Revisiting 1969: the Belfast IRA, reactions and responses

This is a brief account of IRA activity in Belfast over the course of 13-15th August 1969 and its reaction to events.

[A brief warning: I’ve included some graphic press images of the violence in Belfast below. Published images and footage of the night-time violence appear to be almost non-existent, despite the clear presence of film crews and multiple photographers.]

By 13th August, in anticipation of protests over events in Derry, the Unionists had 400 B Specials on duty in Belfast. The RUC were briefing that events in Derry and the solidarity protests elsewhere were being organised by the IRA and Sinn Féin. This included claims to have intelligence that the IRA was mobilising units in South Armagh to make a move on Newry and IRA units assembling within Newry itself.

That night violence flared after demonstrations outside Springfield Road and Hastings Street RUC stations. There was also trouble in Short Strand and in Hooker Street off the Crumlin Road. According to Billy McMillan, the Belfast O/C in August 1969, the Battalion consisted of around eighty volunteers and an auxiliary of around two hundred. The Battalion had sent all its weapons to dumps in the south in 1956 prior to the border campaign and at the time was effectively unarmed. For a number of months the Belfast IRA had been requesting it get sent arms and ammunition as it was feared that, similar to the 1920s and 1935, a fresh pogrom was imminent. According to members of his Army Council, like Roy Johnston, the IRA Chief of Staff, Cathal Goulding had deliberately left the Belfast IRA without arms. Goulding assumed violence from the RUC and B Specials would generate so much negative publicity it would lead to Stormont being closed, London taking over responsibility and beginning reforms. Bizarrely, as the crisis unfolded in Belfast Goulding was actually busy staging an ‘IRA training camp’ outside Dublin for a British television crew (for a £200 fee). On 14th August, his solution to Belfast’s problems was to ring one of the Battalion staff, Prionsias MacAirt, and order him to go out and try and reason with the rioters.

On the evening of the 13th August, the RUC had taken up positions on the roof of Hastings Street RUC station with machine guns, while Commer armoured cars drove across the Falls Road into Mary Street, Lemon Street and Peel Street where the RUC smashed windows with batons (see image below).

RTE 1969

Commer armoured cars in Divis Street on night of 13th August (RTE).

McMillan ordered a number of IRA operations to be carried out against the RUC and B Specials with whatever weapons the Battalion had available. Shots were then fired at an RUC vehicle in Leeson Street. Two grenades were also thrown but only one exploded. The RUC also reported that six shots were fired from a passing car at Andersonstown Police Station but no damage was done. Later at the Scarman Tribunal, investigating the violence, Belfast RUC Commissioner Harold Wolseley claimed that, taken together, these attacks were deemed to be the signal that an IRA insurrection was underway.

Under this pretext, Shorland armoured cars were despatched to patrol Divis Street and the adjoining areas (see photos below). At Springfield Road Barracks the RUC opened fire on the crowd wounding two men. B Specials and RUC assisted crowds who were evicting Catholic residents from their homes on the night of 13-14th August (eg see Dominic Corr’s account and Michael McCann’s book Burnt Out).

Hastings St 13.14 Aug 1969

Petrol bombs exploding in front of Hasting Street RUC Barracks on the night of 13-14th August (Belfast Telegraph)

Shorland

Mark 1 Shorland armoured car mounting a Browning machine gun (from http://www.shorland.com)

Shorlands 6 and 7

Shorlands on the move in Belfast – identification numbers feature in eye-witness accounts of shooting, particularly number 6 (from Chartres, Henshaw and Dewar, Northern Ireland Scrapbook).

The night of 13-14th August had already used up the minimal resources of the Belfast IRA. While Belfast was relatively calm during daylight the next day, it was clear that preparations were being made for concerted attacks by unionists in areas such as the Crumlin Road, Clonard and Divis Street that night. The Unionist cabinet met that afternoon and decided to intern ‘IRA agitators’ overnight and to request use of the British Army in Derry. The B Specials were also fully mobilised.

During the day, current and former members of the Belfast Battalion scraped together whatever weapons they could find as they fully expected the B Specials to lead attacks from the Shankill Road into Divis Street, Cupar Street and Ardoyne that night. The weapons they got together included any form of shotgun or hunting rifle that could be begged, borrowed or stolen. Billy McKee, a former Belfast O/C, managed to collect together bits of ammunition. Jimmy Steele, another former Belfast O/C, retrieved two revolvers from an ancient dump in his brother’s attic. Joe Cullen, O/C of the Belfast IRA’s engineering battalion in the 1920s assisted with getting the guns into shape. Around twenty-three handguns, some grenade casings and a handful of hunting rifles and shotguns were gathered together by the time darkness fell. A single Thompson submachine gun had also been found (its single magazine was fired in bursts over the head of the crowd attacking St Comgalls). That was the armament available to the IRA to face the heavy machine guns in the Shorland armoured cars, Bren guns, Sten guns, rifles and revolvers carried by 500-600 B Specials and RUC.

By late afternoon that day, houses were already being burnt out and mobs began to emerge onto Divis Street from the direction of the Shankill Road including the Shankill Defence Association, B Specials and RUC. The RUC were also using Shorland and Humber armoured cars after 10.30 pm to drive at the crowd. Armed with a variety of submachine guns, rifles and revolvers, eye witnesses recorded that the B Specials began opening fire in Divis Street. Residents responded with stones and petrol bombs. The crowd that emerged from Dover Street and Percy Street began burning and looting businesses and homes on Divis Street. After 11 pm the RUC and B Specials tried to lead baton charges into the complex around Divis flats. By now the Shorland armoured cars were firing from their heavy machine guns. There was also violence in Conway Street (the first location at which the Shorlands’ opened fire), Cupar Street and on the Crumlin Road.

After midnight the violence intensified as fighting focused on St Comgalls School, which was defended by a number of former IRA members. The Shorlands were firing tracers and it could be seen that they were raking each floor of Divis tower and shooting into side streets (this is when Patrick Rooney and Hugh McCabe were killed). There were also RUC and B Special guns on the roof of various buildings firing down into the various streets.

