Who was in charge of the Belfast I.R.A.?

Who was in charge of the Belfast I.R.A. from the 1920s to the 1960s? Formally, the I.R.A. designated Belfast as either a Battalion or Brigade from 1922 through to the late 1960s with it’s commander usually listed as O/C Belfast. As a clandestine organisation, the identity of it’s leadership was not usually transparent. Occasional arrests and seizures of documents by the R.U.C., particularly internal I.R.A. correspondence, strongly suggests the roles different individual held within the I.R.A., such as when correspondence addressed to the Belfast Adjutant was found in Billy McAllister’s house in January 1937.

Individual memoirs provide much more substance, corroborating some of what is known from court reports and documents. In many cases, though, they tend to roughly pinpoint in time who led the Belfast I.R.A. rather than provide a clear picture of who was in charge, how they came into the post and how they left it. Theoretically the O.C. was elected, where practicable, and many held the role until arrested. As I.R.A. posts were vacated on arrest, someone else typically acted in the role until the previous holder was either released or a formal appointment made in their place. The value in knowing who was in charge, how stable their leadership was and what direction it took the I.R.A. all contributes to a better understanding of how the organisation developed and how it impacted and influenced the course of events.

The list below is based on a variety of sources. I’ve highlighted where there are gaps and, obviously, there may well be significant errors of omissions, given the nature of the source material (and some of this is just guess work).

As ever any corrections or suggestions can be added in the comments section.

1922-23 Hugh Corvin

Former Quartermaster of the IRA’s 3rd Northern Division, he had replaced Pat Thornbury as O/C Belfast which had by then been re-organised as a Brigade in October 1922. Corvin had supported the Executive against GHQ over the Treaty in 1922. Subsequently interned in April 1923, he was elected leader of the I.R.A. prisoners and was involved in various prison protests. Corvin was involved in the Irish Volunteers prior to 1916.

AOC

Hugh Corvin

1923-24 Jim O’Donnell

O’Donnell replaced Corvin as O/C while Corvin was interned. When Corvin was released from internment at the end of 1924 O’Donnell appears to have stepped back and Corvin took over again as O/C.

1924-26 Hugh Corvin

When Corvin returned as O/C of the Belfast Brigade it was during the re-organisation that followed after Joe McKelvey’s re-burial in Milltown on 30th October 1924.

1925-1926 Jim Johnston

When the Belfast I.R.A. shot Patrick Woods in November 1925 the R.U.C. arrested one individual for questioning but detained a further fifty men, more than twenty of whom were interned until January 1926 including most of the Battalion staff. This included Hugh Corvin. Barely a week after the arrests the outcome of the Boundary Commission was leaked into the press. Judging by correspondence recovered in his house in February 1926, Johnston seems to have acted as O/C while Corvin was interned.

1926 Hugh Corvin

Corvin returned as O/C but only stayed in the position until April 1926 when he resigned citing business reasons (he had set up an accountancy firm). He had been arrested in November 1925 and held until the end of January 1926 along with twenty others following the shooting of an informer.

He was to remain a prominent public figure, through involvement in the G.A.A. and as secretary of the Gaelic League in Belfast. He publicly participated in fund-raising for Fianna Fáil in Belfast in the early 1930s and when he stood as an ‘independent republican’ in West Belfast in February 1943 he was largely portrayed by the IRA as a proxy for Fianna Fáil. His later political activity and the coincidence of the Fianna Fáil split suggest it may have been a motive in his resignation.

1926-7 Dan Turley

In Belfast I.R.B. Circle with 1916 leader Sean McDermott as early as 1907, Turley mobilised at Easter in 1916, was director of elections for Sinn Féin in Belfast at the 1918 elections and was Head of Intelligence in 3rd Northern Division. He was interned on the prison ship Argenta. He took over from Corvin but, apparently clashing with personalities at GHQ, he was portrayed as being difficult to get on with and unpopular. He remained active as Belfast Adjutant and in other staff posts, although he was a recurring target in clashes between the Belfast IRA and GHQ. The RUC used this tension to conspire against him and he was court-martialled and expelled from the IRA in 1933, then later shot dead in 1936 (his innocence was effectively admitted by the IRA in 1944-45 when it pursued those involved in allegations made against him in 1933).

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Dan Turley

1927-33 Davy Matthews

From Albert Street. A former O/C of C Company, 1st Battalion in the 1920-23 campaigns, including the Raglan Street ambush, and a former internee on the Argenta. Took over from Dan Turley who remained as part of his staff. Instigated re-organisation of the Belfast IRA in 1929, including training camps, Irish language classes and recruitment to Na Fianna. Described by Bob Bradshaw as having a ‘heart of gold and head of ivory’. Also active in Sinn Féin at a time when there were internal divisions within the IRA over whether to co-operate with Sinn Féin, Fianna Fáil or a left-wing political project (or if they were to co-operate with anyone at all). In November 1933, Matthews was arrested in possession of IRA documents and received a short sentence. So many other senior Belfast staff were arrested, including Jimmy Steele, Charlie Leddy, George Nash, Tom O’Malley and Jack Gaffney that a temporary staff was formed, including Jack McNally, Jim Johnstone and Sean Carmichael.

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Davy Matthews

1933-34 Jack McNally

From the Bone. Another 1920-23 campaign veteran. Appears to have taken over as O/C while Davy Matthews served a short sentence in 1933-34 (this is implied but not explicitly stated in his memoir Morally Good, Politically Bad). While he was in prison Matthews decided to sign an undertaking that he would cease his IRA membership if he was released just before Christmas. So too did another veteran, George Nash. Whether Matthews intended to honour the commitment or not, he was courtmartialled in January 1934 and dismissed from the IRA. McNally only stayed as O/C for a number of months but remained active on the IRA’s GHQ staff until his arrest at Crown Entry in 1936. He was interned in December 1938 and was to later be active in the Anti-Partition League.

Jack McNally Jack McNally

1934-36 Tony Lavery

From Balkan Street, a Fianna veteran of the 1920s, took over role as O/C Belfast (at the time designated Ulster Area No 1). Despite an order from Army Council not to, he instructed those charged by the northern government over the Campbell College raid to be defended in court. After they were acquitted, the Army Council charged Lavery with disobeying a direct order and was to be court-martialled in Crown Entry on 25th April 1936 (although it was expected, unlike Matthews, he would merely get a slap on the wrists). Crown Entry was raided just as the courtmartial was to take place and all those present were arrested including the IRA’s Adjutant-General, Jim Killeen, GHQ staff and senior members of the northern and Belfast leadership of the IRA including Lavery’s Adjutant, Jimmy Steele, and other staff members like Liam Mulholland and Mick Traynor.

[By the way – you can read more about all of this in a new book on the Belfast IRA]

1936-37 Sean McArdle

Took on role of O/C Belfast after the loss of Lavery and other Belfast staff members at Crown Entry. In October 1937, the R.U.C. raided what appears to have been a battalion staff meeting in Pearse Hall in King Street. McArdle was arrested and sentenced to six months in Crumlin Road for having I.R.A. documents in his possession.

1937-38 Chris McLoughlin?

While McArdle was in prison for three or four months, Chris McLoughlin may have acted in the role as O/C Belfast (he may have attended at least one I.R.A. convention in that capacity).

Chris McLoughlin

Chris McLoughlin

1938 Sean McArdle

On his release, McArdle returned as O/C Belfast until he was interned in December 1938.

1938-39 Charlie McGlade

Arrested in Crown Entry, Charlie McGlade was not long out of Crumlin Road when he was sent as an organiser to England as part of the S-Plan campaign. He took over as O/C Belfast from Sean McArdle following McArdle’s internment in December 1938. Apparently influenced by Jim Killeen, McGlade was responsible for developing the Northern Command concept that was put in place in late 1939, with McGlade as Adjutant and Sean McCaughey as O/C. He edited the Belfast edition of War News and remained as O/C Belfast until 1940 (Jimmy Steele was also to be simultaneously Adjutant Northern Command and O/C Belfast).

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Charlie McGlade

1940 Jimmy Steele

A Fianna and IRA veteran of 1920-23, Steele had been imprisoned since the Crown Entry raid, only being released in May 1940. For some time there had been unease at reports that were coming in to the IRA prisoners in Crumlin Road about disciplinary procedures being applied by the Belfast IRA staff. On his release, Steele was appointed to the IRA’s Northern Command staff. He had a dossier on the activities of the Belfast staff and following an investigation they were courtmartialled and reduced to the ranks. No-one names the staff involved (and Tim Pat Coogan, who recorded the episode, does not remember if he was ever told). It may be that McGlade was O/C but was busy elsewhere and this was his staff who were reduced to the ranks. Either way, Steele took over the role as O/C Belfast until his arrest in December 1940.

Jimmy Steele 1940

Jimmy Steele in 1940

1941 Liam Rice

Bowyer Bell (in The Secret Army) implies Liam Rice was O/C Belfast in May 1941, when he then left for Dublin to assist in the investigation into Stephen Hayes. Rice had been arrested in Crown Entry and also spent time in prison in the south. He was wounded and arrested in Dublin and spent time on the blanket in Portlaoise during the 1940s. It seems likely that Rice took over from Steele as O/C in December 1940.

Liam Rice Liam Rice

1941 Pearse Kelly

When Rice left for Dublin, Bowyer Bell states that Pearse Kelly took over as O/C Belfast in May. Kelly too left for Dublin in July to take part in the investigations into Chief of Staff Stephen Hayes. Kelly was eventually to become Chief of Staff himself and ended up in the Curragh. Afterwards he went on to a senior role in RTE as Head of News.


Pearse Kelly Pearse Kelly

1941-42 Hugh Matthews

During 1941 Hugh Matthews, brother of Davy Matthews and another 1920-24 veteran, took over as O/C in Belfast, and was O/C during the Army Conference in Belfast in February 1942 (according to Bowyer Bell in The Secret Army). Ray Quinn (in A Rebel Voice) says he took over from Jimmy Steele but dates it to a later Army Convention in Belfast in February 1943. It is not particularly clear from surviving accounts, but Matthews appears to have been O/C as further disputes arose about disciplinary practices of his Belfast staff members (but not direct criticism of Matthews himself).

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Hugh Matthews

1942 John Graham

Prior to 1942, Graham had been O/C of an independent unit, mostly made up of Protestant IRA men. Graham took on the role of Director of Intelligence for the Northern Command and (according to Joe Cahill), was also O/C Belfast. He presumably after Hugh Matthews some time after February 1942 although the timing is unclear. He was arrested along with David Fleming in the Belfast HQ on Crumlin Road on 3rd October 1942, where printing presses and radio broadcasting equipment were also recovered. Graham, a divinity student in the 1930s, on his release he was to become a noted professional golfer.

