Learn all he can and put his training to the best advantage: Irish republicans in the British Army

It is probably not coincidental that the passing of the very last of the generation who fought in the first world war has coincided with a rise in overt nationalism centred around displays of the poppy as a symbol of British military commemoration. With the second world war generation, too, now dwindling rapidly, an aggressively vocal lobby insistently equates both generation’s sacrifice, as individuals and units, with a celebration of British imperial policy and militarism. This is conducted at such a volume that it drowns out any nuanced discussion of the experience of serving in the British forces. This is maybe most acute for those, particularly in Ireland, whose relatives were more likely driven into the British Army by circumstances than any political conviction.
You can get a clear, and unapologetic, sense of what the poppy, as a symbol, is intended to commemorate from the British Legion. Under its pages on remembrance, it specifically stipulates that it includes the recent conflict in the north (one in which the British army was allowed to use violence with impunity). The Legion also pointedly includes…those who fought with them and alongside them”, which would obviously cover the local unionist militias, the RUC and UDR, which were both discredited and then disbanded. Arguably it also extends to the unionist paramilitary groups like the UDA and UVF who fought ‘alongside them’, given the British government’s continuing refusal to open up its archives on the extent to which it operated those groups as local counter-gangs.
There is peculiar lobby among the likes of Fine Gael and the Irish Labour party that try and promote the poppy. The kindest thing that can be said about it is that they appear to barely have a surface knowledge of what the British Legion actually tells us the poppy is meant to commemorate. Ironically, the leader of the Irish government probably wore a British Legion poppy in Leinster House the other day simply to provoke Sinn Féin members present (in the hope that he could use a backlash to retrospectively validate his embarrassing car crash comments about sexism in an interview the previous day).
What we are seeing there, really, is the long term impact on censorship in the south. After Section 31 of the broadcasting ban lapsed, media censorship, and the world view it had promoted, have more or less persisted in a voluntary form. No real attempt has been made in the south to either revisit events or explore other perspectives on the conflict in the north and, in reality, most people who formed their views, values and opinions under Section 31 have no sense of having been exposed to heavily censored media coverage. That pretty much extends to any genuine understanding of the typical Irish experience in the British military which many seem to completely blur with a broader anti-republicanism sensibility.
Ex-servicemen (and indeed some still enlisted in the British army) appear to have always been a component of republican organisations. IRB leader William Harbinson’s life is illustrative of how young men typically ended up in the British Army. Driven from his birthplace in Ballinderry to Liverpool at the height of the famine, he enlisted underage. Perhaps unsurprisingly, his army service was punctuated with bouts of ill-health. Yet, through the likes of Harbinson, the IRB organisation appears to have relied upon serving British soldiers for access to military capability and arms.
The year after Harbinson’s death, James Connolly was born – brought up in great poverty, he too enlisted underage in the British Army and was one of a number of those who participated in 1916 that had a military background. It is notable, now, how the input of ex-servicemen surely contributed to the overall tactical view of the IRB. It embraced using some form of conventional standing army to establish an Irish republic, either using serving soldiers (as in 1867) or the Irish volunteers and Citizen’s Army (as in 1916). After 1916, and the formation of an Irish Republican Army, ironically, the tactical remit instead shifted to guerrilla actions (even though it still had many members who were former British soldiers).
In Belfast in 1920-22, ex-servicemen were prominent in the ad hoc defence of districts that came under attack from unionists. Joseph Giles, a former soldier killed when the military opened fire in Bombay Street on 22nd July 1920 is noted as an IRA volunteer in Jim McDermot’s Northern Divisions. Other former soldiers, like Daniel Hughes and Freddy Craig, were killed when unionists attacked their home districts or, as in the case of Malachy Halfpenny, were abducted, tortured and killed by B Specials. In some districts, like Ballymacarret, many ex-servicemen were believed to have joined the IRA and provided the spine of the republican forces that defended the district from attack. Certainly, in most IRA units, former British soldiers provided the technical support to maintain weapons and train in their use. Even in the 1950s, the IRA was able to place members inside British Army barracks in preparation for arms raids. In the 1970s, again in the face of unionist violence, ex-servicemen (this time, formally) grouped themselves under the banner of the Catholic (later ‘Local’) Ex-Servicemen’s Association.
In areas of high socio-economic deprivation (across Ireland), the needs of the British for servicemen offered an opportunity for the paid work (and pension) and a trade that were often denied to them in their own districts. How far the economic necessity that drove them into the services was underscored by political support is difficult to disentangle.
One hundred years ago, Charles O’Neill, my great-grandfather, a veteran of both India and the Boer War, was serving on the Italian front. He also had a brother at sea with the British Navy. After the war he was still burnt out of Ballyhackamore and driven from his work by ‘loyalists’. Whether he was political at all, never mind supportive of British imperial policy, he was to be brutally schooled in the value placed on his military service. Yet economics also dictated that two of his sons (my granny’s brothers, Andy and Charlie) also fought in the British Army during the second world war (my granny also had one brother-in-law in the US Army and another as Adjutant-General of the IRA). Charles, Andy and Charlie’s experience was probably typical. Political or not, they chose not to serve in the likes of the RUC or UDR that the British Legion now commemorate as having fought alongside the British Army. I suspect the current flag-waving poppy celebrations of the British Legion would be completely alien to them.
The traditional inclusion of ex-servicemen within Irish republican organisations is often overlooked and has probably yet to be fully explored. Opening it up may provide some rich insights. While a British soldier in Dublin, James Connolly likely participated in war games that included defending Dublin city. Given that he was one of a number of former servicemen who took part in the Rising, was the often derided military plan for the Rising based on an insight into the British defensive strategy practised in war games in which the likes of Connolly took place?
Connolly may also have provided the most succinct rationalisation of the motivation behind a young Irish man joining the British Army “…let him make the best of it and learn all he can and put his training to the best advantage he can when he comes out. A well-trained soldier will always find his allotted place in the community.


William Harbinson: a New Lodge ‘Fenian’

September 11th 2017 marks the 150th anniversary of the death of William Harbinson in Crumlin Road prison. On the evening of his death, Harbinson was found dead in his cell and the coroners inquiry heard he had an unexplained head wound but did not establish if it occurred prior to his death. The Head Centre of the Irish Republican Brotherhood in Belfast, Harbinson lived in the cottages known as Pinkerton Row just above the junction of North Queen Street and the New Lodge Road (roughly where Pinkerton Walk is today).

Map of Belfast in 1860s showing North Queen Street, the Infantry Barracks (later Victoria Barracks) and the lower New Lodge Road. Pinkerton Row is unmarked appears to be the line of cottages just above ‘Trainfield’. The breaks in the houses on that side of the New Lodge Road roughly correspond to Bruslee Street, Carntall Street, Carnmoney Street and Pinkerton Street that all linked back to Artillery Street (which appears on the map as dotted lines). These streets were flattened in the 1960s and 1970s. The Half Bap and Little Italy districts extend from the bottom right of the map.

Harbinson was a Staff Sergeant in the Antrim Rifles and had access to the Infantry Barracks arsenal. He was one of a number of ‘Fenians’ among the serving garrison in the barracks. The IRB had consciously inserted soldiers in the British Empire’s army and used them to both cultivate further recruits and bring back a quantum of military know-how and material to the organisation. In many respects this was an expression of the complex relationship between the Empire and its Irish subjects.

Harbinson’s life is illustrative of how young men typically ended up in the British Army. Driven from his birthplace in Ballinderry to Liverpool at the height of the famine, he enlisted underage. Perhaps unsurprisingly, his army service was punctuated with bouts of ill-health. The year after Harbinsons death, James Connolly was born – brought in great poverty, he too enlisted underage in the British Army and was one of a number of those who participated in 1916 that had a military background. In Belfast in 1920-22, ex-servicemen were prominent in the ad hoc defence of districts that came under attack from unionists. Many of them became involved in the IRA. In the 1970s, again in the face of unionist violence, ex-servicemen (this time, formally) grouped themselves under the banner of the Catholic (later ‘Local’) Ex-Servicemen’s Association. So, in many respects, Harbinson reflects a tradition within republicanism that is often overlooked. James Connolly rationalised the motivation behind a young Irish man joining the British Army “…let him make the best of it and learn all he can and put his training to the best advantage he can when he comes out. A well-trained soldier will always find his allotted place in the community”.

