But Éire, our Éire shall be free: Edward Tierney, Belfast and 1916

Among those listed as interned in Frongoch in 1916 is an Edward Tierney whose address is given as the Falls Road, Belfast. There is also a Tierney tentatively listed among the Belfast Battalion volunteers who mobilised that Easter. So who was Edward Tierney?

Tierney’s name and address appear in the list of Frongoch internees compiled by Sean O’Mahony (in Frongoch: University of Revolution). No other details, other than the surname appears on the list of Belfast Battalion volunteers who mobilised in 1916 that is held in the Military Archives in Dublin. However, it is clear from the internment records that the Edward Tierney in Frongoch was more usually known by a Gaelicised form of the name, ‘Eamon O’Tierney’. O’Tierney had arrived in Frongoch quite late, having been transferred there in July. Harry Colley recalled that he and O’Tierney were taken into military custody from the hospital in Dublin Castle. They were marched to Kilmainham before their transfer to Frongoch. According to Colley, he and O’Tierney struggled to complete the next march from Kilmainham to the North Wall, where they were shipped to Frongoch (below). O’Tierney had been in the hospital since the surrender of the republican forces at the end of the Rising.

O’Tierney, who was described by Jeremiah O’Leary as always having being highly-strung, had suffered some form of collapse after being taken prisoner. One account states he was unconscious for as many as six weeks in the hospital. For a number of weeks afterwards, O’Tierney was also subject to severe headaches and what was described as ‘confused episodes’ and ‘loss of reason’. An account of his experience during the Rising appeared in the Irish Independent in January 1953. The area in which he fought, North King Street, witnessed some of the fiercest fighting of the Rising. O’Tierney was called the ‘Hero of Reilly’s Fort’ for his exploits in recovering an Irish Republic flag under fire. The flag had been placed on a lance that had been stuck into the ground at the centre of the North King Street and Church Street crossroads. F Company had used a pub on one of the corners of the crossroads as a stronghold which became known as Reilly’s Fort. It had come under sustained attack from British troops supported by armoured cars.

By the Friday, Reilly’s Fort had been under constant fire for sixteen hours and the decision was taken to evacuate it and retreat up Church Street to a barricade outside the Franciscan Church. The defenders were then joined by O’Tierney and others who had been defending the barricade in Mary’s Lane. When the Reilly’s Fort garrison was criticised for not bringing the Irish Republic flag and lance with them, O’Tierney went out, apparently under intense fire, and retrieved the flag and lance.

O’Tierney’s collapse after the Rising seems to be a manifestation of post-traumatic stress, presumably arising from his combat experience. In Frongoch, O’Tierney took part in the hunger-strike which began in early November. After several days on the hunger-strike, O’Tierney began to present further psychological reactions, but due to the conflict with the authorities in Frongoch he was denied medical care. For some ten days he experienced further confused episodes, including paranoid delusions about being conscripted. On the 20th November he again collapsed, which the other prisoners again described as being down to ‘loss of reason’. A few days later, on 24th November, the internees’ leaders, including Michael Collins, wrote to the authorities expressing their concern at O’Tierney’s condition and stating that he had been denied medical treatment. On 25th November, he was moved to an asylum at Denbigh where he stayed until 1917.

The 1953 series by Piaras Beaslaí that described the ‘Hero of Reilly’s Fort’.

So how had O’Tierney ended up in Dublin for the Rising?

Despite his recorded address, O’Tierney had actually arrived in Dublin from London, not Belfast. Immediately prior to the Rising, he had been in a party of eight that carried over twelve suitcases of arms and ammunition, arriving in Dublin on Good Friday 1916. Realising the Rising was about to take place, he refused to leave. O’Tierney had used the cover of a G.R. (Georgius Rex) armband of the British Home Guard when travelling between London and Dublin. The role of London-based Irish republicans in the Rising and subsequent independence campaigns has often been overlooked (eg Michael Collins spent over nine years in London).

