Joint IRA and British Army barricades, Belfast, 1969

For a period of time in September 1969, barricades in many Belfast districts were effectively guarded jointly by the British Army and IRA, under the guise of the local Citizen’s Defence Committees (CDC). The Central CDC in Belfast was chaired by Jim Sullivan who was also acting O/C of the IRA’s Belfast Battalion. The Belfast O/C, Billy McMillen, had been  arrested prior to the August 15th attacks and interned without charge even though it had initially reported that he was being held for illegal possession of a firearm.

A CDC had been formed in Derry early in August 1969 and elsewhere later in the same month. The name mirrored the ‘Ulster Constitutional Defence Committee’, formed in 1966, and its precursors, like the ‘Omagh Citizen’s Defence Committee’ and another set up in Fermanagh in 1953-4 to co-ordinate the local unionist campaigns to prevent Catholics obtaining jobs and housing. Creation of CDCs in 1969 provided an umbrella organisation in which the likes of ex-servicemen, Catholic clergy, political representatives, former IRA volunteers and others could co-operate with each other and the IRA without having to be publicly presented as a face of the IRA, even though it was effectively led and directed by the IRA.

The use of shifting organisational identities had been pushed by Cathal Goulding and others for some time. IRA statements using names like ‘Resistance Forces’ and ‘Citizens Army’ had been appearing even before the formal end of the border campaign in 1962. This was to accelerate into the early 1970s (and later) as the Goulding-led Official IRA was to continually shift it’s identity.

When the British Army was deployed in mid-August 1969, it also brought into play a well established counter-insurgency strategy as well as its best known advocate and practitioner in Brigadier Frank Kitson. This included establishing its own intelligence gathering capabilities in the absence of any effective intelligence held or shared by the RUC, Special Branch or the unionist government.

At a high level this meant that the ongoing attempts to negotiate a removal of barricades from districts that  had been attacked in mid-August could provide a pretext to profile the CDC (and effectively IRA) leadership from close-in. On 6th September, Jim Sullivan, chair of the CDC and acting Belfast Battalion O/C, met with the Major General Tony Dyball, the British Army’s deputy director of operations in the north (revealed in that weekends Sunday papers). This happened alongside meetings with Catholic clergy and others over defence of the districts that had come under attack. Sullivan and Dyball agreed that the barricades would now be guarded by British soldiers alongside the CDC.

That weekend, three barricades in Albert Street were taken down and replaced with British Army barriers and soldiers maintained a presence at them, as had been agreed. The press was rife with rumours that the discussion where this was agreed wasn’t between the British Army and local clergy as publicly claimed, but between the British Army and IRA. But the agreement reached in Albert Street wasn’t replicated elsewhere as almost nightly attacks on isolated Catholic families continued.

That Sullivan pushed for the removal of barricades and delegating the defence of Albert Street to the British Army cut directly across the later narrative promoted by the Officials that the violence didn’t come from the communities and the general unionist population but, rather, was directed by forces from elsewhere (typified by the likes of the British Army). Sullivan personally pushed for the removal of the Albert Street barricades, certainly this is, at least, how it is represented in the contemporary press. Around 300 barricades had been erected across the city but the example of Albert Street didn’t lead to further exchanges of hastily erected barricades for British Army barriers. Within a couple of days, Sullivan was threatening to re-erect barricades if the British Army removed them without agreement. Sullivan, along with Stormont MPs Paddy Devlin and Paddy Kennedy then travelled to London to try and meet senior British government figures for discussions.

British Army preparing to erect the so-called ‘peace line’ in Cupar Street (Irish Press, 11th Sept 1969)

Meanwhile, a demarcation line was being erected by the British Army along the boundary of the most threatened areas (described as a ‘peace line’). This was continuing over the course of the next week and was mostly completed by 16th September. Pressure was growing to have the other barricades removed and the CDC organised meetings of delegates from the various districts to gauge the mood. Assurances were given by the British GOC that the army would provide adequate security and that the Special Powers Act would not be applied. Again, Jim Sullivan then pushed for the barricades to come down but often agreements had to be made on street by street basis indicating a high level of discomfort over the proposed arrangement. This was not misplaced.

