Lightly tap the muffled drum: the stories of Belfast-born Vol. Jack Edwards, killed Kilkenny prison 1922, and his family

These are the epic stories of the Edwards family who lived in the Manor Street area of Belfast at the turn of the twentieth century. Later moving to Waterford, the Edwards had an eldest son in the flying column of the local IRA (and who was shot dead in Kilkenny prison in 1922), a father who had spent years in both the British Army (including the first world war) and prison service, a political activist mother and a brother who fought conservative Catholicism, joined Republican Congress and fought in Spain. This short account of their experiences merely scratches the surfaces of the extraordinary lives that some otherwise ‘ordinary’ people lived in early twentieth century Ireland.
On 19th August 1922 Belfast-born IRA officer Jack Edwards was shot dead by a National Army sentry at Kilkenny prison. A train fireman, he had joined the IRA in Waterford in 1917 and was a member of the city’s D Company and, by 1921 was a full time member of the flying column of the Waterford Brigade’s Active Service Unit. He had returned home shortly after the truce and returned to work only to return to active service in 1922. In the race between the IRA and National Army to take control of key buildings and infrastructure in the middle of 1922, he had led an IRA unit which took control of the GPO in Waterford for several days but was eventually taken prisoner and placed in Kilkenny jail. Having been told someone in the street wanted to speak to him, Edwards went to an upstairs toilet where the small window allowed prisoners to converse with people in the street outside. He was shot through the window by a sentry and died immediately (a handkerchief marked with his blood is in the Kilmainham Gaol Museum).

John Edwards blood-stained handkerchief

Handkerchief reputedly stained with Jack Edwards blood (in Kilmainham Gaol Museum image published at the link)

At the inquest into his death it was reported that the sentry had given three warnings and exchanged words with Edwards before firing what the sentry said was an un-aimed warning shot from thirty yards away (although other, later, accounts dispute whether he gave any warning at all). The lack of any imminent risk of escape and the precision of the wound would give rise to allegations that Edwards had been killed in retaliation for the death of a National Army officer several days beforehand. None of those suspicions were tempered by the fact that the single shot through the forehead that killed Edwards seemed unlikely for an un-aimed shot but had all the hallmarks of the marksmanship the sentry had gained in his twelve years of service with the British Army (you can read more on this in Eoin Swithin Walsh’s account of Edwards death in Kilkenny: in times of Revolution, 1900-23). Edwards’ remains were taken from Kilkenny to the Cathedral in Waterford and from there to Ballygunner for burial. Other IRA prisoners were given parole from Kilkenny to attend his funeral (given this all happens to coincide with Michael Collins death, the unrestricted reporting and paroles would soon be much less likely).
The inquest was reported at length in the Kilkenny People (26th August 1922). It revealed that after his arrest, Edwards had been used as a hostage by the National Army and made to check for mines during its advance from Waterford. The soldiers guarding the prison had also indiscriminately fired shots into cells (from inside the prison) on a number of occasions, badly wounding at least one IRA prisoner (called O’Neill). The cross-examination of the National Army soldiers guarding the jail included a claim that another prisoner had been seen climbing a wall, apparently intending to escape, earlier that evening. He had merely been shouted at by the guards.The other prisoners also testified that as many as twenty prisoners had been at the same windows in full view of the outpost outside that evening without being warned. Earlier that evening, other prisoners testified, the un-named soldier who fired the fatal shot had boasted that he was a crack shot and that the prisoners would find that out that night (Edwards was shot at 8 pm). The prisoners also disputed evidence from the soldiers on guard duty that more than one shot was fired (the soldiers claimed four or five had been fired). The officer in charge and others were unable to produce records to show that more than one bullet was discharged or that, in reference to Edwards’ catastrophic head injuries, explosive bullets had been issued. Jerry Cronin (O/C of the IRA prisoners in Kilkenny Gaol) went as far as to claim that the soldier who fired the shot had been the one who actually called Edwards to the window. The jury still found the soldier had killed Edwards in the course of his duty. The whole proceedings took place in the prison in a room above the apartment containing Edwards remains. Annie Edwards, Jack’s mother who was dependent on her eldest son, had to sit through the whole proceedings.