O’Tierney had been one of those who had built up connections with Germany using letters addressed to prisoners of war. This was possible through his work in shipping as he was directly in contact with boats and captains travelling to Scandinavia and Germany. O’Tierney’s shipping connections meant he was invaluable in the attempts to procure arms and he was involved in organising the shipment of arms that was to come with Casement prior to the Easter Rising. He had even brought back one consignment of ammunition from Hamburg personally.

He had also been among the original members of the Irish Volunteers in London, commanded by Michael Collins. Their volunteer unit had, at first, created a relief committee for those affected by the 1913 lockout which then became the United Irish Associations (with O’Tierney as secretary). O’Tierney was also active in the Irish Self-Determination League.

Another one of the early recruits to the Irish Volunteers in London, Jeremiah O’Leary, records that Eamon O’Tierney had actually been born Edward Turnley. In the 1940s, Seamus Kavanagh recalled that Turnley had told him that his family background lay in Fermanagh and Monaghan and that his father was Grand Master of a Masonic Lodge there (Turnley himself was Presbyterian although he apparently converted to Catholicism while in hospital in Dublin Castle). Turnley reputedly said he had come over to London as a child to be educated and ended up fluent in twelve languages. His obituary, though, states that he came from a prominent unionist family in Antrim, rather than Fermanagh or Monaghan. Piaras Beaslaí (in the 1953 Irish Independent article) states that Turnley originally came from Fermanagh and that his father was a freemason and he had uncle who was an admiral. However, the quality of Beaslaí’s information is shown by him mistakenly giving the English form of Turnley’s surname as ‘Tormley’.

Seamus Kavanagh states that Turnley did first joined the Gaelic League to learn Irish, then, as he met various active republicans including some with Belfast connections like Henry Shiels, Alf Monaghan and the Wards, he became an active republican himself. His interest in the Irish language supposedly arose after a period of time in which he had been a heavy gambler and  was drinking excessively. During one such night, a British army officer made, and then lost, a huge gamble. The officer immediately left the room and shot himself. Seemingly, that turned Turnley from drinking and gambling and he took up the study of Irish instead. In the Gaelic League he met Michael Collins and it was Collins that is said to have made an Irish nationalist out of Turnley. Turnley remained active in the Gaelic League as well as the Irish Self Determination League in London. He had first joined the Clapham branch of the Gaelic League in 1910.

In 1917, Turnley was eventually discharged from Denbigh asylum. A letter writer to the Irish Independent in 1953 (in response to Beaslaí’s article) recalled that Turnley was then constantly followed by Scotland Yard in London. His professional skills were such, though, that even after his release, he was still in demand by employers. At the same time, and despite the surveillance, he remained heavily involved in republican activities in London under Sean McGrath and Sam Maguire. He also gave political speeches at various events, such as one where we spoke with Countess Markievicz and Herbert Devine at the Roger Casement Sinn Féin Club in London on 5th December 1919 and was promiment at various Gaelic League and Irish Self-Determination League events.

Aodh de Blacam, who knew Turnley well in London, mentions him in his novel about the London Irish, Holy Romans. He also included a brief memoir of Turnley in the London Gaelic League’s occasional magazine, Guth na nGaedheal, in March 1922. He quoted what he claimed to be Turnley’s own words, “…That we shall win our freedom I have no doubt; that we shall use it well I am not so certain… That should be our final consideration, and we should make this a resolution – our future history shall be more glorious than that of any contemporary State. We shall look for prosperity, no doubt, but let our enthusiasm be for beautiful living; … we shall take pride in our institutions …. as securing happiness of the citizens, and we shall lead Europe again as we led it of old. We shall rouse the world from a wicked dream of material good, of tyrannical power, of corrupt and callous politics to the wonder of a regenerated spirit, a new and beautiful dream; and we shall establish our State in a true freedom that will endure for ever.

