The above photo was published in Ray Quinn’s history of the IRA in Belfast after 1924, A Rebel Voice. It is a group photo of Joe McKelvey GAC including some of the playing staff. The photo isn’t dated but two individuals are identified, Jimmy Steele in the front row and Joe Hanna in the back row. Joe McKelvey GAC was set up after the reburial of McKelvey in Belfast in November 1924. The funeral held in St Mary’s in Chapel Lane and the burial at Milltown was a seminal moment in the restructuring of the post-Civil War IRA in Belfast. As the premier GAA club for IRA members in Belfast, the significance of McKelvey’s funeral was reflected in the club’s name.
GAA club names provided an opportunity for republicans and nationalists to create the sort of commemorative monumental landscape denied to them by the northern government. Consistently, GAA clubs were named after leading nationalists and republicans, as well as Irish cultural figures. By doing so, clubs likes O’Connells GAC, McKelveys, Morans or Nashes kept those names in regular usage as fixtures were made, games played and results discussed. Surreptitiously, republicans and nationalists were able to erect an architecture across parts of the city that reflected their political aspirations, rather than accepting that imposed by the northern government. Denied access to the permissions and resources to construct a physical reflection of their historical and political values, nationalists and republicans instead created a virtual architecture from cultural and sporting institutions. This could co-exist with the physical unionist landscape demanded by the northern government and was very resistant to repression.
So as to bypass the restrictions the northern government imposed on political activity, the IRA used GAA clubs as means by which members could meet and organise. Since the IRA had to set up its own clubs, clearly not all GAA clubs were IRA clubs. Constantly under surveillance from the northern government, occasionally successful on the pitch, and overtly political in bringing motions to GAA conventions, McKelveys effectively folded during internment in 1939.
The two figures indicated on the photo are Jimmy Steele (at the front) and Joe Hanna (at the back). Hanna was the Intelligence Officer of the Belfast Battalion at the time of the Campbell College raid and Crown Entry and was shot as an informer in 1937. The figured seat in the row behind Jimmy Steele, with a ball between his feet, is Jack McNally. Otherwise, no-one else in the photo has been identified. Donal McAnallen recorded interviews with some former members of McKelveys in the 1990s but otherwise no history of the club has been written to date.