Jack

Jack Edwards, from Nioclas de Fuiteoil (1948) Waterford Remembers

Jack Edwards had been born in 1899 in Bandon Street in Belfast, the eldest child of Patrick and Annie Edwards. Annie was originally from Kilkenny (neé Houlahan) and was sitting part of her final exams to become a maternity nurse when she was told Jack had been shot dead. She had become active politically (as early as 1918 she is known to have signed the anti-conscription petition) and subsequently got involved in Cumann na mBan. Described as a ‘die hard’ republican, was constantly watched by the new Free State authorities (eg see Clark, Everyday Violence in the Irish Civil War, p168). While men were more likely to be arrested or interned (and attract the headlines), women like Edwards were providing the continuity and administrative and logistical spine of local IRA organisations. They retained the knowledge of membership, the location of dumps of weapons, documents, contacts and other assets (money, informants etc) during constant changes of the male leadership through arrest and disruption. As Annie Edwards also typified, they simultaneously had to manage grief over losing sons and partners and taking a lead role in organising and attending public protests as well as collecting and distributing supports to dependents of the dead and imprisoned.
Neither was Jack the first child Annie Edwards lost. Her and Patrick had had Jack (1899), Willie (1901), Mary (1906), Frank (1907), Josephine (1909), Teresa (1912) and George (1914). Willie died of tuberculosis in September 1918 ushering in a harrowing year for the family. Four year old George died early in 1919 (and is largely omitted in later accounts of the family). Patrick himself died in April 1919. Five months later, ten year old Josephine died of tuberculosis in August 1919. In the 1930s, Annie also described Teresa as having been ‘delicate’ since birth and still requiring the care of her mother (although Teresa did get married the year after Annie died).
Patrick had been born in Mary Street Limerick in 1865. He was working as clerk and was a member of the Royal Artillery’s militia battalion in 1887 when he went full-time into the British Army. He joined up in Limerick and was sent to Aldershot where he had completed the Medical Staff Corps school in October 1887. He subsequently spent most of his service in Ireland at various postings in Belfast, Cork, Dublin, Enniskillen, Fermoy and Youghal. He had completed his 4th class (1887), 3rd class (1888) and 2nd class education (1892) while in the army (calling to mind James Connolly’s famous quote about using army service to ‘learn all he can and put his training to its best advantage’). Patrick left the service in 1899 and then took up a post in the Belfast prison as a hospital prison warder (he and Annie had married in November 1898 in Belfast).
Patrick worked in Belfast prison until around 1908 when he then was transferred to Clonmel Gaol. In May 1913 the family moved again, this time from Clonmel to live at Long Avenue in Dundalk, where Patrick took up a post in the local prison. After the outbreak of war in 1914, he re-enlisted in June 1915. He was stationed in Cork where he served in the Royal Army Medical Corps. In April 1916 he reported ill and after several months was discharged as permanently unfit for duty in July 1916 (there is no suggestion that, like Tom Barry, he was reacting to the Easter Rising). On leaving the army, Patrick returned to his post in Dundalk prison and, in January 1917, was transferred to Waterford prison. The whole family then moved to Waterford. By mid-1918 Patrick was unable to work and he died of organic brain disease in April 1919. Annie later recorded that he had been an invalid for a year before his death. She began training as a maternity nurse after her death. Despite Patrick’s long military service and subsequent career in the prisons, the successive deaths of Willie, George, Patrick and Josephine all seem to point to a life lived in near, if not actual and crushing, poverty.
The family’s move to Waterford in 1917 coincided with a sudden political awakening in Jack Edwards as he got involved with the Gaelic League, Sinn Féin and the Irish Volunteers. He had got trained and worked as a fireman (an engine driver) with the Great Southern Railways. As he progressed from D Company to the Waterford Brigade’s flying column he is recorded as being involved in a number of incidents. A Waterford IRA officer, Moses Roche, recorded how Edwards halted a train he was driving near Kilmacthomas. It was carrying jurors to Waterford and the local IRA intended drawing out the RIC and military into an ambush (instead they forced Roche to walk in front to draw any fire, which never came). Edwards was one of the original members of the local flying column when it was formed in April 1921. Michael Ryan recalled Edwards being involved in a raid of the County Club in Waterford. He reportedly carried IRA units from Dublin down to Munster at the start of the Civil War in 1922. When the IRA took control of the GPO in Waterford in July 1922, Jack’s younger brother Frank arrived to join him. Frank was a member of Fianna Éireann but was only fifteen at the time. Jack told his younger brother to “Go home to hell” (as told by Frank in Uinseann MacEoin’s 1980 book Survivors, the account below is based on that a more recent article in Journal of the Waterford Archaeological and Historical Society and a lengthy article on Frank here by David Smith).
Frank did but he remained active in the Fianna and joined the IRA in 1924. Jack’s death, his mother’s activism and the loss of so many family members in 1918-19 provided Frank’s political formation and he was to remain committed to the IRA through most of the 1920s although he had become inactive by the end of the decade. He had trained as a National School teacher and by 1931 he was well known for his involvement with rowing and rugby in Waterford. By 1932 he was teaching in Mount Sion and a member of the INTO.
He had also been an early member of Saor Éire, an attempt to push the IRA in a political direction in 1931. In the late 1920s and into the 1930s the IRA struggled to define a political strategy and was more often concerned with calibrating its behaviour to not inflict political damage on Fianna Fáil (believing that, on assuming power, Fianna Fáil would finally realise the republic declared in 1916). Into the 1930s, Edwards was involved in republican and left wing politics in Waterford and wider afield, including unionisation. Having achieved a high profile in protests against the forming of the right wing reactionary Cumann na aGaedheal party put Frank Edwards on a collision course with his employers at Mount Sion in the shape of Archdeacon William Byrne and local Bishop Jeremiah Kinane, both staunch anti-communists who had no qualms about using the church to suppress left wing politics. In 1932 Byrne met with Edwards to try and persuade him to split from the IRA (on the grounds that it was too left wing). Edwards refused to give in to Byrne’s demands.
Just as Catholic anti-communist doctrine was being promoted in Waterford, by 1932 various left wing activists and study groups coalesced around Waterford’s embryonic branch of the Irish Revolutionary Workers Group (many of the former or disaffected IRA members like Frank Edwards). In 1933 the IRWG became the Communist Party of Ireland and, by March 1934, some of the left republicans in the IRA split and formed Republican Congress. Frank Edwards was among the first to join and he also wrote for its newspaper (also called Republican Congress).
By 1934 Congress in Waterford was active in tackling slum landlords. Edwards was so prominently identified with the campaign that his erstwhile employers, Byrne and Kinnane (in effect the Catholic Church in Waterford) gave him an ultimatum that he would be sacked from Mount Sion if he attended Republican Congress’ Convention that September. After he attended and spoke at the Convention, on 2nd October Edwards was advised that his employment was under review. In mid-October he received three months notice of his dismissal. When the local INTO protested and then its national executive got involved, Edwards was advised that the INTO had agreed with Bishop Kinnane’s proposal that the dismissal be rescinded once Edwards sign an undertaking that he would not be involved in any organisation that did not have the approval of the Catholic Church.
The dispute escalated on to the front page of national newspapers and, when the Bishop was to read a pastoral in the Cathedral on 6th January 1935 it was expected to condemn Republican Congress, the IRA and even anyone who hadn’t recanted opposition to the 1922 treaty. He had only mentioned Republican Congress by the time some of his congregation walked out (Gardaí had been positioned inside the church in case of a demonstration). As the day of Edwards’ dismissal drew close there were other public protests including a strike observed by a small number of pupils in Mount Sion itself. However, despite public opinion being hugely in Edwards favour the Catholic church exerted pressure everywhere, with even the local Dockers branch of the ATWGU offering unqualified support to the bishop. At one protest both Frank and Annie Edwards spoke publicly to protest at the treatment of her son. Afterwards, the bishop sent a priest to Annie to advise her that if she didn’t withdraw her statement she would be refused the Catholic sacraments. She then issued a statement saying that despite the injustice the family would remain good Catholics. According to the family she was deeply distressed by her treatment.
As more public bodies issued statements of support for the bishops, the IRA staged a huge protest parade in support of Edwards in Waterford. But the Catholic church sought to close down reporting and public discussion of the case and Frank Edwards ending up moving to Dublin to assist Frank Ryan in editing and producing Republican Congress. In October that year Annie died of acute nephritis at the age of 62. She was buried with Jack in Ballygunner with the IRA, Cumann na mBan, Republican Congress and other republican and left wing organisations represented at her funeral which was described as one of largest seen in Waterford for some years.
Frank Edwards was now blacklisted from Catholic schools (literally so, as a letter was circulated saying he wasn’t to be employed) and couldn’t get any teaching work. Instead he took jobs such as pipe laying in Dublin. In December 1936 he left with the Irish contingent to join the International Brigade fighting against the fascists in Spain. Within a couple of weeks they were in action in Lopera. Ten days there saw the Irish Company of the Abraham Lincoln Battalion reduced from 150 effectives to 66. They were then pulled out and put into the Madrid front at Las Rozas, ten miles north of Madrid. On 12th January 1937, the day after being deployed at Las Rozas they advanced in the fact of artillery fire as part of a blocking action to prevent Franco encircling Madrid. A shell fell between Dinny Coady and Frank Edwards wounding both. Edwards managed to struggle back down the hill to a first aid station despite losing a lot of blood. Stretcher bearers tried to bring Coady down but he quickly died. Frank Edwards was transferred to a hospital in Madrid. It was to be the end of March before he was scheduled to leave hospital. He returned to Ireland in August 1937.

Frank Edwards

Frank Edwards in Spain with the International Brigade (last man on the right, back row). Peter Daly (from Monageer in Wexford and later killed in action) is third from left in the back row, with Frank Ryan to his left. The man in white shirt at the back (two to the right of Edwards) is Jack Nalty who was also killed in action (for more on the photo see CLR here).

Frank eventually found a teaching job in Mount Zion (the Dublin Jewish school). He remained active in the friends of the Soviet Union and was one of those subsequently thanked by the Soviet ambassador when diplomatic nations between the Republic of Ireland and Soviet Union were finally normalised with the establishment of embassies in 1974. Frank died in 1983 and was cremated. The oration at his funeral was given by veteran Irish communist Peadar O’Donnell.
Frank’s own obituary in the Irish Democrat (July 1983) still noted that he had been born in the north although he had been raised in Waterford. So how strong were Jack Edwards Belfast connections? In Rebel Heart (about George Lennon – Edwards former IRA commander in the flying column), Terence O’Reilly describes Edwards as having come from Belfast in 1918 although this is inaccurate since he had been in Waterford since 1917 and had come there from Dundalk. One story about Edwards time in Belfast recalls how he had been beaten up by an ‘Orange mob’ on the way home from school. As the family left Belfast when he was around 8 or 9, it is plausible. They had lived in a unionist-dominated area off Manor Street, close to the Belfast prison on the Crumlin Road where Patrick Edwards worked. In the 1901 census Catholics made up on only about 1 in 10 of residents of Bandon Street or adjoining streets such as Avoca Street where the nearest school was located (street directories show that living in the area was popular with prison staff). Possibly a sectarian attack on Jack precipitated the family move which coincided with the arrival of Patrick’s nationalist-minded mother into the household to become a formative political experience that led him to wholeheartedly engage in republican activities once he arrived in Waterford in 1917. Whatever his own motivations, it was a seminal moment in his brother Frank’s life. Frank’s own memoir, published by Uinseann MacEoin in Survivors, he quotes the following lines about his brother Jack:

March with stately step and solemn,
Lightly tap the muffled drum,
For the gloom around is now cast
There’s a soldier coming home.
Make this grave upon the hillside,
Where our soldier lad will lie.
Let us wipe out fault and fashion
And when Freedom’s day will come.
We will prove ourselves in action
As Jack Edwards often done.

‘We will prove ourselves in action’ is certainly a phrase that rings true for the Edwards family.

[Thanks to Aaron Ó Maonaigh, John Dorney and Kieron Glennon for drawing my attention to Jack Edwards and his family, and Aaron for the image in de Fuiteoil’s book]

You can read an extract from Belfast Battalion: a history of the Belfast IRA, 1922-1969 by clicking this link.

