The 1944 IRA hunger strike

Seventy-five years ago this week, IRA sentenced prisoners in Crumlin Road ended a hunger-strike that had begun just over forty days earlier, on the 22nd February 1944. The hunger strike was the latest in a sequence of prison protests that had included a strip strike in mid-1943 and an earlier hunger strike by the female prisoners in Armagh Gaol in the winter of 1943. After the IRA finally began its long delayed campaign in England in January 1939, it had failed to reinvigorate the campaign by transferring its focus to the north. By the middle of 1943, in the face of the loss of key personnel and lack of resources and with no imminent prospect of a Versailles style post-war conference, the emphasis shifted to the prisons and publicity coups in what IRA Chief of Staff Hugh McAteer later described as an attempt to ‘preserve the spirit’ of the movement.

The circumstances of the IRA in the north, at this point, were now considerably removed from that of the generation who were active from 1916 to 1922. From the Easter Rising onwards, conflict with the British authorities and then Free State and Northern Ireland authorities had indeed seen many republicans interned or sentenced to terms in prison. Despite the widespread republican experience of internment and imprisonment between 1916 to 1924, the typical period of incarceration was more often measured in months than years and few faced extended periods in prison. Only a handful of republicans were imprisoned for longer periods, some serving terms in prisons in Britain for a number of years after the general amnesties that followed the signing of the treaty in 1921.

The existing sentencing policy applied in the north from the mid-1930s onwards saw republicans given prison terms for offences that only warranted a fine for others. This discrepancy increased wildly after 1936, first when Eddie McCartney was given a ten year sentence and then when the Treason Felony Act was invoked to hand lengthy prison sentences to the northern IRA leadership. That Act hadn’t been used since the 1880s, which was the previous period in which republicans experienced similarly long terms of imprisonment with the likes of Tom Clarke serving fifteen years in jail.

Long term prisoners create a particular set of circumstances. Using ‘criminalisation’ as a tactical response to present insurgency as illegitimate isn’t exactly new but it does bring its own complications. It may not be explicit state policy but long term insurgent prisoners are designed to be hostages with the prospect of early release held out as an incentive to ending an active insurgency campaign. While the immediate benefit to the state is removing key insurgents from active involvement for extended periods of time that has to be balanced against other factors. Once imprisoned they are able to take part in in-depth internal debates on strategy and tactics with other imprisoned leaders, are able to engage with an audience outside the prisons and often attract support as a prisoner from individuals and organisations who wouldn’t otherwise openly support the insurgency itself. As had happened in the 1890s, the publicity attracted by long term prisoners began to far outweigh any tactical purpose in holding them in jail.

By early 1944, the republican prisoners in A wing in Crumlin Road included the likes of Jimmy Steele and Hugh McAteer who had been imprisoned on multiple occasions and already spent six or seven years each in jail (Steele had first been in prison in 1923). Many others had served various short terms prior to receive lengthy sentences since 1940. Internees, housed in D wing in Crumlin Road, Derry Gaol, Armagh Gaol and (in 1940-41) on the Al Rawdah, had to contend with the uncertainty of internment – no trial or charges also meant no defined period of imprisonment. The internees’ only (vague) salvation was that political pressure or events would eventually bring their release. The fear for sentenced prisoners was that they would not get released in the same way. The creation of two separate prisoner communities (interned and sentenced) created the potential for internal dissent and conflict over strategy and tactics inside and outside the prisons that might bring their release.

In March 1943, the IRA’s Adjutant-General Liam Burke issued an edition of An t-Óglach for the first time in many years (it’s circulation was confined to IRA members). This included an article on ‘Unity’ with the prisons specifically mentioned: “Too often in the past we have allowed ourselves to be divided by some petty grievance or worse still by some false rumour manufactured by enemy agents. In order to satisfy personal spites or ambitions we have allowed that element of disunity to creep in among us. This is very often obvious in the Prisons where Volunteers, living together in confinement for long periods, find too much time to brood on every petty grievance that arises.” There is also an article on Guerilla Warfare that pointed out the legitimate status accorded to ‘Guerillas’ since the 1899 Hague Conference.