Harbinson also reflects a largely unexplored aspect of republican tradition across north Belfast. In some respects, like Harbinson, this is connected to the presence of the Infantry Barracks and Irish soldiers serving there. But he is far from the only senior IRB figure to have lived in the north of the city. Frank Roney, Head of Centre in Belfast before Harbinson, was from Carrickhill. Robert Johnston served on the Supreme Council from the 1860s, FJ Biggar was co-opted onto the Supreme Council by the end of 1870s. Henry Dobbyn was also prominent in the IRB. That generation was slowly eased out and replaced by the likes of Denis McCullough (President of the IRB’s Supreme Council in 1916). All lived in the north of the city, on of around North Queen Street or the Antrim Road. Johnston was the father of Eithne Carbery, the pre-eminent poet of the nationalist revival of the late 19th century and editor of the Shan Van Vocht newspaper. Her brother, James and cousin James were also active in the IRB (the likes of Major John McBride were also connected to north Belfast through St Malachy’s College). Another Antrim Road resident, Winifred Carbery, was Connolly’s assistant throughout the Easter Rising.

So, on the 150th anniversary of his death, it is worth remembering how William Harbinson reflects many aspects of republican history in north Belfast (and further afield) that really should warrant further exploration in the future.

James Connolly’s time as a British soldier, some new evidence

James Connolly, signatory of the 1916 proclamation, is widely accepted to have served as a British soldier in Ireland. Remarkably little is known about this period of his life and its impact on his political formation and views. It is assumed that he joined the King’s Liverpool Regiment, although direct documentary proof has yet to be found. However, new evidence about his brother’s service and the King’s Liverpool Regiment in Ireland suggests that Connolly could have been on duty as a British soldier during sectarian violence in Belfast, evictions in Meath and prison protests on Spike Island. He also took part in war games that tested the British governments deployment plan for the army in the event of war in Dublin.

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Connolly as a young man, not long after leaving the army.

Some biographers have Connolly joining the same regiment as his older brother John who had enlisted underage, using a false name, in 1878. John’s regiment is (variously) given as the Royal Scots or the King’s Liverpool Regiment and the suggested false name is usually ‘John Reid’ (much of this is teased out in Donal Nevin’s  James Connolly: a full life). However, it is possible to recover a bit more information about John Connolly as he re-enlisted in the 2nd Battalion, Royal Scots (see WO/363, service number 20308), during World War 1. John was discharged due to ill health in February 1916. The reason given was Bright’s Disease, brought on through exposure to bad weather while guarding German prisoners at Stobs Camp in the Scottish Borders in 1915.

This photo shows the exposed positions from which sentries guarded the prisoner of war section of Stobs Camp during World War 1 (the original is online here).

This may, in part, explain why James Connolly’s last statement (smuggled out of his cell by his daughter Nora) begins, “I do not wish to make any defence, except against the charge of wanton cruelty to prisoners.” Given that he followed John into the army and then to Dundee, it would seem that he was close to his older brother. Concern at his brother’s reaction may even have influenced how James framed his own last words. John never recovered his health. He died on 22nd June 1916 and is buried in Edinburgh’s North Merchiston Cemetery.

His military records show that John had not served as ‘John Connolly’ but as ‘James Reid’ and his files note that he had previously spent sixteen years in the army, which he states was with the Borders Regiment. There is a ‘James Reid’ listed in the regiment in WO/121, service number 1524, who joined on 9th July 1878 and was discharged in Dublin (due to ill health) on 9th March 1886. The dates match up so this may mark his departure from full-time service. Like his false name, John’s age was consistently recorded as two years younger than it was, due to his enlistment underage as James Reid. He does correctly list his wife’s surname as Connolly in his army documents, though. John had medals for his service in Afghanistan and Egypt (1882). He also re-entered the Royal Reserves in Edinburgh for a year up to April 1901 (service number 1597) before re-enlisting in December 1914.

As the Border Regiment was not awarded either the Afghanistan or Egypt 1882 medals, this seems to be where John completed his service or joined the reserve rather than where he served full-time. Of the other regiments mentioned, the Royal Scots did receive the former award (for the campaign in Afghanistan from 1878 to 1880) while the King’s Liverpool Regiment received both. While it confirms some truth to the various rumours around the Connolly brothers’ military service, it doesn’t really bring us any closer to complete certainty on the regiment in which James served.

If John served as ‘James Reid’, is that the confused source of the false name ‘John Reid’? Or does it even open the possibility that, when enlisting James followed John in using the name ‘Reid’ and swapped first names with his brother? No records appear to be available for a John Reid in the 1st Battalion, King’s Liverpool Regiment. But this may simply be down to the surviving records or extent of digitisation since only the records of some soldiers named in the battalion in newspaper reports in the 1880s can be found, most cannot be identified. Whether John Reid was the name or not, it may be possible a soldier can be found to match up with his putative army service in the records of the 1st Battalion, King’s Liverpool Regiment (possibly with a service number between, roughly, 200 and 260).

The earliest reference to Connolly’s military service appears in the anti-Larkin newspaper The Toiler in 1913 which claimed he had served in the Monaghan militia, deserted and went to Scotland. Since Connolly had lived in Edinburgh, not Monaghan, he wouldn’t have served in the Monaghan militia (he is listed in the census in Scotland in 1881). The strongest argument for him serving in the Liverpool Regiment appears to be Nora Connolly’s assertion that he was going to be demobbed in Aldershot in February 1889 when he left the army while her mother was to take up a post in London (in her account in Uinseann MacEoin’s Survivors). This is consistent with the dates that 1st Battalion Liverpool Regiment moved from Dublin to Aldershot between 15th and 18th of February 1889 (see Aldershot Military Gazette 23rd February 1889). Connolly’s father, John, had a serious accident in February 1889, which may have precipitated his return to Scotland rather than to serve out his remaining time and complete his discharge in Aldershot. However going to assist his father seems less plausible when, by April he was living in the main area of Irish immigration in Dundee, Lochee where he was to begin his involvement in socialist politics.

Connolly arrived in Dundee in 1889 not long before he wrote what seems to be the first of his surviving letters to his future wife, Lillie Reynolds, from Mrs Boyle’s, St Mary Street in Dundee and dated April 7th (see MS 13,911/1, where it is dated as 1888). In the letter he mentions how “It was only across the street from here a man murdered his wife and they are all discussing whether he is mad or not, pleasant, isn’t it?”. Bridget Redmond was murdered by her husband, Joseph, in their grocers shop on St Marys Road on the 30th March. According to the Dundee Advertiser, both were Irish immigrants and Joseph was a retired soldier from the King’s Liverpool Regiment. Press reports in the likes of the Dundee Courier state that he had been taken to an asylum on 6th April, the day before Connolly wrote the letter. Redmond’s trial later was told that he had delusions about being threatened by Irishmen in Dundee into joining the Land League and that he had suffered from sunstroke while in the army in India.


The images, from Dundee Advertiser 2nd April 1889, showing where Bridget Redmond was killed (James Connolly lived across the road at the time).

The circumstantial evidence for Connolly having served in the 1st Battalion, King’s Liverpool Regiment seems solid enough. Desmond Greaves quotes a story told to him in which Connolly reminisced about being on guard duty in Haulbowline, in Cork, on the night when Myles Joyce was executed in Galway for the Maamtrasna murders on 16th December 1882 (Connolly reputedly was able to show his knowledge of the local geography during political activity there in 1911). The 1st Battalion had moved to Ireland in 1882 to replace the 2nd Battalion of the Grenadier Guards (who were bound for Egypt). When it’s 480 men assembled in Liverpool to cross to Ireland onboard the Batavia, contingents came from Plymouth, Bradford, Fleetwood, the Isle of Man and Tynemouth. By the end of August, though, an additional 45 men had been sent from the regimental depot in Warrington. It is possible that Connolly joined at any of these locations and came either in July or August (meaning he was just four or five months short of his seven years’ service in February 1889). Connolly had just turned fourteen on 5th June 1882.