The story of John Collins, a Belfast IRA volunteer killed in Mayo in May 1921 is here.

Sir James Craig’s 1922 border propaganda

Border propaganda isn’t exactly new in Ireland. Here’s some century old invective from the Illustrated London News. The Unionist government was suffering considerable bad publicity from the violence being inflicted on nationalists in Belfast in particular in early 1922. The Weaver Street bombing in February 1922 had drawn Churchill’s ire and the McMahon murders in March had drawn universal condemnation. Moreover, the atmosphere was poisoned by the inherent contradiction in Unionists simultaneously demanding that they be exempt from home rule in Ireland, while insisting that areas which had explicitly supported independence be refused the same. This was in forefront of Churchill’s mind when he made his ‘dreary steeples’ comment in the House of Commons in February 1922 in the aftermath of the Weaver Street bomb. Oddly the ‘dreary steeples’ quote has become a cliché for a sort of generalised ‘sectarianism’ when Churchill was specifically addressing what he saw as the flawed logic being used by Unionists. Amidst the usual parliamentary flourishes, Churchill actually states that “…Fermanagh and Tyrone… may be districts in which—I am not pre-judging—the majority of the inhabitants will prefer to join the Irish Free State” (Hansard, 16th February 1922). Perhaps it is time people actually engaged with the context of that quote.

In this light, the Unionists mobilised friends among the Conservatives and hosted the Punch cartoonist Leonard Raven Hill around the 20th-22nd March 1922. Raven Hill was an overt supporter of the Conservatives and British imperialism. He drew sketches and produced notes that were published in London Illustrated News on 1st April 1922. His article had added importance for the Unionists in the wave of revulsion that followed the McMahon murders on 24th March and the subsequent allegations of official involvement in the killings.

The London Illustrated News article tries to counter Churchill’s dreary steeples argument by depicting the six county boundary as the dividing line between Unionists and Irish nationalist and presenting nationalist interest in the north as being imposed by Irish nationalists in the twenty-six area. This includes a signed sketch from James Craig (the Northern Ireland Prime Minister), helpfully annotated to show the areas ‘claimed by the South’ (below). This is part of the process by which it was intended to counter Churchill’s criticism by trying to get the public to solely associate ‘Ulster’ with ‘Protestantism’ and ‘Unionism’ and present Irish nationalism as somehow alien. Obviously identity politics is not a recent phenomenon.

Craig sketch

The rest of the article, ‘Our Special Artist in Ulster‘, tries to counter the increasingly bad publicity (presumably the McMahon murders happened as the article was being prepared for the press). It pushes a number of key messages. Presumably intending to echo Great War propaganda, Raven Hill (he quotes one as saying “The women of England never had to go through what we are going through…”) and presents a number of stereotypes which, to some extent, persisted into later and contemporary unionist political mythology.

Raven Hill paints a scene populated with what are now familiar political stereotypes from the last one hundred years.

There is the female refugee from the South.

refugee from south

The brave wife of an embattled Ulster farmer.

Farmers wife

By ‘Ulster’, of course, we are supposed to understand ‘Protestant’ and ‘Unionist’ and to solely associate ‘Ulster’ with these terms. These figures are accompanied by the ‘loyalist’ farmer.

Ulster farmer

They live in a lonely cottage which is constantly under fire from raiders who cross from the ‘South’ into ‘Ulster’.

lonely cottage

And there is also a ‘fine type’ of Ulster farmer, an over sixty who uses his spare time to guard bridges. This is presumably intended as an archetype to represent a Special Constable. An Ulster Special Constabulary was set up in the north to perform the same reprisal and counter-insurgency functions as the other Special Constabularies, the Black and Tans and Auxiliaries, carried out elsewhere in Ireland.

fine type

As a contrast, two IRA men are depicted. Notably IRA men are represented as crossing the border, rather than being from within the six county boundary area. As if the caricature wasn’t cartoonish enough, one is described as the son of a Maltese.

IRA men

All of these characters then populate Raven Hill’s main storyline which is an effective justification for cratering and blocking border roads. It begins with an IRA incursion into ‘Ulster’ from the south, allowing raiding parties to fire on the lonely cottages of the doughty farmers and their families as shown above. The County Commandant and Special Constables decide to blow up the local bridge. Raven Hill provides sketches of this being done (see below).

Commandant

Bridge 1

bridge 2

Bridge 3

Bridge 4

Raven Hill also includes a number of images showing different ways that the border roads were closed off or blocked up. This includes:

A simple barbed wire barrier.

barbed wire

A trench dug across to block the road.

trench

A destroyed bridge reduced to a narrow walkway for pedestrians.

walkway

I’ll finish up with this one. What Raven Hill depicts as the ‘last outpost of Ulster on the Dublin Road’ guarded by armed Special Constables who appear to have felled a tree to block the road. I am guessing that, again, the ‘last outpost’ is meant to have deep emotional resonances and be evocative of the great war and, in particular, the western front. These sketches appeared in the Illustrated London News on 1st April in 1922 and, at the time, were largely to counter the increasingly negative publicity the Unionists were attracting for the deployment of violence within the six county area, and, the logical inconsistencies in their rationale for demanding the type of hegemony over districts (the dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone) which they insisted they themselves could not live under. The messaging used by Raven Hill, and some of the stereotypes, have been perpetuated and became almost fixed points in the subsequent political landscape (so much so that they are still used today).

guarded

 

 

.

THE IRA IN BALLYMACARRETT 1920-1922 (by Sean Ó Coinn)

The most dangerous place in Belfast, writes Sean Ó Coinn, describing Ballymacarrett in 1920-1922 in his book Defending the Ground published earlier this year. Here Sean gives a flavour of his account of the IRA in Ballymacarrett during that period (the book is available to buy at various places in Belfast).

 

The Most Dangerous Place in Belfast

Amid the closely- knit terrace streets of Ballymacarrett, B Company of the 2nd Battalion, the 1st Belfast Brigade was raised in 1920 and its volunteers fought at times a desperate action of defence to ensure its survival, while having to carry out its own offensive actions. The 2nd Battalion was created in the early months of 1920, under the command of Tom Fitzpatrick with a Company in Ballymacarrett, Carrick Hill and the Low Market.

The first O/C of B Company was Manus O Boyle, who along with his 2 I/C and later O/C John [Sean] Cunningham, succeeded in forming a Company of 120, mostly made up of men who were unemployed and armed with small arms and grenades.

Manus O’ Boyle recorded the following account:

“I know that the heaviest fighting took place in the Ballymacarrett area, where there were about 7,000 Catholics. On the outskirts of that area were about 40,000 Orange men and women St. Matthews church, Convent and Schools were the continuous target of the Orange hordes.

In the early days, it was chiefly a stone-throwing competition, until the Volunteers got organised. I was detailed then by the Brigade to organise a Company of Volunteers for the defence of Ballymacarrett. I succeeded in forming a Company of about 120 men. These were all unemployed. Then the fighting proper commenced as we were now armed with small arms and grenades. It was a continuous street fight in Ballymacarrett.

Our opponents were heavily armed and had the assistance of the Police and Military. This continued all through 1920 and up to the Truce. The nuns were magnificent, Mother Teresa, Sister Eithne, Sister Peter Paul and Sister Bridget are four that I remember particularly…. Mother Teresa could always present us with hundreds of rounds of .45 ammunition that she received from……  [Inspector Mc Connell], a Catholic RIC officer.”

Tom Fitzpatrick recorded one of the earliest actions taken by the 2nd Battalion against Crown Forces :

Some time about February or March 1920, after the military had taken over a place in the Low Market, where they kept a lot of vehicles, we threw a few bombs into it. That was a Battalion job and it was done very quietly.

There was no sanction from the Brigade for it. At that time, the Brigade were averse to activities in Belfast for fear of reprisals on the Catholic population.