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John Graham

1942-43 Rory Maguire

Maguire was O/C Belfast in the autumn of 1942, apparently following Graham’s capture in October.

1943 Jimmy Steele

Escaping from Crumlin Road prison on 15th January 1943, Steele re-joined the Northern Command staff as Adjutant and took over the role of O/C Belfast from Rory Maguire (Maguire’s brother, Ned, had escaped with Steele). He remained O/C Belfast when he took over as IRA Adjutant General after Liam Burke’s arrest.

1943-44 Seamus Burns

Following Jimmy Steele’s arrest in May, Seamus ‘Rocky’ Burns took over as O/C Belfast. Burns had been imprisoned as a 17 year old in 1938, interned in 1939. He took part in the mutiny in Derry jail and was moved to Crumlin Road prison, only to be returned to Derry from where he escaped with 20 others through a tunnel in March 1943. Recaptured in Donegal, he was interned in the Curragh. Harry White had Burns resign from the IRA, sign out of the Curragh, then rejoin the IRA and return north (when he took over as O/C Belfast). He was shot trying to escape from RUC officers in Chapel Lane in February 1944 and died the next day.

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Seamus ‘Rocky’ Burns

1944 Harry White?

In February 1944, Harry White apparently took over as O/C Belfast after Burns’ death. He was also on the run continuously. He seems to have taken on the role of O/C Belfast for much of the time and also delegated it to others.

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Harry White
Harry White

1944-45 Harry O’Rawe?

By April 1944, Harry White went underground to Altaghoney in County Derry seemingly leaving O’Rawe as O/C Belfast. In his memoir, Harry, Harry White implies that he and O’Rawe may have alternated in the role of O/C Belfast.

1945 Johnny Murphy?

When Harry O’Rawe was arrested in March 1945, it seems likely Johnny Murphy took over as O/C Belfast. Murphy was one of a number of I.R.A. volunteers that were induced to sign out of internment by Harry White. White himself had resigned from the I.R.A. then signed out of internment in the Curragh and then was reinstated in the I.R.A.. He later got others to do the same to replenish the Belfast Battalion staff. An organiser sent by the I.R.A. in Dublin, Gerry McCarthy, visited Belfast in April 1945 and that may have prompted the reorganisation of the various roles.

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Johnny Murphy

1945 Seamus Twomey?

In reality the identities of the O/C Belfast after Rocky Burns’ death are repeatedly unclear. A profile of Seamus Twomey (in The Irish Press on 15th July 1972) states that he was O/C Belfast in 1945. As he was only released from internment in the summer of that year, if this is true, it would have to be in the latter half of the year. Since arrests tended to be the catalyst that lead to a changes in O/C, it is possible that Twomey took over in October 1946 and Murphy replaced White as O/C Northern Command.

Seamus Twomey

Seamus Twomey

194?-49 Seamus McCallum

Richard English names McCallum as O/C when Des O’Hagan joined the IRA in 1949. Frank McKearney had taken over as O/C when Joe Cahill was released in November 1949, by which date McCallum may have moved to Liverpool (where he became O/C of the an I.R.A. unit). As noted above, it is not always clear who was in charge of what was left of the Belfast IRA between early 1944 and 1949, so the date that McCallum took on the role is unknown.

1949-50 Frank McKearney

By the late 1940s, Frank McKearney had taken over as O/C Belfast. He had received a six year term for possession of a revolver in 1939. He appears to have taken over as O/C during 1949, at least until the release of Jimmy Steele in 1950.

1950-56 Jimmy Steele

On release from Crumlin Road in 1950, Jimmy Steele again returned to active service with the IRA and once more took over as O/C Belfast while remaining prominent in other organisations such as the National Graves Association and also Sinn Féin. Stayed as O/C until 1956, when he stepped down (Steele was to remain an active republican until his death in 1970).

1956 Paddy Doyle

Took over as O/C in Belfast in preparation for the coming campaign in December, dubbed Operation Harvest. Doyle was highly thought of at GHQ but, due to suspicions about an informer, did not disclose planned operations in Belfast to his own Belfast staff. Doyle spent his time in Crumlin Road completing his education, later qualifying as an accountant, and didn’t get involved in republican activities again on his release.

1956-57 Joe Cahill

Cahill, who had a death sentence commuted in 1942, had been released in 1949 from Crumlin Road. He took over from Paddy Doyle on his arrest in December 1956 until Cahill himself was interned in July 1957.

Joe Cahill

1957-60 There is a gap in available information from mid-1957 until about 1960. Jimmy Steele may have taken over again from Cahill until his own internment that summer.

1961-63 Billy McKee

On his release from internment in 1961, Billy McKee took on the role of O/C Belfast re-building the battalion effectively from scratch. He had been imprisoned in the 1930s and 1940s and was to remain active in republican circles ever afterwards. During the Wolfe Tone commemorations of 1963 he got involved in a dispute with Billy McMillen, eventually resigned first as O/C Belfast and then from the IRA.

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Billy McKee

1963-69 Billy McMillen

Following the argument over the Wolfe Tone commemorations in June 1963, McMillen took over as O/C Belfast. Having earlier been associated with unofficial bombings in 1950, McMillen had left the IRA in the mid-1950s following an argument and linked up with Saor Uladh. After his release from internment in 1961, he first went to England then returned to Belfast and rejoined the IRA. He remained O/C through the 1960s and was interned just before the pogrom in mid-August 1969.

Billy McMillen

Billy McMillen

1969 Jim Sullivan

When McMillen was interned from mid-August to late September, Sullivan acted as O/C Belfast in his place. He was imprisoned for a number of brief periods, such as 1966, when he was presumably replaced by an acting O/C by the likes of Jim Sullivan, who was his Adjutant.

Jim Sullivan


Jim Sullivan

1969 Billy McMillen

As part of the fallout over the failure of the Belfast IRA to adequately prepare to defend areas during the pogrom, on release from internment McMillen called a Battalion staff meeting to seek confirmation that he would continue as O/C. When he was forced to restructure his staff, he was also asked to withdraw supports for Cathal Goulding as Chief of Staff on 22nd September 1969.

Thanks to all those who have supplied further information, photographs etc.

You can read more about the Belfast IRA in the new book.

List of commandants of Belfast IRA, 1924-1969 (updated)

The following is an updated version of the previously posted list of officers commanding the IRA’s Belfast battalion (the name normally given to its structures in the city for most of this time) from 1924 to 1969. The list is based on a variety of sources. Despite the revisions and corrections there are still gaps and may well also contain omissions since those listed are those named in accounts of different events over 1924-1969. Some of the published also contain (eg Anderson, in Joe Cahill: A Life in the IRA names Jimmy Steele as O/C in 1969 when it was Billy McMillen), in others an inference is taken, such as in 1934 when Jack McNally had to form a staff (it is implied he was O/C but not stated). I have also noted where the commandant was arrested or imprisoned since IRA volunteers automatically lost rank on imprisonment. In each instance, presumably, someone was O/C of Belfast in an acting capacity.

As ever any corrections or suggestions can be added in the comments section.

1924-26 Hugh Corvin

Former Quartermaster of the IRA’s 3rd Northern Division. As a Belfast Brigade IRA delegate Corvin had supported the Executive against GHQ over the Treaty in 1922. Subsequently interned, he stood for election in North Belfast for Sinn Féin in 1924. Corvin acted as O/C of the Belfast Brigade during the re-organisation that followed after Joe McKelvey’s re-burial in Milltown on 30th October 1924. He continued as O/C until April 1926 when he resigned citing business reasons (he had set up an accountancy firm). He had been arrested in November 1925 and held until the end of January 1926 along with twenty others following the shooting of an informer.

He was to remain a prominent public figure, through involvement in the GAA and as secretary of the Gaelic League in Belfast. He publicly participated in fund-raising for Fianna Fáil in Belfast in the early 1930s and when he stood as an ‘independent republican’ in West Belfast in February 1943 he was largely portrayed by the IRA as a proxy for Fianna Fáil. His later political activity and the coincidence of the Fianna Fáil split suggest it may have been a motive in his resignation.

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Hugh Corvin

1926-7 Dan Turley

In Belfast IRB Circle with 1916 leader Sean McDermot as early as 1907, Turley mobilised at Easter in 1916, was director of elections for Sinn Féin in Belfast at the 1918 elections and was Head of Intelligence in 3rd Northern Division. He was interned on the prison ship Argenta. He took over from Corvin but, apparently clashing with personalities at GHQ, he was portrayed as being difficult to get on with and unpopular. He remained active as Belfast Adjutant and in other staff posts, although he was a recurring target in clashes between the Belfast IRA and GHQ. The RUC used this tension to conspire against him and he was courtmartialled and expelled from the IRA in 1933, then later shot dead in 1936 (his innocence was effectively admitted by the IRA in 1944-45 when it pursued those involved in allegations made against him in 1933).

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Dan Turley

1927-33 Davy Matthews

From Albert Street. A former O/C of C Company, 1st Battalion in the 1920-23 campaigns, including the Raglan Street ambush, and a former internee on the Argenta. Took over from Dan Turley who remained as part of his staff. Instigated re-organisation of the Belfast IRA in 1929, including training camps, Irish language classes and recruitment to Na Fianna. Described by Bob Bradshaw as having a ‘heart of gold and head of ivory’. Also active in Sinn Féin at a time when there were internal divisions within the IRA over whether to co-operate with Sinn Féin, Fianna Fáil or a left-wing political project (or if they were to co-operate with anyone at all). In November 1933, Matthews was arrested in possession of IRA documents and received a short sentence. So many other senior Belfast staff were arrested, including Jimmy Steele, Charlie Leddy, George Nash, Tom O’Malley and Jack Gaffney that a temporary staff was formed, including Jack McNally, Jim Johnstone and Sean Carmichael.

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Davy Matthews

1933-34 Jack McNally

From the Bone. Another 1920-23 campaign veteran. Appears to have taken over as O/C while Davy Matthews served a short sentence in 1933-34 (this is implied but not explicitly stated in his memoir Morally Good, Politically Bad). While he was in prison Matthews decided to sign an undertaking that he would cease his IRA membership if he was released just before Christmas. So too did another veteran, George Nash. Whether Matthews intended to honour the commitment or not, he was courtmartialled in January 1934 and dismissed from the IRA. McNally only stayed as O/C for a number of months but remained active on the IRA’s GHQ staff until his arrest at Crown Entry in 1936. He was interned in December 1938 and was to later be active in the Anti-Partition League.