Given how the British Army was aware of the limitations of the quality of the intelligence gathered by the RUC and the unionists. An agreement to jointly guard barricades with the CDC now provided the British with a pretext to create its own profile of the IRA. Kitson himself had requested a meeting with the IRA leadership (which was turned down), but John Kelly has recounted that the depth of contact between the IRA and British Army extended as far as a British officer providing a class on machine guns. Kelly suspected that this was to evaluate the level of the technical capacity of the IRA (and presumably to identify the relevant personnel). On top of the failure to have adequately prepared to defend districts from attack in mid-August, the rapprochement between his Belfast IRA leadership and the British Army was also to be held against Cathal Goulding by many in Belfast.

Peace lines in Dover Street (Irish Press. 13th Sept 1969)

One barricade that was slow to come down, was the one that had been erected at the top of the New Lodge Road, at it’s junction with the Antrim Road. This too was taken down on Tuesday 17th September. As with elsewhere, it was then replaced with a British Army barricade which was one of those jointly guarded by the 2nd Light Infantry and the CDC.

On the Saturday night, Tony McNamee, Brendy Magee, Mark O’Connor and Hugh Adams were playing cards on a windowsill outside the Duncairn Arms at the top of the New Lodge Road. As some men were seen approaching the traffic island from Hallidays Road (leading back to Duncairn Gardens), a soldier, Lance Corporal Peter Reid went to warn the four young men to withdraw behind the barrier for safety. Shots were then fired from the other side of the traffic island, at a range of about twenty metres. All five were wounded. Reid, McNamee and Magee were the most seriously injured, with Reid sustaining facial injuries. Following the shooting a local taxi firm was also attacked.

As crowds gathered at either side of the barricade, hundreds of soldiers were rushed into the area. Hallidays Road was searched and a weapon recovered in a house in Stratheden Street. Four men from the unionist Tigers Bay district, Andrew Salters, Arthur Ingram, John Strain and William Jamieson, were arrested (in the end only Jamieson was found guilty, receiving a two year sentence). The next day they were charged with possession of the shotgun used in the shooting. At their remand hearing, on the Monday morning, RUC Head Constable Thomas McCluney explained to the court that the accused fired the shots as ‘feelings had been running high’.

On the Sunday, the CDC for the New Lodge and Docks had met and agreed further security measures. This included introducing a graduated curfew for children (8 pm) and others not involved in patrols and defence (10 pm). The CDC put in place a rota and schedule of patrols for the defence of the area. Oliver Kelly (vice-chairman of the CDC) said the shooting had been a salutary lesson for all those involved. The Major in charge of the 2nd Light Infantry in the district admitted that the hadn’t believed that they would be fired upon by unionists.

But on that Sunday night, unionists left a 2lb gelignite bomb in Exchange Street in the Half Bap area (immediately to the south of the New Lodge and North Queen Street). It exploded in the middle of the street, shattering windows in thirty houses although no-one was badly injured. Immediately a barricade was re-erected at the end of Exchange Street. The same pattern was to follow over the next week as local violence prompted the return of barricades.

The same weekend, the Belfast IRA O/C, Billy McMillen, was released from internment. On the Monday, against the backdrop of the New Lodge Road shooting and the bombing of Exchange Street, McMillen called a meeting of the Belfast IRA staff in Cyprus Street. Famously, he was confronted about the rapidly changed political landscape in a meeting regarded as critical to the fragmentation of the republican movement that accelerated over the next few months.

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Belfast IRA commandants from 1916 to 1969

Previously, I’d published a chronology of the Belfast IRA commandants from 1924 to 1969, including some revisions and a look at gaps in the list. As more files, mainly pension applications, have been released by the Military Archives in Dublin, it has been possible to put together a picture from the Easter Rising in 1916 through to 1969.

I’ve arranged this into a table following a rough chronology based on the main organisational unit. Since the scale varies from a Battalion to a Brigade to a Division, I’ve tried to retain the relevant information for battalion commandants after Belfast was structured into a Brigade, and I’ve added both brigade and battalion commandants when it was formed into the 3rd Northern Division.

The officer commanding each particular formation has mainly been taken from the 3rd Northern Division files, supplemented by individual pension files and witness statements. The most recent release of pension files includes a number of later applications made by republicans who had, up to that stage, refused to engage with what they saw as a Free State administration with no legitimacy. These make it possible to clarify a number of points.