Across the island of Ireland during the period of 1920 and 1921, the guerrilla war being waged by the IRA had spearheaded a political drive to settle the conflict. Negotiations were underway between the Republican Leadership and the British government and on Friday July 9th 1921, an order was dispatched to all IRA divisional areas:

“In view of the conversation now being entered into by our government with the government of Great Britain, and in the pursuance of mutual conversations, active operations by our troops will be suspended as from noon on Monday 11th JulyRisteard Ua Maolchatha [Richard Mulcahy], Chief of Staff.

The truce was signed on Friday 9th July and was to take effect from noon on Monday, 11th July. But while the rest of Ireland celebrated, Belfast bled. There was a de-escalation of fighting throughout the 26 counties and the truce was held with effect, but in the northeast, the fighting continued and Belfast was to witness a particularly vicious summer of violence. The Unionists felt that they were being sacrificed on the high altar of political pragmatism and there was a lack of will on the part of the northern Unionist administration to pursue the opportunity for peace.

That weekend in Belfast, the truce was ushered in with “blood letting”. The “Specials” [A part-time uniformed police militia drawn from the Protestant population] backed by Loyalist gunmen, were determined to launch an onslaught on Nationalist districts. The IRA throughout Belfast was mobilized in order to defend their areas, as the Specials and UVF gunmen unleashed sniper fire and moved with armoured cars against the Nationalist areas. The Carrick Hill enclave in the north of the city was near to breaking point and was only one hour short of running out of ammunition when the British military commander in the city organized an implementation of the truce.

Sixteen people died of whom eleven were Catholic and 161 homes were destroyed. Fierce gun-battles, involving machine-gun and rifle fire, as well as handguns and mills bombs were reported along the streets interlinking the Falls and Shankill Roads. Heavy shooting was also reported in the Falls and Cullingtree Road, Millfield and Carrick Hill areas.

Four of the Catholic victims were ex-servicemen. Over the next few days as the Orange marching season reached its climax, shooting occurred around the Short Strand and North Queen Street districts. Two people died and thirty more were wounded on the 14th July, while on the following day as sniping continued in the North Queen Street/York Street area, two RIC policemen were shot and wounded in Little Georges Street. A Unionist politician, William Grant was also wounded by a sniper.

A week later, the IRA GHQ in Dublin sent Eoin O Duffy, the IRA commander in Ulster to Belfast to act as a Liaison Officer with the British military in the city. He set up his headquarters in St. Mary’s hall in the Smithfield area, but found Belfast not to be on the same level as other cities in the rest of the country. The British military seemed content to respect the truce in its initial stages, but the Specials who were acting as the armed wing of the northern administration, which had been officially constituted by the British King in June, continued to act against the Nationalist areas with the full endorsement of the Belfast Parliament.

Reference to the period is made in an IRA divisional report sent by Seamus Woods O/C of the 3rd Northern Division, which covered Belfast, to IRA GHQ on the 27th July 1922, when he states;

“Until the signing of the treaty in London, the perfecting of our organization, training and equipping had been pursued with great earnestness on the part of all officers and men. As both Numbers 2 and 3 Brigades were very much below strength in July’21, a large number of recruits were taken on in these areas”.

The increase in recruits was due largely to the truce and the fact that as Woods states in the same report: “the Catholic population believing for the moment that we had been victorious and that the Specials and UVF were beaten, practically all flocked to our standard, with the exception of the aristocratic minority”.

Throughout Ireland, the IRA used the truce for intensive training. It was important to maintain discipline, as grievances on both sides were still sore.

In the same report Seamus Woods made reference to the fact that the truce was not been adhered to and officers and men were being arrested.

He also stated that: “After the raid on their liaison office, St.Mary’s Hall, Belfast, in which the name of practically every officer in the Division was found, all the Divisional and many of the Brigade officers demanded an inquiry into the circumstances of the raid and were asking the Divisional Commandant to resign.” [Joe McKelvey]

The truce appeared to have little effect on the situation in Belfast. In August 1921, the local RIC Commissioner observed in a confidential report: “Poverty is still rife in the Nationalist Quarters where so many people are existing on charitable donations received from the Expelled Workers Fund, which continues to receive fairly large subscriptions from various sources, particularly White Cross of America”

Training camps were established within the Divisional area at Hannahstown [Belfast], Seaforde and Castlewellan in County Down and Glenariff and Torr Head, in County Antrim.

The IRA in Belfast reached its peak membership during the months of August and September 1921 [835] and would have preferred to now engage in a war against British Crown forces similar to its counterparts in the south, but unfortunately the IRA in the north-east of the country but more especially in Belfast, found itself having to act as defenders of the Nationalist areas against armed Loyalists engaged in sectarian pogroms and the Unionist controlled armed militia in the guise of Special Police. Only in areas such as South Armagh, Tyrone and Monaghan, was the IRA able to operate with a free hand against the Specials and British military.

The need to defend the Catholic community was vital to the Belfast IRA during the 1920-1922 periods, as they struggled not to lose their ideological role as the Army of the Irish Republic. They were also operating in a hostile environment flooded with British troops, Police and Loyalist Specials who targeted the Catholic community in ‘acts of reprisals’ which stretched from merely shooting into Catholic streets during curfew hours in order to prompt a reaction from the military to the inhabitants, to conducting actual murder.

Added to this was the poor social condition in the Catholic working-class districts which was caused in part by expulsions from employment and also the overcrowding due to relatives and friends being forced out of their homes in Protestant districts.

This was a much harsher environment than the fighting ground’ of Roscommon, Mayo, or West Cork. It was for these very reasons that the majority of the Belfast IRA would later remain loyal to the pro-treaty Government GHQ in Dublin, who ensured mainly through Michael Collins that they were financed and armed.

For the Officers of the 1st Belfast Brigade or the 3rd Northern Division overall, it was loyalty to a GHQ that logistically supported them, rather than to a treaty that isolated them from their ‘natural aspiration of a United Ireland’.

Michael Collins stands out as the only Republican leader in the south for whom partition and the plight of the northern nationalists remained a major concern. Yet, it’s ironic that his desperate efforts to assist the latter, led him to adopt a confusing blend of ‘non-recognition’, diplomacy and coercion toward the Unionist Government in the north-east.

Collins death in August 1922 during the civil war and the new policy of Cosgrave’s cabinet in recognising the Belfast Unionist Parliament, spelt the end of Republican resistance in the north as a real potential threat for the next 48 years and one that when it did come, would be launched from the very streets of Catholic Ballymacarrett that Loyalists tried so hard to eliminate from East Belfast during the period of 1920-1922. [It is also important to emphasize that Collins death preceded the atrocities and executions of Republican volunteers carried out during the civil war by Free State forces which were then under the command of Richard Mulcahy].

Added to this, the political divisions in northern nationalism ensured that the Catholic minority in the north was effectively precluded from any say in influencing its own fate at a critical juncture in the historic issue of partition.

Despite the IRA in Belfast being forced into a primary role of defence, it still conducted an offensive policy against Crown forces; on whole this would mainly have been Specials and RIC personnel. The increase in attacks was due to the establishment of ‘Active Service Units’ [ASU], while others were shot during gun-battles that engulfed Nationalist districts.  IRA snipers in areas such as Ballymacarrett/Short Strand also fired at trams carrying shipyard workers, while others were bombed as a retaliation for the huge expulsion of the Catholic workforce.

The whole mood of political uncertainty was the signal for a renewed wave of bloody violence at the end of August 1921, during which 21 people lost their lives over a three day period. The worst of the fighting was around the Catholic York Street district, which lay within the 2nd Battalion area. The Loyalist attacks was planned to wipe out the Nationalist streets around York Street and send a message to Britain that no settlement involving the IRA was possible in Ulster. However, Eoin O Duffy mobilised the IRA to defend the area, which broke the siege.

Seven Protestants were killed and the Manchester Guardian reported that the IRA “was retaliating in kind and quite as effectively as the Loyalist gunmen.”

To further infuriate the Unionists, Michael Collins made a visit to County Armagh and told a 10,000 strong gathering, which included a large force of the IRA, that the Dail would not desert them. [Unfortunately after his death in August 1922, the Dail not only deserted the Nationalists of the north, but it betrayed the Northern Divisions]

The IRA also had an extensive stock of Mills bombs [grenades] and a large stock of home made bombs, which were used against mobs attacking Catholic districts. One example of this was when a large Loyalist crowd firebombed the Sextons house close to St. Matthew’s Church on the 24th November 1921.  The densely packed mob assembled in the vicinity gloating over their deed, when a bomb was hurled over into their ranks from Seaforde Street killing two and injuring forty-five others. The Irish News described the scene of the injured ‘laying in heaps of twos and threes.

