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

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

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

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

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

1922-23 Hugh Corvin

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

AOC

Hugh Corvin

1923-24 Jim O’Donnell

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

1924-26 Hugh Corvin

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

1925-1926 Jim Johnston

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

1926 Hugh Corvin

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

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

1926-7 Dan Turley

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

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Dan Turley

1927-33 Davy Matthews

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

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Davy Matthews

1933-34 Jack McNally

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

Jack McNally Jack McNally

1934-36 Tony Lavery

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

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

1936-37 Sean McArdle

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

1937-38 Chris McLoughlin?

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

Chris McLoughlin

Chris McLoughlin

1938 Sean McArdle

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

1938-39 Charlie McGlade

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

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Charlie McGlade

1940 Jimmy Steele

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

Jimmy Steele 1940

Jimmy Steele in 1940

1941 Liam Rice

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

Liam Rice Liam Rice

1941 Pearse Kelly

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


Pearse Kelly Pearse Kelly

1941-42 Hugh Matthews

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

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Hugh Matthews

1942 John Graham

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

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John Graham

1942-43 Rory Maguire

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

1943 Jimmy Steele

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

1943-44 Seamus Burns

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

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Seamus ‘Rocky’ Burns

1944 Harry White?

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

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Harry White
Harry White

1944-45 Harry O’Rawe?

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

1945 Johnny Murphy?

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

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Johnny Murphy

1945 Seamus Twomey?

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

Seamus Twomey

Seamus Twomey

194?-49 Seamus McCallum

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

1949-50 Frank McKearney

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

1950-56 Jimmy Steele

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

1956 Paddy Doyle

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

1956-57 Joe Cahill

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

Joe Cahill

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

1961-63 Billy McKee

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

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Billy McKee

1963-69 Billy McMillen

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

Billy McMillen

Billy McMillen

1969 Jim Sullivan

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

Jim Sullivan


Jim Sullivan

1969 Billy McMillen

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

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

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

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

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

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

1924-26 Hugh Corvin

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

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

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Hugh Corvin

1926-7 Dan Turley

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

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Dan Turley

1927-33 Davy Matthews

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

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Davy Matthews

1933-34 Jack McNally

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

Jack McNally

Jack McNally

1934-36 Tony Lavery

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

1936-38 Sean McArdle

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

1938-39 Charlie McGlade

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

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Charlie McGlade

1940 Jimmy Steele

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

Jimmy Steele

1941 Liam Rice

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

Liam Rice

Liam Rice

1941 Pearse Kelly

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

Pearse Kelly

Pearse Kelly

1941-42 Hugh Matthews

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

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Hugh Matthews

1942 John Graham

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

John Graham playing golf in the 1930s.

1942-43 Rory Maguire

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

1943 Jimmy Steele

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

1943-44 Seamus Burns

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

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Seamus ‘Rocky’ Burns

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

1944-45 Harry White

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

Harry White

Harry White

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

Johnny Murphy


194?-49 Seamus McCallum

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

1949-50 Frank McKearney

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

1950-56 Jimmy Steele

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

1956 Paddy Doyle

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

1956-57 Joe Cahill

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

Joe Cahill

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

1961-63 Billy McKee

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

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Billy McKee

1963-69 Billy McMillen

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

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Billy McMillen

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

Internment during the British royal visit to Belfast, 1951

The Unionist government rarely used the  Special Powers Act to intern political opponents between 1945 and its re-introduction in 1956. One of the only occasions on which it did so was in May 1951 to coincide with a visit to Belfast by members of the British royal family. The Unionist government had used internment in a similar way on various occasions in the 1930s. The public outcry in 1951 appears to have determined that future uses of internment would be unofficial, such as during another such royal visit in May 1953, when the RUC instead questioned or put specious charges against leading republicans to detain them during the visit.

In 1951, on the night of 30th May, the RUC carried out a series of raids in which they arrested thirteen republicans and detained them under the Civil Authorities (Special Powers) Act. Forty-eight hours beforehand, a bomb had gone off outside Cullingtree Road RUC barracks. It had not been planted by the IRA, yet those arrested were mostly involved with the IRA including the Belfast Battalion O/C Jimmy Steele and Adjutant, Joe Cahill, and other prominent members like Joe McGurk and Liam Burke. Sinn Féin in Belfast had been planning a non-violent protest against that royal visit that was to take place on the night of the 31st May.