The battalion’s arrival in Cork, with companies based in Youghal, Haulbowline and Carlisle Fort coincides with a number of news reports of soldier beaten up by locals in Cork and Youghal. Shortly after Myles Joyce’s execution, in January and February 1883, 400 convicts from Spike Island prison, adjoining Haulbowline, were used as labour on works and staged a protest that ended up requiring the Royal Marines and military to be called out. Even if the 1st Liverpool Regiment wasn’t called out, it was surely a topic of conversation. This was James Connolly’s introduction to the British garrison in Ireland. The battalion relocated to the Curragh in September 1884 (some companies being rotated to Castlebar). It then moved to Dublin in September 1885, first Linen Hall Street and Ship Street, then Beggars Bush. While in Dublin it took part in manoeuvres and war games around the city.  This included a war game where flying columns left Beggars Bush to intercept invading flying columns at locations outside the city. In 1916, it was probably assumed that this was the defensive plan the British army would expect to have to deploy, rather than an attempt to seize the centre of the city itself. So Connolly may well have taken part himself in practise deployments of the British army’s defensive plan for Dublin.

The most regular feature of the Liverpool Regiment’s posting in Ireland was the performances of its regimental band. It began performing publicly in August 1882 and continued through to 1889, playing at events such as regattas, sports days (including one under GAA rules in Ballsbridge on 30th July 1886), army parades, the Cork Industrial Exhibition (in 1883), banquets, the Rotunda, RDS, the Grand Promenade, Phoenix Park and many more. Kingstown (Dun Laoghaire) was a recurring venue from 1887, and it may have been on a trip out to see the regimental band play that Connolly famously met Lillie Reynolds, both of them having missed the same tram.  The regimental band also played at the visit of various dignitaries, such as the Viceroy, the Earl of Carnarvon in January 1886. In June 1887, the whole regiment provided a guard of honour (presumably including James Connolly) for Queen Victoria’s on her arrival and during her visit.

Not that the regiment’s period in Ireland was all band performances and guards of honour. Indiscipline and violence were never far away, with soldiers regularly appearing before the courts for attacking locals at the various postings, or as the victims of attacks (one drunken sergeant was reportedly seen shouting “Three cheers for Parnell!” and making ‘insulting comments about the Queen’ in February 1886). A Sergeant Carrigan shot himself in the head in Youghal Barracks in August 1884. There are also hints at the conditions inside the battalion in December 1888, when a Major Whitely had his house attack over conditions in the battalion. There was an inquiry into the condition of the barracks hospital and loss of stores around the same time.

For the individual soldiers, there was the recurring possibility of being posted overseas. Throughout 1882 to 1889, drafts of recruits and reserves were regularly processed through the 1st Battalion en route to the regiment’s 2nd Battalion on service in India. There are recurring claims that Connolly also saw service in India and it is conceivable that he somehow was added to one of the drafts that went out (if his brother John was on active duty in India that might have been sufficient incentive for him to go).

Ironically, if Connolly didn’t serve in India, the battalion’s duties over 1886 and 1887 may have contributed just as significantly to the formation of his political views. In the summer of 1886, the Liverpool Regiment was deployed on the streets of Belfast during serious rioting that saw over thirty deaths. It was reported in the Dublin Daily Express on August 12th that 379 men from the regiment were in Belfast (making it quite likely that Connolly was present). In October 1887, a company from the battalion was deployed to carry out evictions at Lord Masserene’s estate in Collon. While bailiffs and RIC constables removed the tenants, the soldiers were face-to-face with those opposing it as they formed a cordon to prevent the hostile crowds from intervening to prevent the evictions taking place. The soldiers had boiling water, gruel and mud thrown at them as well as much verbal abuse (eg see the account in the Dundalk Democrat, 29th October 1887). This may not have been the only occasion on which the regiment took part in an eviction. If the Bridget Redmond murder is anything to go by, the Land League was still a topical issue among Irish immigrants in Dundee in 1889.

If these events, or Indian service (or both), were contributing to Connolly’s political awakening, it was to be accompanied by increasing reports that the Battalion was to move from Dublin. This began in May 1887, with first Newry then Tipperary proposed (any move was formally suspended in August). Then in January 1888 it was suggested that the Battalion would now return to England (as a preliminary to a move overseas). By March the destination had been announced as Preston then the move was suspended again, only to be re-confirmed, without a destination, in April. This speculation would seem to overlap with James and Lillie meeting and may provide some sort of context to a decision to make an early break with the regiment rather than complete his service.

Just to expand slightly on the earlier point – Connolly would have acquired a service number between (roughly) 200 and 260 in the 1st Battalion of the King’s Liverpool Regiment and a soldier of that number should be listed in Regimental Defaulter Book in February or March 1889.

Unfortunately, Connolly did not leave any (known) account of his own army service or motivations for joining. Donal NevinClearly, from his own literacy and vocabulary, and even his letters from as early as 1889, he did acquire some education while in the army. Instead, the closest we may have to his own judgement on the value of his army service may be hidden in a story told by his daughter Ina in her own witness statement to the Bureau of Military History. Ina has Connolly giving his view of the value of serving in the army to a woman they knew whose son had ran off to enlist:

“Well”, said my father, “didn’t you ask for it, pumping the child’s head with the glories of the British Empire. What more can you expect?”.

“But he is so young” implored the mother. “What can I do? Won’t you help me? I thought of you, the first person I must go to; you never encouraged anyone to join up in the Boer war; surely the same applies now?”

“Not exactly”, replied my father: “there is no war on now and by the time he serves his three years he will be out of their reach by the next war. At least, I hope so, and if I can be of any service to you, I will do my damnedest to keep him at home then. You just remember these words and keep me to this promise for the next war and see how I’ll help you then”.

No, she could not see that long ahead.

“I will buy him out; the money will be well-spent. I can’t bear to think of him in the British army”.

At this father went over to her and put his hand on her shoulder saying: “Many a good man was in the British army; there is nothing wrong in being well-trained and it is in the British army the soldier gets a good training. It’s getting out of the army in time of peace and putting your knowledge to the advantage of your country is what I call a good soldier. You try, and no doubt you will succeed in buying him out, but the average youth that is Inclined to run away from home and join the British army will do so again if he is brought home against his wishes. The training and mixing with other youths, older than himself, will develop him and let him see the other side of the picture. Take my advice and leave him where he is at present”.

The story concludes with Connolly responding to this question from Ina:

“Well, why leave him in the army if you think it is wrong?”

– by saying:

“But I did not say being in the army was wrong. It was his mother who tried to insinuate that. My remarks were to let him make the best of it and learn all he can and put his training to the best advantage he can when he comes out. A well-trained soldier will always find his allotted place in the community”.

The story may actually be a deliberate set-piece dialogue created by Ina to allow him to summarise his views rather than an accurate retelling of an actual conversation. That last phrase, ‘A well-trained soldier will always find his allotted place in the community’ maybe should be taken as Connolly’s own opinion on his time in the British army for now.

They told me how Connolly was shot in the chair…

How was James Connolly executed? The popular image is of Connolly strapped into a chair to be shot. This may not exactly be the case, though.

I found this recent post on the 1916 Easter Rising Historical Society Facebook group. It concerns a graphic account of Connolly’s execution (posted by Kevin Good). A subsequent comment by Michael Barry include a sketch from the military archives which is taken as showing Connolly in the chair. I think both can be reconciled and suggest Connolly’s execution was slightly different to the usual depiction.

Kevin Good posted that church sacristan Hubert O’Keeffe was obliged to accompany priests like Fr McCarthy on their jail visits and so recorded this account of Connolly’s execution and wrote it down in 1944 (also published here):

In giving a description of James Connolly’s execution, Father McCarthy told me that the prisoner, who was in a bad condition, elected to stand like the rest but failed.

