Gerry Adams: An Unauthorised Life

I hadn’t really been doing book reviews on here, but I happened upon Malachi O’Doherty’s new biography of Gerry Adams (Gerry Adams: an Unauthorised Life) in Eason’s and so…

While I read a lot of text online, I still prefer the tactile experience of an actual book to a back-lit digital page. And although I order books online, I’d rather buy them in bookshops where I can, so when I have a nosey at what is in stock it is usually with an eye on whether I am going to buy it. By now, I’ve accumulated a reasonable enough library of books on Irish history and politics. I even have Sean O’Callaghan’s book on James Connolly (although I didn’t actually buy it, it was a present from my brother Michael – I suspect he doesn’t particularly like me).

So, before buying it, I’d had a flick through O’Doherty’s biography. O’Doherty is a veteran journalist who has published various books on the conflict in the north and whose opinion of republicans, in particular, is fairly well established. So I didn’t expect many surprises in the narrative arc of a biography of Adams.

What caught my eye a few pages into the book was a reference to Jimmy Steele leading the Campbell College raid of 1935. The passage acts as a bit of scene setting where the context of the IRA in late 1960s is contrasted with that of the 1930s (as a critical backdrop to the events of 1969 and increase in intensity of the conflict after August that year). This is illustrated with the example of a 1960s OTC cadet taking a bus along the Falls Road with a .303 Lee Enfield and a box of bullets to do some target practice in the countryside without fear of anyone (particularly the IRA) taking an unhealthy interest in making him part company with either the rifle or ammunition.

The first thing that struck me is that same thing probably happened in the 1930s, so the intended contrast is pretty much an illusion. There were no contemporary incidents or anything to suggest that an OTC cadet wouldn’t have done exactly the same thing in the 1930s without much fear of having his rifle and ammunition snatched from him. In many respects the IRA’s interest in Campbell College was a response to the widespread attacks by unionists on Catholics in various districts of Belfast in the summer of 1935 (rifles were repeatedly shown to be a much superior weapon at keeping crowds out of districts where they intended to inflict destruction). For someone who has repeatedly written on this sort of topic, O’Doherty seems to evidence an inordinately weak appreciation of the context here.

The second thing that then struck me was that Jimmy Steele didn’t lead the Campbell College raid. At the time he was Belfast Battalion Adjutant, while Tony Lavery was Battalion O/C. As Adjutant, Steele supplied a report on the raid to IRA GHQ which was captured in Crown Entry and the text quoted at length in the press. He and Lavery had went up to Campbell College in person to call off the raid when it was clear there were problems, but neither could be described as having led the raid itself. The source for Jimmy Steele leading the raid is Wikipedia, by the way. There is no citation given on Wikipedia for where that information came from but at some point in the future someone will probably try and be helpful and reference it back to O’Doherty’s book.

In the grand scheme of things, that’s pedantic, I know. And I’m sure the obvious retort would be that the corrections are irrelevant as the general sentiment and emotional framing of events in Belfast in 1969 is more important than the finer points of who did what. But therein lies the problem with O’Doherty’s book. So much of the output on the recent conflict in the north mistakes opinion and propaganda for truths or verifiable facts. History, and biographies, to be considered as such, should, at an absolute minimum, be about detail and accuracy. Ultimately, it isn’t the detail that is irrelevant, it is the opinion. And if the detail has to be corrected, what value is the opinion?

So marks out of five???

I didn’t even buy the book.

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Tom Williams, 75 years on

Early in the morning of 2nd September, 1942, seventy five years ago, prison staff moved a cupboard aside in Tom Williams’ cell in C Wing of the Belfast Prison, on the Crumlin Road. It revealed a door that led into the execution chamber. Williams was led into the chamber where he was hung at 8 am. Visitors to the prison today can visit the cell and are walked through the same doorway into the execution chamber. However, even after his execution, Williams remains were effectively imprisoned in Crumlin Road for nearly sixty years until his reburial in 2000.

Shirt in which Tom Williams was executed (in Republican Museum, Conway Mill).