Burke (who had escaped from Crumlin Road in 1941) was re-arrested and returned to Crumlin Road in April 1943. There were of course IRA prisoners and internees held at various locations on either side of the border and a number of long-term sentenced prisoners from the sabotage campaign in British prisons. By 1943, the IRA’s leadership had mostly relocated to the north and, from early summer, became increasingly focused on the prisons.

Both the 1943 strip strike and Armagh Gaol hunger strike had delivered sharp lessons in terms of mobilising political support outside the prisons. The key focus on the prison campaigns was to obtain political status (eg see Republican News, July 1943 below). So in February 1944 a hunger strike began, with teams of three joining in stages, first beginning with McAteer, Liam Burke (by now O/C of the republican prisoners) and Pat McCotter. The prison authorities delivered food and milk to their cells every day, hoping to tempt the prisoners to come off the strike by leaving the food there in front of them. The will power required to continue the strike, in the cold cells of Crumlin Road, with food in easy reach, must have been formidable.


The prison staff also continued to subject the strikers to two to three searches a week, including strip searches, despite the fact they were no longer allowed out of their cells. On day four of the strike (26th February), David Fleming and Jimmy Steele joined the hunger strike with the second team, Steele had participated in previous hunger strikes including in 1936, Fleming was to participate in later hunger strikes. The first of the hunger strikers had already been moved to the prison hospital by the 16th March, by which time eighteen men had joined the strike, including Joe Cahill on the 9th March. On the 16th March, William Lowry, the Home Affairs Minister in Stormont, reported to Stormont that the “…condition of these men is only what could be expected after such a prolonged period without food. The Government cannot accept any responsibility for the actions of these men whose present condition is solely due to their own voluntary abstention from food“. He described hunger striking as a malignant and criminal practice and insisted that the medical treatment the prisoners were receiving was entirely satisfactory. Lowry went on to say, “…Their own relatives at an appropriate time, for example when death is imminent, will be duly notified.

The hunger strikers were joined for a week by 100 internees in Derry prison in mid-March. By the 22nd March, the Irish Times was reporting that Liam Burke, Pat McCotter, Hugh McAteer and Jimmy Steele were all weak after 30 days on hunger strike and had abandoned the strike. That story was not true but, as it was the latest in a series of inaccurate reports on the strike, it was becoming painfully obvious to the IRA prisoners that the censorship was preventing the strike having any impact on public opinion. When the forty day mark was passed, the IRA staff debated the futility of continuing when the chance of fatalities was now growing ever higher. On the forty-fourth day (6th April), the strike was called off. It seems, from Joe Cahill’s account in his biography A Life in the IRA, that the decision was not made by the hunger strikers themselves, as he puts it that a decision was “…taken to bring them off.” One key failure of the hunger strike was to secure parallel political status for internees and sentenced prisoners as there was no concurrent release of internees and sentenced prisoners in 1945. It wasn’t until 1950 that the last three sentenced prisoners, McAteer, Burke and Steele, were released.

The 1944 hunger strike may well never be commemorated or receive any significant attention yet it marks a significant stage in the development of republican tactics. A number of those involved in hunger strikes and prison protests of the early 1970s, such as Billy McKee and Prionsias MacAirt, had been in Crumlin Road at the time of the 1944 hunger strike. Others prominent activists in the early 1970s were also veterans of the 1940s, like Jimmy Drumm, Joe Cahill, Albert Price, Charlie McGlade and Harry White. The 1943/44 protests were Irish republicans first real experience of long term imprisonment in the twentieth century. They contain the roots of later republican thinking and experience that provides a context for prison protests, including the structure of hunger strikes and the role of publicity that became central to events in the 1970s and 1980s.

Thanks to Dr Breandán Mac Suibhne for the discovery of the March 1943 edition of An t-Óglach.

IRA memo from Chief of Staff, 13th June 1942




Memo, Chief of Staff, IRA, to Director of Publicity, Northern Command, 13th June 1942.

This is an rare example of a surviving internal IRA memo from 1942. Sent from the department of the Chief of Staff, GHQ to the Director of Publicity, Northern Command on 13th June 1942.

