, Charlie Leddy, George Nash, Tom O’Malley and Jack Gaffney that a temporary staff was formed, including Jack McNally, Jim Johnstone and Sean Carmichael.

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Davy Matthews

1933-34 Jack McNally

From the Bone. Another 1920-23 campaign veteran. Appears to have taken over as O/C while Davy Matthews served a short sentence in 1933-34 (this is implied but not explicitly stated in his memoir Morally Good, Politically Bad). While he was in prison Matthews decided to sign an undertaking that he would cease his IRA membership if he was released just before Christmas. So too did another veteran, George Nash. Whether Matthews intended to honour the commitment or not, he was courtmartialled in January 1934 and dismissed from the IRA. McNally only stayed as O/C for a number of months but remained active on the IRA’s GHQ staff until his arrest at Crown Entry in 1936. He was interned in December 1938 and was to later be active in the Anti-Partition League.

Jack McNally

Jack McNally

1934-36 Tony Lavery

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

1936-38 Sean McArdle

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

1938-39 Charlie McGlade

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

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Charlie McGlade

1940 Jimmy Steele

A Fianna and IRA veteran of 1920-23, Steele had been imprisoned since the Crown Entry raid, only being released in May 1940. For some time there had been unease at reports that were coming in to the IRA prisoners in Crumlin Road about disciplinary procedures being applied by the Belfast IRA staff. On his release, Steele was appointed to the IRA’s Northern Command staff. He had a dossier on the activities of the Belfast staff and following an investigation they were courtmartialled and reduced to the ranks. No-one names the staff involved (and Tim Pat Coogan, who recorded the episode, does not remember if he was ever told). It may be that McGlade was O/C but was busy elsewhere and this was his staff who were reduced to the ranks. Either way, Steele took over the role as O/C Belfast until his arrest in December 1940.

Jimmy Steele

1941 Liam Rice

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

Liam Rice

Liam Rice

1941 Pearse Kelly

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

Pearse Kelly

Pearse Kelly

1941-42 Hugh Matthews

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

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Hugh Matthews

1942 John Graham

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

John Graham playing golf in the 1930s.

1942-43 Rory Maguire

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

1943 Jimmy Steele

Escaping from Crumlin Road prison on 15th January 1943, Steele re-joined the Northern Command staff as Adjutant and took over the role of O/C Belfast from Rory Maguire (Maguire’s brother, Ned, had escaped with Steele). He remained O/C Belfast when he took over as IRA Adjutant General after Liam Burke’s arrest.

1943-44 Seamus Burns

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

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Seamus ‘Rocky’ Burns

I’ve since revised the next sections (see here)

1944-45 Harry White

Harry White was O/C of the Northern Command at the time of Burns’ death. He was also on the run continuously. He seems to have taken on the role of O/C Belfast for much of the time and also delegated it to others like Harry O’Rawe, Albert Price and Patsy Hicks on an intermittent basis. By the end of 1944, White was Chief of Staff of the IRA but living under an assumed name in Altaghoney on the Tyrone/Derry border. He had first gone to Altaghoney in March 1944. He returned to Belfast briefly, then went back to Altaghoney from around April to August 1944 when he again returned to Belfast (his memoir Harry seems to imply that he had O’Rawe act as Belfast O/C in his absence). From the spring of 1945 White moved for good to Altaghoney. His cover was eventually blown in October 1946 and he was driven to the border and handed over to the Free State government who (it was assumed) would quickly try him in a military court and execute him. White’s luck held and he avoided execution, only to be sent to Portaoise for a number of years. On his release, he was active in the Wolfe Tone Socieites in the early 1960s.

Harry White

Harry White

1945-4? There are gaps here for the years around 1945-47 that have yet to be filled in. A profile of Seamus Twomey (in The Irish Press on 15th July 1972) states that he was O/C Belfast in 1945 after his release from internment. Johnny Murphy, John Bradley and Barney Boswell are also believed to have served on the Battalion staff at this time, from 1945 to 1947 and Murphy may have also been O/C Belfast for a time. Based on Harry White’s movements, it seems likely that White took on role as Belfast O/C in February 1944 following Burns’ death. O’Rawe acted as O/C from in White’s absence and may have taken over the role from then until his arrest on March 6th 1945 (this appears to have prompted White’s final move to Altaghoney). It is possible that Johnny Murphy, having been told to sign out from internment in late 1944, then took over as O/C, followed later that year by Seamus Twomey. It may be more likely that Twomey took over in October 1946, while Murphy replaced White as O/C Northern Command.

Johnny Murphy


194?-49 Seamus McCallum

Richard English names McCallum as O/C when Des O’Hagan joined the IRA in 1949 (it is unclear if this is meant to be Seamus ‘McCallum’ or the Seamus ‘McCollum’ who was arrested in England in the 1950s). As Frank McKearney was O/C when Joe Cahill was released in November 1949, I’m listing them in that order. As noted above, it is unclear who (if anyone) was in charge of what was left of the Belfast IRA between early 1945 and 1949.

1949-50 Frank McKearney

By the late 1940s, Frank McKearney had taken over as O/C Belfast. He had received a six year term for possession of a revolver in 1939. He appears to have taken over as O/C during 1949, at least until the release of Jimmy Steele in 1950.