“He was then tied to a chair but slumped so much he overbalanced. Finally, he was strapped to a stretcher and placed in a reclining position against the wall. In this manner he passed into the role of Ireland’s honoured martyrs.”

“The sight left an indelible impression on Fr. McCarthy. Describing the scene to me afterwards he said, ‘The blood spurted in the form of a fountain from the body, several streams shooting high into the air. The possible explanation of this may have been the tightening of the straps around the body.’

In response, Michael Barry posted this sketch (also online here): 

He states that the sketch was from military archives and was done by the officer presiding over Connolly’s execution. While it is a quick sketch, it is taken as showing the chair, but no stretcher. Given that Connolly, according to O’Keeffe, had been unable to sit up on a chair, it seems unlikely that he could have held himself rigid across a chair as shown. In fact, this is the exact position he is described as being unable to hold in the chair. A more likely explanation appears to be that Connolly was tied to a stretcher, which was then balanced over the chair (and apparently leant up against a wall). I don’t know enough of terminal ballistics and forensics to make any comment on the description of the impacts of the bullets on Connolly’s body.

In the song ‘The Patriot Game’, Dominic Behan has Fergal O’Hanlon remembering that ‘They told me how Connolly was shot in the chair. His wounds from the battle, all bleeding and bare…’ While that may be the classic republican image, the reality appears to be even more shocking.

Conversant with Chairman Mao? The speech that split the IRA, July 1969.

Almost all those involved in the IRA in 1969 cite a speech given by Jimmy Steele in Ballyglass cemetery in July that year as a pivotal moment en route to the splits that occurred, firstly between Belfast and Dublin that September and, then, across the IRA as a whole. The content of the speech, delivered at the re-burial of two IRA volunteers executed in England in 1940, was reported in Peter Taylor’s book Provos in 1998. But the published text doesn’t match the surviving audio of the speech, now held by the Irish Republican Museum in Conway Mill. The differences are significant and give some fresh insight into those at the centre of the IRA split.

Taylor published the following text as a quote from the speech:

Our two martyred comrades who we honour today … went forth to carry the fight to the enemy, into enemy territory, using the only methods that will ever succeed, not the method of the politicians, nor the constitutionalists, but the method of soldiers, the method of armed force. The ultimate aim of the Irish nation will never emerge from the political or constitutional platform. Indeed, one is expected to be more conversant with the teaching of Chairman Mao than those of our dead patriots. [At this point there is applause and shouts of ‘hear, hear’ on the tape.]

From the graves of patriot men and women spring living nations, said Pearse. May we hope that from these graves of Barnes and McCormick will emanate a combination of the old and new spirit … a spirit that will ensure the final completion of the task that our martyrs were compelled to leave unfinished.”

Steele’s speech is largely credited with galvanising the group which challenged Cathal Goulding’s leadership of the IRA and who ultimately formed a provisional Army Council, having dismissed Goulding’s as unconstitutional. The official, published, account of the Barnes McCormick re-burial in the republican newspaper, The United Irishman (which was under the control of Cathal Goulding’s supporters), omits any reference to Steele’s speechSimilarly, the mainstream press coverage of the event makes no reference to the content of Steele’s speech other than questioning use of the word ‘glorious’ referring to republicans in the 1940s.

Neither is there a published text of the speech from Steele himself. By 1969, the Belfast IRA no longer published its own newspaper. Tírghrá, which had been published in the early and mid-1960s and edited by Steele, was no longer printed in 1969.

Taylor cites his source as a tape recording of the speech played for him by Billy McKee. The recording was made by Leo Martin who donated it to the Republican History Museum in Conway Mill in Belfast before his death (Martin had also given McKee a copy, some time before 1998). The surviving recording includes two speeches, one by Jim O’Regan, followed by instructions being given from the platform for the colour party and laying wreaths, then, Jimmy Steele’s speech.  While the weather was dreadful on the day of the re-burial, the audio quality is still remarkably good. The very start of Steele’s speech is missing and either the tape or the 1969 amplification system fades out at one point (but the start of the missing word, ‘republic’, and the context are clear).

There are a number of printed versions of an extract of the speech, all seemingly lifted directly from Taylor (e.g. in Patrick Ryan’s The Birth of the Provisionals, Robert White’s biography of Ruairí Ó Brádaigh, and, Sean Swan’s Official Irish Republicanism 1962-72). Almost all are used for analysis of the ideological basis of the IRA split and to illustrate a picture of Steele and those that rallied around him as right-wing militarists, staunchly opposed to a ‘leftward’ drift of the IRA under Goulding. But oddly, the quote published by Taylor, and it’s annotation, do not correspond to the surviving audio in the Irish Republican Museum.

In fact, the first line of Taylors that appears in the surviving audio of Steele’s speech is the reference to Chairman Mao (itself a few minutes into the speech). This is the context below:

A period that cost the lives of twenty-six soldiers of the Irish Republican Army, nine by execution in England, Belfast and the Twenty-Six Counties, five in gun battles with enemy forces and the remainder on hunger-strike or in the prisons. Yet, until recently, there seems to be this deliberate blackout of that glorious period. Could it be that it is so fashionable to be tinged a deep red, to be militantly anti-British in the Forties, as Barnes and McCormick and their comrades were, is now considered to be tantamount to being dubbed fascists. These men were not fascists, nor Communists, nor murderers as their enemies allege them to be. They were simply guilty of the unpardonable crime of being Irish patriots, imbued with a deep love of Ireland and her cause of freedom.
Today, in many places, pure and raw patriotism is frowned upon. As is adherence to the policy of non-compromise and force. Indeed, one is now expected to be more conversant with the teachings of Chairman Mao than with those of our dead patriots. Barnes and McCormick were not intellectuals, they were just ordinary working class lads who looked upon it as their duty to right Ireland’s wrong.

Despite the dramatic flourish included by Taylor (and quoted by most of those who use Taylor’s account), there is no interruption of the speech after the reference to Chairman Mao and none of the cries of ‘hear, hear’ that are reported in Taylor’s account. There is also a lengthy section of the speech after this segment and before the last portion, as quoted by Taylor.

Taylor also retains a quote from Pearse in the closing section but omits a reference to one from Connolly, which has the effect of implying the ideological balance of the speech leant towards Pearse’s cultural nationalism. The end of the speech, on the surviving audio (with the text omitted by Taylor in bold), is:

From the graves of patriot men and women spring living nations, said Pearse. My real hope, is from these graves of Barnes and McCormick, will emanate a combination of the old and new spirit, a spirit that will inspire men and women with the noble idealism of Pearse, the social and economic philosophy and aims of Connolly, and the fighting and courageous heart of Cathal Brugha. A spirit that will ensure the final completion of the task which our martyrs were compelled to leave unfinished. That is how Barnes and McCormick can best be honoured. That is how they would wish to be honoured because that is why they lie in martyrs grave today.

Rather than the cartoonish invective against ‘communism’ that it has been represented as, Steele’s speech critiqued the consequences of strategic decisions taken by the IRA at various junctures. Repeatedly Steele returns to Connolly, deconstructing the Goulding leadership and accusing it of having been infiltrated by individuals wishing to dominate, re-direct, then use the republican movement as a platform for their own agenda. In some respects, the speech given by Steele sought to wrestle Connolly back from Goulding and his supporters to de-legitimise Goulding’s strategy. The key point, in bold below, cut deeply enough for Goulding to have Steele immediately ejected from the IRA without even a court martial (despite Steele having seen continuous service since 1920, and, contrary to IRA rules). The barb found it’s target so quickly that Matt Treacy (in The IRA 1956-69: rethinking the Republic) reports that Séan Dunne, one of the colour party drawn from Goulding’s supporters in the Dublin Brigade, wondered melodramatically if he should shoot Steele on the spot.

