Billy McKee, 1921-2019

The death of veteran Belfast republican Billy McKee has been reported this morning.

Born in 1921, he had joined Fianna Éireann in his teens against the backdrop of intermittent violence in the 1930s. He was then arrested in the McKelvey Club in Rockmount Street in November 1938 along with twenty-three others. The McKelvey Club was the base for the GAA club of the same name. Membership of the club was confined to IRA and Fianna members and provided them with an opportunity to bypass the Special Powers Act restrictions on political activity to hold meetings. All twenty-three arrested in the McKelvey Club were charged with illegal drilling and got several months in prison or fines. McKee spent a few weeks in Crumlin Road and, when I had the opportunity to meet him in researching the Belfast Battalion book a few years ago, he told me of how cold he was in that first night in prison after being roughed up. He remembered lying in the cell and looking up to see a figure with his head in his hands sitting on the pipes that ran along the wall. McKee was in the cell on his own, though, and thinks he then passed out.

After his release he joined the IRA but was again arrested when the RUC raided a meeting of the Belfast Battalion’s D Company in Getty Street on 15th August 1940. Fifteen IRA members present were charged under the Treason Felony Act and sentenced to seven years in November that year. McKee, like other long term sentenced prisoners (there were around 130 by 1943), was confined in A wing in Crumlin Road. The Unionist government had never developed facilities suitable for long term prisoners and previously had sent them to Peterhead in Scotland instead. To avoid paying a subsidy for Peterhead, minor modifications were made to A wing although it still lacked any of the facilities required for prisoners with tariffs above two years.

There were significant tensions in the prison at the time. A major escape then took place from A wing on 15th January 1943, when former IRA Chief of Staff, Hugh McAteer, Northern Command Adjutant Jimmy Steele, Pat Donnelly and Ned Maguire accessed the roof, climbed down over three storeys on a rope made of blankets then scaled the prison wall. A second team was to follow. According to McKee, he had been advised by John Graham (one of the second team) to take his chances after they had gone. As it happened, the last of the first team was spotted (although he got away). McKee recalled the moment he knew his chance was gone when the chief prison officer on duty, a Cork man named Ríordan, strode into the circle of Crumlin Road Prison shouting “Lock them up! Lock them up!”. Even in his 90s, McKee’s memory was extraordinarily sharp, as was his story telling, particularly when discussing the 1940s (as I was only interested in the period up to 1969-1970, we didn’t really discuss anything later). At one point, as he reminisced about individuals from that time, he waved his arm at the sofa in his living room and said that time in his life was so vivid that when he talked about it, it was like he could see the men he mentioned all just sitting in the room.

The response to the January 1943 escape was ‘rough treatment’ (Joe Cahill had called it a ‘reign of terror’). That included constant searches and beatings. Prison protests including a strip strike and hunger strikes followed. The tactics employed in the 1943 and 1944 hunger strikes in Armagh and Crumlin Road were learnt from when McKee went on hunger strike himself, much later, in 1972. On the latter occasion, McKee also was reflecting a similar concern from 1945 when internees were released while sentenced prisoners often had to serve several more years prior to their release. McKee eventually got out on license in 1946 and returned to the IRA (less than 20% of those imprisoned in the 1940s did so).

Front cover, Republican News during McKee’s hunger strike (4th June 1972)

The next phase for the Belfast IRA, and McKee, was more political than military, with the Belfast Battalion remaining small in size (in part as a reaction to the security problems with informers that had come with expansion in the 1930s). A rapprochement with Sinn Féin by 1950, was followed by some electoral successes although mainly outside Belfast. The border campaign that followed was viewed in Belfast (according to McKee), as a fiasco from the start. McKee, like many of the Belfast Battalion, was rapidly interned in Crumlin Road. Back in prison he acted as a key figure in sourcing and operating linesmen (prison staff and others who would carry message in and out of the prison) and was a central figure in networking between the sentenced prisoners in A wing, internees in D wing and the IRA outside the prison.