Firstly, the command of the 3rd Northern Division itself is disputed after Joe McKelvey left for Dublin in March 1922. Pat Thornbury is recorded as Divisional O/C in the Belfast records reconstructed in the 1930s by the Pensions Committees (these records are indicated as representing the ‘Executive Forces’, meaning the IRA who opposed the 1922 treaty). According to his own pension applications and the accounts of other former Belfast IRA officers who had supported the treaty, Seamus Woods was the Divisional O/C. But Woods own applications show that he had already taken a commission as a Colonel in the Free State Army from 1st February 1922 and was mainly based in Dublin after that date. That the command structures in the Division were contested was publicly flagged as early as April 1922 (in an edition of An tOglach). Many of the Belfast IRA staff who supported the treaty remained in Dublin with the former GHQ staff of the IRA while holding what (to some extent) became nominal command roles in Belfast where actual command (such as existed) was exercised by IRA officers, loyal to the IRA Executive, who opposed the treaty.

The withdrawal of IRA volunteers from some Belfast units to the Curragh at the end of the summer in 1922, for a period of rest and training prior to a return to action in the north, saw the formation of a separate 3rd Northern Division Reserve, under the command of Roger McCorley and other Belfast IRA officers who had remained in Dublin with GHQ. This unit in the Curragh was disbanded in November 1922 and the Belfast IRA volunteers who wished to stay and join the Free State forces were formed into the 17th Battalion of the Free State Army. To those who had gone with the Free State side, they take this date in November as the time at which they formally relinquished their IRA commands, although even then there appear to be competing claims as to various roles (eg, both Sean O’Neill and Thomas Fitzpatrick appear to have recognised service as Belfast Brigade O/C to this date).

Obviously some of the lists of commandants in the 1916 to 1923 table below, just as for those from 1923 to 1969, are incomplete and some are surely incorrect. For instance, I have taken Thomas Fitzpatrick’s claim to recognition as the pro-Treaty Brigade O/C over Sean O’Neill’s as O’Neill’s own pension application isn’t actually clear on this point (perhaps he is simply being accorded the rank, for pay/pension purposes, rather than the formal command). There was also genuine confusion over the status of the various Battalions after March 1922, typified by the Brigade pension files that state that the 3rd and 4th Battalions were disbanded before 30th June 1922, but list Battalion staff’s (and include pension applications and witness statements) that run to November 1922. There is also a depth of animosity evident across the records, both in comments in individual witness statements (just to take one example – here is Seamus McKenna doing a hatchet job on Joe McKelvey, Jim McDermott and others) and the treatment of applications for pensions and awards from former opponents of the treaty (for instance check Patrick Thornbury’s two files here and here). This has also surely clouded some people’s memory.

After the table for 1916 to 1923, I’ve added the list of commandants from that date up to the split in the IRA in 1969 (you can find further information here on various individuals included the list).

As ever, any suggestions to fill in gaps, pointers for additional source material or corrections are most welcome.

Overall organisation and commandants of Belfast republican forces from 1916 to 1923.

1923-24 Jim O’Donnell?

1924-26 Hugh Corvin

1926-27 Dan Turley

1927-33 Davy Matthews

1933-34 Jack McNally

1934-36 Tony Lavery

1936-38 Sean McArdle

1938-40 Charlie McGlade

1940 Jimmy Steele

December 1940 to May 1941 Liam Rice

May to July 1941 Pearse Kelly

July 1941-42 Hugh Matthews

1942 John Graham

1942-43 Rory Maguire

February to May 1943 Jimmy Steele

May 1943 to Feb 1944 Rocky Burns

Feb 1944 to March 1944 Harry White

March 1944 to March 1945 Harry O’Rawe

March 1945 to October 1946 Johnny Murphy

October 1946 to ?? Seamus Twomey

?? to early 1949 Seamus McCollum 

1949-50 Frank McKearney

1950-56 Jimmy Steele

1956 Paddy Doyle

1956-57 Joe Cahill

1957-60 There is a gap in available information from mid-1957 until about 1960.