Williams was executed as a reprisal for the death of an RUC Constable, Patrick Murphy, in April that year in Cawnpore Street (you can read the full story in Jim McVeigh‘s Execution: Tom Williams). Williams and Murphy were two of a handful of fatalities during the low intensity conflict between the IRA and northern government between 1938 and 1944. This included four other RUC officers, a prison warder and three IRA volunteers (a greater number died from the poor conditions in the prisons over the same period).

Only a matter of days before the execution Williams five co-accused had saw their own death sentences commuted. But a broad-based reprieve campaign (in the south) for Williams fell on deaf ears. The day of the execution was fairly chaotic. Crowds of nationalists who had gathered to pray for Williams outside the prison were jeered by unionists who sang songs and taunted them. A subsequent protest march into the city centre after the execution had led to small disturbances but these paled into significance alongside the trouble that followed a large scale swoop by the armed forces of the northern government. Large numbers of Catholics were detained, many eventually served internment notices (having no charges proferred against them). The subsequent violence and, weeks later, a number of reprisals for Williams execution led to a protracted curfew in the Falls.

There were over one hundred sentenced republican prisoners in Crumlin Road at the time of Williams’ execution and several hundred internees. They fasted on the day of Williams’ execution. Mass was to be said at 8 am and the chaplain had arranged to time a key point in the service, when he was to raise the communion host, would coincide with the exact time of Williams execution. The resonance of the symbolism of sacrifice in Catholic theology was easily understood and it broke up many of those present. One of those present, Jimmy Steele, later published a poem called ‘The Soldier’ which was dedicated to Williams. Either Steele or another sentenced prisoner who was in A wing the morning of the execution, Arthur Corr, wrote a song called ‘Tom Williams’ (early versions of it in print appear anonymously and neither were later credited with song). It was published in the Belfast IRA newspaper, Resurgent Ulster, in 1954. Steele edited the paper and usually included his own poems without any credit. Jimmy Roe, though, believed Corr, a noted singer but not known as a songwriter, composed the song. It has been subsequently recorded by various people without assigning credit to either. I’ve linked a version recorded here by the great Eamon Largey who knew both Steele and Corr and would have learned it from them (it is uncredited on the Flying Column album ‘Folk Time in Ireland‘). I have also reprinted it in full below.

Whether it was Corr or Steele (both of whom came from North Queen Street), when hearing the opening lines “Time must pass as years roll by, But in memory I shall keep, Of a night in Belfast Prison, Unshamefully I saw men weep…” it should be born in mind that both were present in A wing and in the prison chapel at the time of the execution.

 

Tom Williams

Time must pass as years roll by

But in memory I shall keep

Of a night in Belfast Prison

Unshamefully I saw men weep.

But a time was fast approaching,

A lad lay sentenced for to die,

And on the 2nd of September

He goes to meet his God on high.

To the scaffold now he’s marching

Head erect he shows no fear

And while standing on that scaffold

Ireland’s Cause he holds more dear

Now the cruel blow has fallen

For Ireland he has given his all,

He who at the flower of boyhood

Answered proudly to her call.

Brave Tom Williams we salute you.

And we never shall forget

Those who planned your cruel murder

We vow to make them all regret.

Now I saw to all you Irish soldiers

If from this path you chance to roam

Just remember of that morn

When Ireland’s Cause was proudly borne

By a lad who lies within a prison grave.

 

Text of the IRA report on the Campbell College Raid.

Here is the report by the IRA’s Belfast Battalion Adjutant on the attempted arms raid at Campbell College in December 1935. The text was quoted in full by the Belfast Newsletter in May 1936 after it was captured during the Crown Entry Raid. The Belfast Adjutant was Jimmy Steele, while the IRA’s Adjutant General was Jim Killeen. The report expands significantly on the information given in various other accounts of the raid.