On his release from internment McKee became Belfast OC (in IRA parlance meaning ‘officer commanding’ or ‘oifigeach ceantair’) and had to rebuild the Belfast Battalion from scratch. He described himself to me as a socialist but said that it was clear even in the early 1960s that Cathal Goulding, then IRA Chief of Staff, just didn’t understand the sectarian dynamics in Belfast and that there was this bizarre belief that organisations like the Orange Order, Apprentice Boys or B Specials were simply ripe to be infiltrated and converted to hotbeds of Irish republicanism. Much of the Belfast Battalion’s energy and meager resources were taken up with publishing a newspaper, Tírghrá, edited by Jimmy Steele, while he, McKee and others established and maintained physical memorials for dead republicans through the National Graves Association. A dispute over flying the tricolour at a Wolfe Tone commemoration in Belfast in 1963 saw McKee abruptly resign from the IRA leaving Billy McMillen to take over as OC (McMillen had defected to the more militant Saor Uladh group in the mid-1950s and only returned in 1962 to become McKee’s Adjutant).

McKee spent the remainder of the 1960s active in the likes of the National Graves Association and former republican prisoners groups, like the Felons. The large Belfast network of former republican activists from the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s and 1950s monitored political developments closely and critically, fearing the language and street violence and then deaths arising from contemporary unionist opposition to the civil rights campaigns presaged more intense violence as in 1920-22 and 1935. It was felt that the IRA and Belfast Battalion were intent on disregarding this threat.

In that regard, the reaction to events in mid-August 1969 was remarkably muted. While McMillen and much of his Battalion staff were briefly interned, McKee, Steele, Cahill and others organized makeshift IRA units and defences and used former connections to try and source arms from old IRA dumps. When McMillen was released, McKee and John Kelly led a delegation to the next Battalion staff meeting (which had to officially sanction McMillen’s reinstatement as OC). McKee dismissed that idea that the meeting was fractious (he says it was just a conversation) although he said that when he arrived McMillen wasn’t there but his Adjutant, Jim Sullivan, was and that Sullivan “…couldn’t do anything without shouting.“. When McMillen arrived they settled down to business – McKee asked for four people to be nominated to the Battalion staff, based on the units put together in McMillen’s absence. They requested that monies that had been donated for arms (and now under Goulding’s control) be used for that purpose – Goulding seemingly wanted the money used for political projects instead. The main request, as a response to the failures of the IRA that summer, was that Goulding be replaced by Sean Garland (another prominent left republican in the IRA) and other senior figures loyal to Goulding step down (but not McMillen). The Belfast Battalion, they believed, should refuse to recognise the authority of IRA GHQ until this was done.

The subsequent fallout over the IRA’s performance in the summer of 1969 led to two competing IRA Army Council’s being formed, with McKee assuming the role of OC of the now expanded Belfast Brigade loyal to the ‘provisional’ Army Council. While I hadn’t explored any details of McKee’s subsequent career, one point we did discuss was Jimmy Steele’s sudden death in August 1970, only weeks after McKee himself had been shot and badly wounded. He had just returned to Belfast and said Steele had been working on a profile to use to restrict IRA membership as they believed that the experience of the 1930s and 1940s had taught them that the Belfast IRA was more effective when small and less prone to security issues or those motivated more by sectarian intent than republicanism. McKee had arrived at Steele’s Clondara Street home and sat down, not realising Steele had died that morning. He said Steele’s wife, Anna, had come in to him and had to tell him. We were sitting in McKee’s own living room, some forty years later. McKee suddenly stopped talking. He then ran his left hand down his right arm and stopped at the elbow and said “It was like losing my right arm.” The remainder of McKee’s career as OC of the Belfast Brigade will likely dominate reports of his death. Yet McKee, like the post-1969 political and conflict landscape had been closely shaped by the experience of the preceding decades.

McKee was one of the last senior figures linking the pre-1969 IRA (which was the subject of the Belfast Battalion book) and events from 1970 onwards. Time had made him a reluctant historical subject which was a great pity both from the point of view of his own story telling abilities and his sharp memory. The conflict that intensified from 1969 hadn’t simply appeared from nowhere, nor had the different influences within the IRA that shaped the 1969-1970 split, the longer term impact of sectarian violence in Belfast in the decades before the 1960s or even the methodologies and tactics of the civil rights campaigns (which were mainly rooted in long term republican opposition to the abuses under the Special Powers Acts). McKee’s life and career spanned many of these events and everyone would have benefitted from a better understanding of each other in learning how history unfolded if we could create an environment in which history telling itself was less contested.