Jack McNally

Jack McNally

1934-36 Tony Lavery

From Balkan Street, a Fianna veteran of the 1920s, took over role as O/C Belfast (at the time designated Ulster Area No 1). Despite an order from Army Council not to, he instructed those charged by the northern government over the Campbell College raid to be defended in court. After they were acquitted, the Army Council charged Lavery with disobeying a direct order and was to be courtmartialled in Crown Entry on 25th April 1936 (although it was expected, unlike Matthews, he would merely get a slap on the wrists). Crown Entry was raided just as the courtmartial was to take place and all those present were arrested including the IRA’s Adjutant-General, Jim Killeen, GHQ staff and senior members of the northern and Belfast leadership of the IRA including Lavery’s Adjutant, Jimmy Steele, and other staff members like Liam Mulholland and Mick Traynor.

1936-38 Sean McArdle

Took on role of O/C Belfast after the loss of Lavery and other Belfast staff members at Crown Entry. By early 1937, McArdle had also been arrested and sentenced to a brief term in Crumlin Road. It is not clear from existing sources as to who took on the role of O/C Belfast while McArdle was in prison. On his release he remained as O/C Belfast until he was interned in December 1938.

1938-39 Charlie McGlade

Arrested in Crown Entry, Charlie McGlade was not long out of Crumlin Road when he was sent as an organiser to England as part of the S-Plan campaign. He took over as O/C Belfast from Sean McArdle following McArdle’s internment in December 1938. Apparently influenced by Jim Killeen, McGlade was responsible for developing the Northern Command concept that was put in place in late 1939, with McGlade as Adjutant and Sean McCaughey as O/C. He edited the Belfast edition of War News and remained as O/C Belfast until 1940 (Jimmy Steele was also to be simultaneously Adjutant Northern Command and O/C Belfast).

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Charlie McGlade

1940 Jimmy Steele

A Fianna and IRA veteran of 1920-23, Steele had been imprisoned since the Crown Entry raid, only being released in May 1940. For some time there had been unease at reports that were coming in to the IRA prisoners in Crumlin Road about disciplinary procedures being applied by the Belfast IRA staff. On his release, Steele was appointed to the IRA’s Northern Command staff. He had a dossier on the activities of the Belfast staff and following an investigation they were courtmartialled and reduced to the ranks. No-one names the staff involved (and Tim Pat Coogan, who recorded the episode, does not remember if he was ever told). It may be that McGlade was O/C but was busy elsewhere and this was his staff who were reduced to the ranks. Either way, Steele took over the role as O/C Belfast until his arrest in December 1940.

Jimmy Steele

1941 Liam Rice

Bowyer Bell (in The Secret Army) implies Liam Rice was O/C Belfast in May 1941, when he then left for Dublin to assist in the investigation into Stephen Hayes. Rice had been arrested in Crown Entry and also spent time in prison in the south. He was wounded and arrested in Dublin and spent time on the blanket in Portlaoise during the 1940s. It seems likely that Rice took over from Steele as O/C in December 1940.

Liam Rice

Liam Rice

1941 Pearse Kelly

When Rice left for Dublin, Bowyer Bell states that Pearse Kelly took over as O/C Belfast in May. Kelly too left for Dublin in July to take part in the investigations into Chief of Staff Stephen Hayes. Kelly was eventually to become Chief of Staff himself and ended up in the Curragh. Afterwards he went on to a senior role in RTE as Head of News.

Pearse Kelly

Pearse Kelly

1941-42 Hugh Matthews

During 1941 Hugh Matthews, brother of Davy Matthews and another 1920-24 veteran, took over as O/C in Belfast, and was O/C during the Army Conference in Belfast in February 1942 (according to Bowyer Bell in The Secret Army). Ray Quinn (in A Rebel Voice) says he took over from Jimmy Steele but dates it to a later Army Convention in Belfast in February 1943. It is not particularly clear from surviving accounts, but Matthews appears to have been O/C as further disputes arose about disciplinary practices of his Belfast staff members (but not direct criticism of Matthews himself).

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Hugh Matthews

1942 John Graham

There was a confrontation between the IRA’s Northern Command staff and the Belfast staff in November 1941, again over the disciplinary practices of the Belfast staff. Graham was O/C of an independent unit, mostly made up of Protestant IRA men. This unit was mobilised by the Northern Command staff during the confrontation and ultimately the Belfast staff stepped back in line. Graham took on the role of Director of Intelligence for the Northern Command and (according to Joe Cahill), was also O/C Belfast. This was presumably after Hugh Matthews although the timing is unclear. He was arrested along with David Fleming in the Belfast HQ on Crumlin Road on 3rd October 1942, where printing presses and radio broadcasting equipment were also recovered. Graham, a divinity student in the 1930s, on his release he was to become a noted professional golfer. He died in 1997.

John Graham playing golf in the 1930s.

1942-43 Rory Maguire

Maguire was O/C Belfast in the autumn of 1942, apparently following Graham’s capture in October.

1943 Jimmy Steele

Escaping from Crumlin Road prison on 15th January 1943, Steele re-joined the Northern Command staff as Adjutant and took over the role of O/C Belfast from Rory Maguire (Maguire’s brother, Ned, had escaped with Steele). He remained O/C Belfast when he took over as IRA Adjutant General after Liam Burke’s arrest.

1943-44 Seamus Burns

Following Jimmy Steele’s arrest in May, Seamus ‘Rocky’ Burns took over as O/C Belfast. Burns had been imprisoned as a 17 year old in 1938, interned in 1939. He took part in the mutiny in Derry jail and was moved to Crumlin Road prison, only to be returned to Derry from where he escaped with 20 others through a tunnel in March 1943. Recaptured in Donegal, he was interned in the Curragh. Harry White had Burns resign from the IRA, sign out of the Curragh, then rejoin the IRA and return north (when he took over as O/C Belfast). He was shot trying to escape from RUC officers in Chapel Lane in February 1944 and died the next day.

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Seamus ‘Rocky’ Burns

I’ve since revised the next sections (see here)

1944-45 Harry White

Harry White was O/C of the Northern Command at the time of Burns’ death. He was also on the run continuously. He seems to have taken on the role of O/C Belfast for much of the time and also delegated it to others like Harry O’Rawe, Albert Price and Patsy Hicks on an intermittent basis. By the end of 1944, White was Chief of Staff of the IRA but living under an assumed name in Altaghoney on the Tyrone/Derry border. He had first gone to Altaghoney in March 1944. He returned to Belfast briefly, then went back to Altaghoney from around April to August 1944 when he again returned to Belfast (his memoir Harry seems to imply that he had O’Rawe act as Belfast O/C in his absence). From the spring of 1945 White moved for good to Altaghoney. His cover was eventually blown in October 1946 and he was driven to the border and handed over to the Free State government who (it was assumed) would quickly try him in a military court and execute him. White’s luck held and he avoided execution, only to be sent to Portaoise for a number of years. On his release, he was active in the Wolfe Tone Socieites in the early 1960s.

Harry White

Harry White

1945-4? There are gaps here for the years around 1945-47 that have yet to be filled in. A profile of Seamus Twomey (in The Irish Press on 15th July 1972) states that he was O/C Belfast in 1945 after his release from internment. Johnny Murphy, John Bradley and Barney Boswell are also believed to have served on the Battalion staff at this time, from 1945 to 1947 and Murphy may have also been O/C Belfast for a time. Based on Harry White’s movements, it seems likely that White took on role as Belfast O/C in February 1944 following Burns’ death. O’Rawe acted as O/C from in White’s absence and may have taken over the role from then until his arrest on March 6th 1945 (this appears to have prompted White’s final move to Altaghoney). It is possible that Johnny Murphy, having been told to sign out from internment in late 1944, then took over as O/C, followed later that year by Seamus Twomey. It may be more likely that Twomey took over in October 1946, while Murphy replaced White as O/C Northern Command.

Johnny Murphy


194?-49 Seamus McCallum

Richard English names McCallum as O/C when Des O’Hagan joined the IRA in 1949 (it is unclear if this is meant to be Seamus ‘McCallum’ or the Seamus ‘McCollum’ who was arrested in England in the 1950s). As Frank McKearney was O/C when Joe Cahill was released in November 1949, I’m listing them in that order. As noted above, it is unclear who (if anyone) was in charge of what was left of the Belfast IRA between early 1945 and 1949.

1949-50 Frank McKearney

By the late 1940s, Frank McKearney had taken over as O/C Belfast. He had received a six year term for possession of a revolver in 1939. He appears to have taken over as O/C during 1949, at least until the release of Jimmy Steele in 1950.

1950-56 Jimmy Steele

On release from Crumlin Road in 1950, Jimmy Steele again returned to active service with the IRA and once more took over as O/C Belfast while remaining prominent in other organisations such as the National Graves Association and also Sinn Féin. Stayed as O/C until 1956, when he stepped down (Steele was to remain an active republican until his death in 1970).

1956 Paddy Doyle

Took over as O/C in Belfast in preparation for the coming campaign in December, dubbed Operation Harvest. Doyle was highly thought of at GHQ but, due to suspicions about an informer, did not disclose planned operations in Belfast to his own Belfast staff. Doyle spent his time in Crumlin Road completing his education, later qualifying as an accountant, and didn’t get involved in republican activities again on his release.

1956-57 Joe Cahill

Cahill, who had a death sentence commuted in 1942, had been released in 1949 from Crumlin Road. He took over from Paddy Doyle on his arrest in December 1956 until Cahill himself was interned in July 1957. Cahill was to remain an active republican for the rest of his life.

Joe Cahill

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

1961-63 Billy McKee

On his release from internment in 1961, Billy McKee took on the role of O/C Belfast re-building the battalion effectively from scratch. He had been imprisoned in the 1930s and 1940s and was to remain active in republican circles ever afterwards. During the Wolfe Tone commemorations of 1963 he got involved in a dispute with Billy McMillen, eventually resigned first as O/C Belfast and then from the IRA.

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Billy McKee

1963-69 Billy McMillen

Following the argument over the Wolfe Tone commemorations in June 1963, McMillen took over as O/C Belfast. Having earlier been associated with unofficial bombings in 1950, McMillen had left the IRA in the mid-1950s following an argument and linked up with Saor Uladh. After his release from internment in 1961, he first went to England then returned to Belfast and rejoined the IRA. He remained O/C through the 1960s and was interned just before the pogrom in mid-August 1969. He was imprisoned for a number of brief periods, such as 1966, when he was presumably replaced by an acting O/C by the likes of Jim Sullivan, who was his Adjutant. As part of the fallout over the failure of the Belfast IRA to adequately prepare to defend areas during the pogrom, McMillen was forced to restructure his staff and withdraw its supports for the Goulding leadership on 22nd September 1969. Later killed during an internal feud.