At the time, the Chief of Staff of the IRA was Hugh McAteer, while the Director of Publicity in the Northern Command was John Graham. The memo covers the IRA’s attitude towards American troops in the north following the entry of the US into the world war in 1941. In the IRA’s view, the stationing of any troops on Irish soil (British, German or American) could only happen with the consent of what was seen as the legitimate government of Ireland. According to the IRA, this was the IRA. While this may seem laughable, de Valera had taken a somewhat similar view of the deployment of American troops in Ireland. His constitution, enacted in 1937, retained the claim to authority over the whole of the island of Ireland and, as such, de Valera believed that the deployment of US troops in the north should only have happened following consultation with his government.

As fanciful as this may all seem, there was a significant Irish-American lobby which could be mobilised. When the IRA Chief of Staff was detained in the United States at the behest of the British government in 1939, seventy-six members of Congress threatened to boycott an official event welcoming the British king on an official visit. After September 1939, there was pressure from Irish-America to make US aid for British war efforts conditional upon the British government addressing the issue of partition in Ireland.

Indeed, the IRA had continuously positioned it’s own strategy with an eye on, at the very least, avoiding damage to de Valera and Fianna Fáil’s ascent to power in the 1920s and 1930s in the expectation that, once in power, they would seek to end partition and create an Irish republic along the line of the republic declared in 1916. By the late 1930s it was apparent that this was not going to be the case and, in the short term, the possibility of leveraging Irish-America towards the same end replaced the IRA’s long term hopes for de Valera.

The IRA memo of 13th June 1942 was in the Director of Publicity’s Northern Command HQ when it was raided by the RUC on 10th September that year and, as it was used as a crown exhibit in the trial of Graham and David Fleming, it has survived in the Public Records Office.

75th Anniversary of Crumlin Road Jail Escape

Monday 15th January 2018 will be the 75th anniversary of the escape from Crumlin Road Jail by Pat Donnelly, Hugh McAteer, Ned Maguire and Jimmy Steele.

The escape provided one of the few iconic images of the IRA campaign of the 1940s, with the famous wanted poster. It was initially published in the local press on the day following the escape (see below).

The poster contains a couple of errors. Jimmy Steele was born in 1907, not 1909. Similarly, Hugh McAteer was born in 1916, not 1917. I managed to perpetuate this error last year by incorrectly noting the centenary of his birth (his daughter Máire has since put me right – he was born in Derry on 13th August 1916). McAteer wrote an account of the escape, which I’d previously posted up here.

You can read an account based on the escape report and other memoirs here.

You can find out more about the escape here and listen to the Men With No Property’s recording of ‘Steele and McAteers Daring Escape from the Crumlin Road Jail’ (am not sure who wrote it, but one candidate would be Arthur Corr, who was an orderly in A wing at the time of the escape and wrote the balled ‘Tom Williams’).

Hugh McAteer centenary

This year is the centenary of the birth of the former IRA Chief of Staff Hugh McAteer. To mark it, I’ve put together various pieces about McAteer, including a lengthy memoir he published in instalments in The Sunday Independent in 1951.

You can read it here:


The Great Escape: Derry, 1943

On the 20th March 1943 the IRA staged a mass escape through a tunnel from Derry Jail. The escape was one of a series of high profile actions by the IRA in the north in the first half of 1943.

The escape itself is well covered by an episode of the TG4 series, Ealú: To Hell and Back (currently not available online but worth a look if you can find it). There is a longer account of the escape on the blog here, so this article looks more at the wider context of the escape in terms of the IRA in 1943.

Planning for the Derry escape had begun in October 1942 when a tunnel was started in the cell of Harry O’Rawe and Jimmy O’Hagan (there are also accounts of the escape in Uinseann McEoin’s Harry and The IRA in the Twilight Years). The prospects for the IRA at the time looked bleak. After IRA Chief of Staff Sean Russell’s sabotage campaign in Britain failed to put much pressure on the government in London, the IRA had not articulated a clear change in strategy. The outbreak of the world war in September 1939 had also dramatically altered the wider political context. Northern irritation at the IRA’s Dublin-centric leadership had culminated in the removal of Stephen Hayes as Acting Chief of Staff (deputising for Russell), ostensibly for betraying the IRA. Hayes, like Russell, actually appeared to be intent on recalibrating IRA actions to coalesce with the political ambitions of Fianna Fail, as it had done up to at least 1932. Sean McCaughey, the IRA Adjutant General who led the investigation of Hayes, suspected that this was somehow being facilitated by a resuscitated IRB.