1960-63 Billy McKee

1963-69 Billy McMillen

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: https://issuu.com/jjconeill/docs/hugh_mcateer_the_escape

 

RUC list of IRA suspects

The following is the RUC’s ‘A’ list of Irish Republican Army suspects in Belfast in January 1938. The list below is organised by RUC district and is an extract from a 1930s RUC Diary that is in private hands. Names and addresses are recorded (more or less) as they are listed by the RUC, although I have included the familiar version of names where the individual is well known (eg Sean McCaughey instead of John McCaughey). This is the RUC’s ‘A’ list as further lists were maintained (a ‘B’ list, other republican groups like Cumann na mBan and the Pre-Truce IRA Association).

The ‘A’ list was used to target individuals for internment later that year. It includes many individuals who had been imprisoned by the northern government (some of whom were in prison in January 1938). It also shows up some issues for the RUC as the likes of an IRA unit like the one covering the North Queen Street, Half Bap and Docks area spread into two separate RUC districts (D and G below).

A District

Gerry Murray, 101 Joy Street

Joe Keenan, 33 Falls Road

B District

James Monaghan, 26 Colligan Street

Liam McAllister, 81 Lincoln Street

Jock McManus, 458 Donegall Road

Sean McArdle, 39 Beechmount Street

Hughie Matthews, 11 Albert Street

James Ryder, 31 Rodney Drive

Henry McNamee, 23 John Street

Pat McCotter, 6 Sevastopol Street

Albert Owens, 8 Brighton Street

Harry White, 78 Anderstown Park

Dan McCann, 71 Albert Street

Pat McKenna, 10 Irish Drive

John J. Teague, 45 Springview Street

John McKenna, 10 Iris Drive

Michael Doherty, 67 Theodore road

Peter Fanning, 41 Fallswater Street

John Rainey, 33 Cape Street

Liam Watson, 8 Malcolmson Street

John McCurry, 81 Sultan Street

John McGoldrick, 51 Cawnpore Street

Hugh Flavelle, 5 Amcomri Street

Sean Hamill, 12 Shiels Street

C District

Charles Mahoney, 52 Glenview Street

Richard Heaney, 23 Havana Street

Hubert McNearney, 77 Herbert Street

Patrick McAleer, 45 Glenard Park

Gerry Cullen, 26 Chief Street

Sean McCaughey, 18 Heathfield Road

Frank O’Neill, 6 Parkview Street

Phil McTaggart, 132 Ardliea Street

Patsy Quinn, 110 Ardildea Street

Jack McNally, 21 Ardilea Street

Charlie McGlade, 126 Ardilea Street

Liam Mulholland, 83 Gracehill Street

Frank McGlade, 126 Ardilea Street

D District

Joe McGurk, 115 Durham Street

Joe Davey, 31 Alton Street

Frank McGrogan, 72 North Queen Street

Joe Brown, 40 Upton Street

Jimmy Steele, 70 North Queen Street

Sean Keenan, 28 California Street

E District

William Murray, 66 Chemical Street

Joe Bole, 80 Seaforde Street

Dan Doherty, 47 Sheriff Street

Liam McKenna, 49 Seaforde Street

Denis Whelan, 97 Bridge End

F District

Samuel Irvine, 23 Majorca Street

Dan O’Reilly Fitzgerald, 13 Ardmore Avenue

G District

Seamus Nolan, 17 McCleery Street

James Trainor, 32 Nelson Street

Chris McLaughlin, 54 Vere Street

Gerry O’Connor, 182 Nelson Street

Dickie Dunne, 26 Valentine Street

Interview with Ivor Bell

Interesting interview with Ivor Bell (pictured below) about 1969-70, with reference to strategy, particularly in Belfast where he was Brigade Adjutant.

Much of the analysis offered for this period is based on journalistic opinion, often heavily influenced security briefings. While Frank Kitson has become a bit of a bogeyman in writing the history of the conflict here, he features heavily in the contemporary republican press. The British brought a developed counter-insurgency game into play straight away in 1969 (Kitson himself being on the ground almost immediately). The tired and simplistic ‘mindless violence’ narratives for this period, and the conflict in general, obscures the extent to which the various players had developed a strategy and tactics to further their aims. It also limits the capacity of victims to put their loss into a context that has some sort of meaning (not that that necessarily offers any hope of them being able to deal with the loss any better, but it at least gives it a structure).