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Billy McMillen

Thanks to all those who have supplied further information, photographs etc.

Election headquarters, Barrack St, Belfast, 1925

The photograph below was posted online by Gerry Adams. It is of the republican election headquarters in the former Oceanic Bar, at the corner of Barrack Street and Divis Street at the time of the  April 1925 elections. The photograph neatly tidies up an existing account of that election that was otherwise unclear.

The election campaign is described in Jack McNally’s 1989 memoir Morally Good, Politically Bad although confusion over the dates means it uncertain which actual election it describes:

“In the 1923 elections Sinn Féin in Dublin decided to contest the elections on the abstentionist ticket. Interned men were put up as candidates. A man named McConville from Lurgan was put up in West Belfast. Hugh Corvin was put in North Belfast. I was appointed his agent. The Fianna canvassed the Catholic areas in the North for Hugh Corvin…

In West Belfast Sinn Féin had rented the old Oceanic Bar at the corner of Barrack Street which was lying empty. There was also an old Pawn Shop and a Sales Room, side by side in Divis Street beside the Oceanic Bar. These were rented as Committee and Tally Rooms. Speakers from Dublin began pouring in to help the campaign for McConville. Constance Markievicz, Dr Ida English, Frank Brady and his sister were there; as well as Sean McBride, Donagh O’Donoghue, Sheila Humphries, Tom Daly, Andy Coone and Pat McCormack from the Glens. The lads who had been newly recruited into the IRA worked like trojans alongside the girls and women of Cumann na mBan. Prominently identified were Cassie O’Hara, Bridie O’Farrell, Mary Donnelly, Mrs Ward, Bank Street, Maggie Kelly nee Magennis, May J. O’Neill nee Dempsey, Sally Ward nee McGurk, Kitty Kellet, Sally Griffen, Susan Rafferty, Mary Rafferty, May Laverty, Louis McGrath and sister Margaret, Miss McKeever, Mrs. Muldoon, Mrs. McLoughlin and Kitty Hennessy. These were the girls who carried the banner of Republicanism back to the Falls and little thanks they got for it from some of the locals there. There were also the families who kept open doors for us in the Lower Falls; The Cunninghams of Slate Street, Charley and Brigid Rafferty in Scotch Street, Koitty Hennessy and her mother. Mrs McLoughlin of Galway Street. These were the people we were proud of. If it hadn’t been for their untiring work in spreading a new Gospel of Republicanism in the Falls might never have risen to the challenge it faced in later years.

As it was, the hard line of Devlinite opposition to republican candidates was very much in evidence in 1923. Our election headquarters in Divis Street was attacked, as was also the Oceanic Bar at Barrack Street corner, where the windows were broken. The Craobh Ruadh pipe band was attacked in Cullingtree Road and some of the girl pipers badly shaken. Jim Johnstone, who trained the pipers, came to see us after the attack and agreed to let the band try again, if we gave them protection. We organised a squad of men with hurleys to accompany the band, which paraded from Barrrack Street across to the Loney and side streets;they came back by Albert Street and had no interference. That show of strength was enough for the malcontents and they began to change their ways. The window of the Oceanic Bar was broken one night, after that, but the culprits were caught and beaten. After that they left us alone…

That election in 1923 was a political disaster for Sinn Féin and for us as republicans. McConville was defeated in West Belfast and Hugh Corvin got a miserly 1200 vote in North Belfast, in spite of the fact that he and McConville were still interned on the Argenta prison ship. But the Bone and Ardoyne voted solidly.

After the debacle we settled down to improving the position of the IRA in Belfast and throughout the North.”

The photograph showing the McConville headquarters in the old Oceanic Bar now clears this up. McNally appears to be referring to two different elections here (although neither was in 1923 as there weren’t republican candidates put forward in Belfast in any of the elections that year). Hugh Corvin stood in North Belfast in an election in October 1924 (for Westminster) while Pat Nash stood in West Belfast. Sean McConville then stood in an election to the northern parliament held in April 1925. Corvin didn’t run in that election (there was no republican candidate in North Belfast). Whether it was in use as an election headquarters in October 1924, the photograph shows that the former Oceanic Bar was clearly in use during the April 1925 election. The building had been in use as an engineering works for a short while after the bar had closed. The photograph itself appears to have been taken from an upper storey if St Mary’s Christian Brothers School on the other side of Barrack Street.

Sean McConville had been Commandant of the Lurgan Battalion then vice O/C of the 3rd Brigade of the IRA’s 4th Northern Division, under Frank Aiken. He was nominated in March for West Belfast in the election to the northern parliament that was to be held in April. The other candidates in West Belfast (which was to elect four MPs using proportional representation) were unionists Thomas Henry Burn, Robert John Lynn, Robert Dickson, nationalist Joe Devlin, independent unionist Philip James Woods, Labour’s William McMullen and McConville. Torchlight processions alongside a band in support of McConville (as described by McNally) were recorded in the nights before the election although the press claimed there was ‘not the slightest untoward incident’. However, the photograph of the election headquarters appear to show the boarded up windows on the ground floor which are consistent with McNally’s account of the election. The press reports at the time indicate that there were processions by the Devlinites every night in the lead up to the election. Of the many luminaries listed as speakers during the campaign, Andy ‘Coone’ is Andy Cooney (IRA Chief of Staff by 1926) while Belfast republican Cassie O’Hara had been the fiance of executed IRA leader Joe McKelvey (thanks to Tim McGarry for this information).

At the end of the first count, the quota was declared as 9,897. Devlin had received 17,558 votes and was elected. He was followed by Woods (9,599), Lynn (8,371), Burn (4,805), McConville (3,146), Dickson (3,133) and McMullen (2,269). Devlin’s surplus was then distributed giving Woods 11,071 (+1,472), Lynn 8,507 (+137), McMullan 7,237 (+4,968), Burn 4,878 (+73), McConville 4,456 (+1,310) and Dickson 3,438 (+305). With Woods elected, but his surplus failed to elect anyone so Dickson was elimited, with his transfers then electing Lynn on 10,437 votes with McMullan now on 8,002, Burn on 5,980 and McConville on 4.545. Since Lynn had an insufficient surplus to elect anyone, McConville was eliminated and his transfers elected McMullen who ended on 10,345 (+2,343) to Burn’s 6,515 (+532).

The IRA’s flirtations with politics were to be intermittent and violent electoral clashes with the nationalists were to continue into at least the late 1930s.

[Just to note that the reason McNally has the date wrong may be interesting in its own right – he may have checked the date against an internal IRA document – the IRA obsessively keeping records well into the 1940s. The problem McNally may have overlooked is that in the mid-1920s dates were normally given with the wrong year so they couldn’t be used in a prosecution if the document was captured. Typically this meant 1924 instead of 1926 etc.]

At a canter: the 1936 hunger strike

After their arrest at Crown Entry in 1936, the senior IRA men charged and found guilty of treason felony had agreed on a campaign for political status after they had been sentenced (this happened on 22nd July 1936). Sean McCool was O/C of the republican prisoners in Crumlin Road at the time, while Tony Lavery was section O/C of B wing.
Their first step was to go individually to the prison doctor to demand they receive the Ordinary No 3 Diet. At the time there was a rumour that all republican prisoners would be freed at the time of the upcoming coronation in London (there were twenty-three political prisoners in Crumlin Road at the time). This acted as a brake on taking action which unfolded relatively slowly over the next few weeks. Ironically, there was equally a rumour that the long term prisoners in A wing would be moved to Peterhead in Scotland which was designed as a penal settlement (while Crumlin Road was only designed for short term prisoners).
McCool and Lavery (as O/Cs of A wing and B wing) then both went to the prison governor, Stephenson, to again demand No 3 Diet, association, razors, Irish books, a letter a week and visit a month. By the middle of August there was no clear decision on further action and Lavery wanted to be replaced as O/C (he intended to hold no rank in the prison and to resign from the IRA on his release). The prison chaplains were also refusing sacraments to the IRA men. Eventually, on Sunday 16th August, McCool passed a copy of their demands to Lavery (see below).

NIne demands made by republican prisoners, Crumlin Road, 1936 (from Tony Lavery's diary, PRONI Ha 32/1/635).

NIne demands made by republican prisoners, Crumlin Road, 1936 (from Tony Lavery’s diary, PRONI Ha 32/1/635).

The prisoners in A wing agreed that there would be a no work protest from the Tuesday against the conditions under which they were being held prisoner and that every prisoner who felt able to would commence a hunger and thirst strike. Mick Traynor also took over as O/C in B wing. On the day the protest started, each informed the warder who opened his cell that he wasn’t going to work that day . He was told he would be reported and was locked back into his cell. A short time later, half a dozen warders and the Chief Warder appeared at the cell and asked him to go to his place of work. He again refused and was physical removed from the cell and brought to his place of work in the yard.
Jimmy Steele, Sean McCool, Jim Killeen (being held as James Grace), Mick Gallagher, Mick Kelly (being held as Michael O’Boyle) and Johnny McAdams stood where they were left in the yard by the warders and refused to do any work. They were rounded up by the warders and brought back to the circle where they were held whilst their refusal was reported to the governor. Next they were summoned to the governor’s office. Each prisoner was asked why he was refusing to work and they told him that it was a protest as he was a political prisoner, not a criminal, and had been sentenced and charged under a political offence, the Treason Felony Act of 1848.
They each demanded political treatment including their own clothes. Stephenson replied that there was no provision for political prisoners in the jail. He ordered one month of punishment on number 2 Punishment Diet. On return from the governor’s office each republican prisoner discovered that his cell had been stripped of the table, stool, bed board, mattress, blankets, a basin, dustpan, brush, mugs, comb and spoon. The bed board, mattress and blankets were removed between 7.30 am and 8 am and only returned at 8 pm or so. The number 2 Punishment Diet of bread and water for breakfast, potatoes for dinner and a half pint of porridge for tea was delivered directly by warders to each cell. Those on punishment also had a loss of exercise.
After the A wing prisoners went through this, the B wing men suffered more or less the same consequence for a refusal to work. It is clear that there was no consensus among the prisoners on whether all, or indeed any, of the demands, would be met. The most realistic scenario was that if the prison authorities breached normal prison rules and protocol to treat with them, this was tantamount to recognition of their political status (i.e. when they started collective negotiations rather than dealing with them as individuals).
The hunger and thirst strike also began on the Tuesday (18th August) with eighteen of the twenty-three republican prisoners in Belfast Jail participating (everyone except the juveniles, Mick Kelly and Tony Lavery). Hunger strikes were not a new tactic in Belfast Jail, with Patrick Cavanagh having carried out a five day hunger strike there the previous year. The Crown Entry men included veterans of various jails, north and south, and prison protests including hunger strikes (including those who had been arrested at Gyles Quay and imprisoned in Arbour Hill the year before). Given the high profile of some of the prisoners, such as Jim Killeen and Sean McCool, there was the prospect of publicity, and it would be hoped, widespread sympathy for meeting their demands.