The world war had presented the IRA opportunities on two fronts. Firstly, the Allies desire for the USA to enter the war increased dramatically as the toll of their early setbacks mounted over 1940. Irish-America sensed an opening to leverage Ireland into the debate and countered some Allied propaganda by flagging parallels between the German’s treatment of other European territories with that of the British Empire, particularly Ireland. The presence of Sean Russell in the USA in 1939 had already raised the profile of the Irish issue (and effectively demonstrated that any value the English sabotage campaign, ultimately, had also  lay in exerting pressure on the UK via Irish-America).

The second front was in being able to draw lines between the British Empire and its enemies. Quite a lot has been written about the IRA and Nazi Germany, yet contacts were minimal, extremely erratic and apparently valueless to either side. In Belfast, over the same period, the IRA, was attempting to widen its political base by forming a Republican Club. This coincided with communists and the left pushing for a broad anti-fascist front and provided common ground. The Belfast steering committee included both IRA volunteers like Charlie McGlade, Jack Brady, Ernie Hillen and Tarlach Ó hUid, and, Communists, trade unionists and other interested parties like Malachy Gray, Jimmy Johnston and Jimmy Devlin (Ó hUid names members in his 1960 memoir Ar Thoir Mo Shealbha). Billy McCullough and Betty Sinclair were even to be jailed for publishing an article by the IRA in the left wing newsletter Red Hand. Over the course of 1939, the communist’s public language shifted from a broad ‘antifascist front’ to opposing Britain’s ‘imperialist war’. This initiative fragmented when Germany invaded the Soviet Union. The Communists position shifted dramatically towards supporting the Allies war effort in line with Russian foreign policy.

The subsequent fallout among those involved in the Republican Club was to continue to colour events in Belfast for decades, denouncing republicans within weeks of Tom Williams execution in 1942 and reputedly betraying senior IRA figures and dumps to the RUC (see Swan, Official Irish Republicanism, 1962 to 1972, p93). What this more acute was that, in the wake of the Hayes fiasco, the IRA’s centre had shifted to the north and Belfast. By mid-1942, weapons were being relocated to the northern dumps in preparation for a proposed campaign. After the capture of the main dump in late August 1942, massive RUC raids saw over 200 arrested in the hours after Williams execution at the start of September. The northern campaign never materialised (although the lower Falls was put under curfew until December 1942). With no prospect of success via a military victory, again, whatever strategy was in place relied upon achieving sufficient publicity in the USA that Irish-America might demand an Irish republic be included in any post-war Versailles-type treaty. By the end of 1942 and start of 1943 it was becoming apparent that no negotiated settlement would take place as the Allies demanded unconditional surrender by the Germans.

Subsequent IRA actions in the north in 1943 should then be understood as operations intended to generate as much publicity as possible, with two main audiences. The first was its belaboured supporters in Ireland, under pressure at home, and, interned on both sides of the border, and, both sides of the Irish Sea. The second was, as ever, Irish-America, and whatever future political support it might be able to deliver.

The focus on the newsworthiness of the escape also explains some of the flaws in the IRA’s overall plan for the Derry escape. The success factors in the high profile escape from Crumlin Road prison that January were not replicated in the Derry escape (resulting most of those who escaped being immediately picked up and interned in the south). Despite considerable logistical support on the ground, the main thrust of the escape plan was to get those involved over the border. That was despite the fact that the southern government had been even more bloodthirsty in pursuit of the IRA than even the northern government. Consciously or not, the real value in the escape was in the newsworthiness.