You can read a report on McKee’s death here in The Irish News: http://www.irishnews.com/news/northernirelandnews/2019/06/13/news/provisional-ira-founder-billy-mckee-dies-1640479/?param=ds441rif44T

Billy McKee, 1921-2019

The 1944 IRA hunger strike

Seventy-five years ago this week, IRA sentenced prisoners in Crumlin Road ended a hunger-strike that had begun just over forty days earlier, on the 22nd February 1944. The hunger strike was the latest in a sequence of prison protests that had included a strip strike in mid-1943 and an earlier hunger strike by the female prisoners in Armagh Gaol in the winter of 1943. After the IRA finally began its long delayed campaign in England in January 1939, it had failed to reinvigorate the campaign by transferring its focus to the north. By the middle of 1943, in the face of the loss of key personnel and lack of resources and with no imminent prospect of a Versailles style post-war conference, the emphasis shifted to the prisons and publicity coups in what IRA Chief of Staff Hugh McAteer later described as an attempt to ‘preserve the spirit’ of the movement.

The circumstances of the IRA in the north, at this point, were now considerably removed from that of the generation who were active from 1916 to 1922. From the Easter Rising onwards, conflict with the British authorities and then Free State and Northern Ireland authorities had indeed seen many republicans interned or sentenced to terms in prison. Despite the widespread republican experience of internment and imprisonment between 1916 to 1924, the typical period of incarceration was more often measured in months than years and few faced extended periods in prison. Only a handful of republicans were imprisoned for longer periods, some serving terms in prisons in Britain for a number of years after the general amnesties that followed the signing of the treaty in 1921.

The existing sentencing policy applied in the north from the mid-1930s onwards saw republicans given prison terms for offences that only warranted a fine for others. This discrepancy increased wildly after 1936, first when Eddie McCartney was given a ten year sentence and then when the Treason Felony Act was invoked to hand lengthy prison sentences to the northern IRA leadership. That Act hadn’t been used since the 1880s, which was the previous period in which republicans experienced similarly long terms of imprisonment with the likes of Tom Clarke serving fifteen years in jail.

Long term prisoners create a particular set of circumstances. Using ‘criminalisation’ as a tactical response to present insurgency as illegitimate isn’t exactly new but it does bring its own complications. It may not be explicit state policy but long term insurgent prisoners are designed to be hostages with the prospect of early release held out as an incentive to ending an active insurgency campaign. While the immediate benefit to the state is removing key insurgents from active involvement for extended periods of time that has to be balanced against other factors. Once imprisoned they are able to take part in in-depth internal debates on strategy and tactics with other imprisoned leaders, are able to engage with an audience outside the prisons and often attract support as a prisoner from individuals and organisations who wouldn’t otherwise openly support the insurgency itself. As had happened in the 1890s, the publicity attracted by long term prisoners began to far outweigh any tactical purpose in holding them in jail.

By early 1944, the republican prisoners in A wing in Crumlin Road included the likes of Jimmy Steele and Hugh McAteer who had been imprisoned on multiple occasions and already spent six or seven years each in jail (Steele had first been in prison in 1923). Many others had served various short terms prior to receive lengthy sentences since 1940. Internees, housed in D wing in Crumlin Road, Derry Gaol, Armagh Gaol and (in 1940-41) on the Al Rawdah, had to contend with the uncertainty of internment – no trial or charges also meant no defined period of imprisonment. The internees’ only (vague) salvation was that political pressure or events would eventually bring their release. The fear for sentenced prisoners was that they would not get released in the same way. The creation of two separate prisoner communities (interned and sentenced) created the potential for internal dissent and conflict over strategy and tactics inside and outside the prisons that might bring their release.

In March 1943, the IRA’s Adjutant-General Liam Burke issued an edition of An t-Óglach for the first time in many years (it’s circulation was confined to IRA members). This included an article on ‘Unity’ with the prisons specifically mentioned: “Too often in the past we have allowed ourselves to be divided by some petty grievance or worse still by some false rumour manufactured by enemy agents. In order to satisfy personal spites or ambitions we have allowed that element of disunity to creep in among us. This is very often obvious in the Prisons where Volunteers, living together in confinement for long periods, find too much time to brood on every petty grievance that arises.” There is also an article on Guerilla Warfare that pointed out the legitimate status accorded to ‘Guerillas’ since the 1899 Hague Conference.