In his interview, Bell offers some insight into how the IRA intended to develop its campaign at the time (effectively before the period from July 1971 to January 1972). I had interviewed Billy McKee previously (mainly about the 1940s) and we had touched on the 1969-71 period. He had also said that, contrary to subsequent histories, the IRA had preferred to keep its size small, manageable and secure, rather than over expanding and taking in volunteers it had not had time to properly train and vet.

I’ve written before about the Catholic Ex-Servicemen’s Association, which might have provided the defensive role that the IRA had to take on (as discussed by Bell), here.

You can read the interview with Ivor Bell here:

https://irishrepublicanmarxisthistoryproject.wordpress.com/2017/08/22/p-michael-osullivan-interview-with-belfast-brigade-ira-adjutant-iver-bell-in-belfast-february-1972/

IRA appeal to the Orange Order

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An Address from the Army Council of the Irish Republican Army to the Men and Women of the Orange Order

[This is the text as quoted by The Kerryman on 16th July 1932. It was published in An Phoblacht the same day and had been largely written by Peader O’Donnell. Prior to publication, it had been circulated with a covering letter from the IRA’s Adjutant General, Donal O’Donoghue, on 8th July to newspaper editors. Most, even including the Belfast Newsletter, published abridged versions as early as 11th July 1932. I have kept the formatting here from The Kerryman version. The address was distributed as leaflets in unionist districts of Belfast by IRA volunteers.]

Fellow Countrymen and Women,

It is a long call from the ranks of the Irish Republican Army to the marching throngs that hold the 12th July Celebrations in North East Ulster. Across the space we have sometimes exchanged shots, or missiles or hard words, but never forgetting that on occasions our ancestors have stood shoulder to shoulder. Some day we will again exchange ideas and then the distance which now separates us will shorten. For we of the Irish Republican Army believe that inevitably the small farmers and wage-earners in the Six County area will make common cause with those of the rest of Ireland, for the common good of the mass of the people in a Free United Irish Republic. Such a conviction is forming itself in an ever increasing number of minds in North East Ulster.

The Irish Republican Army – within North East Ulster as well as in the rest of Ireland – believe that the mass of the Working-Farmers and Wage-earners must organise behind revolutionary leadership if they are to rescue themselves from a system within they the few prosper and the many are impoverished.

It is our opinion, a conviction driven in on our mind by the facts of life around us, that capitalism and imperialism constitute a system of exploitation and injustice within which the mass of the people can know no freedom.

The burdens of to-day’s bad times are falling with increasing weight on Working Farmers, who must surrender an increasing part of their produce to meet rents, taxes, bank interest, etc, while their incomes diminish The unemployed workers are being torn at with economies in social services – adding daily to the destitute. The wage earners are finding their conditions _s of employment and standard of living steadily worsening.

We can see no permanent solution of these evils except by the transfer of power over production, distribution and exchange to the mass of the people.

The power to produce what the many require exists; the Organisation and its distribution presents no insoluble difficulty. But the vested interests of a privileged minority are across the road and progress is impossible, unless we are prepared to clear away these obstacles.

These interests that deny their rights to the many are those on which the Empire rests. Touch or threaten these privileged interests and the whole force of the Empire is invoked for their protection. Thus it is that we see and say that the freedom of the mass – of the Irish People is impossible without breaking the connection with Imperial Britain and with all the Imperial system connotes.

Do you see any other road to freedom for yourselves and your families?

You must realise that the chief industries on which the former alleged prosperity of North East Ulster rested are gone beyond hope of being revived; that the same thing has occurred in Great Britain; that everywhere the pinch grows tighter on those who are unemployed as a result of this breakdown in the whole structure of capitalism. Can the British people help you while their own workers and industries are struggling desperately to exist and are not succeeding in these days? Where do you see any hope?

Working-farmers and Wage-earners of North East Ulster. You surely must see that your future is bound up with the mass of the people in the remainder of Ireland. To preserve yourselves from extinction, you and they must combine and go forward to the attainment of A Free Irish Nation within which life and living will be organised and controlled by you to serve your needs and thus end the present economic and social injustices for ever.

The industrial capacity, and training of you industrial workers, of North East Ulster ensure you a leading influence and place in the economy and life of a Free Irish Nation.