Two quotes shed some light on IRA thinking at the time. In his historical novel, An Ulster Idyll, Vincent McDowell (himself a 1940s internee) captures the general thinking among republicans in 1942: “They could look forward to peace eventually and some kind of normality, but the IRA hoped that they would have a place in the final peace conference, and that the question of Irish unity would be raised, hopefully with the help of the Americans.” Similarly, Hugh McAteer, the IRA Chief of Staff at the time (who himself had escaped in January 1943), wrote in the Sunday Independent in 1951 that by the middle of April 1943 the IRA leadership were openly admitting to each other that the military offensive begun in September 1942 was failing: “…we acknowledged to each other what we had long felt in our own hearts – that the possibility of our plans in the North succeeding was out of the question for the present. The propaganda value of the Derry escape, as evidenced by the many popular ballads, was tremendous; the practical result very small.


Photo showing prisoners re-captured by Free State soldiers in Donegal (published in Tim Pat Coogan’s The IRA).

Odd Man Out: a story about the Belfast IRA?

The film Odd Man Out was released in 1947. Based on Lawrie Green’s novel of the same name which had been published in 1945, Green also adapted it for the screenplay. The film was nominated for an Oscar as well as for the Venice Film Festival’s Golden Lion. It subsequently won a BAFTA award for Best Film in 1948.

The novel sets the scene thus: “This story is told against a background of political unrest in a city of Northern Ireland. It is not concerned with the struggle between the law and an illegal organisation, but only with the conflict in the hearts of the people when they become unexpectedly involved.” While it does not specifically name the place as Belfast, it repeatedly references locations in the city. Similarly, the IRA is never openly named, but rather is referred to as ‘the Organisation’ (neatly mirroring the language of contemporary IRA volunteers who referred to it as ‘the Army’). Both the novel and the screen adaption are actually much richer in historical value than is usually appreciated.

Cover of 1946 Book Club edition of the novel.

Cover of 1946 Book Club edition of the novel.

The plot revolves around an escaped IRA leader who participates in a robbery that goes wrong. He kills a cashier in a struggle, is himself wounded and then accidentally left behind by his comrades. The story then plays out over the remainder of that day and night. Green wrote the novel between October 1943 when he finished On the Edge of the Sea and August 1944, when he produced a full typescript. His depiction of the circumstances in which the IRA found itself in 1943-44 and many of the scenes that play out in the novel are taken directly from contemporary events over the same time. Some slight shifts that take place between when Green wrote the novel and the adaptation for the film also mirror political developments between 1944 and 1947. To that extent, arguably the book and film are about the Belfast IRA to a much greater degree than Green’s own disclaimer, quoted above, suggests.

Spoiler alert: If you haven’t watched the film (never mind read the novel), you can watch the whole thing here on Youtube before reading the rest of this:

The IRA leader Johnny, whose surname is ‘Murtah’ in the novel, and ‘McQueen’ when played by James Mason in the film, is referred to a number of times as the ‘Chief of Staff’ in the novel and is described as a recent escapee (about eight months before the events described). He is also described as having been given a lengthy sentence of sixteen years. After his escape he spends a long time hiding in one particular house, apparently in the lower Falls. While Johnny Murtah appears to be a composite of various IRA figures (including Rocky Burns and Jimmy Steele), the basis is clearly Hugh McAteer, the IRA Chief of Staff who had escaped from Crumlin Road in January 1943 and been recaptured in October 1943. The fact that the novel includes a Chief of Staff who is hiding out in Belfast is in itself revealing. The only times an IRA Chief of Staff was ordinarily resident in Belfast  until the 1970s were in late 1942, most of 1943 and again, briefly in 1944-5. This was not necessarily public knowledge.

The robbery that begins both the novel and film is also based on a real life incident, or rather, incidents. The setting is revealed in the novel as being close to Corporation Street, as that is in the district where Johnny first hides out. In January 1942 an IRA unit had robbed the payroll of the Civil Defence Headquarters in Academy Street, close to Corporation Street. During the robbery a clerk was wounded as was one of the IRA volunteers involved, Bob McMillen. In Odd Man Out, Johnny Murtah falls off the car used to escape, which didn’t happen to McMillen. However, it did happen to Louis Duffin after an attempted arms raid on a Newtownards Road RAF barracks earlier in 1943. Duffin was, literally, picked up the RUC (who thought the car had nearly knocked him down) and brought him to a nearby tram stop. If Green knew of this and used it as an element of the story, it too wasn’t widely known in 1945. More recently, while Green wrote Odd Man Out, another botched robbery at Clonard Mill in Odessa Street in October 1943, led to the death of an RUC constable. The setting, and fatality, are much closer to the robbery in Odd Man Out.

