Learn all he can and put his training to the best advantage: Irish republicans in the British Army

It is probably not coincidental that the passing of the very last of the generation who fought in the first world war has coincided with a rise in overt nationalism centred around displays of the poppy as a symbol of British military commemoration. With the second world war generation, too, now dwindling rapidly, an aggressively vocal lobby insistently equates both generation’s sacrifice, as individuals and units, with a celebration of British imperial policy and militarism. This is conducted at such a volume that it drowns out any nuanced discussion of the experience of serving in the British forces. This is maybe most acute for those, particularly in Ireland, whose relatives were more likely driven into the British Army by circumstances than any political conviction.
You can get a clear, and unapologetic, sense of what the poppy, as a symbol, is intended to commemorate from the British Legion. Under its pages on remembrance, it specifically stipulates that it includes the recent conflict in the north (one in which the British army was allowed to use violence with impunity). The Legion also pointedly includes…those who fought with them and alongside them”, which would obviously cover the local unionist militias, the RUC and UDR, which were both discredited and then disbanded. Arguably it also extends to the unionist paramilitary groups like the UDA and UVF who fought ‘alongside them’, given the British government’s continuing refusal to open up its archives on the extent to which it operated those groups as local counter-gangs.
There is peculiar lobby among the likes of Fine Gael and the Irish Labour party that try and promote the poppy. The kindest thing that can be said about it is that they appear to barely have a surface knowledge of what the British Legion actually tells us the poppy is meant to commemorate. Ironically, the leader of the Irish government probably wore a British Legion poppy in Leinster House the other day simply to provoke Sinn Féin members present (in the hope that he could use a backlash to retrospectively validate his embarrassing car crash comments about sexism in an interview the previous day).
What we are seeing there, really, is the long term impact on censorship in the south. After Section 31 of the broadcasting ban lapsed, media censorship, and the world view it had promoted, have more or less persisted in a voluntary form. No real attempt has been made in the south to either revisit events or explore other perspectives on the conflict in the north and, in reality, most people who formed their views, values and opinions under Section 31 have no sense of having been exposed to heavily censored media coverage. That pretty much extends to any genuine understanding of the typical Irish experience in the British military which many seem to completely blur with a broader anti-republicanism sensibility.
Ex-servicemen (and indeed some still enlisted in the British army) appear to have always been a component of republican organisations. IRB leader William Harbinson’s life is illustrative of how young men typically ended up in the British Army. Driven from his birthplace in Ballinderry to Liverpool at the height of the famine, he enlisted underage. Perhaps unsurprisingly, his army service was punctuated with bouts of ill-health. Yet, through the likes of Harbinson, the IRB organisation appears to have relied upon serving British soldiers for access to military capability and arms.
The year after Harbinson’s death, James Connolly was born – brought up in great poverty, he too enlisted underage in the British Army and was one of a number of those who participated in 1916 that had a military background. It is notable, now, how the input of ex-servicemen surely contributed to the overall tactical view of the IRB. It embraced using some form of conventional standing army to establish an Irish republic, either using serving soldiers (as in 1867) or the Irish volunteers and Citizen’s Army (as in 1916). After 1916, and the formation of an Irish Republican Army, ironically, the tactical remit instead shifted to guerrilla actions (even though it still had many members who were former British soldiers).
In Belfast in 1920-22, ex-servicemen were prominent in the ad hoc defence of districts that came under attack from unionists. Joseph Giles, a former soldier killed when the military opened fire in Bombay Street on 22nd July 1920 is noted as an IRA volunteer in Jim McDermot’s Northern Divisions. Other former soldiers, like Daniel Hughes and Freddy Craig, were killed when unionists attacked their home districts or, as in the case of Malachy Halfpenny, were abducted, tortured and killed by B Specials. In some districts, like Ballymacarret, many ex-servicemen were believed to have joined the IRA and provided the spine of the republican forces that defended the district from attack. Certainly, in most IRA units, former British soldiers provided the technical support to maintain weapons and train in their use. Even in the 1950s, the IRA was able to place members inside British Army barracks in preparation for arms raids. In the 1970s, again in the face of unionist violence, ex-servicemen (this time, formally) grouped themselves under the banner of the Catholic (later ‘Local’) Ex-Servicemen’s Association.
In areas of high socio-economic deprivation (across Ireland), the needs of the British for servicemen offered an opportunity for the paid work (and pension) and a trade that were often denied to them in their own districts. How far the economic necessity that drove them into the services was underscored by political support is difficult to disentangle.
One hundred years ago, Charles O’Neill, my great-grandfather, a veteran of both India and the Boer War, was serving on the Italian front. He also had a brother at sea with the British Navy. After the war he was still burnt out of Ballyhackamore and driven from his work by ‘loyalists’. Whether he was political at all, never mind supportive of British imperial policy, he was to be brutally schooled in the value placed on his military service. Yet economics also dictated that two of his sons (my granny’s brothers, Andy and Charlie) also fought in the British Army during the second world war (my granny also had one brother-in-law in the US Army and another as Adjutant-General of the IRA). Charles, Andy and Charlie’s experience was probably typical. Political or not, they chose not to serve in the likes of the RUC or UDR that the British Legion now commemorate as having fought alongside the British Army. I suspect the current flag-waving poppy celebrations of the British Legion would be completely alien to them.
The traditional inclusion of ex-servicemen within Irish republican organisations is often overlooked and has probably yet to be fully explored. Opening it up may provide some rich insights. While a British soldier in Dublin, James Connolly likely participated in war games that included defending Dublin city. Given that he was one of a number of former servicemen who took part in the Rising, was the often derided military plan for the Rising based on an insight into the British defensive strategy practised in war games in which the likes of Connolly took place?
Connolly may also have provided the most succinct rationalisation of the motivation behind a young Irish man joining the British Army “…let him make the best of it and learn all he can and put his training to the best advantage he can when he comes out. A well-trained soldier will always find his allotted place in the community.

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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