Truckling to Treason: Belfast Newsletter reflects on the Rebellion, 4th May 1916

Disinformation and propaganda: violence in Belfast in 1966

In January 1966, the northern government’s Minister of Home Affairs, Brian McConnell made very public calls for the IRA to have the ‘good sense’ to not get involved in violence in the upcoming  1916 commemorations.

Then, in February 1966, an RUC vehicle and unionist party HQ were petrol-bombed. The petrol bomb was thrown at an RUC landrover at Andersonstown on the night of 10th February (in Commedagh Drive), while the Unionist party HQ was attacked on 18th February. The next night, in ‘reprisal’, St Gerard’s primary school on the Antrim Road was vandalised and a fire bomb thown at St John’s primary school in west Belfast. St Joseph’s primary school in Crumlin was also attacked. The IRA vehemently denied any connection to the incidents and issued a statement of denial from the ‘Republican Movement’ to the press through the Irish Republican Publicity Bureau on 22nd February (notably, unionist false flag attacks were to be a clear feature of the next few years). On the night of 24th February two petrol bombs were thrown at the Broadway Presbyterian Church. 

Then, in March, the Belfast Battalion O/C Billy McMillen and a staff officer, Denis Toner, were arrested and ended up being held over the Easter period. Meantimes, another petrol bomb was thrown, this time at Holy Cross Girls School on the Crumlin Road. That same March, Gerry Fitt had taken the Westminister seat of West Belfast for Republican Labour in a general election. He was the first non-unionist to take the seat since Jack Beattie in 1951 and for the first time, since the same election, the IRA hadn’t stood a candidate (notably, 58.8% of the vote in 1964 had gone to non-unionists). The IRA wasn’t to put a candidate up against Fitt again until 1974.

The first of the Easter Rising commemoration events was the conventional Easter Sunday commemoration. The main events were then to take place the next weekend.

On the following Sunday, the fiftieth anniversary Easter Rising Commemoration itself took place. That morning, unionists detonated a bomb at Milltown in the republican plot but it did little damage. A second bomb was also exploded at Ligoniel. 
The RUC mounted armed checkpoints across Belfast throughout the day as Ian Paisley also had organised counter parades to try and disrupt the republican commemorations (ironically, Paisley’s marchers paraded behind a banner saying ‘Ireland belongs to Christ’). A number of people heading for the republican commemorations were assaulted, including one man almost beaten death as he tried to cross a road through Paisley’s marchers.

The main republican march formed up in the old Pound Loney district in Hamill Street, Institution Place, John Street and Barrack Street. Some 5,000 took part in the parade, but an estimated 70,000 people came out to watch. The presence of many senior republican figures underscored the emphasis the IRA placed on the Belfast commemoration in 1966. One veteran IRA volunteer who joined the march, Chris McGouran, collapsed and died while walking during the parade.

The northern government, discomforted by the scale and enthusiasm of the commemorations, had the Belfast Battalion Adjutant, Jim Sullivan, and two other staff officers, Malachy McBurney and Leo Martin, charged with failing to give sufficient notice for the commemoration and for conducting what was then an illegal procession.

While Nelson’s Pillar in Dublin had been blown up by republicans in March, despite all the unionist claims to the contrary, no violent action had been planned by the Belfast Battalion. Yet in April, an additional battalion of the British Army had even been sent to the north, just in case they were needed. In the weekend after the main 1966 commemorations, a Catholic owned shop of the Shankil Road, O’Hara’s Self-Service Stores, was petrol bombed although little damage was done. The same night, a family in Hopewell Street had three shots fired into their house from a moving car.

That unionists were behind the attacks was apparent at the start of May, as the newly reorganised Ulster Volunteer Force publicly threatened that “…known IRA men will be executed mercilessly and without hesitation.” On the 7th May, it tried to firebomb a Catholic owned bar in Upper Charleville Street (in the Shankill Road area of Belfast), but instead set fire to the adjoining home of Matilda Gould, who subsequently died from her injuries (on 27th June). The same night, a petrol bomb was thrown at the home of Josephine MacMahon on Northumberland Street and two petrol bombs were thrown at St Marys Training College on the Falls Road. At a debate that followed in Stormont, the Home Affairs Minister, Brian McConnell revealed there had now been eight such petrol bomb attacks in March, April and May.