Adjutant, No. 1 Area Ulster to Adjutant-General, I.R.A., Headquarters
The Report of the Campbell College Raid
On 27th December arrangements were made to seize 200 rifles lying in the armoury of the college. Around the front of the college three gate-lodges are situated, whilst at the rear is another gate-lodge. The gate of the rear gate-lodge is a wooden gate, about 12ft or 14ft high and is always closed, except during the day, when it is used as a goods entrance, &c. The lodge itself is a fairly good distance away from the armoury. The three front lodges however, are about 200 yards from the armoury and are linked up by telephone to the main building and armoury. It was found necessary to take and hold these lodges in order to carry out the raid successfully.
Three squads of men, with six m each squad, were selected to take over each lodge. Three of them would enter each lodge, tie up the occupants, dismantle the telephone, &c. This done, two of them would remain on guard, whilst the other four of each squad would close in on the armoury, surround it and, having got into it, seize the rifles and tie up anyone who may be in same.
The squads were to report at the different lodges at 8-10 p.m., and, all well, to make into the lodges at a given signal at 8-15. Numbers 2 and 3 Squads would arrive on foot at No. 2 and 3 Lodges, No. 1 Squad were to arrive in a commandeered car and turn up a road almost opposite to No. 1 Lodge. A check-up car had been arranged also to be hovering around the vicinity.
Immediately it noticed the arrival of No. 1 Squad it was to proceed to Nos. 2 and 3 Squads and inform them that everything was ready.If in the event of any one of the squads not arriving it was to inform the other squads.
The check-up car, on everything being right, was then to proceed to a road leading out of the college, and await the coming out of the commandeered car with the rifles.
After the armoury had been seized, the commandeered car, which was to have been lying handy inside No. 1 Lodge, having moved in after the lodge was taken, was to move up to the armoury and there transport the rifles to their future destination.
The officer in charge of this car was then to exchange places with the officer in the check-up car, proceed around the lodges, dismiss the squads, and lift their guns. So much for the plans.
The check-up car arrived at the appointed place at 8-8 p.m. and patrolled the lodges.
No. 3 Squad arrived at 8-15 p.m., and the officer in charge, being inattentive during the time instructions were given, at once proceeded to take over No. 3 Lodge. The check-up car had passed the spot a minute previously.
Three men entered the gate. One knocked at the door: a woman came to the door and, seeing the masked man. she screamed. The men entered, however, and lined the occupants up. This done, the officer came to the door to inform the other three that everything was all right.
He was met by a policeman, who rushed into the house firing. The three men inside replied to the fire and succeeded in getting past him.
His first shot, however, knocked the gun completely out of the hands of one of the men.
The three men outside, thinking they had been trapped, retreated down the road. The whole six of them escaped, and in the evidence given by each of them at the subsequent inquiry, all were unanimous in stating that not more than one policeman was there, and that if there had been more they would never have got away. No. 2 Squad arrived at their place at 8-35 p.m., twenty minutes late and after the shooting had taken place. The officer in charge, along with two other men, stopped at No. 2 Lodge to await the checkup car. He instructed the other three men to move off down the road and be readv to follow him into the lodge as soon as they noticed the check-up car.
They moved off down the road and stopped at the corner where No. 3 Lodge is situated. One of them noticed about four policemen, and he informed the other two men. The officer in charge said: ‘Don’t run; walk on quietly.’ Immediately they moved they were seen and called on to halt.
They then began to run, McCartney, the captured man, being one of them. The three men at the lodge also retreated, firing as they retreated. All got away safely except McCartney.
Each of these men stated at the inquiry that they never at any time saw more than four policemen; that it would have been impossible for any of them to escape had there been more, or had they been waiting on them.
Their late arrival was due to the late arrival of the guns for the job.
No. 1 Squad commandeered a car, but owing to a misunderstanding as to the place of meeting, the volunteer to drive same turned up at the wrong place. They waited until 8-30 p.m., when they reported to the battalion adjutant and the battalion commanding officer.
These staff officers, under the changed circumstances, decided to call off the raid, and immediately they proceeded by tram to Campbell College, arriving there at 9-5 p.m., having to wait fifteen minutes on a car.
On arrival there they noticed about four police outside No. 3 lodge. They also met one of the men of No. 2 Squad, who seemed to have lost himself, and who informed them of the shooting. They directed him how to get home. On their way home they noticed tenders of police going- out to the scene.
The check-up car hovered about the scene until 8-30 p.m. in the hope of picking up some of the men. They stated also that the first tender of police to arrive, arrived at 8-50 p.m., also that if there had been information beforehand they never would have’ got patrolling around from 8-8 p.m. until 8-50 p.m. without being stopped.
According to information received from a reliable source by the battalion intelligence officer the 200 rifles alleged to have been shifted were not shifted; that it is the usual procedure to have a small guard on the armoury at holiday times.
That the Press reports of the raid, especially ‘the information beforehand’ and the ‘shifting of the rifles’ statements were only published with a purpose to cause suspicion and distrust among the members of the organisation.
This has had a bad effect on the outside public. The ‘Irish Press’ was very prominent with this publication. ‘An Síol‘ has published a leading article on the matter this week.
We have decided to defend Second-Lieut. B. Rooney, D Company, as this is purely a frame-up so far as he is concerned, and considering there is a police notice published in the Press concerning eight young men who were supposed to have boarded a Belmont tram that night, there is every possibility that further frameups may take place if no effort is made to comhat them.
A large number of houses have been visited by the police, the persons wanted interrogated, and all volunteers, of course, refused to make statements.
There is still the possibility of a round-up, and so most of the men are sleeping out of their houses. The Battalion O.C. and Adjutant and a number of other volunteers have managed so far to elude the police. Battalion and company work is going on as usual, and shadow staffs have been arranged in the event of any arrests.