Falls Road 14.15 Aug AP Wirephoto

Shorland and armed B Specials with ambulance waiting behind them off the Falls Road on night of 14-15 August (AP).

Belfast 14.15 Aug 1969

Petrol bombing exploding underneath a Shorland armoured car surrounded by  B Specials, night of 14-15 August (Belfast Telegraph).

Falls Rd Indo 14869

Falls Road, armoured car and petrol bombs burning on night of 14-15 August (Irish Independent).

Belfast shot in head 14.15 Aug 1969

Un-named man wounded in head ‘by a sniper’ (possibly near Divis tower) on night of 14-15 August 1969 (Daily Mirror).

The IRA had no control over events as they happened, had no meaningful stocks of arms or ammunition and had not trained its members for the roles they now needed to fill. In the absence of any planning, current and former members organised ad hoc groups to defend the likes of St Comgalls School as they came under sustained attack, or like Cullen and Steele, were stationed on Broadway with handguns ready to delay any incursion from the Donegall Road. At the same time, the Battalion Adjutant, Jim Sullivan, though, had advised IRA members that they should only shoot over the heads of attackers. The minimal stocks of ammunition available was used up within minutes. Despite the lack of offensive capability of the IRA, the RUC issued reports saying they had to fall back and were besieged in the likes of Hasting Street Barracks.

In the early morning of 15th August, thirty men were rounded up in an internment sweep including McMillan and MacAirt (although Sullivan avoided the round-up). During the day, as the violence worsened, the IRA commandeered the Broadway cinema as people fled the mobs trying to burn them out of their homes in the streets off the likes of Divis Street and Cupar Street.

When British Army assistance was finally requested by the Unionists, it actually deployed along the Falls Road and Divis Street. The RUC had been advising that the IRA had snipers positioned along the rooftops and that the district was in the middle of an IRA insurrection. It took considerable persuasion by the likes of Fr Patrick Egan to convince the British Army to relocate to the streets, like Bombay Street which had been burned down or were under attack. Six people had been killed in Belfast and at least 133 wounded. One of those killed was Gerard McAuley, a member of Fianna Éireann, the republican youth organization.

C070B6EE-D7DD-44C0-B76A-F9E3320853FF

Billy McKee with Gerard McAuley just after he was shot in Clonard (courtesy of Pat Leahy).

Xenia Daily Gazette cablephoto Belfast Falls 15 Aug 1969

A street off the Falls Road in flames on night of 15 August 1969 (AP).

Jimmy Steele and Joe Cahill walked down the Falls Road the next day (16th August). There was a mood of despair and anger directed at the IRA for its failure to be prepared to defend the population. Both were called deserters and traitors and Cahill claims they were even spat upon (see Anderson, A Life in the IRA).

Meanwhile, besieged in Dublin by IRA officers looking for GHQ to open its dumps and distribute arms and ammunition to the north, Goulding retreated to an upstairs office with Mick Ryan and said “This is terrible, Jesus Christ, this is terrible. What am I going to do? Living Jesus, what are we going to do?” Goulding hadn’t been able to locate the IRA’s Quartermaster General, Pat Reagan, so he replaced him, on the spot, with Ryan (this is based on Ryan’s interviews in Swan’s Official Irish Republicanism). The depth of disorganisation around Goulding is shown by the fact that Ryan didn’t know Reagan had been Quartermaster and thought Goulding was filling the role himself.

A variety of meetings took place, in public and private in Dublin, and money was donated to both solidary funds (for refugees of the violence) and defence funds (basically, to purchase weapons). A meeting between IRA O/Cs and the Army Council was told by Goulding that the IRA should not respond with armed action. Meanwhile, the Unionist Prime Minister, Chichester-Clarke, blamed Catholics, the I.R.A., civil rights movement and Irish government for trying to discredit and subvert Stormont.

Amid the chaos, Goulding issued a widely-derided statement claiming that northern units of the IRA had been in action in Derry and Belfast and that the Army Council had placed “…all volunteers on full alert and has already sent a number of fully equipped units to the aid of their comrades in the Six Counties and to assist the local Defence Committees, Citizen Action Groups and other popular organisations…”. The statement noted, somewhat paradoxically, that “The people of the Falls Road area have gratefully acknowledged this assistance in the past few days and have contrasted it bitterly with the failure of the Dublin Government to act in their defence.

From Belfast, Joe Cahill, Jimmy Drumm and Leo Martin had been dispatched in three teams to bypass GHQ and make contact with IRA units in the south and retrieve any dumped weapons they could find. They drove non-stop across the south for twenty-four hours then regrouped in Dundalk before bringing the weapons to Belfast. This included a few Thompsons, some Sten guns, .303 and .22 rifles (including M1 carbines, Garand semi-automatics, bolt-action Springfields and Lee-Enfields) and revolvers. Ammunition calibres varied widely as the Thompson fired a .45 bullet, M1s and Garands a .300 and the Lee-Enfield a .303. Many younger volunteers had little expertise in using the weapons. Notably, older volunteers from the 1940s (and earlier) were required to maintain and oversee their use.

Meantime, Steele and McKee had remained in Belfast and organised a meeting to be held a couple of days later, on the return of Cahill, Martin and Drumm. The meeting was held in the social club at Casement Park on 22nd (it may have been on 24th August as exact date isn’t clear). It was attended by the likes of Daithi O Conaill (IRA O/C of Derry and Donegal), Jimmy Drumm, Joe Cahill, Billy McKee, John Kelly, Billy Kelly, Leo Martin and Seamus Twomey. Cahill, Drumm and Martin were able to report on the attitude of the IRA units, members and supporters they had encountered on their whistle-stop tours. According to Billy McKee, John Kelly and Joe Cahill, those in attendance agreed that the Battalion staff prior to August 15th had to take responsibility for the failures of mid-August and lack of preparedness of the IRA in Belfast. This failure had been compounded and confused by the direction being given by GHQ in Dublin. This included both the emphasis being placed on politicisation and the unwillingness to listen to those in Belfast who had reported that the risk of significant violence against Catholic communities was getting critical.