EXPLOITATION OF RELIGIOUS PREJUDICES

To prejudice you it is emphasized that we of the Irish republican Army and the mass of Republicans are mainly Catholic, and that your religious beliefs would not be respected in a free Ireland! It is quite true we are mianly Catholics, but in Southern Ireland the same political and economical interests and voices that tell you we are Catholics, tell the Catholic population of the South that we are Anti-God fanatics, and yearning for an opportunity to make war on the religion to which the majority of us belong!

The fact is we are quite unaware of religious distinctions within our Movement.

We guarantee you, you will guarantee us, and we will both guarantee all full freedom of conscience and religious worship in the Ireland we are to set free.

This is the simple truth, and just now when Imperial interests are attempting to conceal themselves behind the mad fury of religious strife you and we should combine to make certain that no such escape should be provided them.

In the process of exploitation of the wage-earners and small producers, do you not realise how little religion matters to the exploiters? Orangemen and Catholic, Catholic women and yours toil side by side in the factory and mill, all equally victims Those who thus exploit mercilessly your labour and energies, would outside set you at one anothers throats, because it is to their advantage to divide you and lead you into conflict by arousing religious issues and inflaming passions.

Do yon not find yourselves queued shoulder to shoulder outside the Unemployed Exchanges waiting for the ‘Dole’, that crumb which the exploiters throw to the exploited of different religions? In these vital matters jour religion or your membership of the Orange Older counts for little, nor does Catholicism to the unemployed and starving Catholics in Southern Ireland.

The fact is that the religious feelings of the masses of both Orangemen and Catholics are played on and exploited by the Imperialists and Capitalists the more surely to enslave them.

THE VICTORY OF THE BOYNE!

You celebrate the victory of the Boyne. This battle was a victory for the alliance of the then Pope; and William of Orange; strange alliance for you to celebrate; strange victory for Catholics to resist! History has been muddled to hide the occasions when your forefathers and ours made common cause, and passions are stirred to manufacture antagonisms. If William of Orange and His Holiness could achieve an alliance, there is hope that “NO SURRENDER” may come up from a throng which also roars “UP THE REPUBLIC”.

Your stock were the founders and inspiration, the North East Ulster the cradle, of the modern Revolutionary Movement for National Independence and Economic Freedom. Your illustrious ancestors and co-religionists, the United Irishmen, by their gallant struggle in 1798 set aflame the ideals of Republicanism which never since have been extinguished. We ask that you should join us to achieve their ideals — National Freedom and religious toleration.

It was John Mitchel, a Newry man of your stock, who addressed these words to your forefathers: “In fact religious hatred has been kept alive in Ireland longer than anywhere else in Christendom. Just for the simple reason that Irish landlords and British statesmen found their own account in it, and so soon as Irish landlordism and British domination are finally rooted out of the country it will be heard of no longer in Ireland any more than it is in France or Belgium, now.”

Fraternally, Your Fellowcountrymen,

The Army Council,

On Behalf of the Irish Republican Army

A brief history of Cumann na mBan in Belfast from the 1920s to 1960s

This is a short history of Cumann na mBan in Belfast from the end of the civil war through to the 1960s. Obviously, anyone with information that enhances the story or adds further details is more than welcome to share it in the comments section.

Jack McNally (in his 1989 autobiography, Morally Good, But Politically Bad) names those prominent in Cumann na mBan towards the end of the civil war and into the mid-1920s and later. He includes Mary Donnelly, Sally Griffen, Kitty Hennessy, Kitty Kellet, Maggie Kelly (née Magennis), May Laverty, Margaret McGrath, Sally McGurk (née Ward), Miss McKeever, Mrs McLoughlin, Mrs Muldoon, Bridie O’Farrell, Cassie O’Hara, May O’Neill (née Dempsey), Mary Rafferty, Susan Rafferty and Mrs (Annie) Ward. Annie Ward had succeeded Norah Connolly as head of the Belfast Battalion of Cumann na mBan and led the organisation through into the 1920s.