Also included in the article were what de Blacam described as verses that Turnley had loved:

I cannot count the years

That you must drink like me

The cup of blood and tears,

Till she to you appears-

But Éire, our Éire shall be free !

 

You consecrate your lives

To her, and you shall be

The food on which she thrive

Till her great day arrives :

When Éire, our Éire, shall be free.

 

She ask you but for faith :

Your faith in her takes she,

Amidst defeat and death

As draughts of Heaven’s breath –

And Éire, our Éire shall be free!

In 1920 Turnley moved from London to Cork where he transferred to the local I.R.A. unit (2nd Battalion). After a bout of appendicitis he needed an operation from which he didn’t recover and he died on 17th December 1920.

So who was Eamon O’Tierney?

Eamonn O’Tierney was indeed born as Edward Douglas Turnley at St George Hanover Square in London in 1890 (this was also the name under which his death was registered in Cork in 1920). His family moved to Ashford, Staines in Middlesex around 1894 after his brother Alfred was born, although their mother died soon after Alfred’s birth. His father, Edward Echlin Turnley remarried in 1895, to Emmie, and had four further children and continued to live in Ashford. Edward Turnley was a senior civil servant. A clue to his Irish connection is given in the name of his house in Ashford, ‘Drumnasole’. Drumnasole, near Glenarm, was the Irish seat of the Turnley family. Edward Turnley himself had been in born in Newcastle-upon-Tyne in 1855 to William Echlin Turnley and Maria White. William Turnley was a British soldier who had join the 54th Foot at the age of 14 in 1845, rising through the ranks to become Quartermaster in 1863 (with the equivalent rank of Captain) and then transferring to the more prestigious 1st Foot Regiment in 1871 and retiring with the equivalent rank of Major. After his retirement he lived in East Brixton and Lambeth in London. Turnley’s military records show that he was born in Belfast in 1831. At his marriage in 1851, his father’s name is given as John Turnley. The name Echlin used by the family suggests that there is some connection here between the Turnley and Echlin families, both of whom had residences near the mouth of Strangford Lough (where John Turnley and John Echlin were Justices of the Peace in the late 18th and early 19th century).

John Turnley had built a new house for himself, Rockport House (now a school), at Craigavad on Belfast Lough while his brother Francis, who had amassed a fortune in the East Indies, built Drumnasole House. The Turnleys were actively involved in Belfast’s business community and there was even a Turnley Street in the city centre (roughly where Stewart Street meets East Bridge Street today).

William (Edward Douglas Turnley’s grandfather) may have been a son of John Turnley of Rockport, although references to him suggest he had no legitimate children. Either way, the Turnley family clearly had some connection to the Drumnasole Turnleys. William, a retired army major, lived not far from his son Edward Echlin Turnley and his grandson Edward Douglas Turnley and died in 1904. It is possible Edward was given some sense of his Belfast roots by his grandfather. This is presumably what later prompted Edward Turnley to give his address as Belfast. How far the Turnley’s were prominent in unionism isn’t clear, though. The surname and Drumnasole appears on the lists of donors to the UVF in the 1910s but there is nothing to indicate that the Turnleys were particularly prominent in unionist politics.

Some of the inaccurate memoirs recorded about Turnley may have been badly remembered. But he may also have casually gave out misleading information about himself as a standard security precaution. Certainly the cumulative impact of his clandestine work importing arms and the physical danger of the Rising itself appears to have brought on some sort of breakdown. At least the Gaelic League in London did remember him, though. From 1937, Feis Lonndhain included an annual essay competition named in his honour which continued until at least the late 1950s.

 

postscript

More recently, another member of the Turnley family, John Turnley, was active in the SDLP in the 1970s, leaving to help found the Irish Independence Party in 1977 (his father tried to disinherit him over his political views). He was shot dead by the UDA in June 1980 after arriving at a public meeting in Carnlough. He was one of two prominent Protestant supporters of political status for prisoners in the H Blocks and Armagh to be shot dead around that time. One of those convicted over his death, Robert McConnell was prominent in the Ulster Unionist Party on his release.

