An IRA arms dump and an informer

Here are a couple of photos I found recently. The first is of an arms dump being displayed for the cameras by the RUC. The dump was captured in Currie Street on 19th September 1924 in a hall known locally as the ‘Currie Institute’. A group of men arrested in the hall appear to be the members of the local IRA company. More of the story is told here.

The photo was published during the following week in the Belfast Telegraph. The format, with police officers posing with the captured arms on display, is relatively unusual for the 1920s or 1930s, certainly in an Irish context. The find included twenty-four service rifles and a Thompson submachine gun (probably the gun set slightly in front with its stock at a right angle to the others).

The second photo, above, is Patrick Woods. He was shot dead by the IRA on 19th November 1925 and his photo published a couple of days later in the Belfast Telegraph. Woods had given evidence over IRA activity in court and had been involved in moving the weapons to Currie Street in his taxi the previous year (see link above). Again, at the time, it was unusual to see published portrait photographs of individuals other than major figures in politics, sport and entertainment. Although fatalities involving the IRA were rare after the mid-1920s and into the 1930s, violent deaths during 1920-22 were common although it was also very unusual, then, to see published portraits of the dead.

Woods’ death provided the Unionist government with a pretext for the mass round up of the Belfast IRA, many of whom were interned for several months in one of those episodic internments between 1922 and 1969 that are often overlooked. After the arrests, with the Belfast IRA leadership mostly interned, the failure of the Boundary Commission to end partition was confirmed in public. The internees were not released until the end of January 1926.

(You can read more about all of these in Belfast Battalion).

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.

An IRA arms dump, an RUC raid, a dead informer and mass arrests: Belfast, 1925

Confrontations between the Belfast IRA and the northern government settled into a rough pattern as early as 1925. This included mass arrests by the RUC, the involvement of an informer and the loss of a substantial arms dump. In many ways this was to set the tone for how the Belfast IRA and the northern government would clash in the 1920s and 1930s.

Early in the morning of 19th September 1924, a large detachment of the RUC and B Specials put a cordon around the Short Strand and carried out searches from 2 am until 9 am when they found an arms dump that included six Mills bombs, detonators, a Verey pistol, two rifles and one hundred rounds of ammunition.

But the press immediately reported that the RUC believed that a number of people had managed to escape their cordon with weapons. In reality, John Walsh had managed to get a taxi, driven by Patrick Woods, to move it from the Short Strand to Currie Street off the Cullingtree Road. It seemed clear that the RUC were acting on a tip-off.

Map showing Irwin Street, the unnamed streets off the left hand side are Christian Place (in line with Nail Street), Currie Street and Jude Street (running between Irwin Street and Albert Street)

The RUC then began another targeted raid on what was called a ‘dance hall’, known locally as the ‘Currie Institute’. They then searched houses in Currie Street where they uncovered the large dump of arms that had been moved from the Short Strand in a shed in the entry to the rear of number 18 Currie Street. The RUC found twenty-four service rifles, a Thompson, eight Mills bombs, detonators, ‘cheddar’ (explosives), thousands of rounds of ammunition and literature on weapons, including use of the Thompson. Dan O’Kane, who lived in number 18 was arrested. The RUC also detained twelve men found in the ‘Currie Institute’ including O’Kane’s stepson John McAstocker as well as Michael Mervyn, James Leonard, John McKay, John Leatham, Bernard Mervyn, Joe Barnes, William McAuley, Patrick Kelly, David Walsh, Thomas Morris and John McRory. In 1922, Bernard Mervyn had been a 1st Lieutenant in C Company, 1st Battalion of the Belfast IRA, John Leathem was a volunteer in E Company, 1st Battalion, John McKay is also probably the IRA volunteer of the same name in F Company, 1st Battalion (see MA-MSPC-RO-403 in Military Archives). The men were detained but not formally charged and eventually released.

Layout of Currie Street.

Layout of Currie Street

In court a couple of days later, O’Kane and McAstocker recognised the court and were defended, pointing out that there was public access to the building where the arms were found and so it could not be shown that they could have had any knowledge that the arms dump was there. McAstocker made a statement saying that a man had gone through the house to the rear with two parcels at 10.30 pm on the night before the raid (ie 3 or 4 hours before the RUC cordoned off the Short Strand). The musical instruments from the dance hall were also typically left in the house. The RUC reported that O’Kane was known to have been in Ballymacarret the same night the arms were moved from there to Currie Street. Despite protesting their innocence, O’Kane and McAstocker were held until October.

Dan O Kane

Dan O’Kane (reproduced from here)

It had been clear from the press reporting that the RUC had a tip-off that an arms dump was being moved to Currie Street but how they knew wasn’t clear until the next summer.

In July 1925 John Walsh of Chemical Street (off the Newtownards Road), was arrested and charged with possessing the explosives, arms and ammunition discovered in Currie Street in 1924. Evidence was given against Walsh by Patrick Woods who had driven the taxi. Woods himself was from Beechfield Street in Ballymacarret. Immediately Woods business suffered after he gave evidence in court and he ended up working for his father-in-law, Hugh Donnelly, who was a coal merchant. He did remain living in Ballymacarret.

The IRA, though, took revenge on the evening of 19th November. Woods was walking down Seaforde Street in Ballymacarrett when he was approached by a single gunman who shot him three times, including twice in the heart. Woods was shot for giving evidence against John Walsh in September and possibly giving away the arms found in Short Strand and Currie Street. He was brought into a shop where he died before he could be given medical assistance.

After Woods death on the Thursday evening, RUC then carried out a series of raids from 1am on the Saturday night detaining fifty men across Belfast. They were brought to the Central Police Barracks in Chichester Street then around twenty were released and the remainder moved to the Belfast Prison on Crumlin Road where they were detained. One man, from North Queen Street, was specifically detained for questioning about the shooting of Patrick Woods. Many of those detained were former internees, some had also served in the Free State forces during the Civil War. Effectively, they could be held for three weeks before they had to be released (or either formally charged or given an internment order). In the end some spent the full period on detention and then were released. In the end, no-one was ever convicted by the northern government for Woods death. The whole episode, too, has been largely forgotten, despite the fact that all the ingredients of the confrontations between the IRA and northern government were present. This appears to be the first killing by the IRA in Belfast after the end of the violence of 1922,