Lodge No 3.

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p style=”text-align:justify;”>This report now gives a much clearer picture of the organisation and sophistication of the Campbell College raid. More than twenty IRA volunteers participated in the operation, including eighteen volunteers in three squads, a mobile unit in a patrol car and the Battalion O/C and Adjutant back at a command post.
The raid itself involved the three squads (number 1 to 3) of six IRA volunteers. Each squad would assemble at a gate lodge at 8.10 pm (only the rear gate lodge was not be seized). Squad 1 (which was to commandeer a car and seize Lodge 1). They were to park up in the Old Holywood Road (roughly opposite Lodge 1). Squads 2 and 3 were to arrive on foot at Lodge 2 (at the junction of Hawthornden Road and Belmont Road) and Lodge 3 (on Hawthornden Road). A second car was going to be present patrolling the perimeter of Campbell College from 8 pm. Once it had observed that Squad 1 was in position, it would move down Belmont Road and signal to Squads 2 and 3 to proceed.
Three volunteers would then seize each lodge at 8.15 pm, secure the occupants and dismantle the telephone line. Two volunteers would remain to guard each gate lodge while the other four volunteers were to proceed to the Campbell College armoury. The assembled twelve volunteers were then to surround the armoury and remove its contents in the commandeered car. The officer in charge of the commandeered car was then to exchange places with the officer in charge of the patrol car, he would then advise Squads 1, 2 and 3 to withdraw.
When Squad 3 arrived at the Hawthornden Road at 8.15 pm, it immediately took over Lodge 3. As the squad leader left the gate lodge to join the rest of Squad 3 he met an RUC constable coming into the gate lodge. After the exchange of fire in the gate lodge, the three volunteers escaped and all of Squad 3 managed to leave the scene.
Due to the late arrival of their weapons, Squad 2 didn’t arrive at Lodge 2 until 8.35 pm where it awaited the patrol car to give the signal, sending three volunteers ahead to be ready to take Lodge 2. The three volunteers who had awaited the patrol car, headed down towards Lodge 3 only to encounter the RUC following up the shootout with Squad 3 at Lodge 3. The RUC gave chase, exchanging fire with Squad 2, and pursued all six of the squad back towards Belmont Road capturing Eddie McCartney.
Squad 1 commandeered a car but the intended driver missed their rendezvous and the Squad had to report to Tony Lavery (Belfast O/C) and his Adjutant Jimmy Steele at 8.30 pm to advise them of the problem. Deciding to call off the raid, they took a tram to Campbell College. Meantime the patrol car withdrew from the scene as RUC tenders began to arrive. Lavery and Steele then arrived at 9.05 pm at Campbell College. Noting the RUC presence at Lodge 3, they met one of Squad 2 who was disorientated by the shooting but informed them as to what had happened. McCartney was to be the only IRA volunteer arrested at the scene.

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.

Steele and McAteers’ Daring Escape

This is ‘Steele and McAteers Daring Escape from the Crumlin Road Jail’ as recorded by The Men of No Property in 1976.