Oddly, all the subsequent analysis of Steele’s speech appears to be based on the extracts reported by Taylor, which don’t really appear to accurately reflect the speech delivered by Steele. Rather than the quote used by Taylor, the most significant part of Steele’s speech is below. The main point that the whole speech builds up to is highlighted in bold.

A great deal of propaganda is still being made on the question of unity among all who claim to be working for cause of unity and independence of our country. And Connolly’s words on this matter should give us all food for thought when he said, “Unity is a word used by many with ulterior motives, to achieve political ambition, or ultimately, to seek power and control in a united movement.” Therefore in striving for genuine unity we must be careful that such efforts may not lead to that seizure of power and control by the wrong people as defined by Connolly. Unity was a word used as a means of propagating acceptance of the Treaty of 1921. It was also used by Fianna Fáil as a means of gaining power and control in 1932. To become participants in this unity drive, republicans were urged to vote Fianna Fáil into power in Leinster House. They were expected to compromise just a little as a means to an end. To tolerate for the time being, political leaders and organisations who had already deserted or betrayed the republic.

Thanks to Johnny, Susan and Patsy from the Irish Republican Museum in Conway Mill for help in accessing the audio. You can hear some of the audio here.

Nora Connolly O’Brien on her father, Belfast and 1916

The following is a transcription of an account written by Nora Connolly O’Brien of Belfast 1911-1916, talking about her father James Connolly, his execution and her own republican activities. It was published in 1966 in the 1916-66: Belfast and nineteensixteen commemorative booklet issued in Belfast by the National Graves Association and edited by Jimmy Steele (who added a couple of notes).

The text is reproduced in full including a ‘tailpiece’.

Nora Connolly O’Brien

Belfast 1911-1916

Nora Connolly O’Brien was the eldest daughter of James Connolly one of the signatories to the Proclamation of the Republic 1916 who was executed in Kilmainham Jail, May 12th, 1916. Mrs O’Brien played a very prominent part in Republican activities in Belfast from 1911 to 1916. She founded the 1st girl Sluagh of Na Fianna Eireann in Belfast and also Cumann na mBan, and was with the Belfast Contingent of the Irish Volunteers at Coalisland 1916.

In this little booklet we are able to publish an interview which she recorded for us, of those stirring days in Belfast from 1911 to 1916. –Ed.

“We came from the United States to Dublin in December 1910.  In the following year, we all moved to Belfast, where Daddy and I got a house in Glenalina Terrace  – a house on the Falls Road, between St James Road, and Clondara Street, and facing the City Cemetery. The house afterwards became well known to all the Fianna lads and girls.” They used ask each other “Are you going up to Glenalina.”

My father was appointed organiser of the Transport and General Workers Union, and he had to go to Dublin in 1913. He was there most of the time. During the big strike he was arrested as he defied a Proclamation and spoke at a proclaimed meeting. He was the first Republican in refusing to recognise the Court, saying that the King of England had no right in Ireland. He was sentenced to three months’ imprisonment, and he went on hunger-strike. When he was released, he came home to Belfast. He was expected on the 6 o’clock train. I remember mother went to meet him and I stayed behind to look after the others at home – eventually I made my way to the station, and when I got there, the place was crowded with people – thousands of them. I wondered what had happened so I pushed my way to the front, said to a man. “What are all the people here for?” “We are here to meet General Connolly.” he said. When I told my father about it later, he was thunderstruck, he wasn’t expecting such a reception.

When he got outside the station he was put on a side-car and the crowd followed him down past the City Hall, Royal Avenue, York Street and Dock Street to the Transport Workers’ Union H.Q. The crowd wouldn’t go away until he spoke to then.

He was terribly pleased with the Belfast people and the workers adored him. Often I heard the mill girls singing: –

“Cheer up Connolly, your name is everywhere.

You left old Baldy sitting in his chair

Crying for Mercy: Mercy wasn’t there:

Cheer up Connolly, your name is everywhere.”

My father loved the spirit of Belfast, and he was always proud to let people know he was a Northman – “I’m a Northman,” he used to say.

Regarding Na Fianna, we were always terribly proud of the fact that there was a Girls’ Sluagh of Na Fianna – the only one in Ireland. We had Ceilidhte, language classes, route marches, drill parades, and first-aid. When it began to look as if things might happen – I took a special course in first-aid, with special reference to wounds. I then taught the boys, and girls, and also the Volunteers.

When Cumann na mBan was organised in Dublin, I wrote a letter to all the newspapers, rented a hall and advertised a meeting, to organise the Cumann in Belfast. We had a very successful meeting – some of the names of those who joined were, Roisin Braniff who became City librarian in Dublin; Bridie Farrell one of the Ulster players; Agnes Ryan who later married Dinny McCullough; Lizzie Allen and many others. One thing about Belfast people, they were very reliable and you could always depend upon them, and get them to do anything.

We also, in Belfast, the older members of Na Fianna formed the Young Republican Party for the purpose of public organising, speaking, recruiting etc. I designed a Banner with the Golden-Sunburst, letters of Y.R.P. in white ribbons and bordered with a green fringe – thus we had also our Tricolour. We held our meetings at the Central Library, Royal Avenue, Hamill Street, and a few at the Custom House Steps. We had a box with four collapsible legs which acted as a platform.

We would preach Republicanism to the young, and we were very proud when Patrick Pearse in an editorial in his paper, quoted our activities as an example for the younger people of Ireland to follow – we were terribly proud of our efforts. In winter we had meetings in the Freedom Hall, which I think was in King Street. Countess Markievicz used to speak at these meetings. She was always very proud of Na Fianna in Belfast.

I remember one meeting we had, under the auspices of all the Republican groups. It was held in St Marys’ Hall and it was an Emmet Commemoration, and Pearse delivered the lectures. Pearse delivered a magnificent oration, and so good was he, that he roused the whole people, as I never saw them roused before, and at the end of his speech, the entire hall rose as one man, and gave him a terrific ovation. I never experienced anything like it.

During the big strike in Dublin, we also held meetings explaining the reasons of the strike and collecting money for the strikers. The police never bothered with us, except to keep an eye on us, but the Hibs gave us an awful lot of trouble, trying to stop our meetings and pulling us off the platform, but Na Fianna were always very active and carried on with their work.

The Cumann na mBan held their meetings in King Street, and the Betsy Gray Sluagh of Na Fianna held their meetings in Willow Bank Huts.

The Fianna used to hold their Ard-Fheis in Dublin every year during the Twelfth of July holidays. Delegates got their expenses which were small then, but a large crowd of Fianna boys and girls who were not delegates, used to go to hear the debates etc.

Somebody then discovered that we could get a boat with a six month return ticket for 5/-. So about 30 of us used to go in uniform and with pipers with us, we could leave Belfast at 8 p.m. and arrive in Dublin at 6 a.m. the next morning. We would dance and sing all night on the boat. Then we would camp out for a week at the Three Rock Mountain where Madame Markievicz had a cottage.

The Howth Gun Running happened during the Sunday we happened to be down for an Ard-Fheis – we have a lot of help that day, and later in the day, my sister Ina and I helped to remove some of them safely to Dublin. For this we received two of the rifles which we managed to bring back to Belfast with us.

In those days Republicanism was not very popular, and were class as outrageous people and in Belfast we were called “The Hillsiders.”

However we felt that we were moving towards something, and we began to hope that we would be able to play our part in something we had always hoped for.

When the Irish Volunteers were formed in 1913, it was the Fianna officers who trained and drilled them although they became members of both, we always insisted that our boys were only “on loan“ to them. They were a great type of active boys in Belfast, both in the Fianna and the Volunteers. It is a great pity and something that I always regret that they did not get the chance to fight.

Both the Volunteers and the Fianna were mobilised for the 1916 manoeuvres. Previous to the mobilisation order, I was down in Dublin when my father told the citizen Army, “We have been playing at soldiers for a long time, but now the time has come when we will have to be soldiers in earnest – the day has been decided upon” – my father then told me that the date of the Rising had been settled. He asked me would I stay with him, so I had to make my choice between Dublin and Belfast. I told him I would stay with the Belfast crowd. “I’d rather be with you, but after all I’ve been working with them, teaching and instructing them and though I’d rather be with you. I think my place is with them,” so I made my choice.