Other scenes in the novel appear to echo actual incidents. In Odd Man Out, the rest of the unit involved in the robbery end up in the home of Teresa O’Brien, whose house was normally off-limits to the IRA as she wasn’t trusted. There are hints here of a widow, Mrs Teresa Wright, who lived in Quadrant Street. Shots had been fired at her house on 1st November 1937 and she said that there had been ill-feeling against her in the district and “…Several people had called me an informer when I was passing them on the street…”. The Teresa portrayed in the reporting of the incident is very similar to the Teresa who appears in the novel and film.

Even the two older Protestant women who shelter Johnny Murtah for a while may reflect a reality as Hugh McAteer is known to have used a safe house off the Shankill Road in 1943 after his escape. Despite not being in the public domain in 1944, as with the Louis Duffin story, it may have been that Green had heard these stories and so incorporated them into the fabric of Odd Man Out. Green’s depiction of an under pressure IRA in 1943-44 also appears quite accurate and he alludes to episodes of recent history in passing, such as the 1942 curfew, in a way that seems quite correct.

How would Green have reproduced such details, particularly those elements not in the public domain? He had married Margaret Edwards, daughter of a senior tax inspector from Belfast and the couple had moved to to the city, living in Ulsterville Avenue. While there, Green regularly went to Campbells, a coffee house opposite City Hall. In ‘Culture, Northern Ireland, and the Second World War’, Guy Woodward records that a 1961 BBC documentary included former patrons who descibed Campbells as frequented by the likes of Green, William Conor, Joseph Tomelty (who appears in the film), Denis Ireland and Sam Hanna Bell. It was also remembered as a forum for political, literary and artistic debate in the 1930s and 1940s.

This is equally evident in Green including caricatures of John Hewitt (Griffin) and John Luke (Lukey) in Odd Man Out. Hewitt, in particular, was irked at being heavily satirised by Green as Griffin: “There was hardly a platform he could prevent himself from taking, and from which he theorised in a robust, crisp, fashion…“. In reference to Odd Man Out, Green also reputedly chastised his contemporaries in the arts community in Belfast that “…I’m writing what you and your friends should be writing about, the drama’s that are going on here. You people are ignoring what is going on on your own doorstep.” (recorded by W.J. McCormack in his 2015 biography Northman: John Hewitt 1907-1987 – An Irish Writer, His World and His Times).

Denis Ireland’s presence among the Campbell’s set is significant. Ireland had served as an officer in the First World War and had subsequently founded the ‘Ulster Union’ club, a republican debating group (which you would never guess from the name). A number of members of the Union had gone on to join the IRA, including John Graham, a key figure on McAteer’s IRA staff. Johnny Murtah’s deputy in the IRA may even be named ‘Denis’ as an homage to Denis Ireland while simultaneously alluding to John Graham.

Repeatedly throughout the novel, as published in 1945, Green was very critical of the IRA and what he presents as the utter futility of its most recent campaign. This is very much toned down by 1947, in the film. In a very early scene, he has Johnny McQueen (James Mason) after much time thinking in his safe house, muse on whether the IRA would be better off pursing a political course: “…we could throw the guns away … make our cause in the parliaments instead of in the back streets.” This too reflects a certain amount of reality. According to Hugh McAteer, the IRA was privately debating the futility of its own campaign in the first half of 1943, largely in the safe houses in which he and Jimmy Steele were hiding. By the time the film was made, Denis Ireland himself was on his way to becoming a Clann na Poblachta nominee to the Seanad in 1948. Johnny McQueen’s speech about the parliaments directly reflects the thinking behind Clann na Poblachta, which was founded in July 1946 by ex-IRA Chief of Staff Sean McBride. This modification of the politics between the novel and film suggests that Green was concerned with the authenticity of his depiction of the IRA, which strengthens the argument that his work has considerable historical value.