Those present appear to have decided not to challenge the current Belfast leadership and gave GHQ time to respond to events. The IRA’s own rules would require McMillan to need to be voted in again as O/C on his release from prison (Jim Sullivan acted in the role during his absence). The influx of new and returning members had rapidly expanded numbers in the IRA and created uncertainty over the status of individual’s who took on company and staff posts in the days after 14-15th August. In the meantime, they could just do what they could to distribute the arms and ammunition recovered by Cahill, Drumm and Martin and provide other supports to the threatened districts across the city. And they waited for Billy McMillan’s release from internment to see what would happen next.

 

You can read more about these events and the wider split in the IRA here and in the Belfast Battalion book.

Revisiting 1969: the myth of a pre-August 1969 split

I have a few posts on events in 1969 taking a fresh look at some key events. This will include the deployment of the British Army, the introduction of internment and the split in the Belfast IRA in September 1969. But they are for another day. Firstly, I’m going to wrap up the previous post on the speeches given at a major IRA event in Mullingar in July 1969 (you can read them here and see some more here).

So, was Jimmy Steele’s speech in Mullingar really the first sign of the 1969 split in the IRA, or was the treatment of Steele simply an example of methods and attitudes of the IRA leadership at the time? Steele, a former IRA Adjutant General, had been President of the Directory of Republican Clubs in the north as recently as 1967-68. The excerpt from his speech quoted by Peter Taylor (in Provos) is used in most accounts of the 1969 IRA split to support an argument that the split reflected broad left/right divisions within the republican movement. The surviving audio of his speech neither corresponds to the text quoted by Taylor nor provides much evidence that left/right ideological issues were really the major factor in the later IRA split.

Jimmy Steele at Mullingar in 1969 (from Joe Cahill: A Life in the IRA).

That the speech prompted internal ructions within the IRA isn’t at doubt. The day after it was given, the IRA Chief of Staff, Cathal Goulding, had Steele removed from Sinn Féin’s official panel of speakers for republican events. Steele had been involved with Fianna Éireann and the IRA since 1920, spent numerous periods in prison or interned and edited a variety of republican newspapers and pamphlets. According to Belfast IRA veteran Billy McKee, on the Wednesday evening he was in Steele’s house when Malachy McGurran (an IRA Army Council member) and Jim Sullivan (the Belfast IRA Adjutant) arrived. McKee, who had not been active in the IRA since the early 1960s, was asked to leave as Sullivan and McGurran told him they had IRA business to discuss with Steele. When McKee met Steele again a couple of days later, Steele told him that McGurran and Sullivan had been sent by Goulding to inform him of his immediate expulsion from the IRA. Any reference to Steele’s speech was omitted from the subsequent coverage of the event in the subsequent issue of the main republican newspaper, The United Irishman.

Steele’s speech had been delivered in front of crowd of 10,000 at Ballyglass cemetery, Mullingar, at the reburial of Peter Barnes and James McCormick. Barnes and McCormick had been hung in England in 1940 after a 1939 IRA bombing in Coventry in which five people died. A repatriation committee had campaigned for the return of their remains since 1949 and Steele spoke at the reburial on its behalf. Various other people spoke from the platform including Sinn Féin President Tomás MacGiolla (who had chaired the repatriation committee). The main speech on behalf of the IRA was by Cork man Jim O’Regan, an International Brigade veteran who had also been active during the 1939 English campaign and imprisoned along with Barnes.

 

Peter Taylor’s text

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

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

Subsequent references to the speech all seem to be solely quoting Taylor. This includes the likes of Patrick Ryan’s The Birth of the Provisionals, Robert White’s biography of Ruairí Ó Brádaigh and Sean Swan’s Official Irish Republicanism 1962-72 (which specifically cites Taylor’s quote as a transcription). Almost all use it to support an analysis of the ideological split within the IRA over opposition to a ‘leftward’ drift under Goulding.

Taylor gives his source as a tape recording of the speech played for him by McKee. The recording had been made in Mullingar by another Belfast IRA veteran Leo Martin who later donated it to the Republican History Museum in Conway Mill in Belfast before his death. The surviving recording includes the speeches by O’Regan and Steele. Despite the dreadful weather the audio quality is still remarkably good although the very start of Steele’s ten minute speech is missing.

 

Steele’s speech

The extant audio (you can read the transcript here) starts with Steele criticising People’s Democracy’s Michael Farrell and the Derry Labour Party’s Eamon McCann for refusing to march behind a tricolour at a recent James Connolly commemoration in Belfast. Here Steele chimes exactly, in tone and language, with coverage of the same issue in the June and July 1969 issues of United Irishman, and with recent statements by people close to Goulding like Tomás MacGiolla and Derry Kelleher, all  of whom emphasised James Connolly’s combination of socialism and republicanism.

The excerpt below, following his criticism of Farrell and McCann, illustrates Steele’s theme of Connolly’s vision of left-wing Irish republicanism. “Barnes and McCormick did not accept this position. They acted as Connolly would have acted and fought to the death against it. That was why they died. There are those who would decry their sacrifice and speak of the futility of martyrdom and cynically refer to glorious sacrifices. I will let Connolly answer those people as he answered the judges at his own court martial, “Believing that the British government has no right in Ireland, never had any right in Ireland and never can have any right in Ireland, the presence in every one generation of Irishmen of even a respectable minority read to die to affirm that truth, makes that government forever a usurpation and a crime against human progress.”

The reference to “the teachings of Chairman Mao” then appears in a different context in the audio than that implied by Taylor’s account: “A period that cost the lives of twenty-six soldiers of the Irish Republican Army, nine by execution in England, Belfast and the Twenty-Six Counties, five in gun battles with enemy forces and the remainder on hunger-strike or in the prisons. Yet, until recently, there seems to be this deliberate blackout of that glorious period. Could it be that it is so fashionable to be tinged a deep red, to be militantly anti-British in the Forties, as Barnes and McCormick and their comrades were, is now considered to be tantamount to being dubbed fascists. These men were not fascists, nor were they Communists, nor murderers as their enemies allege them to be. They were simply guilty of the unpardonable crime of being Irish patriots, imbued with a deep love of Ireland and her cause of freedom.