This was released on the LP, ‘Ireland – The Fight Goes On’ on Resistance records (RES 1003 LP). The sleeve notes have this to say about the song: 

  1. Steele and McAteer’s Daring Escape From The Crumlin Road Jail (Traditional)

    • Although it is really traditional, McIlvogue claims it and Whoriskey sings it the escape happened during breakfast at Crumlin Jail Belfast on 15th January 1943. Hugh McAteer, doing 15 years for “treason”, Jimmy Steele, Pat Donnelly, the O/C of Crumlin at the time and Ned Maguire, a slater, forced their way through the roof, dropped 40 feet using sheets, climbed the 20 foot outer wall using an improvised grappling hook and made their escape, despite McAteer injuring his right leg. £3.000 a man was the reward put on their heads but no one informed and that Easter Steele and McAteer appeared to an astonished and delighted audience of film goers at The Broardway Cinema, Falls Roads when the IRA took it over for an Easter commemoration.

As far as it being traditional, the lyrics may have actually been written by Jimmy Steele. Steele edited (and wrote most of) the Belfast edition of Republican News after his escape. A poem about the escape is known to have been included in the March 1943 issue (although I’ve never got my hands on a copy). He regularly included his own poetry and songs in periodicals he published.

The lyrics were also printed in an undated copy of the Rushlight magazine (from some time in the late 1970s or early 1980s). In Rushlight they are laid out as three verses instead of the six that are sung in The Men of No Property’s version. They have slowed the tempo of song down in their recording, but it should be closer to that of Six Miles From Bangor to Donaghadee (as it was sung by Richard Hayward) which uses the same melody. The verses, as printed by Rushlight, fit this version better. This would also give it a more intentionally comedic and light-hearted air than the slower, more severe version recorded by The Men of No Property.

Two poems dedicated to IRA Lieut Tom Williams, hung 2nd Sept 1942

The northern government had hung IRA Lieut Tom Williams on 2nd September 1942 as a reprisal for the death of RUC Constable Patrick Murphy after a botched diversionary attack on Easter Sunday the same year (Williams hadn’t even fired a gun during the confrontation that followed).

While executions had become a staple diet of the De Valera regime in Dublin, deaths from neglect and the terrible conditions in the prison camps of the north had been the more typical experience under the northern government (I now believe as many as 10 prisoners died between 1940 and 1945).

Jimmy Steele was in Belfast prison at the time and he and the other republican prisoners fasted on the day of Williams’ execution. Mass was to be said at 8 am and the chaplain had arranged for a key point in the mass, when the communion host is raised up, to coincide with the exact time of Williams execution. The resonance of the symbolism of sacrifice in Catholic theology was easily understood and it broke up many of those present.

Jimmy Steele later wrote a poem called ‘Tom Williams’ that he published in Resurgent Ulster in 1954 containing the lines ‘Time must pass as years roll by, But in memory I shall keep, Of a night in Belfast Prison, Unshamefully I saw men weep…’. He also published a second poem called ‘The Soldier’ which was dedicated to Williams[1]. Both are below.

 

Tom Williams

 

Time must pass as years roll by

But in memory I shall keep

Of a night in Belfast Prison

Unshamefully I saw men weep.

But a time was fast approaching,

A lad lay sentenced for to die,

And on the 2nd of September

He goes to meet his God on high.

To the scaffold now he’s marching

Head erect he shows no fear

And while standing on that scaffold

Ireland’s Cause he holds more dear

Now the cruel blow has fallen

For Ireland he has given his all,

He who at the flower of boyhood

Answered proudly to her call.

Brave Tom Williams we salute you.

And we never shall forget

Those who planned your cruel murder

We vow to make them all regret.

Now I saw to all you Irish soldiers

If from this path you chance to roam

Just remember of that morn

When Ireland’s Cause was proudly borne

By a lad who lies within a prison grave.

 

The Soldier

Dedicated to Tom Williams, hanged in Belfast Prison, 2nd September 1942

 

They cut down his body, so lifeless and cold

To sate British justice, his life had been sold.

Alien hands laid him to rest in the day

No marble or stone, his cold grave did mark

Just grim prison walls, foreboding and stark

No cer’monial parade, for this martyr, so young

No soldier’s death, like a dog he was hung

The mantle of sorrow was spread o’er the town

His death has been marked, in the debt of the Crown

Oh! people of Ulster the debt it mounts high

Yet under the yoke you are willing to lie

Our dead in the heavens with hard eye, look on

While, to the foreigner daily you fawn

But bear with us longer, dear dead of our race!