A couple of weeks later, on 27th May, UVF members shot John Scullion in Oranmore Street having originally been trying to find and kill Francis McGuigan, a Belfast IRA volunteer. The RUC reported that Scullion had been stabbed and that they believed he knew the name of his attackers. However, it was reported at Scullions in quest that they were given the two bullets that had hit Scullion the night he was shot.

At the start of June, a unionist crowd, led by Ian Paisley, was permitted to march through Cromac Square in the Markets area. Unionist marches had been discouraged from passing through there since 1935. Paisley was en route to protest a Presbyterian General Assembly. The resulting riot at Cromac Square restarted the next night when two petrol bombs were then thrown at the RUC by the IRA in Lagan Street in the Markets on June 8th. A few days later, John Scullion died of his wounds (on 11th June). The RUC had perpetuated the idea that he was stabbed, repeatedly reporting that he knew his attacker and that were awaiting him to regain conscious and give them the name. They then reported that he had passed away without divulging the name (even though the UVF had been claiming responsibility and rang the press to confirm their claim). A few days after Scullion died, the UVF fired shots into Willaim Gamble’s shop in the Shankill Road district.  A brick had also been thrown through the window some days previously.

There were further attacks at the end of June. Just before those attacks happened, the State Pathologist in Belfast ordered that John Scullion’s remains be exhumed to review the cause of death (he had been buried just over a week previously). On the 20th, Jim Sullivan, Malachy McBurney and Leo Martin didn’t turn up in court for a scheduled appearance to hear the charges over the Easter commemoration and had fines imposed by the court in absentia.

The next day, Terence O’Neill, the Prime Minister of the northern government, claimed there was no reason to use the Special Powers Act against the unionists who had been claiming responsibility for recent violence. Then, during the night of 24th-25th, unionists broke into Leo Martin’s house in Baden-Powell Street in the Oldpark district. They tried to set fire to the house with little success. It later emerged that it was three UVF men that had tried to break in, intending to shoot Martin. That night, two armed unionists also entered the house of Thomas Maguire on Canmore Street, between the Falls Road and Shankill Road. Maguire was disabled but still had a gun put to his stomach and told to leave his home. Several hours earlier a friend, who had been visiting Maguire’s house, was stabbed after leaving the house. There were a number of other attacks involving minor vandalism and bomb hoaxes at the houses of prominent Catholics on the same night. There were also attacks on six houses in Ardmoulin Avenue.

The same night, the UVF unit that had failed to find Leo Martin at his home, instead encountered four Catholic barmen drinking in the Malvern Arms in Malvern Street off the Shankill. The UVF shot the barmen outside, wounding two and killing Peter Ward. Two days later, Matilda Gould died from the injuries she had sustained in May.

The Belfast IRA issued a statement on the day after Matilda Gould died, stating that “The Republican movement condemns in the strongest possible terms the recent outrages in Belfast, and expresses deepest sympathy with the relatives of all those killed and wounded in these incidents. We would reiterate that Republicans are utterly opposed to sectarian bitterness and strie and would remind our members that their duty is to resist all efforts to provoke them into acts of relationation. Discipline and self-restraint must be exercised by all.

The cumulative effect of the deaths of Scullion, Ward and Gould was that the northern government was forced to declare the UVF an illegal organisation. It also made a series of arrests and proferred charges against those involved.

A British royal visit at the start of July then led to some confrontations and protests. There were further attacks over the weekend of the Twelfth. This incuded a Catholic couple, the Donnelly’s, being assaulted in their home in Frenchpark Street on the 12th July. A mob also attacked houses in Rockview Street. Robert Donnelly was one of three people who received serious head injuries. The same night windows were broken in Charles O’Hara’s shop on the Newtonards Road. His window had been smashed during the election earlier that year and a petrol also thrown at the shop. There were further attacks in late July, on Catholics in Alloa Street between Manor Street and Clifton Park Avenue.

Having failed to turn up for their court appearance in June, Jim Sullivan and Malachy McBurney were arrested and given three months in jail. The trial of the UVF members (in which Ian Paisley was also named) dragged on over the summer and into August and September.