Today, in many places, pure and raw patriotism is frowned upon. As is adherence to the policy of non-compromise and force. Indeed, one is now expected to be more conversant with the teachings of Chairman Mao than with those of our dead patriots. Barnes and McCormick were not intellectuals, they were just ordinary working class lads who looked upon it as their duty to right Ireland’s wrong. Can we assume that most of you who are assembled here today consider their cause and their methods just and necessary? Or will you assemble afterwards, in small groups, the more progressive as some of you like to be called, and speak of these poor misguided men and then propagate your ideas as to how Ireland’s freedom can be attained without fighting, without suffering, without martyrdom.

There comes a time in every generation when men try to re-direct the republican movement along a different road to that upon which our freedom fighters trod. When, Liam Mellows a few hours before he faced the firing squad, wrote about that road, he said “The signposts on that road are plain and broad and straight. It is the road on which Tone and all our martyrs are the guides. A road marked by truth, honour, principle and sacrifice.” That was the road upon which Barnes and McCormick trod, even onto martyrdom.

A great deal of propaganda is still being made on the question of unity among all who claim to be working for cause of unity and independence of our country. And Connolly’s words on this matter should give us all food for thought when he said, “Unity is a word used by many with ulterior motives, to achieve political ambition, or ultimately, to seek power and control in a united movement.” Therefore in striving for genuine unity we must be careful that such efforts may not lead to that seizure of power and control by the wrong people as defined by Connolly.” [Text in bold is the quote given by Taylor].

Despite Taylor’s annotations, there is no interruption in the audio for applause or shouts of ‘hear, hear’. Some of the text Taylor quoted could come from the start of the speech that is missing on the audio held in the Irish Republican Museum in Conway Mill. That, however, doesn’t explain other discrepancies with the text and annotations here.

 

A Raw Nerve

The final section of Steele’s speech also varies from the text given by Taylor (the text missing from Taylor’s quote is marked in bold): “From the graves of patriot men and women spring living nations, said Pearse. My real hope, is that from these graves of Barnes and McCormick, will emanate a combination of the old and new spirit, a spirit that will inspire men and women with the noble idealism of Pearse, the social and economic philosophy and aims of Connolly, and the fighting and courageous heart of Cathal Brugha. A spirit that will ensure the final completion of the task which our martyrs were compelled to leave unfinished.”

The missing reference to the “…social and economic philosophy and aims of Connolly…” again continues that James Connolly zeitgeist that ran through Steele’s speech, MacGiolla’s Bodenstown address and recent United Irishman articles. Clearly, though, given the speed of his dismissal from the IRA, Steele hit a very raw nerve. But what raw nerve did he hit? Politicisation? Left wing policies?

A longer term view suggests neither of the latter was much of a problem for the Belfast IRA (and the likes of Steele who had been active republicans for much of the previous fifty years). Steele had stood as a candidate and acted as an election agent in previous decades, and the IRA had ran candidates in Belfast in the 1960s. The Belfast IRA had also engaged with a series of political projects since the 1920s which usually included collaborating with the left although that relationship was often fraught. Tarlach Ó hUid, in his 1960 memoir Ar Thóir mo Shealbha, recounts how the IRA and various left wing groups formed an anti-imperialist republican club in Belfast in the late 1930s, only for it to fracture in 1941 when communist members withdrew support on the entry of the Soviet Union into the war as an ally of Britain. Publications like Irish Freedom and statements by leading communists like Billy McCullough show a shift in tone in 1942 away from ‘anti-imperialism’ (which included colonial powers like Britain and France) to ‘anti-fascism’ (i.e. Nazi Germany, Italy etc). Betty Sinclair later claimed Belfast communists were accused of passing the RUC information on former allies in the IRA leading to arrests and arms finds. That fallout in 1942 coloured the Belfast IRA’s perceptions of the Communist Party as an entity rather than left wing politics itself (and, based on that experience, Sinclair’s own prominence in the Civil Rights Movement was viewed with suspicion). This attitude was reinforced by the role local communists played in defending the Soviet Union’s suppression of national movements like the Hungarian uprising in 1956 and ‘Prague Spring’ in 1968.

Those present at Steele’s speech like Joe Cahill, Sean Dunne, Roy Johnston and John Kelly all show they clearly understood the references to control and strategy as direct criticisms of Cathal Goulding. Goulding himself, in an interview with Seán Ó hÉalaithe published in Comhar in 1973, claimed that despite regularly meeting Steele, Steele had never raised any concerns with him over politicisation or left-wing IRA policies. Although there is evidence of Steele previously criticising the direction Goulding was promoting within the IRA policy. Steele had been the main speaker at the Manchester Martyrs centenary in Manchester in November 1967. His speech had carried criticisms of the ‘New Departure’ of Davitt and Devoy, a deal between the Irish Republican Brotherhood and constitutional nationalists over attendance at Westminster. This was obviously allegorical and cut across Cathal Goulding’s own push to end abstentionism, but this clearly wasn’t that raw a nerve since Goulding took no action against Steele after the 1967 Manchester speech. Notably, though, Goulding had pushed through an expansion of the IRA’s Army Council, from seven to twenty members in September 1968 which enabled him to co-opt supporters of his politicisation strategy and force through reforms of the IRA. Goulding’s methods here may have been one focus of Steele’s criticisms.

The Mullingar speech also took place in the shadow of loyalist bombings in April, May and June 1969 and increasing concerns in Belfast at Goulding’s refusal to relax his control over access to IRA arms. In May and then again in July, Goulding told meetings of IRA GHQ staff that there were plans in place to defend northern nationalists in the event of unionist violence. However, he told a meeting of local IRA O/Cs that, in a crisis, it would be the British government who would have to step in and disband the B Specials and bring in reforms. In May the northern O/Cs had met and had a request for weapons approved but they never got them. Matt Treacy, in The I.R.A. 1956-69: Rethinking the Republic, records that Roy Johnston, then on the Army Council, claims Goulding intended to leave Belfast undefended as he hoped that a backlash to any sustained violence against Catholics would lead to the disbanding of the B Specials. Goulding himself admits that G.H.Q. had arms but they withheld them from the north as they had not believed what they had been told about the threat of violence (Goulding as quoted in Tony Geraghty’s The Irish War: The Military History of a Domestic Conflict). I am a little dubious about this last point though, as on 16th August 1969, when the IRA demanded Goulding issue weapons, it seems clear that there no longer were any significant dumps of IRA weapons for Goulding to release.