And Rockport House school, which that John Turnley had attended, was based in the house originally built by one of his forebearers and namesake. The school itself was founded by Geoffrey Bing whose own son of the same name attended the school and was later a Labour MP for Hornchurch. In 1950 he published “John Bull’s Other Ireland” a widely read critique of the Unionists abuses of civil rights in Ireland.

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Belfast and Nineteen Sixteen book relaunched by National Graves Association, Belfast.

The National Graves Association Belfast are relaunching ‘Belfast and Nineteen Sixteen’ the booklet produced to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the Easter Rising. The original 1966 book has been reprinted along with a new cover and introduction.

You can read more on the relaunch below (by Brónach Ní Thuama in the Andersonstown News):

The booklet was originally produced (along with Antrim’s Patriot Dead) 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. Both were edited by Jimmy Steele, who had previously 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. Funds from sales we go towards ongoing work on the Belfast National Graves Association.

I have written about Belfast and Nineteen Sixteen and Antrim’s Patriot Dead previously.

You can view the whole book here: Belfast and Nineteen Sixteen (or get a preview below, to whet your appetite).

I don’t have a link for buying it online as yet, but I’ll update this as soon as I get one. In the meantime you can contact the National Graves Association in Belfast via their Facebook page.

 

Some related posts on Belfast and 1916

Mobilising in Belfast for 1916

Disinformation and propaganda: violence in Belfast in 1966

Belfast Easter Commemoration, 1917

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

Belfast in 1916

Undoubtedly She Was Ready to Kill: Constance Markiewicz at St Stephen’s Green

An enduring controversy has raged over the role of Constance Markiewicz in the death of DMP Constable Michael Lahiff at St Stephen’s Green on the first day of the Easter Rising in 1916. The controversy is mostly fuelled by a mixture of uncertain eye-witness testimony and confused timelines. Regardless of whether she did fire the shots that killed Lahiff, a new eye-witness account shows (in the writers own words) that ‘undoubtedly she was ready to kill’.

Interestingly, the exact role of other imdividual combatants hasn’t attracted the same fascination as Markiewicz. In some ways, she has become of one focus of a particular anti-republican critique that deems the declaration of an Irish Republic in 1916 an illegitimate, indeed treacherous, act against the benevolent British Empire in the midst of a war in which that Empire was wasting the lives of hundreds of thousands of its subjects.

I was recently given a copy of a (seemingly previously unpublished) letter which includes the eye-witness account of Markiewicz in Stephen’s Green on the first day of the Rising. The author, Captain Charles Calthrop de Burgh Daly was a doctor attached to the Royal Army Medical Corps who happened to be in the University Club on Stephen’s Green to observe republican forces taking over Stephen’s Green on the first day of the Easter Rising.

Dr De Burgh Daly

The letter, dated 13th June 1916, is written on embossed University Club notepaper. Interestingly the opening tone of the letter suggests de Burgh Daly was responding to a query as to whether he saw Markiewicz kill anyone during the Rising, implying Markiewicz’s conduct during the Rising was already the focus of gossip in Dublin. In his letter, de Burgh Daly wrote “I do not, of my own personal knowledge, know that she killed others but undoubtedly she was ready to kill policemen and combatant officers or men.”

The full text of the letter is below:

71 Park Avenue, Sandymount, 13-6-16

My dear Rebba,

To my certain knowledge the following occurred. About noon on Easter Monday 24th April – Countess Markiewicz drove up to Stephens Green in a motor and got out opposite the University Club. She was dressed in a man’s uniform green and brown belt and feathers in her hat. She apparently was in command or second in command of SF in the Green.

About 1 o’clock she leant up against the Eglinton monument and took a deliberate potshot at me in one of the open windows of the University Club. I was sitting in the window, in uniform, the distance was about 50-60 yards. She could not tell I was a doctor but I suspect considered I was a combatant officer as I had ribbons on. She used a Mauser pistol which fits onto its case as a stock and fired from the shoulder.