The RUC then publicly announced that they had issued internment orders for thirteen republicans under the Special Powers Act coinciding with a visit by the British Queen to Belfast.  The RUC announced that they were going to hold the men for seven days under the Special Powers Act as a ‘security measure’ (see press on 30th May 1951).

Opposition to both the visit and the reintroduction of internment was not confined to republicans. Harry Diamond (who sat in Stormont as an MP for the Irish Labour Party) sent a statement protesting the detentions to King George saying:

In face of your Labour Government’s denunciations of Soviet tyranny will you by your presence here countenance these Totalitarian acts?

Diamond was refused permission to raise the detentions in Stormont but he interrupted another debate to say that:

This is a police state, because we have seen in the last 24 hours that there is no civil liberty here, and that men can be dragged from their beds and interned without trial.

The Belfast District Committee of the Gaelic League also protested the royal visit:

This Committee, representing 5,000 Irish speakers of all denominations in the city, wishes emphatically to protest against the visit of the Royal representative of the country that is holding part of Ireland in subjection. Furthermore we wish to reassert the inalienable right of the people of Ireland to the unfettered control of their own destinies.

There was also a statement issued under the byline of the Adjutant, Belfast HQ, IRA, that stated:

In connection with the forthcoming visits of the King and Queen, we wish to make our position clear. We resent this visit but we are not prepared to take any action at the moment. If the police carry out any further raids and arrests and give unnecessary provocation to the nationally-minded people, we shall be forced to take action to stop these raids. We call upon all Irish-minded people to boycott this proposed visit and to support us in any action we deem fit.

Meanwhile, Jimmy Steele and the other twelve republicans were brought to the prison on Crumlin Road, taken to the reception area and processed into the remand area in C wing. They were photographed and had their fingerprints taken (for some of the thirteen this was the third time this had happened since their arrest). Despite being imprisoned under an internment order, for the seven days they were held there, the republicans were subject to remand conditions. That meant taking exercise with the remand prisoners observing the ‘five yards apart’ and ‘silence’ rules, the number 2 diet and no association or other ‘privileges’. Remand prisoners were also limited to two cigarettes in the morning and two in the evening.

With so much collective experience of the various regimes including juvenile, remand, sentenced, penal and internee, Steele, McGurk, Cahill, Burke and the others quickly objected and notified the prison authorities that they wouldn’t accept the remand conditions. The response of the authorities was to inform them that, if they did not comply with the order, they would be returned to their cells. As they refused to comply with the remand regulations, they were returned to their cells and all privileges withdrawn. It had been early on Tuesday morning when they had been detained and they were to remain confined to their cells once they refused to observe the five yards apart and silence rules. The internees only got out of their cells on the Sunday morning to attend mass in the prison chapel. The next day, Monday 4th June, they were informed that they were being released again, in ten minutes time. As they walked out through the wicker gate of Crumlin Road, at about 12pm a plane bearing their royal majesties had already left the runway at Aldergrove that morning and was half way to London. That evening, Jimmy Steele and Joe Cahill issued a statement on behalf of themselves and Liam Burke, Patrick Doyle, Joe McGurk and Jack McCaffrey.

They put a direct challenge to the Unionist Minister of Home Affairs:

“We challenge you, Brian Maginness, to produce the evidence on and to state publicly:

(a) The nature of the act which you suspect was about to be committed (the Minister’s detention order stated that they were persons suspected of being about to act in a manner prejudicial to the peace and to the maintenance of order):

(b) The evidence upon which suspicion was grounded and the person or persons from whom such evidence emanated;

(c) Why, if such evidence was available, was not that specific charge framed against us?

The nature of your reply, if any, should determine not only the future of our own liberties, both physical and economic, but the liberties of all man and women working towards the ideal of a free, independent Irish Republic for the thirty-two counties.”