On the same date, 24th November, a shipyard tram travelling along Corporation Street at 5.45pm was attacked when the IRA threw a bomb from Little Patrick Street. The device, which was hurled through a window of the lower part of the tram, blew a section of the tram apart and killed two of the passengers on board. That particular day ended with a death toll of 14 killed, ten of which were Catholic. The following evening, Shipyard trams were again fired on at around 7.30pm in the York Street/ North Queen Street area.

Two days later, on the 26th November, amid nightly gun-battles around York Street, North Queen Street and the Short Strand, another tram was attacked in Royal Avenue killing two of its passengers. The Shankill Road bound Shipyard tram was attacked at 6pm as it passed by the Grand Central hotel in the city centre. The two IRA Volunteers involved in the attack were prominent members; one from the Dock area, the other from Carrick Hill. They escaped along Berry Street into Francis Street and safety. These attacks usually resulted in retaliation against innocent Catholics; vulnerable targets in a bid to take revenge.

A pattern had developed through the month of September into November 1921 with snipers concentrating their fire into and around Seaforde Street, while mobs attacked St Matthews church and the Cross and Passion convent close by in Bryson Street. Both the church and convent were vulnerable to the tightly bound Protestant Streets opposite. The IRA remained active across the district with its own snipers firing into the Protestant streets and at the Shipyard trams.

An extract from the 2nd Battalion operations report to O/C No.1 Belfast Brigade around this time summarises the situation: “During the month there were constant outbreaks by the hostile population in the Battalion area and obviously organised attempts were made by armed gangs of men to invade the Catholic districts. The hostile element was extremely well equipped and in the Ballymacarrett district appeared openly carrying full bandoliers and service rifles. A determined and long threatened invasion of Seaforde Street, Ballymacarrett was attempted.

On the 22n – [September], B Coy. Were obliged to take up firing positions for its defence. On Sunday 24th large numbers of armed men were observed at the Newtownards Road and Seaforde Street and the position was so threatening that a Mills bomb had to be thrown by one of our men. The grenade was very effective and two of the Orange mob were killed and 34 wounded.” 

The IRA defence of the Seaforde Street area infuriated the northern authorities to the point that on the 21st September 1921, prior to another weekend of attacks, one of the most extensive raids to be seen in Belfast by the Crown forces was carried out by the RIC and British military in the Short Strand. For nine hours, they engaged in searches for weapons. Houses and yards across the district were searched by the RIC as the military were posted on the streets. No weapons were unearthed, but the huge presence of Crown forces prevented access to the area for 24 hours by IRA ASUs to reinforce any defensive measure in place by the local company.

During the week period of the 19th-25th November 1921, 27 people died and 92 were wounded across Belfast.

December 1921 continued much in the same vein with snipers active on a daily basis. But it was the weekend of Friday 17th and Saturday 18th December around the Short Strand that saw the worst shooting in the city since York Street at the end of August when the IRA was mobilised .

There had been the usual sporadic shooting leading up to the Friday and on the Wednesday; a Police lorry was raked by machine-gun fire in Seaforde Street.  Then on the Friday evening the Seaforde Street area was attacked with unparalleled vigour by Loyalist gunmen and Specials. Barricades were now erected at the top of Seaforde Street and Young’s Row on the Newtownards Road entrance to the district.

The Irish News reported in its columns: “Driven to desperation by the intensity of the onslaught at so many points, the Catholics to maintain their lives and property were compelled to reply and a regular gun battle was in progress.”

In reality, it was the IRA replying with gunfire as the district was coming under attack from every end. B Company was now engaged in the worst period to date of shooting to occur since the outbreak of the conflict.

There was no truce or treaty in effect on the streets of Ballymacarrett as the ritual of the snipers bullets swept the tightly bound streets. The shooting began at 5am and continued throughout the morning. A member of the Loyalist Ulster Imperial Guard was shot by the IRA close to Young’s Row on the Newtownards Road. The UIG was an organization made up exclusively of Protestant WW1 veterans.

An elderly Protestant man was also caught in the shooting as he made his way home from his job as a Night Watchman. He was shot in early morning crossfire between B Company and Loyalists in the Seaforde Street/Newtownards Road area. British troops at Seaforde Street also opened fire during the shooting. The 71 year old man sadly died in hospital twelve days later on 1st January, 1922.

By the following evening  B Company and those supporting non-members, were engaged in returning fire across the district until the attacks were repelled and faded out. Four people died two from each community and once again raids were carried out in the Short Strand by the military and RIC on the Sunday in a search for weapons. The year ended with the death of 109 people across Belfast. The new year, 1922, continued much as 1921 had ended, with daily shooting through out the Catholic districts of Belfast. February’s death toll reached 47, with up to 100 wounded. Worst was to come as the spring and summer months would boil to a bloody climax.

The killing of five-year-old John Devlin on February 16th in Seaforde Street when a Loyalist gunman fired a single shot through the barricade at the Newtownards Road entrance at children playing, caused anger in the district despite such shootings being a part of life in a city torn apart by civil war. The same day, Special Constable Mc Adam based at Mountpottinger barrack was shot and wounded in a B Company attack

The shooting of Specials was to increase as the IRA across the city stepped up its offensive actions and in particular began targeting Specials who would have been seen in the same manner in Belfast and the north, as the Black and Tans would have been in the south of the country. Two were shot and wounded on the 4th March, one of whom, Special Constable Henderson was shot by B Company in the Mountpottinger area.

The 12th of March began a week long series of sniping and bomb attacks in and around the Short Strand during which raids were carried out by the Military and Specials on the 15th in a search for weapons. Their presence did not prevent a murder gang penetrate into Thompson Street in the early hours to throw a bomb into the bedroom of a house killing a woman as she slept in bed. Later that morning, two Protestants were shot and wounded as they entered the Glavin stables at the corner of Thompson Street, while a third was shot and wounded in the Corporation Yard on the Short Strand.

That same weekend on the 19th of March, a B Company sniper shot dead a member of the Loyalist Ulster Protestant Association during a gun-battle around the Seaforde Street area of the district, while four days later on the 23rd of the month, an IRA ASU shot and killed two Specials at the corner of May Street.

This date-[23rd March] is synonymous with the brutal slaughter of the Nationalist Mc Mahon family in north Belfast by an in-famous RIC [Police] murder-gang led by District Inspector John Nixon operating from Brown Square barrack in the Peter Hill area. The following day 24th, another murder atrocity was attempted in Altcar Street within sight of Mountpottinger barrack. Three men, alleged to be Specials, entered a house and proceeded to shoot anyone they found there. Peter Murphy aged 61, was the first to be shot followed by Sarah Mc Shane aged 15, before they turned their guns on three years old Mary McCabe. As they ran from the house they fired at, and wounded Nellie Whelan. It was nothing short of a miracle that all those shot survived the ordeal. As with so many murders of that period, proof of identity or justice was not forthcoming.

A week later on the night of April 2nd 1922 similar style shootings were carried out in succession at three houses in the Carrick Hill district again by the Nixon led RIC gang resulting in a further atrocity during which five people died including a seven-year-old boy, Michael Walshe who was shot along with his young sister Brigid aged 2, while laying in bed having just witnessed their Father, Joseph a former soldier, been dragged from the bed and cudgelled to death. Michael’s sister survived as did his fourteen-year-old brother Frank who was beaten and shot in the small kitchen. Joseph Walsh’s baby son Robert aged 8 months died the following day. This was one of the worst atrocities of the period. The other victims who died that night were Joseph Mc Crory, aged 40 [15 Stanhope Street], Bernard Mc Kenna [26 Park Street] and William Spallin aged 70 [16 Arnon Street].

The Walshe family lived just two doors from the Spallins in Arnon Street. William Spallin had just buried his wife that day and his murder was witnessed by his twelve years old Grandchild who was found gazing in horror at the murdered man.