Denis Ireland’s presence in Green’s life may have been his source on details of the IRA in Belfast at the time, some of which were not available in the public domain. That political transition evidenced in McQueen’s speech in the 1947 also suggests Ireland as an influence. But not everyone was happy with the depiction of the IRA in the film. One criticism, by Nichevo (Bertie Smylie), in ‘An Irishman’s Diary’ in The Irish Times has a wonderfully contemporary air of hysterical outrage that wouldn’t be out of place in today’s Sunday Independent or Irish Times:

There is no doubt that it is a really good film. There equally is no doubt that, in essence, it amounts to a glorification of the IRA! If I had been a youth, emerging from the Theatre Royal on Sunday night, and saw on the walls of Trinity College the slogan “Join the IRA”, I have not the least doubt that I should have been sorely tempted to do so! All the romance is on the side of the “the Organisation”. James Mason gives a magnificent performance as Johnny McQueen; and, although the name of the IRA never was mentioned, nobody who knows anything about this country in general, or of Belfast in particular, can have the least doubt concerning the “Organisation’s” identity. So much for that!

The Falls Curfew, 1942

The issue of Republican News that was published just after Tom Williams‘ execution on 2nd September 1942, stated that “…neither the passions of the people, nor the fiery demand for action of the Volunteers, will make the Army authorities enter into hasty or unplanned action.” Just over a month after Williams’ execution, the IRA did enter into that ‘action’.

At the start of October 1942 there was a sustained series of attacks by the IRA across Belfast (part of what is often inaccurately depicted as a ‘northern campaign‘). On the night of Tuesday 6th October, a bomb in Raglan Street injured three RUC constables, Tague, Hoey and Thompson, and two children, twelve-year-old John Langan and thirteen-year-old Sarah McCrest. On the Wednesday night, IRA volunteers threw a bomb on the Cullingtree Road, then detonated a second at the entrance to Cullingtree Road Barracks. A seventeen-year-old, Alexander Mawhinney from the Grosvenor Road happened to be passing and was injured in the side by splinters from the bomb.

The next night, an RUC constable, Wilson, was shot and wounded when the IRA opened fire on an RUC patrol in the Cullingtree Road. The same night a bomb was thrown at an RUC patrol between Upper Library Street and Kent Street. The bomb fell behind an air raid shelter onto waste ground. The RUC then fired shots at the IRA volunteers who threw the bomb but no-one was injured.

On the Friday afternoon Dawson Bates, as Minister of Home Affairs in the northern government, put part of the Falls Road under curfew from 8.30 pm to 6 am. The curfewed area extended on side along the Grosvenor Road from the junction with Durham Street to the Falls Road itself, from there down Divis Street as far as the Barrack Street junction, then along Barrack Street and Durham Street to the Grosvenor Road. The RUC continued to raid within the curfew area over the Friday night and Saturday morning detaining nine people. On the Friday night a bomb was thrown at Shankill Road RUC Barracks, outside the curfewed area. It shattered the windows in the polic station but caused no injuries.


Area of the Falls Road put under curfew in 1942 (outlined in red).

That night the IRA Chief of Staff, Hugh McAteer, had arranged to pay a visit to see if an old school friend, who was an RUC Constable, could be of any use to the IRA. Instead, the RUC Constable had informed his colleagues and McAteer and his Director of Intelligence, Gerard O’Reilly, were picked up by the RUC. McAteer felt particularly foolish at the circumstances of his arrest.

On the Saturday night there were two further bomb attacks. In Raglan Street (inside the curfewed area) a bomb was thrown at an RUC patrol just as the curfew started. The blast broke some windows but there were no injuries. The RUC opened fire with revolvers at the IRA unit involved but did not manage to hit them or detain them. The predictable searches followed within the curfewed area and seven arrests were made.