Governor's note to Dawson Bates listing status of republican prisoners in Crumlin Road on 20th August 1936.

Governor’s note to Dawson Bates listing status of republican prisoners in Crumlin Road on 20th August 1936.

While the nominal demand was one visit and one parcel per month, the real focus of the protest was to establish that principle of there being a political liaison between those imprisoned and those in charge of running the prison. Other issues, such as the refusal to work, could be dealt with by non-compliance, relying upon the warders on the ground to ignore non-participation in work in return for a quiet life. Warders who wanted to enforce the rules and compel prisoners to work would not only require confrontations to enforce this, but also co-operation from their own colleagues. It seems that the desire for a quiet life could be relied upon to gloss over refusals to participate in work where that was done by simply not doing the work, rather than openly refusing to work. Some work, which related to the prisoners own comforts, such as the cook house and laundry, appeared to have been exempt from the protests.
On the Friday, three days into the hunger strike, Jimmy Steele told Mick Traynor that he was ‘going the whole hog’. On the Saturday after the hunger and thirst strike started, the A wing men were visited by the Chaplain who was nominally coming to give them the Catholic sacrament of confession. On advising them that a hunger and thirst strike ran contrary to the teachings of the Catholic church, he refused absolution. After he had been to A wing, the chaplain paid Jack McNally and the others a visit in B wing. He similarly refused absolution to them and also informed him that the A wing men had come off the thirst strike (which wasn’t true). It is clear from McNally’s memoirs that the protest began as a hunger and thirst strike, rather than a conventional hunger strike although contemporary press sources generally refer to it as a hunger strike.
With some prisoners on a hunger and thirst strike, it put immediate pressure on the authorities to consider concessions. Whether it was agreed beforehand or left to a certain amount of chance, the decision to begin with everyone on a hunger and thirst strike appears to have been tactical. A hunger and thirst strike could potentially see fatalities after the first week and gave the authorities little opportunity to ignore the protest.
Having raised the stakes so high to begin with, those on the protest then began taking water again on the Saturday, the fifth day. This, in effect, took the protest down a gear. The change in pace allowed the prisoners to gather their strength for a more protracted battle of wills. It also offered some respite to the authorities after the stress of a potential fatality on a hunger and thirst strike. It didn’t offer much respite to the hunger strikers, though. Anyone who has participated in a hunger strike is quick to dismiss the idea that somehow the hunger pangs leave as the lack of food normalises. Apparently, the hunger persists every day from the beginning of the strike and presents a constant challenge to the discipline and motivation of the hunger striker.
That Saturday afternoon, McNally was visited by a warder and the deputy prison doctor, Dr McComb. After examining McNally he directed the warder to bring him down to the prison surgery, McComb found that his kidneys were not functioning properly. McComb then gave him a glass of water with some powder dissolved in it. The doctor also ordered that McNally be allowed an hours exercise a day on medical grounds. Back in his cell, McNally still refused the food on Sunday morning but drank the water.
At 2 pm on the Sunday, the authorities began to negotiate. A Catholic warder, called Murphy and nicknamed the Blind Man, brought an offer from Allingham, the chief warder. If they called off the protest, their cards would be marked as if they had been at work all week (this is taken into account when it comes to remission and shortening the sentence). McNally told Murphy that he would have to meet the other Crown Entry men held in B and C wing to discuss the offer before he could respond to Allingham or the governor Stevens. Allingham directed Murphy to assemble the men in B and C wing, and, that he would meet McNally to discuss the matter.
McNally immediately noted the fact that Allingham was at work on a Sunday and agreed to collective negotiation as evidence that the authorities were taking the protest seriously and was a form of political recognition. They all agreed that they would allow themselves to be brought out to work the next day, whilst remaining on the number 2 Punishment Diet. While they would be on a go slow, or not work at all, this would be disregarded. They would keep privileges like attending the lectures and Friday night concerts. Next Murphy brought McNally’s response to Allingham that he would meet him. When Allingham agreed and met him on the Sunday evening, McNally considered it as a step towards political recognition. The Crown Entry men on B wing regarded this as a moral victory. The hunger and thirst strike had lasted to its fifth day.
Over on A wing, the protest had stepped down a notch, but it wasn’t over. The demand for a visit and parcel a month still remained and the Crown Entry men were now taking water, but refusing food, and it was day six of the hunger strike. The authorities had not conceded the point yet and the scene was apparently set for a more protracted hunger strike. By 1st September, on day 16 of the hunger strike, Sean McCool and Jim Killeen had come off the strike (this was reported in Irish Press on 4th September) and only Jimmy Steele remained on hunger strike.
The logic of Steele staying on the hunger strike was likely to promote support in Belfast in a way that perhaps Killeen or McCool might not have attracted. In the event that he grew weak, it left Killeen and McCool in a position to negotiate with the authorities.
But Steele’s body was already weakened by refusing food and having had pleurisy and lung congestion the previous year. After the initial hunger and thirst, he had already started to show further signs of problems. By the 3rd September, day 18 of the hunger strike, his condition had weakened sufficiently that his brother Bill was summoned by the prison authorities. Despite the health problems, he insisted on staying on hunger strike until the demands were met. The demands were still that they would receive one visit and one letter a month from relatives. Finally, he came off hunger strike on the Saturday morning, the 5th September, the 20th day of the hunger strike (this was reported in the Irish Press on 7th September) as a deal appeared to have been brokered.
On Monday, the 7th September, the A wing men expected to be in a position to receive a visit (according to newspaper reports in October the authorities had even agreed to weekly visits but that wasn’t part of the demands). Over the course of the next week the authorities appear to taken a different interpretation of whatever was agreed before the 5th, or simply chose not to honour it.
Having just completed five days on hunger and thirst strike, followed by fifteen further days of hunger strike, Jimmy Steele went back on hunger strike on the 17th September. Given his weakened condition and the problems with his lungs, his continuation of the protest raised the stakes. His condition continued to worsen and he was transferred to the prison hospital. His brother Bill and others attempted to get in to see him, whilst political figures like Harry Diamond tried to get permission for family members to get in to see him. They also requested that he be treated by an outside doctor. In the end, severely weakened, Steele came off the hunger strike on 30th September. It was the fourteenth day of his second hunger strike and he had been on hunger or thirst strike for thirty-four of the last forty-five days. He remained in the hospital for some time.
Mick Traynor, who took part in the hunger strike in 1940 that saw the deaths of Tony D’arcy and Jack McNeela, said that compared to 1940, the 1936 protest was a ‘cantering strike’. However, Jimmy Steele was later to record how the hunger strike had impacted significantly on his lungs which were to remain a problem for the rest of his life and lead to intermittent bouts of ill-health.

The Treason Felony men

The following is a draft list of those who were charged and found guilty by the northern government, up to around 1954, under the archaic Treason Felony Act of 1848 (which still stands in the UK). The Act charges:

If any person whatsoever shall, within the United Kingdom or without, compass, imagine, invent, devise, or intend to deprive or depose our Most Gracious Lady the Queen, from the style, honour, or royal name of the imperial crown of the United Kingdom, or of any other of her Majesty’s dominions and countries, or to levy war against her Majesty, within any part of the United Kingdom, in order by force or constraint to compel her to change her measures or counsels, or in order to put any force or constraint upon or in order to intimidate or overawe both Houses or either House of Parliament, or to move or stir any foreigner or stranger with force to invade the United Kingdom or any other of her Majesty’s dominions or countries under the obeisance of her Majesty, and such compassings, imaginations, inventions, devices, or intentions, or any of them, shall express, utter, or declare, by publishing any printing or writing . . .  or by any overt act or deed, every person so offending shall be guilty of felony, and being convicted thereof shall be liable . . . to be transported beyond the seas for the term or his or her natural life.

Jack McNally notes (in his memoir Morally Good, Politically Bad published in 1989) that the sentencing provision under the Act (as quoted above) was transportation for life. This was amended (under an 1857 Penal Servitude Act) to the equivalent term in penal servitude. This provision seems to have been in force in the 1930s and 1940s meaning, somewhat ironically, that the sentences handed out by the northern government’s courts were unconstitutional.

  

The list is complied from contemporary newspaper accounts but is not neccessarily exhaustive as it relies on the charges under the Treason Felony Act being reported alongside more conventional charges such as possession of firearms.

 

25th April 1936

Jim Killeen, Adjutant General, IRA

Mick Kelly, GHQ,IRA

Sean McCool, Donegal

Jack McNally, Belfast

Tony Lavery, Belfast

Jimmy Steele, Belfast

John Fox, Portadown

Mick Gallagher, Tyrone

Johnny McAdams, Derry

Liam Mulholland, Belfast

Charlie McGlade, Belfast

Liam Rice, Belfast

Mickey Trainor, Belfast

Arrested in an RUC raid on an IRA meeting at 10 Crown Entry, Belfast on 25th April 1936. Having been savaged by the National Council for Civil Liberties for its oppression of opposition and, in particular, its draconian use of the Civil Authorities (Special Powers) Act, the northern government chose to use an archaic piece of legislation, the 1848 Treason Felony Act, to  prosecute those present. The IRA members were present nominally to hold a courtmartial of Lavery, then the Belfast IRA O/C, but it seems equally likely that a gathering of most of the senior IRA commanders in the area under northern government control was to cover a much broader agenda. This may have included the possibility of a major campaign inside the north.

Charged and tried for treason felony, sentences were handed down on 22nd July 1936 varying between 7 and 2 years. Each was specifically charged that he and the others arrested at Crown Entry and

…divers other evil disposed persons feloniously and wickedly did compass, imagine, invent , devise and intend to deprive and depose our Lord the King from the style, honour and royal name of the Imperial Crown of Great Britain, Ireland, and of the British Dominions beyond the Seas, and the said felonious compassing, imagination, invention, device and intention then feloniously did express, utter and declare by divers overt acts and deeds and further, that you at Belfast aforesaid on 25th April 1936 and on divers other days as well before as after thatday together with the said others and divers other evil disposed persons, feloniously and wickedly did compass, imagine, invent, devise and intend to levy war against our Lord the King in Northern Ireland by force and constraint to compel him to change his measures and counsels; and the said last mentioned felonious compassing, imagination, invention, device and intent feloniously and wickedly did express, utter and declare by divers overt acts and deeds; contrary to the Treason Felony Act 1848.