Cumann na mBan in Belfast, as elsewhere, largely staffed the web that linked the various republican organisations together, collecting and moving intelligence and clandestine communications between IRA, Cumann na mBan and Fianna units and officers, assisting in moving weapons and establishing networks of dumps and safe houses. While Cumann na mBan also fundraised to support prisoner’s dependents and distributed republican newspapers, that was not the limit of its activities. The likes of May Laverty and Mary Donnelly are both known to have participated in IRA operations, such as helping move and plant explosive devices.

As one of the key republican organisations Cumann na mBan attended meetings and participated in restructuring alongside the Belfast IRA and Fianna Éireann in the late 1920s. Generally, as with Fianna Éireann, Cumann na mBan was organised in two units, one covering the Falls and surrounding districts and one covering north Belfast, the Markets and Ballymacarrett. In 1926 a batch of An Phoblacht intended for Cumann na mBan was intercepted in the post. It contained 110 copies which suggests that this was the membership around this time (by the late 1930s the RUC believed membership to be around 60). By the early 1930s, May Laverty and Mary Donnelly were still prominent Cumann na mBan leaders in Belfast. Another was Cassie O’Hara, who had been engaged to Joe McKelvey and her continued support, like that of the likes of Bridie O’Farrell, maintained the Belfast unit’s sense of continuity and legitimacy.

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A reunion of 1920s and 1930s, and later, Belfast Cumann na mBan volunteers (taken in 1971 and reproduced in Ray Quinn’s A Rebel Voice)


Cumann na mBan also prominently supported left wing initiatives (particularly stressed by the likes of May Laverty). In 1932, it held a flag day all over Ireland in October to raise funds to support those involved in the Outdoor Relief Riots in Belfast. The northern government response was predictable as, in the next month, two Belfast members, Mary Donnelly (Unity Street) and Sarah Grimley (North Queen Street), were given prison sentences for posting ‘seditious’ hand bills in Vulcan Street on the eve of a British royal visit in Belfast. Donnelly spent three months and Grimley two months in Armagh Jail (see Irish Press, December 17th 1932). Donnelly also allegedly had Cumann na mBan documents in her possession that stated that its aims were: “…(a) Complete separation of Ireland from all foreign Powers, (b) Unity of Ireland, (c) Gaelicisation of Ireland.” Speaking from the dock after refusing to recognise the court, Mary Donnelly said: “…We will carry on to the end until we get a Republic.

In 1933, under Eithne Ni Chumhail’s leadership, Cumann na mBan reviewed its relationship with the Second Dáil organisation (composed of those members elected to the second Dáil who maintained that it was the legitimate source of authority in Ireland). Up to then, Article 1 of the Cumann na mBan constitution required members to recognise the continued existence and authority of the Second Dáil. This limited it’s capacity to attract new members. Miss MacSwiney and two others resigned when the proposed change that only required members to “…never render allegiance to any Government but a Republican Government for all Ireland…” was passed at the convention in Dublin in June (the IRA had broken its link with the Second Dáil by 1926). At the same convention, the Cumann na mBan executive also announced the formation of Cumann na gCailíní, for girls aged 8 to 16. This facilitated an influx of new members later in the 1930s. The convention additionally agreed to embark on a campaign to propagate social reconstruction on the lines laid down by James Connolly and for an intensive campaign in the north (see Irish Press, June 14th, 1933). May Laverty was prominent in this campaign.

Following the mass arrests of Belfast republicans that October (1933), Cumann na mBan again raised funds to support the dependents of those who had been imprisoned. In June 1934, Belfast contingents from the IRA, Fianna, Cumann na mBan and Cumann na gCailíní had marched in uniform in Dublin prior the annual IRA ceilí in the Mansion House. Leading Cumann na mBan figures like Eithne Ni Chumail had supported Republican Congress but returned to Cumann na mBan when Congress began attacking the IRA.

In 1936, May Laverty again took a lead role in the public protests against de Valera’s government. In June, Cumann na mBan demanded entry to the meeting in St Mary’s Hall where the Anti-Partition League was founded (initially called the ‘Reunion of Ireland Organisation’). The meeting was chaired by ex-Belfast IRA O/C Hugh Corvin and while the likes of Padraig MacLogain attended, Cumann na mBan was refused entry and the IRA did not support the project. In 1937, as part of the Military Pensions Act, an ‘Old Cumann na mBan’ Association was formed in Belfast from members who had been active up to 1922. As with similar associations, it was boycotted by many who refused to endorse the Free State government.