On the night of the Carrick Hill murders, Volunteer Sean Montgomery, an officer in D Company, 1st Battalion was in the area and later gave the following account: “Outside [the house], were the RIC, so I went out through the window to put our revolvers on the spouting of the roof. Then I heard a boy shouting that his daddy was shot. I came down the stairs and out we went. We were in an end house. When we got outside an officer of the Norfolk regiment had the driver of a Police Car against the wall, and three soldiers with rifles at the ready to fire. He said to the Special that if he did not tell him [who had killed the Catholics] he would give the order to fire. He [the Special] said he had nothing to do with it, but that DI Nixon was in charge and the Police had told the army they were going to raid. 

Within a week of the attempted Short Strand massacre in Altcar Street, once again in the Mountpottinger area, two Specials were shot and wounded by B Company, one of whom-Special Constable Hale died. In the west of the city on the 14th March, the IRA also shot and killed RIC Sergeant Christy Clarke on the Falls Road as it was strongly believed he was involved with an RIC murder gang which had operated from Springfield Road barrack in 1920. Clarke, a Catholic, is buried within a short distance of the Mc Mahon family in Belfast’s Milltown Cemetery. A year earlier in May 1921, another Catholic RIC member, District Inspector Ferris based at Springfield Road barrack was cut down in a volley of shots fired by three IRA volunteers as he left St. Pauls Presbytery on the Falls Road.

Ferris was one of several men Rodger Mc Corley of the IRA’s Brigade Staff had marked for execution because of their links to the Springfield barrack murder gang. Ferris survived the shooting, but was seriously wounded. Not so fortunate was Sergeant Glover who was implicated in the killing of Republicans Liam Gaynor and Eamon Trodden both of whom were murdered in their homes. Sergeant Glover was shot and killed on the 10th June 1921 as he patrolled in Cupar Street along with Constables Sullivan and Sharkey, both of whom were wounded.

Following the shooting carried out by volunteers of the 1st Battalions D. Company, Auxiliaries carried out indiscriminate shooting around the Falls Road area as they patrolled in trucks prior to curfew hours.

The months of April and May 1922 saw the ferocity of attacks upon the Nationalist areas reach a bloody climax. But while the IRA were stretched to the limit in defending the Short Strand and trying to fight off attacks across the Lagan in the north of the city, they were also called upon through out May into June to engage in a series of offensive actions which included a ‘Burning Campaign’ against Unionist owned business premises.

Supplies of rifles much needed by the Belfast IRA began to arrive from GHQ in Dublin during April, as the 3rd Northern Division found itself at the core of a rapidly changing policy being conducted by the Pro-treaty GHQ, which played out as part of the internal politics being conducted in a bid to avert a total split within the IRA and on which side Divisional loyalties would emerge, should, what appeared inevitable, happened.

The week of April 17th to the 23rd 1922 was one when shooting reached great intensity around the Short Strand and Oldpark districts. Antigua and Sanderson Street in the Catholic Marrowbone area of the Oldpark were burned as casualties mounted amid pitched gun-battles.

The following month as the IRA stepped up its attacks, the final intimidation of Catholic families from the Protestant area of York Road in the north of the city commenced on Thursday 18th May when any Catholic families still living in Mountcollyer Street were forced to leave their homes. The following day, Friday the 19th, the small Catholic enclave around Weaver Street on York Road found itself at the mercy of Protestant attackers who armed with revolvers forced 148 families from their homes. The little enclave had suffered in previous shooting and bomb attacks and now a final purge was being made to clear Catholics from the York Road area. Within the following few days’ nearly 1,000 penniless refugees reached Glasgow. The let up in intimidation did not end, as more families would be evicted in the first week of June, 436 families in total.

Several thousand people from across Belfast poured into Dublin and Glasgow, while many others absorbed in some way into the already congested Catholic districts.

The same day as the purge against the Catholics of York Road was underway; [May 19th] the IRA in a desperate act of retaliation entered Garretts Co-Operative in Little Patrick Street off Nelson Street in the Dock area and proceeded to line the workers up against a wall. Only one was a Catholic and he was singled out to be placed against another wall. This man must surely have thought he was about to be shot, but the guns were not turned on him but on his workers as a hail of bullets struck down the unfortunate men resulting in four dying.

Three days later the week beginning Monday 22nd May, will not be remembered or recorded in the annals of the conflict for the daily cross divide sniping around the Short Strand which saw two Protestants killed and two B Specials shot and wounded on the Albert Bridge, but more for an event that occurred earlier that morning that was sending shock waves through the Unionist hierarchy. William Twaddell, a member of the Northern Parliament and an outspoken Loyalist was shot dead in the city centre as reprisals by the IRA continued.

The killing of Twaddell prompted the Northern Parliament to introduce Internment without trial.

In Belfast, the death toll for May reached 75, [42 Catholics and 33 Protestants], while the following month, 25 people died, [18 Catholics and 7 Protestants]. Despite the campaign of shooting and intimidation by Loyalists taking its toll on the Nationalist areas, the IRA continued its attacks against the Specials across Belfast and the north.

On the same day, William Twaddell was shot; six Specials were wounded across Belfast in sniping, two of those on the Albert Bridge. Two days later, Wednesday, 24th on the Mountpottinger Road, a tram carrying Protestant workers was fired on and a Special wounded when a bomb was thrown at a patrol.

The following day Thursday 25th May, three young children were wounded in gun and bomb attacks in the Seaforde Street area and two Specials, Constables Murphy and Connor died one in the Market, the other in the Falls Road area. That same week, the Marrowbone, Ardoyne and Market districts were subjected to having their streets raked by machine-gun and rifle fire from Specials prior to the nigh time curfew. As was the familiar pattern the IRA returned fire when and where possible. The month of May ended with the deaths of two more Specials, one on the 29th of the month and another two days later on the 31st.

The introduction of Internment in the north, coupled with the poor economic and low moral situation in the Nationalist areas along with the outbreak of a civil war in the south of the country over the acceptance of the treaty terms with Britain, all combined to erode the IRA in Belfast as an effective fighting force.

By July 1922, B Company was depleted with a skeleton membership. Volunteers had moved south for integration into the Free State Army, while others had been arrested and interned. The final blow came with the death of Michael Collins in August 1922 and the resulting underhand politics from the new Free State government that resulted in a change of policy toward the north. This effectively spelt the end of the northern IRA.

Only the 4th Northern Division that operated in the South Armagh and County Louth areas remained as an effective fighting group and in a good state of strength.

Despite a new resurgence in the mid-thirties by the IRA in Belfast, it would be 48 years before they would once more be able to strike at the heart of the Unionist State. This time it would not be a short sharp campaign reliant on Dublin support, but an all out assault of guerrilla warfare that would spell the end of Unionist domination of the north. That assault would begin on the streets of the Short Strand during the night of the 27th June 1970, the very district that Loyalists had tried to erase from the geographical landscape of East Belfast during the 1920-1922 years of conflict and pogroms.                                                                               

                                                                                   

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

why republican groups are so fractious…

It has long been a cliché that, historically, the first thing on the agenda in any Irish republican organisation is a split. But like many clichés it has an element of truth to it.

Most people are probably unaware that the Irish Citizens Army, as well as Republican Congress, organised in Belfast in the 1930s. In the late 1940s, the Socialist Republican Easter commemoration at Milltown was probably bigger than the mainstream republican event. At different times others operated in Belfast under the names Laochra Uladh and the Irish Freedom Fighters.

Why is republicanism so fractitious? It was one of the points Michael Jackson picked up on in our discussion that was published in a recent newspaper article (see below).

This is the full text of the article and interview with me that was published by Michael Jackson in the Andersonstown News and North Belfast News (see original here). ‘Belfast Battalion, A History of the Belfast IRA, 1922-1969’, by Dr John Ó Néill, is available online here or, in Belfast, from the Sinn Féin shop and Cultúrlan, from Connolly Books in Dublin and Calton Books, in Glasgow.

You can also consult copies in the library of Conway Mill Republican History Museum.