There was no answer forthcoming from the Unionist government.

List of O/Cs of Belfast IRA, 1924-69.

The following is a draft list of the officers commanding the IRA’s Belfast battalion (the name normally given to its structures in the city) from 1924 to 1969. The list is based on a variety of sources. There are gaps and may well be omissions since those listed are those named in accounts of different events over 1924-1969. In some instance, sources are ignored (eg Anderson, in Joe Cahill: A Life in the IRA names Jimmy Steele as O/C in 1969 when it was Billy McMillen), in others an inference is taken, such as in 1934 when Jack McNally had to form a staff ( it is implied he was O/C but not stated). Any corrections or suggestions can be added in the comments section.

1924-27 Hugh Corvin

As a Belfast Brigade IRA delegate had supported the Executive against GHQ over the Treaty in 1922. Subsequently interned, he stood for election in North Belfast for Sinn Féin in 1924. Corvin acted as O/C of the Belfast Brigade during the re-organisation that followed after Joe McKelvey’s re-burial in Milltown on 30th October 1924. Continued as O/C until 1927 when he resigned citing business reasons (he had set up an accountancy firm). He was to remain prominent, through involvement in the GAA and as secretary of the Gaelic League in Belfast. He publicly participated in fund raising for Fianna Fáil in Belfast in the early 1930s and stood as an ‘independent republican’ in West Belfast in February 1943.

1927-33 Davy Matthews

From Albert Street. A veteran of 1920-24 campaigns, including the Raglan Street ambush, and a former internee on the Argenta. Took over from Hugh Corvin. Instigated re-organisation of the Belfast IRA in 1929, including training camps (first at Carnlough in Antrim and then Gyles Quay in Louth), 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. 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.

1933-34 Jack McNally

From the Bone. Another 1920-24 campaign veteran. Took over as O/C while Davy Matthews served a short sentence in 1933-34. 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 George Nash. Whether Matthews intended to honour the commitment or not, he was court-martialled in January 1934 and dismissed from the IRA. McNally 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.

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 order from Army Council not to, instructed those charged by the northern government over the Campbell College raid 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 court-martial 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. Lavery’s Adjutant, Jimmy Steele, and other staff members like Liam Mulholland and Mick Traynor.

1936-38 Sean McArdle

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

1938-39 Charlie McGlade

Arrested in Crown Entry, Charlie McGlade was not long out of Crumlin Road when he was sent as an organiser to England as part of the S-Plan campaign. He took over as O/C Belfast from Sean McArdle following McArdle’s internment in December 1938. Apparently influenced by Jim Killeen, McGlade was responsible for developing the Northern Command concept that was put in place in late 1939, with McGlade as Adjutant and Sean McCaughey as O/C. He edited the Belfast edition of War News and may have remained as O/C Belfast until 1940 (Jimmy Steele was also to be simultaneously Adjutant Northern Command and O/C Belfast). However, there may be a gap between McGlade and Steele in 1939-40 when someone else was O/C (this isn’t clear from surviving sources).

1939-40? gap in available information

1940 Jimmy Steele

A Fianna veteran of 1920-24, 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 court-martialled 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.

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.

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.

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 apparently 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).

1942 John Graham

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

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.

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.

1944-45 Harry White

Harry White was O/C of the Northern Command at the time of Burns’ death. He was also on the run continuously. He seems to have taken on the role of O/C Belfast for much of the time and also delegated to others like Harry O’Rawe, Albert Price and Patsy Hicks. By the end of 1944, White was Chief of Staff of the IRA but living under an assumed name in Altaghoney. His cover was eventually blown and he was driven to the border and handed over to the Free State government who (it was assumed) would quickly try him in a military court and execute him. White’s luck held and he avoided execution, only to be sent to Portaoise for a number of years. On his release, he was active in the Wolfe Tone Socieites in the early 1960s.

1945-47 There are gaps here for the years around 1945-47.

1947-50 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 served as O/C during the late 1940s, 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 though 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 1950 from Crumlin Road. He took over from Paddy Doyle on his arrest in December 1956 until Cahill himself was interned in July 1957. Cahill was to remain an active republican for the rest of his life.