This wording was also used for the others charged under the Act listed below.

July 1939

William McAllister

In July 1939 he was detained in London, brought back to Belfast and charged with Treason Felony as documents found in a raid on his house on 15th January 1937 identified him as Adjutant of the Belfast IRA. Twelve days after the raid, the IRA shot the Belfast IRA’s Intelligence Officer, Joe Hanna, believing him to be an informer. After the raid McAllister had went on the run and ended up in London. During his trial, the court was read part of the 1934 Constitution and Governing Programme of the Irish Republic, reputedly found in McAllister’s Lincoln Street home in 1937. On 24th November 1939 he received 7 years.

15th August 1940

Gerald Higgins, Sevastopol Street

Kevin Harrison, Grovesnor Road

James Weldon, Servia Street

John Maguire, Lady Street

Sam McComb, Alma Street

Terry Benson, Sultan Street

Joe McKenna, Cairns Street

Frank Hicks, Alma Street

Joe McManus, Sultan Street

Dan Rooney, Cyprus Street

Billy McKee, McDonnell Street

Charlie McCotter, Slate Street

Eddie Dalzell, Ross Street

Thomas McMenemy, Cullingtree Road

Patrick McGuinness, Ton Street

William McGarry, Getty Street

All were members of D Company present at 19 Getty Street when the RUC raided it on 15th August 1940. Dalzell and McMenemy had tried to escape over a wall with the latter being shot and wounded. All were tried and found guilty of treason felony and given seven years on 22nd November 1940.

 

9th March 1942

Rex Thompson, Skegoneil Avenue

William Smith, Ashfield Gardens

Arrested on March 9th, 1942. Both were charged with treason felony and there was a minor sensation about their case as both were Protestant. On 4th August, Thompson pleaded guilty and got six months while Smith pleaded not guilty to treason felony but guilty to other charges of publishing seditious documents and got nine months.

 

November 1942

John S. S. Graham, Antrim Road

David Fleming, Regent Street

Hugh McAteer, William Street (Derry)

John Lynan, Crumlin Road

McAteer and the others (captured at IRA publicity HQ on the Crumlin Road) were arrested separately but were effectively tried together for treason felony in October and November 1942. McAteer got 15 years, Graham and Fleming 12 years and Lynan got twelve months.

17th October 1954

Sean O’Callaghan, Cork

Sean O’Hegarty, Cork

Liam Mulcahy, Cork

Eamon Boyce, Dublin

Philip Clarke, Dublin

Tom Mitchell, Dublin

Patrick Kearney, Dublin

Jack McCabe, Dublin

Arrested after the raid on Omagh barracks on 17th October 1954, eight were charged with various offences including treason felony (ironically all were from the south). That December all were found guilty and received sentences of ten years penal servitude, apart from Boyce who received twelve years.

Sectarian violence in the summer of 1935

The following article looks at sectarian violence in Belfast around the Twelfth in 1935 and the (apparently) coordinated raid by De Valera’s own special police on a Belfast IRA training camp in County Louth. It includes a brief chronology of sectarian violence in the summer of 1935 in the lead up to the Twelfth that was published in 1936 under the pen name ‘Northman’. It appeared in Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review, entitled ‘The Present Position of Catholics in Northern Ireland’ (the original can be accessed here).

Northman chronology of events:

May 6: Bands were playing all the evening, shots were fired into the house of a Catholic, another Catholic, a woman, was wounded in Earl Street ; windows in St. Joseph’s Club (Dock Street were smashed ; in the early hours of the morning terror reigned in the Antrim Road area due to the activities of some 300 hooligans ; fighting followed ‘band’ activities at Peter’s Hill.

May 9: A Catholic was shot through the stomach in Nelson Street; another Catholic was savagely beaten in Henry Street ; Catholic girls returning from work in mills were chased by a Protestant mob, which attempted to invade Pilot Street (a Catholic area) ; general intimidation of Catholic workers began openly; Catholic women workers were compelled to leave Linfield Mill owing to the hostile attitude of their Protestant fellow-workers and of the crowds in the street outside.

May 10: Catholic workers were threatened and insulted on their way to work; a savage mob turned its attention to the Donegall Road area; owing to state of the city curfew was imposed.

May 23: Mr. William Grant, M.P., was promised by the Minister for Home Affairs that, “if any member of the Royal Ulster Constabulary exceeded his duty,” disciplinary action would be taken. The question arose out of a complaint that the police had acted too drastically in restraining rioters in Grove and Vere Streets (Protestant areas). It is unnecessary to remark that the police did not afterwards “…exceed their duty…” but acted with that ‘forbearance’ for which they were commended by Lord Craigavon.

May 30: Meeting of the Ulster Protestant League in Templemore. Avenue, at which the speakers and the audience lustily ‘kicked’ the Pope. After the meeting a rowdy ‘procession’ of the usual type marched to the centre of the city, and from this “procession a bomb was thrown into the Catholic area of Short Strand.

May 31: Terror reigned in the York Street area. A band and ‘procession’ from across town attempted to invade Lancaster, Marine and St. George’s Streets-all Catholic areas.

June 12: Meeting of the Ulster Protestant League at Queen’s Square, at which fiery anti-Catholic speeches were delivered. After the meeting the usual procession took place to various parts of the city, and their route was marked by acts of gross hooliganism particularly window-smashing.

June 16: From 6 o’clock in the morning mobs were gathering, and there was heavy firing into Marine Street, Dock Street and other Catholic areas. Catholics proceeding to and from early Masses in St. Joseph’s were fired at by snipers. On this morning occurred the dastardly shooting of the 15 year old Annie Quinn on her way to Mass. For this crime a non-Catholic received three months hard labour. He swore to an alibi and produced witnesses to that effect, but later pleaded guilty.

June 17: This was the worst night of shooting since the beginning of the trouble. Volley after volley was fired into the Catholic quarter of North Queen Street, wounding one man in the stomach. As a result of urgent appeals from various sections of the citizens to put a stop to the growing anarchy, the Government at last decided to take action. On the following day the Minister for Home Affairs issued an Order prohibiting all processions, other than funerals, and the assembly of any groups or bodies of persons in any public place within the City of Belfast.

June 23: Sir Joseph Davison, addressing an Orange gathering at Hillsborough, referred to the above Order thus:

You may be perfectly certain that, for the Twelfth of July Orange celebrations, we shall march through Northern Ireland. I do not acknowledge the right of any Government, Northern or Imperial, to impose conditions as to the celebration of the glorious anniversary of the victory of the Boyne, nor shall I acknowledge any authority to ban the celebrations which have been held almost continuously for 140 years. You may be perfectly certain that. on July 12th I shall be marching at the head of the Orangemen of Belfast.

June 27: Four days after Sir Joseph Davison’s speech the Minister for Home Affairs gave way to Orange truculence and removed the ban on processions. It was clear who were the real rulers of Northern Ireland. Wild scenes-shootings, burnings, evictions, window-smashings, beatings-became the order of the day and the night. A strong appeal for peace by the Right Rev. Dr. MacNiece, Protestant Bishop of Belfast, had not the slightest effect.

July 12: Before describing the events of this and the following days, it is desirable to quote a passage from the Report made by Mr. Ronald Kidd for the National Council of Civil Liberties (London). This Council, of which he is the Secretary, sent Mr. Kidd to investigate the disturbances in Belfast. Arriving in time to witness those of June 12, he reports thus:

At a riot on June 12 – at which I was present – following an inflammatory meeting of the Ulster Protestant League at the Customs House steps, an unruly mob of some thousands of men and women swept through the business quarter of the city. Men, not all of them sober, were dancing in the ranks and women were screaming as they marched. I pointed out to a constable that this was an illegal assembly at common law. The mob were getting out of hand; and. as they reached York Street, they ran completely amok A bomb was thrown into a shop; shots were fired; every window in the Labour Club was broken, and Catholic shop-windows along York Street were smashed in with stones and iron bolts One arrest was made, but the prisoner was rescued by the mob. We are justified in asking (a) why this dangerous mob, which was visibly out for riot, was allowed by the police to proceed on its way; (b) why nine armoured cars and hundreds of armed police were unable to effect even the one arrest which they attempted; (c) why this force of armed police were unable to prevent wholesale riot and damage.

Another form of government apology is to say that the troubles were confined to one small section of Belfast and that the victims were Protestants, while the Catholics were the aggressors. it is true that the majority of the killed were Protestants; but there is no evidence whatever that they were killed by Catholics. Six of the seven were killed in the open when rioting was in full progress-none of them in his own home or in his own street. As to the seventh, there is good ground for believing that he was shot by non-Catholics for his sympathies with Catholics, with whom he was a great favourite in the district where he was shot. As to the Catholics, the facts are quite in contrast apart from those killed, there were twelve deliberate attempts to murder Catholics, and in five of these cases the victims were inside their own homes. That none of the twelve is dead is no credit to the assailants.

But the number of the murdered is no measure of the sufferings to which Catholics were subjected. There was no security of life or property. Day and night the Catholics were in terror of raids, shootings, burnings, evictions. Let us take this last item. In all 514 families, comprising 2,241 persons, were driven from their homes.

That account gives an idea of the background to events over the summer of 1935. However, it doesn’t make reference to the role of the IRA. Despite the overt threat of violent sectarian attacks, the IRA had continued with its annual summer camp at Giles Quay, just north of Dundalk. In 1932, the IRA had to recall units from the camp to provide defensive cover in districts that were under threat. In 1935, the IRA’s Army Executive recommended that the Belfast staff cancel the camp due to the potential for trouble in Belfast. In the end, the camp went ahead but an alert company from Ballymacarrett under Jack Brady remained ready to contain any problems. Jimmy Steele, as Adjutant, would be the senior member of Belfast Battalion staff present, while the Training Officer Charlie Leddy was to be the O/C for the camp itself.

At the camp the men stayed in six bell tents and two hiker tents pitched alongside a stream known as the Piedmont river. The camp wasn’t particularly discrete. The IRA didn’t take much in the way of precautions and did little to conceal their activities or to provide security such as sentries. By the time the men had cycled the sixty miles from Belfast, an advance party had the tents erected and a meal cooking on the camp fire. In the mornings at a training camp, participants usually formed up for parade and drill. The plan for Giles Quay, over the course of the camp, was to deliver lectures on various military matters with opportunities to handle, maintain and fire weapons. This included live ammunition from rifles and revolvers, the chance to fire bursts from a Thompson gun and throw Mills bombs.