A couple of hours later an IRA unit threw a bomb at Donegall Pass RUC Barracks. The bomb fell short and detonated in the middle of the street shattering windows in the barracks and surrounding shops. Five people were injured, including three women, Ella Harrison, Victoria Wilson and Annie Clements, who were brought to hospital (although all were discharged the same evening). The crowd in adjoining Shaftesbury Square scattered as RUC Constables ran out of the Barracks and fired off shots. This alerted B Specials on patrol on Botanic Avenue. More shots were fired at the men who were believed to have thrown the bomb, as they ran up Botanic Avenue. But one passerby who saw the bomb exploding said he didn’t see anyone except the RUC fire shots and it isn’t entirely clear who was exchanging fire. Whoever fired the shots, two B Specials, James Lyons and Joseph Jackson, were seriously wounded. Jackson was shot in the side while Lyons was shot in the chest and died in hospital during the night. Accounts of the shooting in Irish Press 10th October and Sunday Independent 11th October 1942 contain eye-witness reports that suggests only the RUC opened fire. Nor do the issues of Republican News around that date and subsequent memoirs appear to make any claim that the IRA shot Lyons. The file on his inquest is still closed to the public (see PRONI, BELF/6/1/1/7/81).

The next day, another attack appeared to have been foiled when Joe Campbell and Joe Quigley were arrested in possession of a primed Mills bomb near Legoneil Barracks. With Lyons death and McAteer’s arrest, the IRA attacks tapered off dramatically in Belfast. The RUC also made a series of arms finds in Ardoyne in the middle of October, capturing arms dumps in a house in Etna Drive, waste ground in Etna Drive, a nearby garage, waste ground in Belsheda Park and a house in Holmdene Gardens. A further dump was captured in Clyde Street (in Ballymacarret) at the end of October The IRA assumed an informer was at work, which may also have prompted it to close down operations. In mid-November, PJ Lawlor was charged with possession of grenade components and the hearing was held in camera, further increasing suspicion that someone was helping the RUC.

On top of the mass arrests (and subsequent internments) that followed Williams’ execution in September, the northern government clearly anticipated making further raids. On Friday 16th October, two hundred and fifty internees were shipped off to the eighteenth century dungeon that was Derry Gaol (where there had been a prison riot in 1939).

The loyalist bombing campaign also continued. On the night of Wednesday 28th October, a bomb was thrown at St. Brigid’s Parochial House in Derryvolgie Avenue. It struck the roof and rolled down onto the ground at the front door where it detonated. It damaged windows and doors and blew debris into the house. The two resident priests were inside but were unhurt. The bomb was a homemade canister.

On the 30th October, the IRA carried out a number of further attacks in Belfast. A bomb was detonated outside the Harbour Police Station in Corporation Square, beneath a recruiting poster. The RUC fired shots after the IRA volunteers who planted the bomb but were unable to apprehend them. Separately, the RUC challenged two men in Herbert Street in Ardoyne. As the men ran off the RUC gave chase into a crowd outside a small shop. According to the RUC the men dropped a loaded revolver and Mills bomb as they ran. The Mills bomb exploded sending out a shower of splinters that wounded two RUC Constables (Davis and Carnduff), a 7-year-old boy, five teenagers and a woman. Two days after the Herbert Street explosion, a canister bomb was thrown over the wall of a factory that was being used as a British army billet but did no damage. In the raids that followed the two attacks, over seventy people were arrested and detained by the RUC.

For several weeks, there were no further incidents, although the curfew remained in place. At the end of November, the IRA detonated another bomb, this time at the Talbot Street electrical substation. The bomb was similar to those thrown at RUC Barracks in October and went off at the base of a perimeter wall. The blast broke windows for fifty yards on either side of the sub-station.

On the night of December 4th, a B Special called Thomas Armstrong confronted two men in College Street. After a brief confrontation with the men, Armstrong tried to come to grips with them. Instead one of the men broke away and drew a revolver, opening fire on Armstrong who was wounded twice in the back. This appears to be the same incident described by Harry White in his memoir, Harry. White and others on the Belfast staff then proceeded to court martial a Belfast staff officer over the finds made in October. More than anything else, the distraction of that court martial appears to have been responsible for the ending of IRA attacks in Belfast for some time.

The northern government finally lifted the Falls Road curfew after 74 days on 22nd December 1942.