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

1960-63 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.

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. As part of the fallout over the failure of the Belfast IRA to adequately prepare to defend areas during the pogrom, McMillen was forced to restructure his staff and withdraw its supports for the Goulding leadership on 22nd September 1969. Later killed during an internal feud.

Some notes on the prison experience in Crumlin Road in the 1940s.

Here are some notes on the conditions in Crumlin Road by 1943-44. They cover the deaths of seven prisoners, conditions inside the prison and accounts of beatings handed out to individual prisoners over that two year period.

The dismissal of a prison officer and warders from A wing following the report into the January 1943 escape also saw the beginning of what Joe Cahill refers to as Lancelot Thompson’s ‘reign of terror’. That was to last for three years (and Thompson was also to be governor during internment in the 1950s). By 1943 there were around 100 sentenced republican prisoners in A wing. Internees, some of whom had been imprisoned without trial or charges since 1938, numbered in the hundreds. It included prisoners who had been on the Al Rawdah and moved back. Others were interned in Derry jail, while there were also women held in Armagh prison.

In March 1944, Jack Beattie, a Stormont MP for Pottinger, gave an account in Stormont on the 22nd March, detailing conditions in the prison since 1943[1]. Beattie was a regular visitor to the prison and, despite the fact that the IRA prisoners regarded the politician’s interest as purely self-serving, it is clear Beattie’s information was collected directly from A wing in particular. He said that “In the first place, the cells of the men are searched almost daily. Not only that, but the men are stripped periodically and their persons subjected to the indecent searching of the warders, who accompany the searching with vulgar and obscene language. The Governor promised that men would be stripped only once every three weeks. Yet men are being searched twice and three times every week. It should be noted that all these searches are without result…This searching is a violation of the code laid down in the King’s Regulations for the treatment of these long term prisoners…we brought them [long-term prisoners] to our jail on the Crumlin Road, which was unsuitable, and where, the accommodation was not in accordance with the King’s code laid down for the treatment of these men.

Now I want to draw attention to the food. The food rations are considerably less than the authorised allowance. It is badly cooked, almost cold, and is given to prisoners in vessels which bear visible traces of the previous meal. Cocoa and tea have been served in tins with considerable pieces of porridge or boiled turnips stuck to the bottom. Frequently during the past few months, when the orderly came into the Wing with the dinner or supper, he was told to take it back to the Circle, as the warders at the moment were searching the prisoners. This meant that the food was cold when brought back. Well, now, you would have thought that if the humanitarian touch had been there at least this process of search would not have taken place at the hour when the prisoners were to receive their food. Some have suggested that this was done deliberately. I do not know whether that is true or not. It often happens that some of the men cannot eat their porridge. The reason for this is that they cannot digest the half cooked inferior meal.

About nine months ago a man complained to the doctor that the milk was being watered. The doctor told an official to get him a mug of milk which at the moment was just coming into the wing. The official got a mug and skimmed the top of the milk. The prisoner objected, saying the test was not fair. He was brought before the Governor the following day and sentenced to three days bread and water for interfering.

I go on to recreation and exercise. It is deliberately set out in the regulations how these men must get recreation. They must get exercise. I will now show you what exercise these men get. During the winter months the men getting exercise must spend their time in an air-raid shelter which passes for a recreation hall.

This is approximately 20 feet broad by 50 feet long, but 120 men gather in this shelter and there is bound to be overcrowding. The exercise yard is approximately [2]15 yards by 30 yards. It can easily be seen that this yard is not large enough to allow 120 men to exercise in a proper manner. There are no sheds or shelters in this yard to shelter the men from the wind and rain. When it rains the men must await the warder’s judgment as to whether it will continue to rain or not. If he thinks it will not, they must remain outside. If he thinks it will, they are taken inside to exercise in the wing or to sit in the air raid shelter. The men exercise daily from 11 to 12. On Sunday they receive three hours’ exercise, never any more. Except for the time they are at church or chapel, they are locked up for 21 hours every Sunday. Considering the ill-ventilated workshops and the length of time they are locked up in their cells this system of exercise is totally inadequate.