Given the significance of the IRA in shaping Ireland over the last century, there has been no shortage of historiographies about the organisation. Dr John Ó Néill’s Belfast Battalion, however, presents itself as a rarity amongst other texts on the subject.
The new book offers an invaluable chronological history of the Belfast IRA between 1922 and 1969, drawing on primary resources to provide a fuller-than-before view of the battalion’s actions, key personalities, direction and, at times, indirection during that period. Dr Ó Néill, a former St Malachy’s pupil from the Antrim Road, is also the author of the widely respected Treason Felony Blog, an online publication of his fascinating research on republican history.
Although an archaeologist by profession, Dr Ó Néill’s more recent research has a significant personal relevance, as his new book initially began as a biography of his great-uncle, leading IRA figure Jimmy Steele. However, he says that his own professional background helped him bring together many of the missing pieces in the IRA’s history.
“My background was mostly in pre-history and if you want to research a clandestine organisation then it seems to be perfect training, because you’re basically starting from scratch,” explained John.
“Other people have written some histories of the IRA during certain periods, but what I have tried to do is to create a chronological history. Obviously it gets flowery in places where you start talking about other issues that have impacted on it.
“In acadamia people have a tendency to take a thematic approach, but a fundamental building block for something like this is that you actually need to have the whole chronology of events.”
He continued: “You can start uncovering things like internal IRA memos and then you can start building up pictures of relationships between individuals, how things were done and organised. The idea was to take that period after the Civil War up until the start of the modern Troubles.
“Today it’s longer from 1969 than 1969 was to 1922, and the real experience of the people involved has to have coloured what happened in 1969. You have to wonder, do you really understand the more recent conflict here without having an understanding of what happened from the 20s to the 60s? This is my small contribution to starting that. It’s also about opening it up.
“By the same token, here are unionist groups who were involved in various campaigns of military violence, but there is very little documentation on them, or very little history written about them. We don’t really understand who’s involved on that side, what motivated them and what directs them. Are there greater forces at work or are you seeing a greater level of grassroots activity? I think we’re only starting to scratch the surface.”
While Dr Ó Néill’s exceptionally well researched book provides a detai- driven narrative of the Belfast IRA, one of its greatest triumphs is illuminating many of the internal struggles and personal differences within the wider movement, with tensions between the Belfast Battalion and the IRA’s Dublin-based GHQ featuring prominently throughout. Although historians, and even some republicans, particularly after 1969, have been keen to explore tensions between the IRA’s left and right wing defenderist traditions, Dr Ó Néill argues that the issues between Belfast and Dublin are a “much bigger dynamic continually”.
“If you look at the 1930s or 1920s, what is presented by some people as conflict over left wing politics is really a conflict over control from Dublin or control from Belfast,” he said.
“If you want to talk about a new Ireland, even republicans have always found it difficult to work out coexistence between Belfast and Dublin in terms of direction and everything else.
“I emphasise it quite a lot through the book, but in the 1920s and 1930s the Belfast IRA aren’t really represented at GHQ in Dublin. There is a constant difference in political initiatives that Dublin drives versus what the Belfast IRA want to see. It ebbs and flows and then in the 1940s it goes the other way. What actually happens is that Stephen Hays is stood down as the Chief of Staff of the IRA and the Belfast IRA take over GHQ and relocate it to Belfast.
“Even in 1969, the political dimension of socialism, communism or left wing politics was only introduced a few years later and you see that if you take what people wrote at the time was not was they wrote subsequently because they were trying to find a spin on it that worked for them.
“At the time Bombay Street was burned, the IRA Chief of Staff and his Army Council members were being paid to stage a training camp in the Dublin mountains in that week in August. It really illustrates the difference in experience of that time.
“I do think it’s a theme that you can extrapolate into modern politics to say that these are things that need to be borne in mind. Republicans who, on paper, have this same ideal or objective, can still have serious disagreements.”
The story of the Belfast IRA with its ebbs and flows in activity does, of course, have its moments of intense drama, some of which have been surprisingly obscured by time. One such story, which Dr Ó Néill rightly said has a “cinematic quality”, is that of Dan Turley, a veteren Belfast republican who was mistakenly shot as an informant.
“It’s a tortuous story,” Dr Ó Néill said. “It goes back to the 1920s. There was some conflict between him and some people from GHQ in Dublin. It blows up in the 1930s when a number of arms dumps were found in Belfast. At the time somebody else is blamed and is suspended from the IRA. Turley then gets blamed because the RUC gives false information to somebody who passes it on to the IRA. You don’t know from subsequent events if it was somebody who was working with the RUC, or whether they were unwittingly getting involved.
“Turley gets shot three years after he was expelled from the IRA. Within months of being exiled from Belfast he was contacting the IRA Army Council and they seem to endorse his return. He gets shot when the Belfast IRA is under serious pressure at the end of 1936. Members had been banned from taking military action over that period, so it’s questionable who actually shoots him.
“Clearly, from other events, Turley wasn’t actually guilty. His family stay involved in republican politics for years afterwards.
“In the middle of all this there is the story of when he gets shot in Clonard, people see it and run over. He has his hand on the inside of his jacket, they think that he was going to pull a gun and defend himself, but he actually had a Child of Prague statue that he had his hand on. I asked his grandson if the story was true, and he told me it was, and he told me that he still has the statue on the mantelpiece in his house.”
He added: “Dan Turley was involved in the IRB with Sean Mac Diarmada in Belfast in the 1900s. He was the Director of Elections for the First Dáil for Sinn Féin in Belfast. He’s one of those people, and there’s quite a few of them, that are obscure figures that should probably be better known, as much to inform people of their own history as anything else.”
Although Dr Ó Néill’s account ends in 1969 when the IRA finally split, Belfast Battalion gives a clearer picture of the reasons for the fall out, and helps illuminate the trajectory taken by the Provisional IRA and the Official IRA in the immediate aftermath. Although the events of 1969 are tumultuous, Dr Ó Néill highlights how personal differences and individual personalities played a significant part in the IRA’s more recent parting of the ways.
“One of the interesting things about it, and it does speak to modern republican politics, is that, in Belfast, to stay involved in something like the IRA throughout the 20s, 30s, 40s or 50s, there’s a certain type of independent mindset that people needed,” he said. “You need a certain mindset to retain the aims and objectives that they had and to pursue this idea of an Irish Republic.
“People overlook that when they’re wondering why republican groups are so fractious. You need to be independent minded and strong willed to battle the oppression that they did. The natural outform of that is fragmentation because the people involved are not the sort of people who will roll over in a debate – they very much stuck to their guns.
“We often overlook the long-term impact of something like that. There are things that drew them together, but when when things that caused any kind of conflict emerged you see these strong personalities come out.”
He continued: “The personalities in the split go back decades and have nothing to do with 1969, almost. There were longstanding emnities between individuals that come to the fore. Billy McMillen, for example, who was OC at the time, had left the IRA in the 1950s after falling out with Jimmy Steele. Other people like Des O’Hagan had left as well and came back to the IRA in the 1960s.
“There were faultlines that had been there for a long time and disputes that come to the fore again in 1969. Again, the theme of Belfast and Dublin comes up because some people aren’t happy with the direction from Dublin, who they think don’t understand the dynamics north of the border.
“The funny thing that affects what happens after the split is, because the Belfast IRA was traditionally led from the lower Falls, what becomes the Official IRA concentrate on that area, whereas the Provisional IRA concentrate on the other districts. That’s a factor that people have often overlooked when trying to understand the split itself.
“The decision was informed by what people understood the Belfast IRA to be about and they thought that if you were in control of the lower Falls then you were in control of the IRA in Belfast. The traditional constituency for the IRA had spread much further than the red brick terraces of the lower Falls. Long shadows are being cast and you can see the impact of these things down the road.
“I think the book might help people understand some of the dynamic involved. There are so many positions and attitudes are so entrenched that you might not be able to change many of them. I’m probably not very sympathetic to Cathal Goulding and GHQ, but if you’re from Belfast and you’re trying to write it then it’s hard not be that way. You have your own baggage and your own emotional engagement in what you’re doing and that always comes out. I wouldn’t be apologetic about it.
“I think it’s worth people approaching afresh.
“I deliberately chose to stop in 1969 because all the things that happened afterwards aren’t inevitable. Because we know the people who were involved but we don’t know enough about them and there’s not enough written about them to get for people to get to grips with them.
“A few people have tried to do it, like Martin Dillon, Tim Pat Coogan, Ed Moloney, Eamonn Mallie, Richard English – lots of people have written about the IRA, but in terms of trying to understand the interpersonal relationships between the key figures and the history of their relationships.
“If you’re interned with people in Crumlin Road Gaol for a few years in the 1950s or 1960s, with the best will in the world you might not want to sit in a room with them again, whereas your politics forces you to do that.
“We need to understand a little bit of that to understand how that influenced certain events, rather than trying to fit things into a grander narrative. People might not tell these thing in conventional histories. There are some things that people told me during the research that I just couldn’t put in the book.”
A lack of documentary evidence, such as the incomplete runs of Belfast’s republican newspapers from the 30s and 40s, was just one of the challenges faced by Dr Ó Néill as he was conducting his research. However, he also believes that personal histories and family stories, including those of his own family, have a further historiographical gap to fill.
“My mother’s family would have been involved in politics going back around 100 years,” he said.
“As some of the older generation started dying out I realised how important their stories were.
“One of my mother’s cousins, Arthur Steele, was in prison in the 1940s and he had fantastic delivery telling the stories. He was really dry and droll – he knew exactly what he was doing. It’s a great oral history that wasn’t being recorded. Arthur died a few years ago and it’s one of the voices that is missing in a book like this because you’re not able to go back to him and ask him about it. You can create a very dry history based on newspapers articles and, but it’s the stories that you get from people that add the colour in. You then start getting at how personalities drive events, rather that people trying to tie them to bigger issues such as class politics, or whatever else.
“I’m fully anticipating that the more people who read this the more people will find things that aren’t correct, and that’s kind of the purpose. This isn’t the publication to end all publications, this is very much the starting point. I want people to read it and, paradoxically for most people, I would be happy for people to correct me on certain things so we can build up a bigger picture than this.”
He continued: “A lot of the history has been lost. It has probably been told within families, but there is no public voice. Nobody has been able to speak to them all, most of them are dead. A lot of that is knocking around in other people’s heads if it was talked about at all.
“There is the old rule that silence is golden. I’ve heard a few people say that their father maybe only opened up about things a year or two before they died, and that they wished they had done it before then.
“ A lot of that information might be lost, which is why we need to do things like this.”