Your sons like you spurn to live in disgrace

We’ll fight and we’ll die, we promise you soon

Your proud sons of Ulster wait the rise of the moon.

 

[1] ‘Tom Williams’ was published in Resurgent UlsterVol 2, No. 20 in July 1954. It appeared anonymously but is likely to have been written by Jimmy Steele. ‘The Soldier’, published later in various places is ascribed to ‘Séamus´ and so is definitely written by Jimmy Steele.

Obituary for Jimmy Steele, published in Republican News, August 1970

This is the obituary published for Jimmy Steele on the front page of Republican News in August 1970 (Vol 1, No 3). The text is reproduced as written below.

 

DEATH OF SEAMUS STEELE

A life-long, staunch and ardent Irish Republican

In the sudden death of Seamus Steele, R.I.P., Ireland has lost a loving soul and a stalwart defender of her right to freedom and national sovereignty. “Jimmy” as he was affectionately called by his friends and comrades, gave unsparingly of his time and talents in organising, educating and training those who like himself were pledged to continue the fight until Ireland was free and the Republic of Tone, Emmet, Mitchell, Pearse and McKelvey became an established fact in a Nation where all her children would be treated equally and the common bond of “Irishmen” would erase the age old British inspired divisions amongst the people.

He trod the hard road of sacrifice without regret. In terms of imprisonment, almost a third of his life was spent behind prison bars. His principles based on the teachings of Tone, Pearse, McKelvey and Brugha were the guide lines on which his life was moulded. Freedom, Honour, National Morality and Social and Economic well-being of the people were the things which sustained him in his unflinching opposition to the enforced Rule of Britain in Ireland.

He died still active in the ranks of the Republican Movement. His loss, like that of his life long comrade, Hugh McAteer, whose death took place in similar circumstances only five short weeks ago will be felt by his comrades throughout Ireland; by those who served the long years of incarceration with him behind the grey walls of Belfast Prison; by his legion of friends throughout Ireland and in the USA. But most of all the loss and separation comes to his loving and devoted wife Anna to whom the sympathy of a grateful people goes out and to his brothers Billy and Dan and relatives in this hour of their great bereavement.

Born on 8th August, 1907, he joined Na Fianna Éireann at a very early age. He was active with his comrades in the Fianna in assisting the Volunteers in his Company area around the New Lodge Road.

At the split, following the treaty he remained with the Anti-Treaty Forces and after the break up of the Fianna he continued his association with Oglaig na Eireann: In 1923 he was first arrested. He was taken from his home with an elder brother and detained for nearly three weeks. In 1924 Jimmy was again arrested; this time in company with the late Miss Mary Donnelly outside St. Patrick’s Church, Donegall Street.

In 1924-25 after the release of the Internees the re-organisation of the army took place. Out of this came the foundation of the Joe McKelvey G.A.C. Jimmy was a founder member. It was ta this period also that efforts were made to re-organise the Fianna. With the late Anthony Lavery, Jimmy was appointed to carry out this task which was successfully accomplished. He was arrested during the November 1926 round-up and was held on several occasions by the police under the notorious “Questions and Answer” Act which was part of the Special Power Regulations.

In 1933 he was again apprehended and sentenced to some months imprisonment. But it was in 1936 that his first term of penal servitude began. Following the abortive Campbell College Raid, a Court Martial was to have been held into matters arising from the raid. This was to have taken place in Crown Entry, in Craobh Ruadh Rooms, between High Street and Ann Street. The entire area was sealed off by the police and twelve men including Jimmy Steele were arrested. They were charged with treason. Jimmy Steele was sentenced to five years penal servitude.

During this time he took part in a number of protests in jail. In one such protest against the conditions prevailing in the prison at that time and in furtherance of the demand for full political treatment Jimmy was on hunger strike for 32 days. On the expiry of his sentence he was released in May 1940.

When the 1940 Campaign was in full swing, he reported back to the Army and was reappointed as Adjutant to the Northern Command Staff. Later he attained the position of Adjutant General with the rank of Lieutenant-General. He was soon back on the run. It was at this period that he married Miss Anna Crawford whose home was ever open and whose family ever helpful to those in need of assistance.