Now in the British prisons to-day and in the prisons throughout the world at least justice is meted out to the prisoners in the grades which I am speaking of. Northern Ireland is the only place in the world where you find cruelty existing to the extent that I have outlined.

Beattie then went on to describe the treatment of one particular prisoner:

One of the prisoners, partially crippled in one leg, has during the past three years been allowed a bucket of hot water daily to bathe his leg, but on 29th February an official put colouring stuff in the water in case, he would use it for any other purpose. He put colouring stuff into the water the man was going to bathe his crippled leg with. Nobody knows what that colouring stuff was. What sort of conduct or treatment – certainly not Christian treatment – is taking place in this particular jail?

He was also scathing of the prison authorities attitude to complaints:

The questions which I have outlined have all been brought to the notice of the authorities, and here is what happened without any of these people reporting the matter to the proper authority. Here we have a man named Charles McCotter who, for reporting, was punished ten times and was put on bread and water eight times. Because he found it humanly impossible to exist under such conditions he took the only way, the legitimate way, of making his report, and because he did that he was punished ten times and placed on bread and water ten times. That is a boy of 24 years of age.

Another case is that of James Kane. He also found the conditions of life so unbearable that he reported eleven times. He was punished eleven times, and was placed on bread and water five times, all for crying out for the justice and treatment for which the law provides.

Then we have another case, that of Edward Dalzell. He reported seven times. He was punished seven times, and he was put on bread and water six times. Again I say people would think that those Gestapo methods of dealing with long term prisoners could be used only in Germany, and yet we find them operating in Northern Ireland. I say now that my statement in London was correct and to the point-that we were more akin to the Nazis in Germany than we were to the democratic world outside it.

Then we have Francis Dunlop who is 22 years of age. He was punished twelve times and put on bread and water seven times for reporting against the unchristian and unlawful method of treatment which is being inflicted upon these people. I will be told that the majority of these people are political prisoners. They are prisoners who have been brought to trial and sentenced, it may be, for political crime, but because it is for political crime there is no justification for the Minister of Home Affairs allowing these things to go on as they are at the moment. Because they are political prisoners cruelty cannot be justified. If they were in any other country in the world they would be graded as political prisoners; in Northern Ireland they are graded as criminals.

Eddie Dalzell and Jim Kane may well have been singled out for their particular treatment as they had been orderlies in A wing on the day of the escape in January 1943. Frank Dunlop had been on the receiving end of ill treatment for a number of years. According to Billy McKee, after the escape in January 1943, the warders selected for duty in A wing, in particular, were chosen for their physicality and brutality. He says that Beattie’s description is accurate for that period and you could expect rough treatment and your cell to be searched and tossed at least twice a week, every week. Tossing the cell – throwing everything onto the floor in a heap – served no purpose other than to humiliate the prisoner. McKee also remembers that you could be, and were, regularly placed on punishment for practically anything and nothing. Geordie Shannon recalled that a prisoner found part of a dead mouse in his porridge and complained. He was given three days bread and water[3].

After the calamities that followed in the wake of defending the Campbell College defendants, the northern government could usually rely on IRA prisoners to refuse to engage with the courts system for redress. Formal complaints to the prison authorities were seen by the IRA as similar to recognising the courts. But that wasn’t always the case with younger prisoners. Bobby Hughes, from Cavendish Street, was one of those arrested at the Clay Pits on the Springfield Road in 1943 (with Jimmy Steele’s nephew Arthur). While on remand in Crumlin Road in the summer of 1943, James Sloan, a warder, struck Hughes in the face, knocked him down and kicked him, then beat him across the back with a leather belt. Another warder, Harper, also beat Hughes on the back of the neck. The two warders also forcibly stripped Hughes. The defence claimed that the treatment had been given because Hughes and other prisoners were whistling, shouting and singing, and, that Hughes had refused to remove his coat or strip and had kicked out at the warders when they tried to strip him. Hughes father brought the case against Sloan but the authorities refused permission for Hughes solicitor to interview any of the six other prisoners who had witnessed the beatings. Despite that, Hughes was still awarded £12 damages by the court. According to Geordie Shannon, the internees in D wing were largely left alone by the prison staff and had political status (although the food and living conditions were still dreadful). The politicals, mainly the prisoners in A wing, were “kicked up to see the governor and kicked back down again” says Shannon[4].