AntOglachMarch1943

Burke (who had escaped from Crumlin Road in 1941) was re-arrested and returned to Crumlin Road in April 1943. There were of course IRA prisoners and internees held at various locations on either side of the border and a number of long-term sentenced prisoners from the sabotage campaign in British prisons. By 1943, the IRA’s leadership had mostly relocated to the north and, from early summer, became increasingly focused on the prisons.

Both the 1943 strip strike and Armagh Gaol hunger strike had delivered sharp lessons in terms of mobilising political support outside the prisons. The key focus on the prison campaigns was to obtain political status (eg see Republican News, July 1943 below). So in February 1944 a hunger strike began, with teams of three joining in stages, first beginning with McAteer, Liam Burke (by now O/C of the republican prisoners) and Pat McCotter. The prison authorities delivered food and milk to their cells every day, hoping to tempt the prisoners to come off the strike by leaving the food there in front of them. The will power required to continue the strike, in the cold cells of Crumlin Road, with food in easy reach, must have been formidable.

RepNewsJuly1943

The prison staff also continued to subject the strikers to two to three searches a week, including strip searches, despite the fact they were no longer allowed out of their cells. On day four of the strike (26th February), David Fleming and Jimmy Steele joined the hunger strike with the second team, Steele had participated in previous hunger strikes including in 1936, Fleming was to participate in later hunger strikes. The first of the hunger strikers had already been moved to the prison hospital by the 16th March, by which time eighteen men had joined the strike, including Joe Cahill on the 9th March. On the 16th March, William Lowry, the Home Affairs Minister in Stormont, reported to Stormont that the “…condition of these men is only what could be expected after such a prolonged period without food. The Government cannot accept any responsibility for the actions of these men whose present condition is solely due to their own voluntary abstention from food“. He described hunger striking as a malignant and criminal practice and insisted that the medical treatment the prisoners were receiving was entirely satisfactory. Lowry went on to say, “…Their own relatives at an appropriate time, for example when death is imminent, will be duly notified.

The hunger strikers were joined for a week by 100 internees in Derry prison in mid-March. By the 22nd March, the Irish Times was reporting that Liam Burke, Pat McCotter, Hugh McAteer and Jimmy Steele were all weak after 30 days on hunger strike and had abandoned the strike. That story was not true but, as it was the latest in a series of inaccurate reports on the strike, it was becoming painfully obvious to the IRA prisoners that the censorship was preventing the strike having any impact on public opinion. When the forty day mark was passed, the IRA staff debated the futility of continuing when the chance of fatalities was now growing ever higher. On the forty-fourth day (6th April), the strike was called off. It seems, from Joe Cahill’s account in his biography A Life in the IRA, that the decision was not made by the hunger strikers themselves, as he puts it that a decision was “…taken to bring them off.” One key failure of the hunger strike was to secure parallel political status for internees and sentenced prisoners as there was no concurrent release of internees and sentenced prisoners in 1945. It wasn’t until 1950 that the last three sentenced prisoners, McAteer, Burke and Steele, were released.

The 1944 hunger strike may well never be commemorated or receive any significant attention yet it marks a significant stage in the development of republican tactics. A number of those involved in hunger strikes and prison protests of the early 1970s, such as Billy McKee and Prionsias MacAirt, had been in Crumlin Road at the time of the 1944 hunger strike. Others prominent activists in the early 1970s were also veterans of the 1940s, like Jimmy Drumm, Joe Cahill, Albert Price, Charlie McGlade and Harry White. The 1943/44 protests were Irish republicans first real experience of long term imprisonment in the twentieth century. They contain the roots of later republican thinking and experience that provides a context for prison protests, including the structure of hunger strikes and the role of publicity that became central to events in the 1970s and 1980s.

Thanks to Dr Breandán Mac Suibhne for the discovery of the March 1943 edition of An t-Óglach.

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

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

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

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

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

1922-23 Hugh Corvin

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

AOC

Hugh Corvin

1923-24 Jim O’Donnell

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

1924-26 Hugh Corvin

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

1925-1926 Jim Johnston

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

1926 Hugh Corvin

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

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

1926-7 Dan Turley

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

15356787_1284841611558016_1344752284_n-1

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.