But the term of married life and freedom to Jimmy and Anna was short-lived. He was re-arrested in December 1940. This time he was sentenced to ten years.

In January 1943 in company with Paddy Donnelly and the late Ned Maguire and Hugh McAteer he escaped from Belfast Prison. He again reported back for full duty to An Oglaigh. It was to be a hectic period of freedom for him.

On Easter Saturday, 1943, members of the Belfast Brigade, Northern Command, took over the Broadway Cinema, Falls Road. An Easter Commemoration Ceremony was held. Jimmy Steele and Hugh McAteer appeared on the stage. The Proclamation of 1916 and a statement from the Army Council was read by both men.

At this time too the internees in Derry were planning an escape. He immediately interested himself in the Derry project and on the morning of the attempt he was in Derry with a rescue party and transport. Twenty-one men escaped from the jail.

Shortly afterwards he was back in jail himself having again been apprehended. This time he was sentenced to twelve years.

Back in prison, Jimmy found that his comrades in “A” Wing were again protesting. This time they were refusing to wear prison clothes. He immediately joined in with the others. The no-clothes protest lasted 90 days and afterwards he took part in a hunger strike which lasted 18 days.

Whilst in Prison, he was continuously writing for “War News” and lectures for “An Toglach”.

During this period he also wrote articles for the “Critic”, all of these articles having to be smuggled out of prison. A great lover of his native culture, he penned many a poem and song, the most popular of which was “Belfast Graves”.

During his prison terms, he was responsible for an unknown number of fellow prisoners attaining “An Fianne”. He was eventually released in 1950 being the last political prisoner to be released. In 1951 with other known Republicans, he was detained during a visit by British Royalty. He was editor of “Glor Uladh” and “Resurgent Ulster” in the period between 1951 and 1957. In 1957 he was again arrested and interned, eventually being released in 1960. Can those interned with him ever forget how he rallied the dispirited and down-trodden internees after their ruthless beating up by the R.U.C. Reserve Commandos which followed the discovery of the escape tunnel. Jimmy took control of the men and marched and drilled them up and down the prison yard for most of their exercise period, making them sing patriotic songs until their flagging spirits rose, indeed a man among men. He was a prolific writer. He edited the booklets “Belfast Patriot Graves,” “Antrim’s Patriot Dead” and “Belfast, in 1916.” He was chairman of the National Graves’ Association, being the driving force behind the Co. Antrim Republican Memorial in Milltown Cemetery which cost over £3,000.

He was a member of the Barnes and McCormaic Repatriation Committee and before the present troubles was actively engaged in work for the return of the remains of Thomas Williams, a long cherished dream of his. A life-long staunch and ardent Republican, after the 1969 “Army Convention,” he took his stand with those men who wouldn’t compromise true Republican principle. Following the establishment of the Provisional Army Council, he pledged allegiance to it and became even more actively engaged than ever before. At the time of his death he was a Staff Officer on the Belfast Brigade Staff being director of Publicity, in which position he was directly responsible for the launching of the “Republican News” which is the true voice of Republicanism in the North.

So ends the life of one who dedicated himself to the establishment of a thirty-two county Irish Republic. May his life and death bring others to the realisation that Ireland, if we would be free, needs all her sons. May his life be the inspiration that will sustain us until his hopes for the re-establishment of a Free and Irish Republic has succeeded.

Jimmy, until his death, was Director of the Belfast Republican Press Centre and Editor of “Republican News.” He was on duty at the Centre on Monday night, August 3, preparing copy for the next issue of the paper. He had attended the funeral of young Daniel O’Hagan that day and walked with the cortege from the Antrim Road to Milltown Cemetery. The following morning he was forced to go to bed.

Only a few weeks before, he gave a moving oration at the graveside of his comrade-in-arms, Hugh McAteer, who was also on the Staff of the Press Centre when he died.

He was a man of indomitable spirit, active and loyal in the cause of Irish freedom to the very end.

Perhaps his epitaph could come from the words of his own song:-

“Through battlefield and prison cell and comrades treachery brave Jimmy Steele withstood it all till death claimed victory.”

Go ndeanfaidh Dia trocaire ar a anamh