Prominent members of Cumann na mBan in Belfast in the mid to late 1930s included Una Burke, Bridie Dolan, Crissie Dolan, Bridget Hannon, Dorrie Hill, May Laverty, Violet McGowan and Maggie Nolan. A Cumann na mBan and a Cumann na gCailíni contingent had participated in the funeral procession for veteran Fenian and IRB organiser Robert Johnston (also the father of poet and author Eithne Carberry), in March 1937, in Greencastle.

Dorrie Hill and Madge Nolan were present, representing Cumann na mBan, in Pearse Hall in King Street in October 1937 when a Belfast Brigade Council meeting was interrupted by the RUC and all those present had their names taken (despite the Belfast IRA staff being present the RUC thought it was a meeting of Joe McKelvey GAA club).  The likes of Josephine Brady and Mary McAreavey both received significant sentences for possession of weapons or documents in the late 1930s, while Bridie Dolan was badly injured in a premature explosion. Bridie O’Hara and Mary Hewitt were both expelled from Britain during the Sabotage Campaign of 1939. Cumann na mBan was prominent in the very public demonstrations of republican strength in Belfast in the late 1930s, such as the burning of gas masks in May 1939.

In September 1939, there were forty-eight members of the Belfast contingent at the Cumann na mBan conference in Dublin (Eithne Ni Chumail was still the leader at this time). The RUC believed that Cumann na mBan in Belfast was divided into two companies. Peggy Rafferty led the Belfast Cumann na mBan contingent at the infamous 1939 Bodenstown commemoration. At the time, Annie Hamill was in charge of Cumann na gCailíní in Belfast. Many of those involved in Cumann na mBan  were relatives of prominent IRA members, such as Bridget Corr (sister of Arthur), Mary McLaughlin (sister of Chris) and Ellen McCurry (sister of Willie John).

In October 1940, Isobel Murphy, Mary and Bridget O’Hare and Elizabeth O’Toole got two years each for distributing Cumann na mBan leaflets outside a cinema on the Crumlin Road. Cassie O’Hara was one of the first Cumann na mBan member to interned in the 1940s and was soon followed by others. Mary Donnelly, though, was killed when a German bomb destroyed her family home in Unity Street on 16th April 1941. The same night, Bridget Corr’s mother and brother were killed by another bomb at their family home in Vere Street.

Prison conditions in Armagh were very bit as bad as those that the men had to endure. Those imprisoned in Armagh included Madge Burns, Nora McDowell (the only one who had children), her daughter Una, Teresa Donnelly, Bernadette Masterson, Mary McDonald, Nora McKearney, Cassie O’Hara (O/C of the Armagh prisoners) and Nancy Ward. In the autumn of 1943, the Cumann na mBan members in Armagh Jail decided to embarked on a hunger strike. You can read more about the hunger strike here, but briefly, the women joined en masse on 21st November, although by the time Therese Donnelly was given the last rites after twenty-two days it was apparent that the protest was being robbed of publicity and it was decided to call it off (it was a lesson ignored by the men who went on hunger strike the next March). The same pressures and family hardships bore down on the women as the men and inevitably some had to sign out.

The last Belfast Cumann na mBan prisoners were among the eight released in July 1945 (including Cassie O’Hara), but like the IRA itself, the organisation was slow to rebuild in Belfast. Joe Cahill records that, by 1956, Bridie O’Neill was O/C of Cumann na mBan in Belfast (and apparently had been for some time). As in previous eras, Cumann na mBan looked after much of the transportation of weapons to and from dumps. In the lead up to the campaign, O’Neill had organised her units to collect and move weapons from Belfast to the border where they would be used during the campaign. Arrests during the Border Campaign also showed that Cumann na mBan continued to collect funds (officially these were for the ‘Freedom Fighters Fund’ – see Fermanagh Herald, October 18th 1958). O’Neill was the only women interned during the 1956-62 campaign (she interned for seven months). Again, as in 1945, Cumann na mBan was largely intact due to the low number of imprisonments but was slow to re-engage its membership.

By the time the early 1970s, the IRA was directly admitting women as members presenting a different challenge to the rationale for Cumann na mBan to continue to exist (it largely supported Cathal Goulding in 1970 and later).