1950-56 Jimmy Steele

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

1956 Paddy Doyle

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

1956-57 Joe Cahill

Cahill, who had a death sentence commuted in 1942, had been released in 1949 from Crumlin Road. He took over from Paddy Doyle on his arrest in December 1956 until Cahill himself was interned in July 1957. Cahill was to remain an active republican for the rest of his life.

Joe Cahill

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

1961-63 Billy McKee

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

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Billy McKee

1963-69 Billy McMillen

Following the argument over the Wolfe Tone commemorations in June 1963, McMillen took over as O/C Belfast. Having earlier been associated with unofficial bombings in 1950, McMillen had left the IRA in the mid-1950s following an argument and linked up with Saor Uladh. After his release from internment in 1961, he first went to England then returned to Belfast and rejoined the IRA. He remained O/C through the 1960s and was interned just before the pogrom in mid-August 1969. He was imprisoned for a number of brief periods, such as 1966, when he was presumably replaced by an acting O/C by the likes of Jim Sullivan, who was his Adjutant. As part of the fallout over the failure of the Belfast IRA to adequately prepare to defend areas during the pogrom, McMillen was forced to restructure his staff and withdraw its supports for the Goulding leadership on 22nd September 1969. Later killed during an internal feud.

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Billy McMillen

Thanks to all those who have supplied further information, photographs etc.

The killing of William Twaddell, 22nd May 1922

On May 22nd, 1922, unionist MP William Twaddell was shot dead by two gunmen as he walked to his business in Garfield Street in Belfast city centre. The two gunmen had followed him for a brief time before opening fire with revolvers firing six or seven shots at him (according to eye-witnesses). When they ran off across Royal Avenue and into Upper Garfield Street (heading towards Smithfield) a B Special fired shots after them. One of the bullets had opened a large wound in Twaddell’s chest and while he was brought to the Royal Victoria Hospital, he didn’t regain consciousness.

William Twaddell, MP

William Twaddell, MP

Twaddell was an MP in the northern parliament and a member of Belfast Corporation (he also owned a drapery in North Street). He was also a prominent Orangeman and one of the two leaders of the Ulster Imperial Guard, one of the large paramilitary forces which formed a significant proportion of the Special Constabularies that were prominent in the intense violence in Belfast in 1920-1922. On that basis, it was assumed that the shooting had been carried out by the IRA. Various prominent IRA members like Davy Matthews and Dan Turley were considered as suspects in the killing. However, according to memoirs of the time by prominent IRA men (Joseph Murray and Sean Montgomery), Twaddell’s killing had not been ordered by the IRA, although it was carried out by two IRA volunteers. In late May 1922, Belfast had sustained a significant peak of violence for some time and the Belfast Brigade and 3rd Northern Division staff officers all admitted later that discipline within the IRA was breaking down and volunteers were carrying out unofficial operations without any sanction at Battalion, Brigade or Divisional level (see witness statements on the Bureau of Military History website).

Sean Montgomery records that when Belfast Brigade staff officers tried to find out who had carried out the shooting, they eventually located the two volunteers responsible, one called P. McAleese and another called T. Geehan. While McAleese cannot be clearly identified in the Belfast Brigade records or other sources for the period, Tommy Geehan, from Carrickhill, was a volunteer in C Company of the 1st Battalion. He also appears in the 3rd Northern Division unit which was relocated to the Free State army’s camp in the Curragh and documented in the November 1922 census. Clearly, Geehan had been moved out of Belfast some time after May 1922. Notably there were a Robert McAleese and F. McAleese in C Company with Geehan, the latter emigrating to Canada.

Geehan then became prominent in the 1930s as the leader of the Revolutionary Workers Groups in Belfast that were involved in organising the Outdoor Relief Strikes. Ironically, Matthews and Turley, who had been suspects in the Twaddell killing, were O/C and Adjutant of the Belfast IRA at the time. While the IRA did not get involved in the Outdoor Relief Strike as an organisation, many, if not most volunteers, got involved as individuals. How far Matthews and Turley’s opposition was coloured by their past relationship with Geehan is not raised anywhere (not even in Monck and Rolston’s excellent 1987 book on Belfast in the 1930s: An Oral History).

Geehan had re-appeared as a trade unionist leading the Court Ward Labour Party in West Belfast in the late 1920s (he also seems to have spent time in Canada). He and William McMullan of Labour reportedly travelled to the Soviet Union in 1929. He was a committed communist by the 1930s, when he was periodically arrested and prosecuted by the northern government (a fine during the Outdoor Relief Strike became a particular cause célèbre). He was to re-appear as chair of various organisations and committees, such as the Unemployed Workers Movement in 1932 (supported by Peadar O’Donnell who was still on the IRA’s GHQ staff at the time) and the Ardoyne Refugee Tenants Committee in 1935. He had also wanted to stand in the Westminster elections of November 1935 for the Communist Party but they refused to back him, as did the Northern Ireland Labour Party (both of whom backed the  IRA candidate, Charlie Leddy).

Although marginalised, Geehan was still on the Communist Party executive committee in 1936. Eventually, he obtained work in the Belfast shipyards and disappeared into obscurity (he also suffered from chronic bronchitis). The journalist James Kelly (who described him as a thin-faced cadaverous figure) recorded finding Geehan sipping a pint in the Monico bar in 1942. By the mid-1930s he had moved to Glenard Park in Ardoyne, then Hoylake Park off the Oldpark Road, not far from the road named after William Twaddell.

Tommy Geehan died of heart failure due to chronic bronchitis in 1964.