It was only in late August that the northern government officially admitted that John Scullion had been shot rather than stabbed despite having known this was the case from the night it happened. The pattern of RUC behaviour over Scullion’s murder has clear echoes of what was to become a familiar routine in the coming years. It also shows up an existing native capacity for disinformation and propaganda, long before the arrival of specialist British Army staff in 1969.

James Connolly Heron reading 1916 Proclamation, Glasnevin, 24th April 2016

On the day marking the 100th anniversary of the start of the 1916 Easter Rising, James Connolly Heron read the Proclamation of the Irish Republic at the republican plot, Glasnevin at one of many great events on in Dublin during the day (the Glasnevin event was organised by the National Graves Assocation). James is a great-grandson of James Connolly and grandson of Ina Connolly-Heron (who served in the Belfast Cumann na mBan in 1916 at Coalisland and Dublin) and Archie Heron (Belfast Battalion, Irish Volunteers at Coalisland).

 

National Graves Association book online: 1916-1966 Belfast and Nineteensixteen


As the centenary of the 1916 Rising is being commemorated, it seems fitting to post up a copy of the booklet produced to mark the fiftieth anniversary in Belfast.

Ostensibly, the booklet was one of two produced to raise funds on behalf of the National Graves Association in Belfast and defray the cost of erecting the County Antrim Memorial on the Tom Williams plot in Milltown Cemetery. In the 1950s and 1960s, Jimmy Steele had edited a number of versions of what is now Belfast Graves, a compendium of biographies of republicans who had died while actively involved in various campaigns.

The book represents one dimension of republican commemoration and remembrance that also included poetry and songs, physical monuments, occasionally, but rarely, buildings (such as Pearse Hall) and equally significant but less tangible memorials such as naming GAA clubs, pipe bands and cultural organizations after key individuals.

Commemoration, as a theme, provides a window on the wider republican communities, often reflecting the degrees of division and fragmentation. Noticeably, the singular focus that the Twelfth gives unionism is absent in republican commemoration despite a generally agreed pantheon from Tone to Connolly. This autonomy and independence in commemoration is arguably integral or a function of revolutionary organizations that espouse republican equality as opposed to monarchy (although the depth of antagonism often shown is deeply unproductive, except to opponents of republicanism, and needs to be overcome some way if republican ideals are to be realised). Physical monuments, up to the 1970s, were largely confined to the republican plots at Milltown with their representative, but by no means comprehensive, listings of the dead. The incompleteness and ambiguity of the original lists on the County Antrim Memorial in Milltown belies any idea that republicanism is overly obsessed with history (otherwise the monument would be informed by painstaking detail of all relevant dead, with correct dates, etc). But, in reality, some dead are listed there to remind republicans of a common purpose and to deter the faint-hearted. One message, also found in songs and poems, is clearly that to participate is to risk death, usually misinterpreted as glorifying ‘sacrifice’, when possibly the opposite is intended – it is to put off those who may succumb to treachery to avoid that ‘sacrifice’. The location, in a Catholic cemetery at Milltown, does clash with the idealism of secular republicanism but is possibly the only physical space which unionism would concede for such a purpose (as it conveniently allows unionism to Catholicise it to fit its own narrative). Notably, McArts Fort on Cavehill was the venue of choice until the 1920s (revived temporarily in the 1960s).

That said, Belfast and Nineteen Sixteen, for its era, overcame many of these issues. It includes republican and left republican voices, both male and female, and originating within and outside the contemporary republican movement. It also encompassed those who supported and opposed the Treaty in the 1920s.

Contributions to Belfast and Nineteen Sixteen included articles by Cathal O’Shannon, Dennis McCullough, Nora Connolly O’Brien, Joe McGurk, Liam Gaynor and Steele himself. An additional item was an older piece about James Connolly written by Constance De Markievicz. It also contained poems and songs by Steele, Francis O’Grady and Cathal O’Shannon.

McCullough had been President of the Military Council of the IRB and local commandant in Belfast in 1916. He had also been a key figure in various IRA veteran organisations that were dominated by supporters of the Treaty. O’Shannon was a prominent Labour activist. Their collaboration in the book signalled a broad rapprochement across various strands of the left and republicanism. Connolly O’Brien’s contribution reflected on the key role the women of Cumann na mBan played in 1916.

You can view the whole book here: Belfast and Nineteen Sixteen

Pat Nash, 1916 veteran

Pat Nash, O/C Belfast Brigade (taken from Belfast and nineteensixteen).