When I came back to Belfast I saw Dinny McCullough and I told him that I knew the Day had been settled and that I had an ambulance group well-trained in first0aid. I would pick out the girls most suitable for this work and we would go along with the Volunteer contingent. McCullough wasn’t at all anxious for us to go – I thought it was really stupid of him, because we had worked very hard once we knew that the day was near at hand and apart from teaching the girls and volunteers first-aid, we had also made up first-aid kits that could be sewn in their coats – in fact we made hundreds of them and we were able to send quite a lot of them to Dublin. However McCullough wasn’t too keen on the suggestion but eventually he consented and told me to choose six or seven girls. I choose my sister Ina, who was well trained in this kind of work; Bridie Farrell who was an older woman nearer my father’s age and one who wouldn’t be considered a youngster; Lizzie Allen, Kathleen Murphy, the two Corr sisters and a girl called O’Neill. It was arranged to meet in Coalisland on Easter Saturday (i.e. the Saturday of Holy Week) and in addition to bringing our first-aid equipment with us, I instructed them to bring three or four days’ rations.

We went off early in the afternoon on Saturday, and the station was packed – you would have thought all Belfast was going away. We put ourselves in different queuesm and got our tickets and made for the carriages.

Members of the young Ireland pipe band came after us and got into the carriages next to us. They were more like soldiers than pipers. They had groundsheets over their baks, bandoliers over their shoulders, bayonets at their hips and they had tricolour ribbons on their pipes.

We arrived at Coalisland and put up at the Hotel where we had tea. Then I got my first case – one of the lads had accidentally shot himself in the finger – it was the only flesh wound which I attended to immediately.

We were only a short while there when I was sent for, and given a verbal message from the commandant to say that there was going to be no fighting in the North and that I had been given my choice of going back to Belfast or Dublin. I asked the messenger why I had been given the choice, did he think there was going to be fighting in Dublin; he replied that he thought so. I said “ It is awfully queer that he should send word to me.” I asked one of the volunteers standing beside me if he could vouch for the messenger. He did so. I then repeated the message to the volunteers, which the messenger had given me – the volunteers were thunderstruck at the news. I said “If there is going to be no fighting in the North, I am going to Dublin but I will see the girls and give them the same choice.”

I told the girls the message which I had received and I sad, “Ina and I are going to Dublin and you have your choice.” They all voted to go to Dublin with us. As we rushed to catch the last train, another Belfast batch of Volunteers arrived, so I hurriedly told some of them the message I had received, and I told them to make enquiries about it.

Did this hurried visit to Dublin by Nora Connolly and her group, and, the story they brought with them change the whole course of Irish Revolutionary history? Did it influence the leaders to come to a final decision regarding the staging and timing of the Rising? The leaders seemed to take a very serious view of the story, so much so, that they were aroused out of their beds by James Connolly and summoned to a special conference. –Editor

We arrived in Dublin at 6 o’clock on Easter Sunday morning and went straight to Liberty Hall, to see my father. There was a heavy guard of Citizen Army men on the Hall. Eventually I was taken to see my father who was in bed. When I told my story, he said, “This is very serious, is it true?” I said “Well I have six girls with me and you can send for each one of them and question them separately as to what happened, don’t depend on my story.”

“You see Nora,” he said, “We got a message that 50 men could not be got to leave Belfast.” “50 men?” said I “there are over 100 Belfast men already in Coalisland.”

My father sent for each of the girsl as I suggested, and all repeated the same story. Calling the officer of the guard, Connolly asked for six men to conduct each of the girls on a special message. To his daughter he said, “I am sending each of you to a different leader, tell him, what you told me, and tell him to ask you any question he wishes and then tell him to come and see me immediately.”

Each of went to the leaders assigned to us, I went to Sean McDermott, the others to Pearse, Clarke, McDonagh, Plunkett and Ceannt. We all arrived back and reported to my father, all the six leaders followed us immediately. I gave all of them their breakfast on that last Easter Sunday morning.

My father came back from this fateful and momentous meeting, one that was to mean so much for the Ireland of the future, for the Free Republican Nation.

The girls were all sent back to Madaem’s house to get a good sleep. I stayed on at my fathers request. Everything around was a hive of activity. Citizien Army men moved around openly armed. You just felt that something was going to happen. A crowd, mostly women and girls stood outside. My father sent for me. “It is alright now, Nora, it is decided for tomorrow. Go up and have a rest and all of you report to Liberty Hall at 7 a.m. tomorrow morning (Easter Monday). Pearse will write and give you dispatches to deliver to the North.” My father then gave me a little revolver and ammo. He said “ You don’t know what the position will be tomorrow and you might need these. The place may be over urn by police and soldiers.” He also gave me a paper bag of money saying “That will help you carry on for awhile.”

Then he came with a paper and he opened it out and told the girls to read slowly and carefully and to try and memorise as much of it as possible. “I cannot give it with you, but you can let the people in the North know that you saw and read it and that it will be posted up all over Dublin at 12 o’clock tomorrow, Easter Monday.” It was the proclamation of the Irish Republic.

As we were waiting for Pearse to come with the despatches, Tomas McDonagh came along and jokingly said to us:-

“Here we are,” he said, “on the brink of a revolution and a fine strapping bunch of girls like you, all anxious about getting out of Dublin before we strike.”

Then Pearse came along and he gave me the dispatches and then very solemnly he bade us good-bye. “May God bless you and take care of you.” He said. Then we went off to catch the train. We knew we would not reach Coalisland until after 12 o’clock and we also realised that the Rising was timed to start at 12 noon in Dublin. When we brought the news into Coalisland, there was no one there only a bunch of local lads. The Belfast Boys had been demobilised on Easter Sunday and had gone home.

I sent Lizzie Allen on to Belfast with one of the dispatches, and my sister, Ina, on to Dr McCartan and the others to other centre. I had to stay on and wait, but the local O/C had mobilised his unit and they were staying in a barn with rifles and haversacks. They were quite a crowd of lads, he brought me out to see them. We waited and still no word came. They would not do anything, unless they could mobilise them all, and , it is not so easy outside the City.

I was terribly worried. The local O/C was in a quandary he could not keep his men tied up over Monday. It was alright if there had been a crowd, but their absence from home would be noticed. He decided to send them home late on Easter Monday night. Just with that there was some excitement. A Belfast boy, Seamus Dempsey, had arrived. They thought he was bringing news, but Seamus had got fed up with them doing nothing in Belfast so he had made his way back to Coalisland – hence that was another disappointment.

Late that night the local O/C demobilised his men, and told them to take their goods with them, and as soon as he got word, he would ring the Church bell and when they heard it, they would know that the time and word has arrived.

I waited another day and even the girls hadn’t come back, so I decided to make my way to McCartan’s house and see what had happened to Ina and if there was nothing doing I would make my way back to Dublin.

So I arrived at the heel of a riad on McCartan’s house, and the soldiers and plice were just leaving it as I arrived. I remember how mad I felt when I heard that they had found a large dump of ammunition in the turf stack, the one place where anyone in the country would look for them. McCartan was not at home and his sister wasn’t at all friendly. She thought, I should not have come there at all, drawing attention upon them.

McCartan was sent for and I remember there were a couple of Belfast boys sitting at teh fire, Rory Haskins was one of them, they had not gone back to Belfast. McCartan arrived and said it was impossible to do anything, as all the men were demonbilised and had gone back home. I said, “They were in a terrible hurry to demobilise them, there was no need for any of them to go back until Monday, so why chase them back on Saturday night. I heard in Coalisland that you chased them on the double.”

I was very angry, very indignant, terribly upset because I didn’t know how much this would upset all the plans that were made. McCartan was very apologetic and mentioned how difficult it would be to get them all back.

“No,” I said, “nothing left for the men of the North to do now, but to pray for the men of Dublin, they’ll fight and die and win Freedom for them, while they are sitting on their hunkers.”