Another measure, not described by Beattie, was the reality of being sentenced to solitary confinement. The solitary cell had nothing at all in it. Once penalised with solitary confiement you didn’t get out at all for the duration of your punishment. At night you were given a mattress and slept on the floor. The diet was a mug of water and four ounces of bread three times a day[5]. To put that in context, four ounces of bread is about 350 calories, not even 20% of recommended daily intake. The use of solitary confinement and the number one diet was commonplace after January 1943.

Official punishment also meant receiving marks that counted against remission. Jimmy had accumulated 200 remission marks during his Treason Felony sentence, adding 40 days to his term in Crumlin Road in 1940.

One cruelty that features in every memoir of the prison in the 1940s was the use of the whip (called the cat, or birch). When the courts sentenced prisoners, they were often, and apparently quite randomly, given an additional punishment of receiving ten or twelve strokes of the whip. This was to be carried out by the prison staff at an unspecified time. In their accounts of A wing in 1943, Joe Cahill and Liam Burke go into detail of how it was administered[6]. Without any notice, and sometimes months after the sentence, the prisoner would be brought to a cell in C wing where he would be stripped to the waist and left there. He would then be brought out through a gauntlet of off-duty prison staff and down to an underground boilerhouse where the prison staff would assemble to watch. There the prisoner would be suspended off the ground tied to metal rings while an unidentifiable warder administered the strokes of the whip, counted out by the governor. The prison doctor would check the prisoner’s heart after each stroke. Liam Burke was told this punishment was being carried out in accordance with instructions from the Ministry of Home Affairs. The birch was regarded as a particularly cruel punishment and deeply resented by the IRA prisoners.

Another, and even more damning, measure of the severity of the prison regime may be taken from another statement made later in Stormont in May 1946[7], this time by Harry Diamond, as Stormont MP for Falls. He stated that: “If any proof is needed about the conduct of the prison warders towards those prisoners over a number of years, there is the fact that seven of those young men who got out died almost immediately as a consequence of the treatment they received, and that others were taken off to lunatic asylums absolutely insane owing to the conditions they endured.” No-one on the Unionist benches denied that this was the case.

The prison authorities in Belfast were usually careful to release prisoners whose health was in terminal decline to their families so that they didn’t die within the prison. Curiously, many republicans who died in this way, such as Pat Nash, Frankie Doherty and Thomas O’Malley (in 1959) aren’t usually included in the republican Roll of Honour for the early 1940s while others, like Jack Gaffney, who died aboard the Al Rawdah, Joe Malone and Terence Perry who died in Parkhurst Prison, John Hinchy who died in Mountjoy, and Charlie O’Hare who died in the Isle of Man internment camp are included. Jimmy, though, does include Doherty, O’Malley and Nash in his song Belfast Graves and his poem In Belfast Town[8]. Some of the young men who were released from Crumlin Road prison to die at home were Richard Magowan, Dickie Dunn, John McGinley, Peter Graham, Mickey McErlean and Bernard Curran[9]. There were also four confirmed cases of tuberculosis (one of which was Richard Magowan).

To take one example, Bernard Curran had been interned in May 1940 and first complained of illness to the medical officer in the summer of 1941. He was sent out to hospital for a minor operation but on his return, received no treatment and the wound kept re-opening for the next six months. It was still discharging when he was transferred to the prison hospital in January 1942. While there, the doctor still did not provide any treatment or bandages and he had to use toilet paper to stop his shirt sticking to the wound. After 28 days in which he didn’t receive any treatment, and even though the wound began to fester, he was returned to his cell. He was among the internees sent to Derry prison in November 1942. From there he was sent to the Derry Union hospital where he was put in isolation, with poor food and hygiene and no reading materials or newspapers. His health declined even further until his unconditional release was ordered and he was carried on a stretcher to a police car and returned to his home. He never recovered and died in October 1945[10].