Pat Nash of Belfast was the first Belfast soldier of the Republic to be arrested before 1916 and sent to prison for trying to buy a rifle from a British Soldier. He with his brother George later went with the Belfast contingent to Coalisland to take part in the Easter manoeuvres arranged for Easter Sunday 1916.

On being ordered back to Belfast on Easter Sunday night he took it very badly. He was arrested the following week and interned in Frongoch.

On his release he again became active in the movement and was again interned in Ballykinlar. Released from internment again he threw himself wholeheartedly into the movement and he became a great guerilla fighter and leader in the Leeson Street and “Loney” area of the Falls Road, right up to the signing of the Treaty in 1921.

He was again arrested and interned in Belfast Jail, Derry Jail, Larne Workhouse and the Prison Ship S.S. Argenta.

During his internment he became a great Prison fighter and endured hunger-strikes which had their effect on his health. About a month after his release he died on the 31st January 1925 – and was buried in Milltown Cemetery.

Nash had been Vice O/C of the Brigade earlier in 1922, having been involved with the Irish Volunteers in Belfast since before 1916 (as mentioned in Belfast and nineteensixteen).

Not being anything to anyone: Ballagh on 1916

Robert Ballagh speaking about the government’s plans to commemorate the centenary of the Easter Rising this year at a recent book launch in Gorey:

 “Equating the sacrifices of the British soldiers who died …when they did so in the very act of destroying the republic we are supposed to be commemorating… They had intended displaying the names Pearse and Connolly along with many others from the opposite side in alphabetical order on a wall. Can you imagine that happening in London, with those from the Luftwaffe given the same prominence as their own soldiers, or in Arlington Cemetery in the USA? This is national self-abasement – trying to be all things to all people but in the end not being anything to anyone…

Worth bearing in mind as we get the first instalment of Rebellion,  RTÉ’s fictionalised reading of 1916,  giving an insight into what official Ireland probably wants us to make of events one hundred years ago.

Robert Ballagh at the launch in Gorey

Robert Ballagh at the launch in Gorey

New book on 1916 (focus on North Wexford)

Last Tuesday saw the launch of ‘Proclaiming the Republic: North Wexford & the 1916 Rising’, written by myself and Fionntán Ó Súilleabháin (a local historian and a Sinn Féin county councillor in Wexford). Technically, much of the book was actually written by people from North Wexford who took part or witnessed  the events of 1916. This included the seizure of Enniscorthy, Ferns and the surrounding area in the name of the Provisional Government of the Irish Republic. Seamus Ó Dubhghaill, Adjutant of the republican garrison wrote and posted up a proclamation in Enniscorthy. He later wrote:

I issued a proclamation, proclaiming the Republic, and calling on the people to support it and defend it.

Unfortunately this proclamation, probably the most important document of 1916 in Wexford, is now lost (and not just important to Wexford obviously). The book includes a foreword by Ruan O’Donnell.

 
The North Wexford connections go beyond the local activity in 1916. It include the likes of Máire Deegan, Min Ryan and her sister Agnes (who left Cumann na mBan in Belfast to come down to Wexford for the Rising), James Corcoran of the Citizens Army (killed in action in St Stephen’s Green) and, of course, the Mellows family. Liam Mellows provides another Belfast connection as the city companies were to travel to Connacht to fight under him. His mother Sarah was a founding member of Cumann na mBan.

 

The authors (Fionntán on the left, me on the right), Robert Ballagh and local re-enactors at the launch in Gorey Library

The inimitable Robert Ballagh officially launched the book in Gorey library, and endorsed the book as “...once and for all, it nails the lie that The Easter Rising was simply a Dublin affair.” He was also highly critical of the current government’s commemorative plans for 2016.

Production of the book was supported by Wexford county council and proceeds are going to a local mental health charity, talk.to.tom. It will mainly go on sale locally in Wexford (about 130 pages, softback, with some colour, price is around €10). I will try and get up kindle and/or PDF versions online in the near future. In the meantime, a limited number of copies can be purchased from me (send me a message via my gmail address, which is just jjconeill with the usual @ and gmail.com)  including where you are – postage should be €2.50 in Ireland, €5 elsewhere). I’ll update about the kindle/pdf versions as I work it out.