Cathal Goudling (centre) being spoken to by Jim Sullivan (with armband) while Tomas MacGiolla stands behind him.

While Goulding’s plans to end abstentionism were a clear focus of Steele’s speech, I think the atmosphere around the Mullingar event was created by Goulding’s policy on weapons. The Belfast IRA had collected its existing stocks of weapons prior to the 1956 border campaign and then transported outside Belfast to be redistributed to units involved in the border areas during that campaign. Afterwards, throughout the 1960s, the Belfast Battalion only had access to a handful of weapons. Steele and others may have been conscious that Goulding’s intention was to leave Belfast undefended (as claimed by Johnston). The Belfast IRA was acutely aware of how its lack of weaponry made it unable to respond to the kind of crises that occurred in 1920-22 and 1935 and which its older members had directly experienced.

Whether over constitutionalism or weapons for the Belfast Battalion, Steele’s quote “unity is a word used by many with ulterior motives” intentionally insinuated that Goulding was now acting in the interests of someone other than the IRA (clearly meaning the Communist Party). All of this obviously hit a raw nerve. Despite his speech never referencing the weapons issues in Belfast, those present seem to have understood Steele’s point (and it seems unlikely that a long time IRA veteran like Steele would breach IRA protocols by openly discussing IRA business at a public event). What perhaps made matters worse was the fact that there were almost always longstanding enmities between Belfast and Dublin over control of IRA strategy. While rarely discussed openly, this clearly had been a recurring problem for the IRA and had been central to previous crises, such as in 1922 and the Stephen Hayes affair of 1940-41. Rosita Sweetman’s 1972 book On Our Knees actually quotes Steele as saying he would “Get his own back on Dublin” after his expulsion.

So arguably, the real tensions within the IRA were over access to the weapons that everyone believed Goulding had securely under his own control. On 16th August 1969 when violence began to consume the north, Goulding was besieged by IRA units demanding he open up all the dumps. Only then did it became clear that the IRA’s stocks of arms and ammunition, that were central to that crisis in the IRA that summer, did not really exist.

While Mullingar clearly represented an event in the journey towards the split in the IRA later in 1969, I suspect it was actually less significant than is claimed. It was later to suit those on both sides of the subsequent split in the IRA to reach back before the events of August 1969 for the split’s origin. As far as the Official IRA was concerned, this served two purposes. It allowed it to claim that the basis of the split in the IRA was one between what it could present as ‘progressive’ versus ‘militant’ republicanism. The second purpose was that this neatly deflected from the criticism of Goulding and the IRA’s failure to respond to unionist violence during mid-August 1969. More so, in extremis, the likes of Roy Johnston have even sought to actively implicate those who were on the Provisional IRA side of the split as intentionally complicit in fomenting the violence of mid-August 1969 and cite Steele’s speech in Mullingar as evidence. As far as those on the Provisional IRA side of the split were concerned, though, Steele’s speech evidence of internal resistance within the IRA to the policies that led to the IRA’s own failures in mid-August 1969. Thus the Provisional IRA could also disassociate itself from Goulding and the events of that August by placing the roots of the schism before that August.

It that regard, it is hard to see beyond the IRA’s failure to prepare to counteract the extreme violence of mid-August 1969 as the real basis for the IRA split later that year but I’ll cover that another day.

 

You can read a full transcript and hear some audio of Steele’s and O’Regan’s speech here. Notes on 1969 meetings of Sinn Féin’s Coiste Seasta are available on Roy Johnston’s website (see www.rjtechne.org). The account of Steele’s dismissal from the IRA is based on information from Billy McKee.

There is more on the context of the Mullingar speech in Belfast Battalion: a history of the Belfast IRA, 1922-1969.

IRA split 1969: unpublished speeches

Here are two unpublished speeches given in July 1969 at an event that later portrayed as central to the split in the IRA later that year 1969. I’ve posted about it previously, so rather than add more to that, I’ll just post the speeches (this is taken from the audio mentioned in those links). The two keynote speeches were given in the order below, the first by Belfast IRA veteran Jimmy Steele on behalf of the committee involved and then, as the official speaker for the republican movement, Cork IRA (and Spanish Civil War veteran) Jim O’Regan.

Jimmy Steele spoke on behalf of the repatriation committee which was chaired by Tomas MacGiolla. His introduction is not included in audio, similarly the very start of his speech is missing. It ends with applause.

Jimmy Steele at Mullingar in 1969 (from Joe Cahill: A Life in the IRA).

Jimmy Steele:

“…who refused recently to march behind the national flag in the Connolly parade has said “The working class of Ireland, both Protestant and Catholic, have nothing to gain from a United Ireland. Partition is quite unimportant.” Of course the British socialists adopted the very same attitude to James Connolly, before 1916, when they told him that Irish freedom was not a cause with which he, as a worker, should concern himself. To which Connolly replied that Irish independence must be won before Irish workers could be masters in their own land. And that without political independence, the way to social and economic progress would never be clear. And away back in 1914 when Redmond and Devlin had agreed to partition, Connolly wrote that to it, Labour should give the bitterest opposition. Against it, Labour and Ulster should fight, even to the death if necessary, as our fathers fought before us. And just a few hours before his death he said to his daughter, Nora, ‘The socialist will never understand why I am here. They all forget that I am an Irishman.” Others too, wearing the tag republican by advocating attendance at Stormont and Leinster House have come to accept the two state situation, thus helping to perpetuate partition.
Barnes and McCormick did not accept this position. They acted as Connolly would have acted and fought to the death against it. That was why they died. There are those who would decry their sacrifice and speak of the futility of martyrdom and cynically refer to glorious sacrifices. I will let Connolly answer those people as he answered the judges at his own court martial, “Believing that the British government has no right in Ireland, never had any right in Ireland and never can have any right in Ireland, the presence in every one generation of Irishmen of even a respectable minority read to die to affirm that truth, makes that government forever a usurpation and a crime against human progress.”
Yes, my friends, just as Emmet and the Manchester Martyrs and Kevin Barry died, so did Barnes and McCormick, in the same cause, in the same way and by the order of the same hangman, the hangman of the western world, England.
I’m sorry to say there has been a strange, if not deliberate silence, among republicans about that period when Barnes and McCormick were active. A period known as the forties. Let there be no glossing over what is, in reality, a glorious page in Ireland’s struggle for freedom. For these republican soldiers kept the idea of a separatist Ireland to the forefront against tremendous odds. Fighting anti-Republican and enemy forces on three fronts, on English soil and in the six and twenty-six counties. These men were not concerned with a man’s creed, whether he was Protestant, Catholic or Dissenter. They knew of only two classes of people in Ireland. Those who wished to maintain the British connection, and those who were determined to break that connection. Those who gave their allegiance to the invader, England, and those who gave their undivided allegiance to the free republican nation proclaimed in arms in 1916, and ratified by the votes of the people of all Ireland in 1918 and 1921.
Their primary aim was the same as Connolly’s. When he marched into the GPO on that Easter Monday to fight. And in his very last testimony of republican faith he bore his martyrdom to emphasise at his court martial why he fought. “We went out,“ he said, “to break the connection between this country and the British Empire and establish and Irish republic.” How can anyone possibly overlook the courage and the suffering of a small dedicated band, many of whom are here today.
A period that cost the lives of twenty-six soldiers of the Irish Republican Army, nine by execution in England, Belfast and the Twenty-Six Counties, five in gun battles with enemy forces and the remainder on hunger-strike or in the prisons. Yet, until recently, there seems to be this deliberate blackout of that glorious period. Could it be that it is so fashionable to be tinged a deep red, to be militantly anti-British in the Forties, as Barnes and McCormick and their comrades were, is now considered to be tantamount to being dubbed fascists. These men were not fascists, nor were they Communists, nor murderers as their enemies allege them to be. They were simply guilty of the unpardonable crime of being Irish patriots, imbued with a deep love of Ireland and her cause of freedom.
Today, in many places, pure and raw patriotism is frowned upon. As is adherence to the policy of non-compromise and force. Indeed, one is now expected to be more conversant with the teachings of Chairman Mao than with those of our dead patriots. Barnes and McCormick were not intellectuals, they were just ordinary working class lads who looked upon it as their duty to right Ireland’s wrong. Can we assume that most of you who are assembled here today consider their cause and their methods just and necessary? Or will you assemble afterwards, in small groups, the more progressive as some of you like to be called, and speak of these poor misguided men and then propagate your ideas as to how Ireland’s freedom can be attained without fighting, without suffering, without martyrdom.
There comes a time in every generation when men try to re-direct the republican movement along a different road to that upon which our freedom fighters trod. When, Liam Mellows a few hours before he faced the firing squad, wrote about that road, he said “The signposts on that road are plain and broad and straight. It is the road on which Tone and all our martyrs are the guides. A road marked by truth, honour, principle and sacrifice.” That was the road upon which Barnes and McCormick trod, even onto martyrdom.
A great deal of propaganda is still being made on the question of unity among all who claim to be working for cause of unity and independence of our country. And Connolly’s words on this matter should give us all food for thought when he said, “Unity is a word used by many with ulterior motives, to achieve political ambition, or ultimately, to seek power and control in a united movement.” Therefore in striving for genuine unity we must be careful that such efforts may not lead to that seizure of power and control by the wrong people as defined by Connolly. Unity was a word used as a means of propagating acceptance of the Treaty of 1921. It was also used by Fianna Fáil as a means of gaining power and control in 1932. To become participants in this unity drive, republicans were urged to vote Fianna Fáil into power in Leinster House. They were expected to compromise just a little as a means to an end. They were expected to tolerate for the time being, political leaders and organisations who had already deserted or betrayed the republic.
Let us take heed of this, before it is too late, because history has a habit of repeating itself. And the Green Tans of 22 and 24, and, 36 to 46, could easily become the Red Tans or the Blue Tans of the future but the victims would still be our Fenian dead, our republican dead, out martyred dead. From the graves of patriot men and women spring living nations, said Pearse. My real hope, is from these graves of Barnes and McCormick, will emanate a combination of the old and new spirit, a spirit that will inspire men and women with the noble idealism of Pearse, the social and economic philosophy and aims of Connolly, and the fighting and courageous heart of Cathal Brugha. A spirit that will ensure the final completion of the task which our martyrs were compelled to leave unfinished. That is how Barnes and McCormick can best be honoured. That is how they would wish to be honoured because that is why they lie in a martyrs grave today.”

Jim O’Regan was then announced as official speaker for the republican movement.

Jim O’Regan, while serving with International Brigade in Spain (see https://internationalbrigadesinspain.weebly.com/irish-volunteers.html)

Jim O’Regan:

“A chairde on the morning of the 7th of February, in the dark year 1940, two gallant soldiers of the Irish Republic, James McCormick from Mullingar and Peter Barnes of Banagher, stood on the gallows in Winston Green jail in Birmingham. They were about to die at the hands of their enemies, surrounded by their enemies, in the gloomy atmosphere of an English prison. It is easy to visualise the thoughts that must have been going through their mind in those last hard moments of their lives. They knew now that never again would they see their native land. They knew now that never again would they see all those who were dear to them. They knew now that never would again would they meet their comrades in the fight for freedom. And now a generation has passed and twenty-nine years later, we stand at the grave of Peter Barnes and Joseph McCormack [sic], who at last have been laid to rest in the land that they loved and served so well. On behalf the republican movement, and indeed of the entire Irish people, I thank the committee who have been responsible for this wonderful achievement. They worked hard and long. They met with many disappointments. They overcame many obstacles. At times they must have almost despaired. But perseverance was their motto and in the end they succeeded. I know they do not want their names mentioned but I feel that what they did they did for Ireland and they did it well. But I think that one name should be mentioned and that is Caitlin Ni Muimhneachain, who has been a driving force behind this campaign in the last few years and who has [speech drowned out by applause]…that campaign.
I have spoken of the obstacles they overcome, overcame. I will mention only one. That of finance. A very large sum of money was needed for the repatriation. They could only appeal privately to members of the republican movement, with our sympathisers and supporters. In the republican movement, the members have never been known for their worldly wealth. For the vast majority of their lives they had struggles for existence and they have many burdens on them. And in addition, the veil of silence drawn by the organs of publicity and the establishment over the sacrifice by the men whom we honour today will no doubt give them the impression that the youth of Ireland had forgotten those heroic men and that alas their memory perhaps too had faded in the minds of the older people. But then the money came. From the north, the east, the west and the south. From our exiles abroad. Not alone sufficient to cover expenses. But to cover them five and six times over. It came from the hidden Ireland. The Ireland of Barnes and McCormick. That unconquered Ireland that has handed on the torch of freedom down through the generations and has never surrendered and never will surrender.
I thank all those who subscribed. I know that once again the many hard working sub-committees that do not want any thanks or do not want their names mentioned. But I think that one outstanding area will have to be mentioned and that is Belfast. Not alone did they set themselves a very high target but they exceeded it. Perhaps it is because they are face-to-face with the imperialism that murdered Barnes and McCormick and so, better than most of us, know the evils these men died fighting.
Peter Barnes and James McCormick grew up in the Ireland of the late 20s and early 30s. It was a difficult time. A time of world recession. Unemployment was widespread and those who were lucky enough to have work were exploited by long hours and low wages. But yet, at that time, there was hope in the land because immigration, our greatest evil, has ended and the youth were filled with a revolutionary fervour. But alas, by this situation, led to great developments in other countries. But in Ireland this revolutionary fervour was absorbed by other parties for their own personal advancement. Peter and James saw through this and they in the ranks of the republican movement worked hard and quietly for the achievement of our republican ideals. It is common today to give writes up in our newspapers to people who are well known in public affairs. But let us remember that these people are paid and paid well for every hour of service they give anywhere, whereas the men we honour, received no payment, never asked for any payment, risked their lives, risked their liberty, lost their jobs and in the end made the supreme sacrifice for the cause they believed in.
I have known men who knew James McCormick in those days. Both men and women have told me that he always impressed them with his neat and tidy appearance. The fine way he kept himself despite long spells of unemployment and lack of money to buy clothes. He was a person of pride arising from his idealism. Both volunteered for the campaign in England. I have known many volunteers who operated with James in the midlands at that time. They were all deeply impressed by him. They called him an outstanding volunteer, extremely reliable and very efficient.
Peter, who was older, had joined the Fianna in 1921 and was a mere youth a few years later when he joined the Irish Republican Army. He was a very careful operator. In actual fact his presence in England was completely unknown to the police. But alas he was betrayed by an informer, an Irish one at that. He was searched, his lodging searched and nothing whatever was found on him but they knew they had their man as a result of an informers information. And they found shampoo powder in his room and they said that that was an explosive substance and they held him on that charge.
The following morning three of my comrades and myself were betrayed by the same informer and brought to Brixton prison. Again, on numerous occasions during the following weeks both Peter and the four of us were brought to court and remanded. I had many opportunities of having conversations with him. It was I who told him of the informer. On a number of occasions when we were going to the police courts, the police informed us that one of us would be hanged for the explosion at Coventry. I discussed this with Peter and pointed out that though it would be more than difficult for them to prove because all five of us were in James’ [indistinct] two hundred miles from Coventry. But Peter said…[indistinct]….
And one night…came the tramp of many feet coming up the iron staircase in Brixton where we were, it was a large wing and they had cleared it out of ordinary prisoners to keep about a dozen of us who were there. We were closely watched and there was a large number of unoccupied cells, on each one of the ones we occupied. But yet we knew the actual situation of each of the cells of our comrades. And one night we heard the stamp of heavy feet coming up the iron staircase of police and warders coming up the stairs and then I knew they were going in the direction of Peters cell. I heard the door open, a few minutes passed and then they moved on. I knew Peter….. Their time began at the end of that year and on the 14th December they were sentenced to death.
Peter said, “As I am condemned to death and going before my God. I must say I am innocent. Later, I am sure, it will come out that I had neither hand nor act nor part in it.” On being asked the same question, James McCormick replied (and this is from the same pamphlet), “Before you pass sentence, I wish to thank sincerely the gentlemen who have defended me during my trial. As a soldier of the Irish Republican Army, I am not afraid to die, for I am dying in a just cause. God bless Ireland and God bless the men who have fought and died for her.”
The death sentences and their brave stand in a hostile court amidst the enemies country caused a great upsurge in national feeling in Ireland. As we hope their burial will cause a similar surge. Widespread protests were held. Mass meetings attended by tens of thousands people. At that time, coercion reigned against republicans and it took moral courage from people in public life to come forward, to stand on a platform and ally themselves with Barnes and McCormick. But they did so and I am glad to see many of them here today and we thank them for their efforts.
But alas, all efforts failed. Barnes, Peter Barnes, 32 years of age, and James McCormick at 29 years of age, laid down their lives for the people of our land. On the night before he died Peter wrote his last letter. And here it is, exactly as he wrote it to his brother. “If some news does not come in the next few hours, all is over. The priest is not long gone out, so I am reconciled to what God thinks best. There will be mass for each of us that morning before we go to our death. Thank God I have nothing to be afraid of, I am an innocent man. And as I said before, it will be known yet that I am. The only thing that worries me now is the thought of my poor father and mother. But I know God will comfort them. I will write my last few lines to mother tomorrow, Tuesday, I will know by then. Say a prayer for me. God be with you all.”
On the same night, James McCormick wrote his last letter to his sister in Mullingar. “This is my farewell letter as I have just been told that we have to die in the morning. I know that I will have to die so news did not come as a great shock to me. But thank God I am prepared and I know that I am dying in a just cause. I shall walk out in the morning smiling as I shall be thinking of my God and the good men who went before me in the same cause.”
And the next morning, in an English prison, surrounded by hundreds of armed soldiers and police, they marched proudly out to die. And their names will forever be linked with Allen, Larkin, O’Brien, Barrett, Casement, O’Sullivan and Dunne. In every generation, our noblest sons and daughters have laid down their lives for the freedom and independence of our country. It is calculated in the year of 1798, over sixty thousand Irishmen made the supreme sacrifice on the field of battle, before the firing squad and on the gallows. In 1803, Emmett and twenty-eight of lieutenants died on the scaffold. In the War of Independence from 1916 to 1921 over seven hundred Irishmen laid down their lives. And in the war in defence of the republic in the following two years, 1922 and 23, hundreds more died.
The number of those who died in the time of Barnes and McCormick was not very large. But each and every one of them was an equal in every way of the heroes who went before them. Shortly before Barnes and McCormick died, Jimmy Joe Reynolds and comrades Kelly and McCafferty died on the border, Peter McCarthy was shot in Dublin, Christy Bird died in Dublin, Sean Glynn of Limerick died in Arbour Hill Prison on hunger strike as a result of attempting to go to Bodenstown commemoration. Within two months of Peter and James death, those two gallant heroes from the west, Tony Darcy from Galway and Jack McNeela of Mayo died on hunger strike. And in September that year, Paddy McGrath of Dublin, an outstanding hero of the Tan War, Civil War, 1916 died with his comrade Tommy Harte of Armagh, who had been in England with Barnes and McCormick. They died before a firing squad. In 1942 the hangman who executed Peter and James returned to Ireland, to Belfast to execute young Tommy Williams. In 1944, two years later, he came to Mountjoy to execute Charlie Kerins of Kerry. Others died too. Rocky Burns with short arms in a Belfast street. Jackie Griffith in a Dublin street, Sean Kavanagh in Cork, Sean McDermott* in Cavan [here O’Regan corrects himself] Sean Dermody* in Cavan. And in the Curragh concentration camp, Barney Casey was shot down. And Jackie O’Callaghan* was shot in Antrim. And there were others. Sean McCaughey who died on hunger strike. Terence Perry of Belfast and Tom Malone* of Belfast who died in Parkhurst Prison when we were there. Bob Clancy of Waterford who died in the Curragh, John Hinchy of Louth who died in Mountjoy. And that great hero of the Tan and Civil Wars, George Plant of Tipperary, who’d been active in the English campaign and who died before a firing squad in that infamous prison not so far from here. So too died before a firing squad, Maurice O’Neill of Kerry and Dick Goss of Louth.
It will be said they were a minority. But Pearse and Clarke and Connolly when they marched in the streets of Dublin in 1916 were a minority. And as Sean McDermot a great leader and patriot had said when told a majority of the people are against you, “We represent the unconquered soul of Ireland.”
One will say today, “What did Peter and James and their comrades die for?” They were members of the rank and file of the republican movement. I served with them and I am a rank-and-file member of the republican movement too, so I can answer on their behalf. They died so that the Irish people could become complete masters of their destiny in their own country. They died for the complete liberation of our land, for the abolition of the accursed border and rule by a foreign government and laws. They died to end all the evils that afflict our race. Alone of all the nations of the world our population has been declining for over one hundred and twenty years. And this is caused mainly by the fact that during that whole long period we have had the greatest immigration rate of the entire world. We have the world’s, Europe’s highest unemployment rate. We are the only nation whose finances are controlled by another. To abolish this unnatural state of affairs, to give the Irish people the right to live in their own land, that is what Peter and James died for.
We leave these honoured graves to the care and to the protection of the people of Offaly and Westmeath. Let them come here every year, on the day of national commemoration. Not alone to honour their two noblest sons but to grow from their lives and their sacrifices, inspirations to continue their fight for freedom. The republican movement is determined to win and to win in this generation. McSwiney said “It is not with those who inflict the most but with those who suffer the most that the ultimate victory lies.” And God knows the republican movement has suffered enough. So let us swear by these martyrs graves that will end the fight in our lifetime. And when that day comes, the day of victory, let us return here to honour the men who made that victory possible. For here lie the real architects of Irish freedom. And by their graves promise to build a state worthy of their noble sacrifice. Welcome home Peter. Welcome Home James. May God give eternal rest to your most gallant souls.”