On the Saturday at Giles Quay the volunteers had carried out drills, attended lectures and sat knowledge tests. Rifle practice took place using a sand dune as a target. That evening was declared a free night and some cycled off to Dundalk to find a ceili, while others visited people they knew in the locality. Jack McNally remembers that they were advised to be careful in Carlingford, which was considered a Blueshirt stronghold, to the extent that their accents shouldn’t be heard in the village.

Around the same time as the IRA men were leaving the Giles Quay camp for the evening, the Orangemen were on their return leg from the field back to their homes. There had been shots fired in the area on the previous night. Before the Orangemen reached York Street, they had clashed with residents in the Markets and Stewart Street, where shots had been fired. As the bands passed Lancaster Street on York Street a confrontation soon escalated into a major riot around Lancaster Street, Middle Patrick Street and Little Patrick Street.

Jack Brady had received a visit from a Mrs. Kelly of Seaforde Street (in Ballymacarret) and Sarah Trainor (from York Street) immediately after the trouble had broken out. They had came over to visit Brady and said there was shooting in Lancaster Street by the Orangemen on their way back from the Field. Mrs Kelly had told him it was desperate. Brady immediately rounded up thirty men with guns (IRA volunteers were already on duty and had been posted in pickets of 6 or 7). They went straight across the city and set up headquarters in Trainors Yard in Lancaster Street.

By the end of the day, the hospitals reported 17 people with gunshot wounds, 20 with other assorted wounds and two dead. The RUC had opened up with Lewis guns and snipers had been reported firing from roof-tops around York Street.

Whippet car mounting a machine-gun on patrol in York Street in 1935.

While most of the men were away from Giles Quay for the evening, word arrived from Belfast for Jimmy Steele saying that there had been a serious outbreak of violence and that it was mostly focussed on York Street. Steele wanted to take A Company, which covered York Street, back to Belfast along with any other units that wanted to leave. Those present discussed the situation until around 2 am, when Jack McNally returned from visiting a friend in Omeath. Since McNally was on the Army Executive and the most senior IRA man present, Jimmy Steele waited on McNally to get his opinion before a decision was made.

McNally checked on the reports from Belfast and pointed out to that, since they had no word of casualties (as yet), the men should go to bed and get up at 6 am, strike camp and head to Belfast. If they were stopped anywhere, they were to say there were a cycling club from the Markets on their way home. When the IRA volunteers woke in the morning they found large numbers of Garda, including the non-uniformed special police detachment set-up by De Valera and known as the Broy Harriers, walking up to 40 abreast in a wide sweep across the camp. The Broy Harriers detained a large number of the Belfast IRA volunteers and seized their weapons despite protests that both were needed immediately in Belfast.

When the IRA men were brought up in court in Dundalk to receive their detention notices they refused to answer their names. Many, like Harry White and Bobby Hicks, gave false names and addresses (a favourite being Craig Street – a tiny street with one occupied house).

When they were brought in front of the special court, Charlie Leddy made a statement from the dock:

We deny the right of this assembly to try us as we are subject only to the jurisdiction of the Republic. The camp at Ravensdale had been there in three previous years. It was significant that in this year, when the war dogs and agents of British Imperialism were let loose in Belfast, that the bloodhounds were let loose against soldiers of the North coming into the area for training.”

They remained in action there for the rest of the 12th and 13th July, when Jimmy Steele managed to extract enough volunteers from various IRA units at Giles’ Quay and get back to Belfast. When he got there he told Brady:

You’ve done great work, but we’ll take over from here.

The riots, house-burnings and work-place evictions lasted for a further two weeks, leaving ten people dead, seven of whom were Protestants. Funerals, and funeral processions became the pretext for fresh outbreaks of violence over that period. By the 16th July, the violence spilled over the border as attacks and graffiti began appearing on Protestant-owned businesses in the south demanding they make public calls for attacks on northern Catholics to cease. While the attacks were largely uncoordinated, the Blueshirts appear to have been involved in a number of them (the IRA had no role in this campaign).

At the end of July all twelve arrested at Giles Quay were sentenced to two years in Arbour Hill at the Military Tribunal sitting in Collins Barracks. On their release, they found that their details had been passed on to the RUC. Any illusions the Belfast IRA might have still held about De Valera and Fianna Fáil  had been quickly dispelled by their experience.

Within a couple of weeks of the Twelfth of July the level of violence dipped, but the memory of the 1935 Belfast pogrom (as it was regarded) was still fresh thirty-four years later in 1969, in Belfast (as indeed, were memories of 1920-22). This memory included the scale of the violence, and, around North Queen Street, even details such as the absence of the IRA at its outset. Another result was that the National Council for Civil Liberties began an investigation of what had happened. This was published in 1936 (I include a quote from it’s report here). Finally, some sense of the geography of the violence across Belfast in July 1935 is shown by a table included in ‘Northmans’ article.

Evictions in July 1935, as listed by Northman, by Catholic parish in Belfast.

Evictions in July 1935, as listed by Northman, by Catholic parish in Belfast.

Fianna Éireann in Belfast, 1917-24.

This article takes a look at Fianna Éireann in Belfast in the period after the Easter Rising in 1916, through to 1923-24 when the organisation more or less collapsed. It includes a list of members of the 1st Battalion, Belfast Brigade, for 1921 and more detailed accounts of the north Belfast companies (in 2nd battalion). It also includes some information about Fianna activities and casualties.

Fianna Éireann was a republican youth organisation often just known as Na Fianna or referred to in contemporary media as the Sinn Féin scouts. An individual member was known as a Fian and a unit was known as a sluagh. A sluagh was led by an O/C (officer commanding), with an Adjutant, Intelligence Officer and Quartermaster, while individual sections also had an O/C. Na Fianna in Belfast had been re-organised in July 1916[1] after the Easter Rising, and was intended to take in teenage boys and prepare them for the role of soldiers who would restore the republic as declared in Dublin in 1916. The first North Belfast members, Jack McNally and Brian Convery, joined the James Connolly sluagh based in Berry Street in February 1917[2] with Joe McKelvey as Captain, and Seamus Mallon, Hugh Kennedy, Paddy McDonnell and Seamus ‘Nick’ Bateson as officers. All were 14 or 15 years of age.

Jimmy Steele wrote briefly in 1966 describing how he first became aware of Na Fianna[3] in 1918-19 (he joined Na Fianna in 1920): “There were stirrings too of young boys in green uniforms, Na Fianna, who had pledged themselves to serve Ireland and the older boys and men in the uniform of the Irish Volunteers. There are rumours too that these men and boys will march out one day to fight for Ireland’s freedom.” Jack McNally records how Fianna members staffed church door anti-conscription protests and distributed leaflets[4].  They also trained using miniature rifles and revolvers and raised funds (each sluagh was to collect a fixed amount). Thomas McNally, who later became Quartermaster of the Belfast Brigade of the IRA gives this account of how teenagers received their political formation in Belfast before 1919: On the break-up of this team [Sarsfield Ogs] I went to the Mitchells and played for the Mitchell Ogs. This team had an old military hut as a club room and here I learned something of nationality. Seannachi and Ceilidhes were held and national songs were sung and our own dances performed so that I can say the idea of nationalism was taking root.[5]

In 1919, with the founding of the Dáil, there was a push to expand the Fianna organisation, with a Fian called Sullivan acting as an organiser in Belfast. Recruitment to Na Fianna appears to have been intensive in Belfast in late 1919 and early 1920, apparently through existing members simply inviting friends from school and other acquaintances along to Na Fianna events. It’s probably not a coincidence that the Belfast Schools Hurling League seems also to have been more heavily promoted from 1919 onwards (there was also a schools hurling league centred on Randalstown). Both schools, like Hardinge Street Trades Preparatory School and clubs like O’Connells, supplied teams to the league. Playing Gaelic games was likely seen as a reflection of the political attitudes in a family and helped identify likely candidates for Na Fianna to approach.

Jack McNally has described how he and Brian Convery prompted school friends and others they knew to attend a meeting in the back of a shop on Herbert Street in Ardoyne. Mick Carolan, the O/C of the local company of the IRA came in to the meeting to encourage those present to join Na Fianna. In the end, a new sluagh, the Henry Joy McCracken, was set up, based in the Bone. The first O/C was 17 year old Oliver McGowan, with 16 year old Willie Murray as his Adjutant, Jack McNally as Intelligence Officer and Brian Convery and Liam Mulholland as section leaders.The post of Quartermaster was unfilled. The sluagh was loosely attached to a local company of the IRA. Jack McNally records that the Henry Joy McCracken sluagh in the Bone was then split into two with the William Orr sluagh formed in Ardoyne. The new sluagh was 110 strong with Jack McNally as O/C, with Eugene McCurry as his Adjutant, Tom O’Donnell as Quartermaster and Frank Gallagher as his Intelligence Officer. Others who served as Fianna officers in the Bone and Ardoyne were Owen Miles, Alfie McDowell, Moses McFall, Johnny Wales and James Campbell.

Following the increased recruitment, by 1920, there were four sluagh in the north Belfast battalion (part of the Belfast Brigade of Na Fianna). As well as the Henry Joy McCracken and William Orr sluagh, there were sluagh centred on the North Queen Street and Carrickhill districts. A further sluagh was later added in Greencastle. Peter Carleton records the strength of the Carrickhill sluagh as sixty, aged between twelve and sixteen[6]. When Peter Carleton joined in 1919 John Maguire was the O/C in Carrickhill later becoming O/C of the Fianna 2nd battalion (as one of four officers seconded from the 1st battalion).

Jimmy Steele was thirteen when he joined the North Queen Street sluagh in 1920[7]. Members in the North Queen Street sluagh were drawn from the wider district including the Docks area and New Lodge Road[8]. Prominent figures in the North Queen Street sluagh were Hugh McNally (who was from Artillery Street), Frank Millar (from McCleery Street) and Fossee Lee from the Docks[9]. Jimmy Steele was a Fianna officer by 1922 when he held dual membership (he is listed as a volunteer in B Company, 1st Battalion of the IRA’s Belfast Brigade at the time). In Reminiscing (A Prison Poem, 1946), Steele gives an idea of how he then remembered taking part in some of the activities of Na Fianna, such as country walks and history and political talks:

“The tramp o’er mountain, road and hill,  

Or sitting in the quiet still

Of some lone glen; while someone there

Would speak or sing of Ireland fair.

The story of her ancient right.

The struggle ‘gainst usurper’s might;

Her sons who served and fought and died

In her just cause so sanctified,

And thus our hearts with pride, we’d lace

With love for our unconquered race.”