At least six prisoners ended up in mental institutions, although one prisoner, Charlie McDowell, who built a spaceship from fruit tins to try and escape, and, claimed he had a paste that could dissolve prison bars, surprisingly didn’t end up in care. At least one internee tried suicide and ended up having to be accompanied by Jack McNally in his cell for a time[11].

The following are a couple of documented cases of beatings of prisoners from the 1940s:

On Thursday 7th October 1943, at 12.30[12], Jimmy Steele was in his cell after dinner when two prison officers came to search his cell, Joseph Boyd and William Pyper. As Steele had joined the strip strike immediately upon returning to A wing in August (having escaped in January and been recaptured in May), he had spent most of the time naked and on punishment in his cell. For the couple of weeks after the strike ended, he had experienced the regime that had been in place since his escape in January. When Boyd and Pyper ordered him to strip so they could search him, Steele refused. The refusal brought a serious beating. It was raised in Stormont in July 1944, and he provided a statement on the beating which Harry Diamond read out on 21st May 1946 during a debate on the treatment of prisoners:

At the latter end of September or the beginning of October-I cannot remember the exact date-my cell was visited by two prison officers named Joseph Boyd and William Pyper, for the purpose of searching it. The day was Thursday, the time about 12-30. On entering my cell Boyd approached me and ordered me to strip off my entire clothing. As this was the first occasion on which I had received such an order I naturally refused to obey it, as I deemed it rather humiliating to have to strip under such circumstances.

Upon my refusal to take off my clothing Boyd said to me, “We’ll soon see about that.”

He immediately grasped me by the waistcoat and pulled it off my back. He then threw me down on my back on a mattress which was lying on an iron bedstead about three feet from the ground. In the process of doing so he had managed to pull my shirt up to my head. In this position he then pushed his knee into my chest and pulled the shirt completely off me. After that he pulled me from the bed on to the ground, holding me by the feet in doing so, with the result that my back hit the concrete floor in falling. He then trailed me by both feet along the ground, at the same time pulling the trousers off me, and while doing so he also kicked me on the left side. After this both men left the cell leaving me completely naked. I may mention that Officer William Pyper did not in any way take part in the assault. I was then locked up in my cell until the following day when, at 12 o’clock, I was paraded before the medical officer, Dr. McComb, who examined me. I still bore a mark on my left side from the kick I had received, but the M.O passed me fit for further punishment. At three o’clock on the same day I was paraded before the governor and charged with (1) refusing to obey an order; (2) attempting to assault an officer; (3) threatening an officer; and (4) making false allegations against an officer to the effect that he had kicked me. I admitted No. (1) charge; giving my reasons for same, but I emphatically denied all other charges, and I pointed out that I had actually been kicked. The governor replied that according to the medical officer’s report there were not any marks on me to prove my allegation. I replied that I still bore the mark on my side, and I offered to strip off my shirt, so that he could see the evidence for himself, but he refused my offer and said that he had to accept the officer’s evidence before mine. I was then sentenced to two days’ No. 1 solitary confinement diet. My diet during these two days consisted of four ounces of bread morning and night, whilst at dinner time four ounces of bread and two potatoes were supplied. No liquids were supplied except cold water. All utensils were removed from my cell, except my chamber and drinking water. Even my stool was removed, whilst my bedding, mattress, etc., were removed each morning at 7-30 a m and handed in again at 8 o’clock each night. I was denied all exercise. I may mention that I have been afflicted with a bad chest and a weak heart since boyhood, whilst I have also developed lung trouble since 1936, after a hunger strike in that year. The late Dr. O’Flaherty, Dr. McComb, and his assistant, Dr. Dickie, have all warned me about my weak heart. Before my arrest I had also pleurisy (twice) and congestion of the lungs. The doctors who attended me for same were the late Dr. McLaurin, Antrim Road; Dr. Alex. Dempsey, Clifton Street (April, 1935); Dr. R. McNabb, Donegall Street-(January, 1935, and June, 1940). Also X-rayed in the Royal Victoria Hospital, June, 1940.