The waiter of this Club gave evidence at her trial and acknowledged that she had shot at an officer as described above. I do not of my own personal knowledge know that she killed others but undoubtedly she was ready to kill policemen and combatant officers or men.

She released doctors of the RAMC and wounded officers when captured on the Monday night and mixed up kindness and killing in accordance with her convictions on the rebellion and how to conduct it. I bear her no ill-will and hope one of these day she may use her talents for the real benefit of our country. When driven out of Stephen’s Green on Tuesday morning, she with the rebels, seized the College of Surgeons, and it was from there that she and others surrendered at the end of the week.

I did not give evidence against her as I did not actually see her pull the trigger but when the bullet crashed through the window just above my head I saw at once that a woman dressed in mans clothes had fired it and later on with a pair of glasses, I and several others identified her as Countess Markiewicz.

Ulick has just been operated on for appendicitis and is recovering rapidly and feels quite well. Charlie is still in Mullingar. Emily has been in Monaghan and Armagh for the last 3 weeks. She comes home on Friday. With kindest regards to you and yours, yours very sincerely,

C.C. de Burgh Daly

A few details in de Burgh Daly’s letter are significant in light of the apparent gaps in the details of Markiewicz’s actions on the first day of the Rising. First of all, he places Markiewicz on the north side of Stephen’s Green at noon. Coincidentally, this is around the time Constable Lahiff was reportedly shot. It also places Markiewicz just to the east of the Fusilier’s Arch. At least one shot aimed at Lahiff passed through his left arm and into his lungs as he approached the Arch (implying he was shot from the east). As de Burgh Daly himself states, though, he didn’t see her kill anyone.

[Presumably the bullet fired from Markiewicz’s Mauser is still embedded in a wall inside the University Club – if it was recovered and Lahiff’s remains exhumed, a simple ballistic analysis of the two bullets might put this particular controversy to rest.]

So does her attempting to kill an army officer (a doctor indeed) just add further fuel to the fire of the Markiewicz controversy? Do we need any context to this? Who was de Burgh Daly?

Charles de Burgh Daly had been prominent from August 1914 in calling for co-ordinated medical training and support for the war. He also organised and spoke at public recruiting rallies as a member of the Dublin City and County Recruitment Committee since the start of the war, including the main recruitment campaigns of 1915. As part of his recruiting work he took a commission in the Royal Army Medical Corps, eventually rising to the rank of Colonel, although only ever based in Ireland. Arguably, de Burgh Daly, as an enthusiastic cheerleader for the war, had played his own part in many violent deaths long before the Rising began.

He was married to Emily French, sister of Percy French, who published popular books on their time living in Manchuria (where de Burgh Daly hd been medical officer to the British embassy) and on her brother’s musical work. She was also involved in the likes of the NSPCC. Before the de Burgh name even crops up at some suffragette events. At the time, in 1916, the de Burgh’s two sons were officers in the British Army. And there is a further tragic dimension to the letter.

Their elder son, Ulick, was an army captain and served with the British forces in Dublin that suppressed the nascent Irish Republic in 1916. Their younger son, Arthur Charles (presumably the Charlie in the letter), left Ireland for France in the summer of 1916 and fought during the Somme. He was killed at Ginchy on the 9th September 1916. Agonisingly, his parents received a telegram from the War Office saying that he had been killed in action on the 4th September 1916. The same day they received a letter from him dated 8th September. They then had a tortorous wait while the War Office tried to establish the truth. He is buried in Delville Wood cemetery. Ulick emigrated to the United States in the 1920s.