A raid on a house in Gardiner’s Court, off the Old Lodge Road, at the end of July 1922 illustrates the age profile and military training of Na Fianna in Belfast from about 1919 onwards (and that they stayed more or less the same until then). At Gardiner’s Court, the RUC swooped during a Na Fianna meeting. Those present were aged between 12 and 18. One of the older Fian was armed with a revolver and two further revolvers and ammunition were found to the rear of the property. Gardiner’s Court was in the district covered by the Carrickhill sluagh.

By early 1920 Na Fianna was actively involved in supporting IRA operations. This included acting as scouts, gathering intelligence or general information and observing activity to report it back up through the chain of command. Fianna members did sometimes carry arms and could hold dual membership with the IRA. These were the activities Jimmy Steele was later to recall on the rare occasions when he talked about this period[10] (and corroborated by the likes of Gardiner’s Court raid in 1922 described above).

In April 1920 B and D Company of the Belfast IRA participated in a co-ordinated response to Tomás MacCurtain’s death by burning income tax papers and records in three offices in Belfast[11]. The operations included units of Fianna Éireann, who acted as lookouts[12]. When the fire brigade arrived quickly and put the fire out, the same IRA and Fianna units returned and repeated the action a week later. This time they succeeded in destroying a substantial number of income tax and other related records. Peter Carleton describes how Na Fianna had scouted for attacks on the tax office by carefully recording when staff left work and the main points of access to the buildings[13]. Jack McNally also reports how, on another operation, Fianna members were posted as lookouts apparently forming an outer cordon with armed IRA volunteers posted as guards at key points of an inner cordon[14].

Sean Cusack describes how, in the summer of 1920, a trusted Fianna member went to Lisburn to monitor a target for assassination and then report back to Belfast every evening[15]. Jack McNally names a number of operations involving his Na Fianna engineering unit from the north Belfast sluagh and how combined operations of Na Fianna engineering units and the IRA were causing concerns in Na Fianna Headquarters in Dublin. This wasn’t resolved until April 1921. Until then, the existing sluagh system of Na Fianna remained in place. Afterwards, Fianna units were re-organised and formally attached to a structure matching that of the IRA, with an assumption that a Fian would automatically progress to IRA membership on turning 17.

The Belfast IRA had been re-organised in March 1921, with the four existing companies (A, B, C and D) of the Belfast battalion re-organised as part of the Belfast Brigade of the 3rd Northern Division. This was followed by the re-structuring of Na Fianna in April and the end of the sluagh system. Na Fianna were now fully integrated into the IRA structures and organised into companies and battalions with dual membership permitted for officers. For example the Carrickhill sluagh and North Queen Street sluagh were now linked with C Company of the 1st Battalion and D Company of the 2nd Battalion, respectively, of the 1st Brigade of the IRA’s 3rd Northern Divison. The company and battalions were to be re-structured on a number of  later occasions such as after the Treaty with the influx of new volunteers (who were derided as ‘Trucileers’) and the formation of a 3rd and 4th Battalion. A list of names of Fianna members in 1921 only survives for the 1st Battalion (which covered the Falls), which I’ve added below. It’s worth noting the likely reason for the limited information surviving for some districts. Take, as an example, the North Queen Street company of 2nd Battalion of Na Fianna, D Company of the 2nd Battalion IRA and the Lamh Dearg company of Cumann na mBán. The lack of information for these units seem to reflect the strength of Anti-Treaty feeling in North Queen Street (e.g. Lamh Dearg sent two delegates to the Cumann na mBán convention to vote against the Treaty). The sources for the surviving lists held in the military archives in Dublin were former Fianna, IRA and Cumann na mBán officers who were co-operating with the Free State government to collect the information – few from North Queen Street co-operated (I’ll blog on transcribed lists of names in the future).

The reality of service in Na Fianna was stark in North Belfast (on the Falls, a Fian could openly wear a badge in his lapel, elsewhere in Belfast it was considered unwise). For much of the two years up to July 1922, there were a series of eruptions of fighting, some quite sustained. Some measure of the sheer intensity of the conflict in Belfast can be seen in the casualty figures. A little over 2000 people died across Ireland during this period, about 25% of them in Belfast alone (when Belfast had only 9% of the population)[16]. The casualty statistics for 1920-22 make for stark reading. Kieran Glennon gives 178 fatalities in the area from Carrickhill across North Queen Street to the Docks[17]. That relatively small area saw roughly 36% of all war-related fatalities in Belfast in 1920-22 (about 9% in Ireland, as whole). Those responsible for the fatalities are unknown in 15 cases, with 42 known to be caused either by the IRA itself or others on the Catholic side. The remaining 121 were caused by the crown forces or others on the Protestant side.

Alongside this was a low level of background violence, raids, constant curfews, patrolling and sectarian tensions. As the lulls gave way to more intense violence, Catholics began to break holes into the dividing walls between yards and even within houses. That meant it was possible to move along streets, or between back yards, without fear of being shot[18]. Given the casualties, remarkably little has been published on this period in Belfast.

The exposure to violence is also illustrated by members of Na Fianna killed in Belfast during 1920-22 and are named on the County Antrim Monument in Milltown Cemetery in Belfast. This includes William Toal, John Murphy, Joseph Burns and JP Smyth. Toal’s death is recorded in 1922 (although the date on the monument is wrong), but the others aren’t readily identified in contemporary news reports. It is possible that John Murphy is actually John Murray, killed in the Bone on 28th August 1920. However, Burns and Smyth can’t be reconciled with individuals killed during this period, either in Belfast or elsewhere. The only explanations are that either their deaths simply weren’t reported as the nature of how they died was accidental, or, that their deaths were deliberately kept secret. A further example of the confused air that hangs over Belfast at that time was that Thomas Heathwood, a Fian killed in March 1922 is not normally named on the Fianna roll of honour for this period. Nor are Fianna 2nd Lt Joseph Hurson (from A Company, 2nd Battalion) or Fian Leo Rea who were both killed but don’t get listed on the Fianna roll of honour.

When Civil War broke out in the area under control of the southern government, Fianna Éireann rejected Treaty but remained, officially, neutral (although it effectively took the Anti-Treaty side). However, individual members took sides, including in Belfast, and like the other republican organisations in the city went in to decline for a number of years.

The following is a list of the Fianna members in 1st Battalion, Belfast Brigade, mostly west Belfast (transcribed from Military Archives document FE/34). A number of Fian listed were to remain prominent in the IRA in later decades, such as Liam McAllister, Art Thornbury (also a noted hurler) and Tom O’Malley (who was later to take ill in prison and die a couple of weeks after being released from Crumlin Road in 1959).

1st Battalion (Companies A-D)

Capt Seamus Mallon (A Company); Capt James McShane (B Company); Capt George Breen (C Company); Capt Pat Donnelly (D Company); Quartermaster John Gribben

John Bateson (later attached to 2nd Battalion); Michael Bradley; John Bradley; Thomas Brady; Joseph Brady; William Bramble; John Bramble; Sam Bunting; Eugene Butler

James Campbell (later attached to 2nd Battalion); Pat Campbell (D Company); John Carbury; James Carbury; Joseph Clarke; Joseph Colbert; John Cosgrove; John Creagan; Leo Creagan; Leo Crummey; Malcolm Crummey; John Cullen; Dan Cummins

Michael Dempsey; My Doherty; Pat Donnelly (Leeson St); James Downey

Robert Gilmore; William John Gilmore

Joseph Fagan; Malachy Ferris

Leo Goodson; William Gillespie; Joseph Gum; Robert Graham; Pat Graham

Humphrey Hope; Thomas Hawthorne; Ed Hayes; Thomas Hamill; Thomas Hales; John Hannon; Hugh Hannon; William Harvey

James Kelly; Jim Kelly; Frank Kennedy

James Leddy; Hugh Leddy; Thomas Lee; Joseph Leonard

John Matthews; Sam Maguire; Tom Maguire; Tom Montague

James McMahon; Pat McPhillips; Bernard McIlvenna; Dominic McGuinness; Joseph McLarnon; Donal McDevitt; Thomas McShane; Frank McKenna; John McKenna; George McCann; John McCann; Leo McCann; George McLaughlin; Alphonsus McLaughlin; William McAllister; John McAllister; Tony McMenamin; John McCurley; John McQuillan; Pat McCusker; William McCartney; James McGuinness; John McManus; John McFadden; Patrick McFadden; John McWilliams; John McGivern; Patrick McFadden; John McWilliams; John McGivern; Joseph McCrystal; Charles McLaverty; Patrick McDonnell; George McGouran; A McBrearty; L McVeigh

Thomas O’Boyle; Edward O’Hagan; Thomas O’Malley

Hugh Rafferty; Hugh Rice; David Ritchie; S Robinson

Peter Shevlin; Patrick Shevlin

Joseph Taylor; Art Thornbury; Edward Trodden; Charles Trodden; Michael Trodden

Patrick Woods; George Watters; Peter Watters

2nd Battalion (officers seconded from 1st Battalion):  John Maguire; P Hefler; A Fox; John Trainor.

 

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[1] Bureau of Military History, BMH.WS0412 by Joe Murray.

[2] McNally,1989, Morally Good Politically Bad, 4.

[3] See Steele, 1966, 1916-66: Belfast and nineteen sixteen, pages 32-34.

[4] McNally,1989, Morally Good Politically Bad, 14.

[5] Bureau of Military History, BMH.WS0410. Seannachi refers to the telling of folk tales and stories. Celidhes are Irish dances (the distinction between ‘Irish’ dances and ‘English’ dances features in accounts all the way to the 1950s and 1960s).

[6] The ages are based on the best fit among the entries for the district in the 1911 Census. McGowan’s father was a plasterer, Murray’s a labourer.

[7] McEoin 1980, Survivors 305.

[8] IRB organisation in North Queen Street included Seamus Dobbyn’s father storing rifles in the 1890s (Bureau of Military History, WS0279).

[9] See McNally 1989, Morally Good, Politically Bad, 14.

[10] Interview with Billy McKee.

[11] See McDermott 2001, Northern Divisions, 28

[12] McNally 1989, Morally Good, Politically Bad.

[13] MacEoin 1980, Survivors 305.

[14] McNally 1989, Morally Good, Politically Bad,14

[15] Bureau of Military History, WS0402

[16] Violent deaths in the south largely ended with the Truce in July 1921 and didn’t start again until the end of June 1922.

[17] Glennon 2013, From Pogram to Civil War, 266.

Thanks to Kieran Glennon and Jim McDermott for discussion of some aspects of na Fianna in Belfast in 1917-1924.