Diamond also added that Jimmy had included a footnote that said “…Officer J. Boyd is about 6 ft. 4 in. in height and about 13 st in weight, whilst I am about 5 ft. 3 in in height and 8 st. 6 lbs in weight.” Jimmy wasn’t the only one. Samuel Holden and Dan Rooney also were on the receiving end of beatings.

On Thursday 15th June 1944, Gerry Adams and David Fleming were working beside each other in the shoe shop. As there was no work, Adams went to another prisoner’s bench. That prisoner, Dan Duffy, was a non-political and former British soldier. A warder, Jackson, then ordered Adams into the middle of the floor, saying, “You are raising a storm.” Duffy did as ordered and turned to face the wall and was told to leave. Jackson then ordered Adams to face the wall, which was not a typical order given to prisoners, telling him “I’ll soften you”. Adams refused and was then punched by Jackson while Thompson hit him with his keys. Adams was put on report and ordered to see the doctor. On the way to the doctor, Adams was pushed downstairs by another warder, Noble. A short time later, Jackson was joined by twenty warders including Moore, Kearns, Thompson and the chief, Crowe.

By this time, Adams, David Fleming, Charlie McCotter, Frank Hicks and Kevin Barry McNulty were stood with their backs to the wall outside the doctors office. The warders lined up facing the prisoners and Boyd and Moore ordered them again to face the wall. Boyd and another warder started beating Adams to try and turn him around to face the wall. Boyd started kicking Adams from behind. Foster, Jackson, Moore and Noble started beating Fleming, with McCotter, Hicks and McNulty receiving similar treatment. The prisoners tried to put up resistance, but Adams recalls Fleming, in particular, being badly beaten, with Foster hitting him on the head with his baton until Fleming collapsed, bleeding heavily from a head wound. When Fleming managed to get back to his feet, thirty seconds later, he was dragged into Hugh McAteer’s cell on A1. Among the sound of violence coming from the cell were Fleming’s body hitting the wall, groaning from Fleming and Moore shouting “Take that you republican bastard.”

Adams states that they were then brought to the doctor but he was beaten again by Noble, Moore and Boyd while being returned from A1 to his cell on A3. The beating started again when Adams was being brought down to the face the governor that afternoon. At the grill gate, he was assaulted again by warders Moore and Neeson, with Neeson grabbing him by the hair and hitting him with his knee, to the extent that Adams recalled “…water came from me”. Adams fell to the ground. Moore continued to beat him and Neeson tried to pull him by his hair to force him back up onto his feet. When he was finally brought in front of the governor, Adams was charged with refusing to face the wall. Adams’ punishment was three days’ bread and water and the loss of three months’ privileges. He was barely 18 years of age.

At mid-day, Hugh McAteer returned to his cell to find that “…the west wall of my cell was spattered with blood over a space of 42 square feet… On the north wall, where it joins the west wall, was a large, streaky, blood-stained patch which looked as if a blood-stained head had been pressed against it. The stains remained clearly visible until whitewashed out about a week later.” Fleming also received three days’ bread and water punishment, after which he confirmed to McAteer that he had received a further beating in McAteer’s cell. The prison staff didn’t even acknowledge the blood stains on the cell wall and they were whitewashed over a week later.

[1] See Stormont Hansard for 22nd March 1944 for the full debate.

[2] This must have occurred in June 1943.

[3] McGuffin, Internment, 1973, 139.

[4] McGuffin, Internment, 1973, 139.

[5] Anderson 2002, Joe Cahill: A Life in the IRA, 94.

[6] In Anderson 2002 and MacEoin 1997 The IRA in the Twilight Years

[7] Stormont Hansard, 21st May 1946

[8] Brendan Behan heard Belfast Graves sung in a pub in Belfast and has himself singing the lines about Frankie Doherty in Borstal Boy.

[9] McGuffin, Internment, 1973, p75, also details on Curran were given by Harry Diamond in Stormont on 30th October 1945.

[10] When Harry Diamond related the account of Curran’s death and the deaths of seven internees. William Lowry.

[11] McNally 1989, 91.

[12] On 27th July 1944, a question was asked in Stormont dating this to October.