After his son’s death, Charles de Burgh Daly is noticeably absent from the names of those promoting British Army recruitment. After the war, a memorial to his son was erected by him in St John’s Church in Sandymount. The organist in St John’s, Cecil MacDowell, served in the Boland’s Mills garrison during the Rising. MacDowell also wrote the melody to the Soldier’s Song. After the war and partition, de Burgh Daly was again prominent in management of hospitals in the Dublin region and was one of the founders of the Hospital Sweepstakes. He was also a lead figure and spokesman for the Royal Irish Automobile Club.

Anyone who wants to retrace Markiewicz’s footsteps today will struggle to locate the Eglinton monument mentioned by de Burgh Daly as the statue to the Earl of Eglington was blown up in August 1958. It was located almost directly opposite the University Club (to west of the gate almost directly opposite 17 Stephen’s Green where the University Club was based).

Eg Plin

The Eglinton monument mentioned in de Burgh Daly’s letter. The University Club wndow are on those on the right hand side of the street lamp in the photo (phot is from the Irish Indepdent on 27 August 1958 after the statue was blown up).

Big go raibh maith agat to Stan Ó Caírbre for the copy of the letter.

Winnie Carney at the GPO, via #Herstory

Last night, the image of Winifred Carney was one of those projected onto the GPO as part of #Herstory, to coincide with Nollaig na mBan (literary, ‘the women’s Christmas’, the traditional Irish name for the Christian feast of the Epiphany in Ireland).

You can check out more text and images via the Herstory social media and website.

Carney, born in Bangor but brought in Belfast, was a trade unionist, suffragist and republican activist. Living at Carlisle Circus, she was active in the textile unions, Gaelic League and nationalist organizations and was prominent in highlighting the dreadful conditions faced by workers in Belfast, particularly women and children.

She worked closely with James Connolly, particularly throughout the Easter Rising where she was the first woman into the GPO and last to leave. The other Belfast republicans active in Dublin during the Rising was mainly women (eg see Nora Connolly’s account here). Afterwards she stood for election for Sinn Féin and continued to be active in the likes of the TGWU and, later, the NILP. She married George McBride in 1928 (below, with Carney, image held by District Trades Union Council), who had been in the UVF and Orange Order but was by then a committed socialist.

Carney died in 1943, ages only 56, and is buried in Milltown.

James Connolly 150th anniversary

The 5th June 2018 will mark the 150th anniversary of James Connolly’s birth in Edinburgh of Monaghan parents. I’m sure the year will include various events and discussions of Connolly, his life and legacy.

One area that interests me and, I think, seems wholly under-explored, is Connolly’s time as a British soldier. Not just in how it must have contributed to Connolly’s own political and intellectual formation but also in how it provides an example of that tradition of service in Britain’s armed forces by Irish Catholics. Connolly’s military experience is very much suppressed in the post-1916 twentieth century hagiography and biographical treatments of his life (Greaves being the obvious pioneer of reintroducing his years as a soldier into the substance of the Connolly legend). That’s a thread I’m going to try and continue to pick up in 2018.

During this year, I’m hoping to start adding contributions from other people. The guiding principle will be that I’ll add anything relevant: memoirs, old historical news items, ephemera, songs/ballads etc. It doesn’t need to be academically written or of any particular length. The only requirement is that it adds something new, not well known or interesting. Easiest way to let me know you’ve something of interest is to message me via the Facebook page or by email (jjconeill at gmail.com works best).

In the meantime, best wishes for 2018 and thanks for continuing to read and comment on the blog and Facebook and here’s some Connolly reading from the blog to get your new year started.

https://treasonfelony.wordpress.com/2017/11/11/learn-all-he-can-and-put-his-training-to-the-best-advantage-irish-republicans-in-the-british-army/

https://treasonfelony.wordpress.com/2017/07/31/james-connollys-time-as-a-british-soldier-some-new-evidence/

https://treasonfelony.wordpress.com/2015/04/01/nora-connolly-obrien-on-her-father-belfast-and-1916/

https://treasonfelony.wordpress.com/2016/04/04/they-told-me-how-connolly-was-shot-in-the-chair/

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.

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