Embedded image permalink

Davy Matthews

1933-34 Jack McNally

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

Jack McNally Jack McNally

1934-36 Tony Lavery

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

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

1936-37 Sean McArdle

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

1937-38 Chris McLoughlin?

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

Chris McLoughlin

Chris McLoughlin

1938 Sean McArdle

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

1938-39 Charlie McGlade

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

Embedded image permalink

Charlie McGlade

1940 Jimmy Steele

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

Jimmy Steele 1940

Jimmy Steele in 1940

1941 Liam Rice

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

Liam Rice Liam Rice

1941 Pearse Kelly

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


Pearse Kelly Pearse Kelly

1941-42 Hugh Matthews

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

Embedded image permalink


Hugh Matthews

1942 John Graham

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

img_1083.jpg

John Graham

1942-43 Rory Maguire

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

1943 Jimmy Steele

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

1943-44 Seamus Burns

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

Embedded image permalink


Seamus ‘Rocky’ Burns

1944 Harry White?

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

<

p style=”text-align:center;”>

Harry White
Harry White

1944-45 Harry O’Rawe?

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

1945 Johnny Murphy?

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

<

p style=”text-align:center;”>

img_3051
Johnny Murphy

1945 Seamus Twomey?

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

Seamus Twomey

Seamus Twomey

194?-49 Seamus McCallum

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

1949-50 Frank McKearney

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

1950-56 Jimmy Steele

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

1956 Paddy Doyle

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

1956-57 Joe Cahill

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

Joe Cahill

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

1961-63 Billy McKee

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

Embedded image permalink

Billy McKee

1963-69 Billy McMillen

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

Billy McMillen

Billy McMillen

1969 Jim Sullivan

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

Jim Sullivan


Jim Sullivan

1969 Billy McMillen

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

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

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

Belfast and Nineteen Sixteen book relaunched by National Graves Association, Belfast.

The National Graves Association Belfast are relaunching ‘Belfast and Nineteen Sixteen’ the booklet produced to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the Easter Rising. The original 1966 book has been reprinted along with a new cover and introduction.

You can read more on the relaunch below (by Brónach Ní Thuama in the Andersonstown News):

The booklet was originally produced (along with Antrim’s Patriot Dead) to raise funds on behalf of the National Graves Association in Belfast and defray the cost of erecting the County Antrim Memorial on the Tom Williams plot in Milltown Cemetery. Both were edited by Jimmy Steele, who had previously edited a number of versions of what is now Belfast Graves, a compendium of biographies of republicans who had died while actively involved in various campaigns. Funds from sales we go towards ongoing work on the Belfast National Graves Association.

I have written about Belfast and Nineteen Sixteen and Antrim’s Patriot Dead previously.

You can view the whole book here: Belfast and Nineteen Sixteen (or get a preview below, to whet your appetite).

I don’t have a link for buying it online as yet, but I’ll update this as soon as I get one. In the meantime you can contact the National Graves Association in Belfast via their Facebook page.

 

Some related posts on Belfast and 1916

Mobilising in Belfast for 1916

Disinformation and propaganda: violence in Belfast in 1966

Belfast Easter Commemoration, 1917

Truckling to Treason: Belfast Newsletter reflects on the Rebellion, 4th May 1916

Belfast in 1916

75th Anniversary of Crumlin Road Jail Escape

Monday 15th January 2018 will be the 75th anniversary of the escape from Crumlin Road Jail by Pat Donnelly, Hugh McAteer, Ned Maguire and Jimmy Steele.

The escape provided one of the few iconic images of the IRA campaign of the 1940s, with the famous wanted poster. It was initially published in the local press on the day following the escape (see below).

The poster contains a couple of errors. Jimmy Steele was born in 1907, not 1909. Similarly, Hugh McAteer was born in 1916, not 1917. I managed to perpetuate this error last year by incorrectly noting the centenary of his birth (his daughter Máire has since put me right – he was born in Derry on 13th August 1916). McAteer wrote an account of the escape, which I’d previously posted up here.

You can read an account based on the escape report and other memoirs here.