I remember I was mad and awfully upset, so I asked if he knew where Ina was. He told me she had gone to the Walshes of Clogher. I asked if it was far and his sister said, “No, it’s not far.” Dr McCartan said, “You’ll be alright here and you can go on to Clogher in the morning.” “Yes,” I said, “I’ll go to Clogher and get Ina and we’ll go on to Dublin. I’ve wasted too much time on the North as it is.”

Ina and I made our way back to Dublin. We caught a train back to Dundalk, after that we had to walk because civilians were not allowed to use the train to Dublin. Barricades were up all over the place. After an eventful journey, we arrived in Dublin – footsore, tired, and weary, on Sunday. Margaret and Kathleen Ryan told us of the Surrender, and the arrest of the leaders including Daddy, who was also seriously wounded, and also my brother Roddy who was only 16 years old. We then made our way to Madame’s cottage where my mother was stopping. Outside a newspaper shop on a Daily Sketch was a picture of my father with the caption “Dead Rebel.” I said to myself, ” Well thank God, it is too far out for anyone to have brought Mother a copy of that Sketch, at least she would still think he was not dead,” but this was not so, we were to learn later, that someone had brought her a copy of the paper.

The news was not true of course, and we told her he was only wounded and a prisoner. The next 12 days or so were the days of anguish and heartbreak, waiting and hoping. Day, after day, came news of the executions, and we wondered when they would stop; would Daddy be executed in his wounded condition? When we did get in to see him, Daddy had not much hope.

One of the first questions Daddy asked me, was, “What happened in the North?” “It was no use, Daddy, the men were all dispersed and couldn’t be brought together again. I did my best, I waited and waited. When I saw there would be no fighting there I made my way back to Dublin, but the fighting was over when I arrived here. I had no chance, Daddy, I did nothing.”

“I think my little woman did as much as anyone,” he said, as he drew my head down to his breast.

At 12 o’clock on Thursday night, 11th May, 1916, we saw him for the last time and as I kissed Daddy, he held me close to him and said, “I’m proud of you Nora girl.”

After we had left in the early dawn of Friday, 12th May, they took my father down to Kilmainham, strapped him to a chair and executed him. Sean McDermot was executed the same morning.

When I went up to Belfast again, the spirit was rising again and they were all terribly sore and annoyed that they had been rushed back, that they hadn’t got the chance to fight. If they had known what had happened and the real facts, they would not have left Coalisland, but being soldiers they were under orders and had to obey them.

McCullough and McCartan in my opinion were to blame, but I gathered later that the messenger who gave me McCullough’s order on Holy Saturday night, had also brought McNeill’s countermanding order to them.

That’s Easter 1916 in my memory.


One night later in 1916, I was up in Belfast in the old Ard-Scoil, I think and the news of the Battle of Jutland came through – a naval Battle between Germany and England, in which England lost 15 ships – a ship for every man who was executed in Kilmainham. A big Donegal man came over to me and he says, “Isn’t that good news, isn’t that good news?” I said, “Yes.” “Ah” he say, “pray, you never know what would happen.”

Well the next time, I came up, word came through that Kitchener was lost and as soon as my fired saw me, he shouted, “Ah, ah, you’re the girl who knows how to pray.”

Belfast in 1916

Charlie Monaghan and Winnie Carney

Who were the Belfast women and men who took part in the Easter Rising in 1916? A full list of the men mobilised was compiled by the Belfast Commandant in 1916, Peter Burns, in May 1936 and submitted to the Belfast Brigade Committee convened to identify those who may be eligible for pensions from the Free State government for service in 1916-23. It is included at the bottom of this article (the original, MA-MSPC-RO-402, is in the Military Archives).

An account of events in 1916 in Belfast was gathered together by Jimmy Steele and included in 1916-1966: Belfast and nineteen-sixteen, published by the National Graves Association in 1966. It included contributions from Denis McCullough, Cathal O’Shanon and Nora Connolly (which includes a list of women who participated). In March 1916, Denis McCullough (head of the Supreme Council of the IRB) had received his orders from Pearse and Connolly and gave this account in his witness statement:

…Pearse made the following arrangements. When the date for the Rising was decided, we were to receive a code message, the date given in which was to be read as seven days earlier, as the date set for the Rising. I was to mobilise my men, with all arms and ammunition and equipment available, to convey them to Tyrone, join the Tyrone men mobilised there and “proceed with all possible haste, to join Mellows in Connaught and act under his command there”. Burke [the full-time Ulster organiser] was to join us with his men from Carrickmacross and, I presume, take command of the joint forces. I pointed out the length of the journey we had to take, the type of country and population we had to pass through and how sparsely armed my men were for such an undertaking.

I suggested that we would have to attack the R.I.C. barracks on our way through, to secure the arms we required. Connolly got quite cross at this suggestion and ainost shouted at me “You will fire no shot in Ulster: you will proceed with all possible speed to join Mellows in Connaught” and he added, “if we win through, we will then deal with Ulster”. He added further, to both Burke and myself “You will observe that as an order and obey it strictly”. I looked at Pearse, to ascertain if he agreed with this and he nodded assent, with some remark like “Yes, that’s an order”.

When McCullough heard the date of the rising, it happened to be from a Protestant IRB man in Belfast, Alfie Cotton.  The order was for the Belfast volunteers to proceed to Dungannon, supposedly for Easter manouevres when they were to parade with full equipment and arms (their arms were stored in a man called Stewart’s house in Hannahstown and consisted of 42 rifles of various types, while each volunteers carried a revolver). At Dungannon they were to join the Tyrone men under Dr Pat McCartan, Monaghan men under Burke, and all were to head to Galway to link up with Liam Mellows.

McCullough didn’t like these orders (but obeyed as the Supreme Council had agreed to take orders from the IRB Military Council for the proposed rising) and, heading to Dublin to meet Tom Clarke, he told Clarke that he (McCullough) would have it out with Clarke and Sean MacDiarmada afterwards. When leaving McCullough told Clarke: “Tom, none of us will come alive out of this.

McCullough warned the Belfast Battalion that they might have defend themselves on manouevres that weekend and that he himself was going to go to confession beforehand. This impressed the seriousness on them. An advance party had travelled to Coalisland on Good Friday, at the same time Volunteer Charlie Monaghan, from Ballymacarret in Belfast, was killed in a car accident in Kerry whilst involved in preparations for the Rising. On Easter Saturday 132 men answered the roll call and headed off in three groups to Coalisland (McCullough having withdrawn £142 from his bank account and paid all their train fares). They found the Tyrone men unwilling to move and confusion reigned over their actual orders.

A group of Cumann na mBán volunteers had also mobilised to travel to Coalisland. This included Nora Connolly, Ina Connolly, Bridie Farrell, Lizie Allen, Kathleen Murphy, Elizabeth Corr, Nell Corr and another girl called O’Neill (as listed in Nora Connolly’s account in 1916-1966: Belfast in nineteensixteen). In the absence of clear orders in Tyrone, the Cumann na mBán detachment then left Tyrone for Dublin, where Winifred Carney was already serving as secretary to James Connolly, arriving there at 6 am. Nora Connolly reported to her father on the mobilisation in Belfast and her colleagues were dispatched to brief the various leaders (who were still unsure whether to rise the next day) to advise them that Belfast and Tyrone had already risen. In Kathleen Murphy’s account, Connolly re-assembled the Belfast Cumann na mBán to tell them that based on their news,

“You will be delighted to know that we have all decided to strike a blow for Ireland”

Some were then dispatched back to Coalisland to advise the Belfast and Tyrone contingents that the Rising had begun in Dublin. Meanwhile, though, Denis McCullough believed the plan had been aborted and stood down the Belfast men, before their presence might arouse suspicion, sending them back home on the Sunday evening. Some of the Belfast Cumann na mBán volunteers then returned to Dublin again to take part in the Rising.