Tom Barry’s British Army service records and #Armistice100

On 30th June 1915, Thomas Bernard Barry from Cork (but born in Kerry) joined the British Army at Athlone and enlisted in the Royal Field Artillery,  going on to serve with the 14th Battery in the Mesopotamian Expeditionary Force and Egypt. Barry is better known for his subsequent exploits as Tom Barry, a leading I.R.A. figure and I.R.A. Chief of Staff in the 1930s. Barry didn’t conceal his British Army training and his memoir, Guerrilla Days in Ireland, included details of his military service. His claims to insubordination, including at the time of the Easter Rising, are borne out by his own military service records (as Gunner Thomas Barry, Royal Field Artillery, Service Number 100399).

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Tom Barry’s service records including a list of offences (note ‘Irregular Conduct’ on 27th May 1916, during the Easter Rising).

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Record of Barry’s enlistment.

Military History Sheet

Details of Barry’s military service.

Barry is probably the most prominent of those who fought during the first world war and subsequently fought in the I.R.A., but there were many others including the likes of Emmet Dalton and Erskine Childers and even a Victoria Cross winner, Martin Doyle.

The complex relationship between the Irish and service in the British Army is a recurrent theme in Irish history. In the post-famine era, Irish republicans frequently either specifically joined for, or later utilised, British Army military training for their own purposes. Individuals like William Harbinson, famously (if somewhat obscurely) James Connolly and more recently the likes of the Catholic Ex-Servicemen’s Association in the 1970s have illustrated how Irishmen did what Connolly summarised as “…learn all he can and put his training to the best advantage…“. The contribution of British military training to the capacity of Irish republicans to counter the physical control of Ireland by Britain is one obvious outworking of this relationship.

However, the traditional imperial practice of harvesting soldiers from the impoverished communities under it’s control, both at home and abroad, is indelibly rooted in Irish communities (both Catholic and Protestant) for whom military service and the risk of death were often taken as the last refuge from starvation and utter poverty. In some contemporary politics, what was a crushingly brutal experience for many is once again pressed into service as some sort of parable of lost imperial greatness captured by an obsession with glorifying the brutal slaughter of millions by the European royal families to no apparent purpose between 1914 and 1918.

Given the extent to which poetry is seen as the voice of the first world war, here are a few lines from a poem by an independent Orangeman from Belfast, shipyard worker Thomas Carnduff, from his poem about his own experiences entitled ‘Ypres, September 1917 (A Memory)’:

Light breezes, scented with North Sea spray,
Breathe murmurs of remorse,
And leafless shell-scarred branches sway
Above each mangled corpse.

 

John McQuillan, a forgotten IRA volunteer shot by the RUC in 1942

John McQuillan’s name doesn’t feature in any republican roll of honour yet the eighteen year old appears to have been in the I.R.A. when he was shot dead by the R.U.C. in January 1942.

That month there were significant tensions as the I.R.A. in A wing of Crumlin Road staged a week long mass hunger strike in protest at conditions within the prisons and the refusal to grant them political status. On 27th January, the day after the hunger strike ended, John McQuillan and John Crean entered a shop on the Ravenhill Road and tied up the owner apparently intent on robbing the shop. The R.U.C. (led by District-Inspector Geelan of C.I.D.), though, were lying in wait in a back room of the shop and emerged, killing McQuillan with a single shot to the heart while Crean was arrested. McQuillan was eighteen years old. His older brother, Kevin Barry McQuillan, had been arrested with two automatic pistols the previous year and was in A wing of Crumlin Road with the sentenced I.R.A. prisoners.

John McQuillan is not usually listed anywhere as an I.R.A. volunteer. Nor does his death seem to merit even a footnote in conventional histories of either the I.R.A. or the era.

A memo to the Adjutant of the I.R.A.’s Northern Command from the Army Council on 6th February 1942, clearly on foot of an earlier report to the Army Council, does mention his death though. It states “The McQuillan shooting was very unfortunate. Let me have a report of the court of inquiry later.”

This reference seems to imply that McQuillan was indeed an I.R.A. volunteer although the proposed ‘court of inquiry’ suggests he wasn’t acting in an official capacity. Geelan’s presence also appears to indicate that the R.U.C. believed it to be political. It subsequently transpired that McQuillan had visited the shop the previous night and said he would be back the next night. McQuillan was found to have been carrying a Spanish Webley revolver, a weapon the I.R.A. was known to possess based on later arms finds.

Spanish (Eibar) Webley

At John Crean’s trial at the end of February, the court was told by the R.U.C. that Crean was in the I.R.A. and he didn’t dispute the claim. Crean eventually only received a twelve month sentence for the robbery. The I.R.A. has never officially acknowledged McQuillan as a member.

Crean’s wasn’t the only death. On Friday 6th February, a prison officer, Thomas Walker, was cycling along Durham Street on his way over to work in Crumlin Road. A number of men got out of a waiting car and fired a burst from a Thompson gun at Walker, hitting him twice in the chest. It turned out that the I.R.A. killed Walker in mistake for another warder.

Further reactions to McQuillan’s death can be recognised in susequent I.R.A. actions. In February and March, motions passed by the I.R.A. Belfast Battalion Convention were approved by a Northern Command Convention and Extraordinary Army Convention included: [5] “That the political squad of the C.I.D. be executed”; and [12] “That enemy raiding parties should be attacked”.

Motion 5 looks like a response to John McQuillan’s death in January (indeed within days of the Convention approving the motion the Belfast I.R.A. tried to kill Sergeant William Fannin of C.I.D.). One outcome of motion 12 being passed was to be the confrontation in Cawnpore Street that Easter.

You can read more about all these in the new Belfast Battalion book.

book teaser…

Coming very soon, Belfast Battalion: a history of the Belfast I.R.A. 1922-69. Likely see ebook launched in October, print copies will be available for delivery/distribution in November.

Watch this space…

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