[Note: these names should be Paddy Dermody, Gerry O’Callaghan and Joe Malone, I listened to the audio a few times to be sure and these are the versions of the names O’Regan gives.]

This is then followed by instructions to those who wished to come forward to lay wreaths and for the colour party.

You can watch some video and hear some audio from the speeches here:

 

You can read more on the background to the 1969 split in the Belfast Battalion book.

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).

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Dan Turley

1927-33 Davy Matthews

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

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Davy Matthews

1933-34 Jack McNally

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

Jack McNally Jack McNally

1934-36 Tony Lavery

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

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

1936-37 Sean McArdle

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

1937-38 Chris McLoughlin?

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

Chris McLoughlin

Chris McLoughlin

1938 Sean McArdle

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

1938-39 Charlie McGlade

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

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Charlie McGlade

1940 Jimmy Steele

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

Jimmy Steele 1940

Jimmy Steele in 1940

1941 Liam Rice

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

Liam Rice Liam Rice

1941 Pearse Kelly

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


Pearse Kelly Pearse Kelly

1941-42 Hugh Matthews

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

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Hugh Matthews

1942 John Graham

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

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John Graham

1942-43 Rory Maguire

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

1943 Jimmy Steele

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

1943-44 Seamus Burns

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

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Seamus ‘Rocky’ Burns

1944 Harry White?

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

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Harry White
Harry White

1944-45 Harry O’Rawe?

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

1945 Johnny Murphy?

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

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Johnny Murphy

1945 Seamus Twomey?

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

Seamus Twomey

Seamus Twomey

194?-49 Seamus McCallum

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

1949-50 Frank McKearney

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

1950-56 Jimmy Steele

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

1956 Paddy Doyle

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

1956-57 Joe Cahill

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

Joe Cahill

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

1961-63 Billy McKee

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

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Billy McKee

1963-69 Billy McMillen

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

Billy McMillen

Billy McMillen

1969 Jim Sullivan

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

Jim Sullivan


Jim Sullivan

1969 Billy McMillen

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

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

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

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