In her witness statement, Elizabeth Corr gives the details of the Cumann na mBán detachment which mobilised at Easter 1916 (this differs slightly from Nora Connolly’s account but agrees with that of Kathleen Murphy):

Captain: Norah Connolly

Roll Lizie Allen, Ina Connolly, Elizabeth Corr, Nell Corr, Kathleen Murphy, Bridie O’Farrell, Alice Ward, Kitty Ward

The last three names were part of second detachment that was turned back at the train station (the Wards had not officially been sworn into Cumann na mBán).

On the Easter Tuesday, having unravelled the confusing communications such as McNeill’s countermanding order and aware of events in Dublin, the Belfast volunteers re-assembled on the Convent Fields on the Falls Road but, lacking arms, they decided against mobilising again, choosing to monitor events instead.

The list below was that produced by the Belfast Brigade Committee. Dated 15/5/1936 with a handwritten note at the end from Peter Burns saying that this is the names of the Irish Volunteers at Easter 1916, apart from a few names that might be missing. There are 156 names (or partial names) below, well in excess of McCullough’s muster of 132 men on Easter Saturday. Addresses are those given for 1936. Names in bold were interned in Frongoch and where a witness statement is available from the Bureau of Military History it is linked (further accounts can be found here). Belfast Cumann na mBán participants were jailed in Kilmainham and later interned in Aylesbury.

Some of those listed were to continue their involvement in 1917-22 and through the Civil War and into later decades, such as George Nash and Dan Turley (who was eventually shot by the IRA in disputed circumstances in 1937). Charles McDowell, who lived at 116 Leeson Street, was the license-holder for 118 Leeson Street a false address that features repeatedly in the pension records as a code for individuals who were clearly of interest to the Free State government. Some other 1916 veterans like Bernard McMackin and Pat Nash died due to the rigors of imprisonment. Notably, 25 of the 156 men on Burns’ list were dead by 1936. A further 32 were resident in the south, and 9 were overseas. In total, only 90 of the 156 were still alive in Belfast 20 years after the Rising.


Chairman: Denis McCullough Vice Chair: Herbert M. Pim Secretary: Samuel Herron Treasurer: Thomas Wilson


Commandant: Peter Burns Quartermaster: Charles McDowell Captain: Robert ‘Rory’ Haskins Captain: Sean Kelly


Joseph Allen 23 Cavendish Street Patrick Allen 23 Cavendish Street John Allen (Nenagh, Tipperary) Thomas Allen (deceased)

Patrick Bagbey Abercorn Street North Dermot Barnes (Dublin) Patrick Barnes 47 Beechmount Avenue Robert Best 6 Beechmount Street Frank Booth 10 Alexandra Street West John Boyle 11 Braemer Street Daniel Braniff 14 New Dock Street William Brown Mulhouse Street Peter Burns 19 Linden Street Owen Butler (Dublin)

Thomas Campbell 1 Ross Place Patrick Carey 8 Linden Street James Casey 42 Forest Street Michael Carolan (Dublin) Thomas Clear Donegall Road Edward Clarke (deceased) Francis Collins 79 Cavendish Street Alex Connolly (Senate, Dublin) Joseph Connolly (Senate, Dublin) John Corrigan (deceased) Henry Corr 127 Ormeau Road Sean Cusack (Dublin)

Seamus Dempsey (USA) Patrick Dempsey (deceased) John Dillon 49 Gibson Street Henry Dobbin (Dublin) Seamus Dobbin (Dublin) Joseph Doherty 6 Falls Road Edward Doherty (Dublin) Edward Doyle (Dublin) Hugh Doherty (Dublin) Hugh Donnelly (Dundrum, Dublin) Joseph Donnelly Briton’s Parade Patrick Doran 70 Cawnpore Street Hugh Downey 42 Dunmore Street Dunne Joseph Lisburn Road

Patrick Fox 23 Earlscourt Street William Fagan (deceased)

William Gaynor (Dublin) John Gilligan Malone Avenue William Gilmore (Dublin) Edward Gilmore (Dublin) Thomas Gregory Theresa Street Neal Gribben (Armagh) John Gribben Annahorish, Antrim

Sean Hall (Dublin) James Hannen (Liverpool) Sean Harvey 129 Grosvenor Road Samuel Hacket 4 Shields Street William Harbinson 143 Divis Street Robert ‘Rory’ Haskins (USA) Samuel Heron (Dublin) Archie Heron (Dublin) Andrew Hegherty 96 Cavendish Street Patrick Hefferon (Free State) James Hughes (deceased) Jerry Hurley (deceased)

James Jackson (address unknown) James Johnston (deceased) James Johnston Cromac Street (deceased)

? Kane (deceased) Frongoch Patrick Kane Valentine Street Sean Kelly Alameda Terrace Patrick Kearney Panton Street Joseph Kerr Havana Street S. Keenan 28 California Street

James Lawless 25 Lincoln Street James Lindsay Jute Street Henry Loughran Clonard Gardens Fredrick Loughrey 45 Springfield Road James Loughrey (USA)

Thomas McAteer 15 Colligan Street ? McCallum (not given) Thomas McCombe Cawnpore Street Owen McCombe 5 Colinpark Street James McCann (Clones) Daniel McCann 137 Albert Street Denis McCullough (Dawson Street, Dublin) Joseph McCusker (deceased) John McDonnell (deceased) John McDonnell Springview Street Charles McDowell 116 Leeson Street Sean McErlean (deceased) Peter McFadden 23 Dimsdale Street John McFadden 23 Granville Street Neil McFarland St Paul’s Terrace David McGuinness Leoville Street Sean McGouran (deceased) John McGeown (Derrymacash, Lurgan) H. McGeown 93 Plevna Street William McKeeveny Leeson Street James McKeeveney Mulhouse Street James McKenna 78 Falls Road Patrick McKenna 4 Bantry Street John McKenna Cupar Street John McKeown Balkan Street Michael McLaverty (deceased) Arthur McLarnon (deceased) Bernard McMakin (deceased) Peter McMahon (deceased) Patrick McNulty Ormond Street Seamus McNamee (deceased) Cahal McStocker New Lodge Road Michael McWatters (Dublin) Sean Malone 55 Fallswater Street James Mallon Ross Street Joseph Magee 21 Nansen Street James Morgan 80 Abyssinia Street Leo Murphy (deceased) Thomas Mullan (Free State)

George Nash 52 Gibson Street Patrick Nash (deceased) Sean Neeson (Cork) Thomas Newell (deceased) Michael Nolan 93 McDonnell Street William Nolan 39 Beechmount Street James Nugent Cavendish Street

John O’Neill (deceased) Manus O’Boyle (Donegal) Michael O’Donnell Whiterock Gardens Henry O’Hara (?) Henry Osborne 14 Divis Drive

Sean Peaden Rosemary Street James Perry Drew Street Herbert M Pim Belfast Thomas Poland 16 Dimsdale Street

Patrick Quinn Springview Street Robert Quinn 79 Cavendish Street

George Rafferty (USA) Liam Rooney (Dublin) John Ruddick Hannashtown Robert Ruttledge (USA)

William Shaw (deceased) James Scullion 82 Iris Drive Cathal O’Shannon (Dublin) James Smyth Andersonstown Sean Sullivan (Cork)

? Tierney (?) [named as Edward Tierney, Falls Road on list of internees] Arthur Toner 37 Balaclava Street Edward Toner (USA) John Toner (USA) James Towmey Mary Street Daniel Turley 54 Dunmore Street Patrick Turley (?)

Seamus Ward (Donegal) William Ward (Limerick or USA) Sean Walsh 53 Manor Street ? Walsh (Liverpool) Thomas Wardlow (Dublin) Thomas Wilson 38 Dunville Street Seamus Wylie Glenard Drive William Woods 26 Beechmount Street

Named in the various published lists of Belfast internees in Frongoch but not on Belfast Brigade Committee list are: Jerry Barnes 66 St James Park Alfie Cotton, 2 Rosemount Gardens

Cathal O’Shannon (in Jimmy Steele’s 1916-1966: Belfast and nineteen-sixteen) also names Thomas White and Eamonn Rooney as being present.