You can find out more about the escape here and listen to the Men With No Property’s recording of ‘Steele and McAteers Daring Escape from the Crumlin Road Jail’ (am not sure who wrote it, but one candidate would be Arthur Corr, who was an orderly in A wing at the time of the escape and wrote the balled ‘Tom Williams’).

The Manchester Martyrs centenary and echoes of the 1969 split in the IRA

Up to the Easter Rising, one of the key annual events in the republican calendar was the commemoration of the ‘Manchester Martyrs’, William Philip Allen, Michael Larkin, and Michael O’Brien, the IRB members who were publicly hanged in front of a crowd of 8-10,000 outside Salford Gaol on 23rd November 1867. They were hung for the death of a police sergeant during an attempt to free two IRB prisoners from a police van. Neither Allen, Larkin or O’Brien fired the shots that killed the policemen and two others that had also been sentenced to death had their sentences commuted due, in one case, due to American citizenship (a lesson not lost on a future generation), and in another, due to the clearly perjured evidence against him (bizarrely, the others were all convicted on the same evidence but not reprieved).

Smashing of the Van

‘The Smashing of the Van’ – the attempt to free two IRB leaders that led to Sergeant Brett being shot and the execution of the ‘Manchester Martyrs’ in 1867.

The execution was only the second public hanging in Manchester and The Pall Mall Gazette in London noted (on 25th November) the well behaved nature of the crowd (as opposed to the rioting that frequently accompanied hangings in London) and put it down to the fact that “…a taste for execution is perhaps, rather acquired than natural.” The hangman, William Calcraft, was notoriously inept and only Allen is believed to have been killed by the initial drop. Calcraft himself pulled on Larkin’s legs to break his neck but a priest in attendance, Fr Gadd, stopped him from doing the same to O’Brien. Instead the priest held O’Brien’s hands for three quarters of an hour until he finally died. The three were buried in the New Bailey prison in Manchester, although public funerals were held across Ireland and in some cities in Britain. Allen, Larkin and O’Brien are publicly commemorated in the song ‘God Save Ireland’, first published by Tim Dan Sullivan in December 1867. Another song, ‘The Smashing of the Van’ commemorates the events that led to their execution. Their remains were moved from the New Bailey prison to Strangeways in 1868 and then cremated and reinterred in Blackley cemetery in 1991.

Even after 1916, a huge commemorative ceili continued to be held annually in the Mansion House in Dublin for several decades. There are a lot of parallels with 1916, in terms of how the event became a focal point within the broader political methodology of Irish republicanism. For long periods, Irish republicanism had focused on building towards an event that might become the spark that would lead to the establishment of the Irish republic, rather than what would later become known as a ‘long war’ strategy (or low intensity conflict). In 1916, the ‘blood sacrifice’ concept understood by Pearse and Connolly was rooted in a realisation that failure to secure a republic by force of arms, in April 1916, would likely see their deaths either in battle or by execution. However, both knew Irish republicans could then catalyse the reaction to executions (rather than the whole Rising) into an ideological parable to try and give impetus to the Irish public to go out and establish that republic (as had happened with the Manchester Martyrs). Arguably, the structure of republican strategy, post-1981 hunger strike can be read within a similar framework. In the late 19th century, the Manchester Martyrs had provided a similar focus rather than the broader ‘Fenian movement’.  In many ways, the historical narrative around Irish republican ideology is often best understood within the context of such events involving a small number of individuals, rather than by looking at time periods defined in other ways (eg the ‘War of Independence’ was often reduced to a summary that focused on the likes of the execution of Kevin Barry).

The centenary of the Manchester Martyrs saw various events organised. Known, by 1967, as the Manchester Martyrs and Easter Week Commemoration Committee, the main organisers announced a few weeks in advance that a ‘Manchester Martyrs Commemoration Week’ was to be held in Manchester from November 20th to 26th. This was to include a folk night in St Bernadette’s Hall, Princess Road, a play presented by the St. Brendan’s Irish Players in St. Brendan’s Irish Centre. City Road, Old Trafford, a High Mass in St. Patrick’s Church, Livesey Street on the actual anniversary (celebrated by the Bishop of Salford),  a dinner dance in St. Brendan’s Irish Centre, City Road with the Assarce Ceili Band and then a parade on the 26th from Bexlev Square past the place of execution to St. Patrick’s Church for 11.30 am Mass. The parade was then to reassemble at Ben Brierley, Moston at 3 p.m. and continue to Saint Joseph’s Cemetery, Moston, where an oration was to be given by Jimmy Steele, Belfast, and a decade of the Rosary in Irish. All Irish organisations in Manchester were requested to keep that week free of engagements to support the committee’s functions.

In Manchester itself the centenary was preceded by a dispute over the erection of a memorial plaque at the site of the execution. The memorial was proposed and sponsored by the Manchester branch of the Connolly Association rather than the official Manchester Martyrs Memorial committee. It was given planning permission but opposed by the Manchester police and the issue was not resolved prior to the centenary itself. The Connolly Association had offered to include the policeman’s name on the plaque (arguing that he too was equally a victim of British imperialism). But the left wing politics of the Connolly Association also brought it into conflict with the conservation Catholicism of the official Memorial committee.

At the end of the main commemoration on the 26th November, the Memorial committee chairman, Austin Fitzmaurice, was prompted by one of his committee to add some final comments. The first was that the commemoration was nothing to do with any other commemoration committee (clearly meaning the Connolly Association), the second was that ‘those present’ did not want Ireland freed with the help of Soviet Union and the last was “We are Catholics first and Irishmen afterwards.” (Irish Democrat, January 1968).

The Connolly Association plaque was put on display during the commemorations, though. The main gathering on the Sunday was attended by 3,000 people including 77 year old, Elizabeth Maher, a cousin of Michael Larkin, who had travelled from Dublin. Also in attendance were Tomas MacGiolla, President of Sinn Féin and Jimmy Steele, Chair of the Republican Clubs in the north, members of Fianna Éireann (whose Dublin branch organised Ms Maher’s travel and provided a colour party), Cumann na mBan, the Brian Boru Pipe Band and the Pre-Truce IRA Association.

At the main gathering in the cemetery in Moston, Jimmy Steele gave what the Connolly Association’s newspaper, The Irish Democrat, described as a ‘spirited oration’ in its December issue. In it he criticised the ‘New Departure’ of John Devoy and Michael Davitt, stating that “…it was always an error to become involved in political parties.” (Irish Democrat, December 1967). Devoy, who had later supported the Treaty and Cumann na nGaedhal, had pushed the IRB leader, Michael Davitt, into supporting Parnell and the constitutional nationalists sitting at Westminster in 1878. This was perceived as having weakened the IRB and directed energies towards four decades of an ineffectual ‘Home Rule’ campaign in Westminster (the culmination of its failures being the IRB’s response with the 1916 Rising).

The month previously, Dan Breen, the former IRA leader who had been a Fianna Fáil TD, led a commemoration and wreath laying at the John Devoy memorial in Kildare, alongside leading Fine Gael politicians. Notably, neither party appears to have been represented at the official Manchester commemoration. There is an interesting echo here of last year’s 1916 centenary and Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael’s embarrassingly strained emphasis on constitutionalists like John Redmond.

Steele might have intended his comments to be a commentary on the Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael détente at Devoy’s memorial, or at least be read as such. But within the IRA and Sinn Féin, Cathal Goulding had been pushing for an end to abstentionism at Leinster House, Stormont and Westminster. This had been repeatedly defeated when put to a vote. While his strategy was being questioned, Goulding had increasingly been centralising control of both the IRA and Sinn Féin in himself and in its public voice, like The United Irishman newspaper. The Belfast IRA newspaper Tírghrá, edited by Steele, was starved of resources and effectively closed down by Goulding in 1965. In September 1968, Goulding was to dilute the ability of the IRA to oppose his attempts to end abstentionism by dramatically expanding the Army Council so that he could then install a majority of his supporters and force through changes (and, apparently, stall any Army Convention that might reverse the changes). This precipitated the crisis within the IRA that surfaced in the early summer of 1969, led by Steele. In that light, Steele’s comments in Manchester should be seen as commentary on Goulding’s aspirations to transform the IRA. The Manchester Martyr’s commemoration in 1967 should perhaps be regarded as an opening salvo in the dispute that was to split the IRA two years later.

For more on the Manchester Martyrs, see Joe O’Neill’s The Manchester Martyrs.