why republican groups are so fractious…

It has long been a cliché that, historically, the first thing on the agenda in any Irish republican organisation is a split. But like many clichés it has an element of truth to it.

Most people are probably unaware that the Irish Citizens Army, as well as Republican Congress, organised in Belfast in the 1930s. In the late 1940s, the Socialist Republican Easter commemoration at Milltown was probably bigger than the mainstream republican event. At different times others operated in Belfast under the names Laochra Uladh and the Irish Freedom Fighters.

Why is republicanism so fractitious? It was one of the points Michael Jackson picked up on in our discussion that was published in a recent newspaper article (see below).

This is the full text of the article and interview with me that was published by Michael Jackson in the Andersonstown News and North Belfast News (see original here). ‘Belfast Battalion, A History of the Belfast IRA, 1922-1969’, by Dr John Ó Néill, is available online here or, in Belfast, from the Sinn Féin shop and Cultúrlan, from Connolly Books in Dublin and Calton Books, in Glasgow.

You can also consult copies in the library of Conway Mill Republican History Museum.

Given the significance of the IRA in shaping Ireland over the last century, there has been no shortage of historiographies about the organisation. Dr John Ó Néill’s Belfast Battalion, however, presents itself as a rarity amongst other texts on the subject.
The new book offers an invaluable chronological history of the Belfast IRA between 1922 and 1969, drawing on primary resources to provide a fuller-than-before view of the battalion’s actions, key personalities, direction and, at times, indirection during that period. Dr Ó Néill, a former St Malachy’s pupil from the Antrim Road, is also the author of the widely respected Treason Felony Blog, an online publication of his fascinating research on republican history.
Although an archaeologist by profession, Dr Ó Néill’s more recent research has a significant personal relevance, as his new book initially began as a biography of his great-uncle, leading IRA figure Jimmy Steele. However, he says that his own professional background helped him bring together many of the missing pieces in the IRA’s history.
“My background was mostly in pre-history and if you want to research a clandestine organisation then it seems to be perfect training, because you’re basically starting from scratch,” explained John.
“Other people have written some histories of the IRA during certain periods, but what I have tried to do is to create a chronological history. Obviously it gets flowery in places where you start talking about other issues that have impacted on it.
“In acadamia people have a tendency to take a thematic approach, but a fundamental building block for something like this is that you actually need to have the whole chronology of events.”
He continued: “You can start uncovering things like internal IRA memos and then you can start building up pictures of relationships between individuals, how things were done and organised. The idea was to take that period after the Civil War up until the start of the modern Troubles.
“Today it’s longer from 1969 than 1969 was to 1922, and the real experience of the people involved has to have coloured what happened in 1969. You have to wonder, do you really understand the more recent conflict here without having an understanding of what happened from the 20s to the 60s? This is my small contribution to starting that. It’s also about opening it up.
“By the same token, here are unionist groups who were involved in various campaigns of military violence, but there is very little documentation on them, or very little history written about them. We don’t really understand who’s involved on that side, what motivated them and what directs them. Are there greater forces at work or are you seeing a greater level of grassroots activity? I think we’re only starting to scratch the surface.”
While Dr Ó Néill’s exceptionally well researched book provides a detai- driven narrative of the Belfast IRA, one of its greatest triumphs is illuminating many of the internal struggles and personal differences within the wider movement, with tensions between the Belfast Battalion and the IRA’s Dublin-based GHQ featuring prominently throughout. Although historians, and even some republicans, particularly after 1969, have been keen to explore tensions between the IRA’s left and right wing defenderist traditions, Dr Ó Néill argues that the issues between Belfast and Dublin are a “much bigger dynamic continually”.
“If you look at the 1930s or 1920s, what is presented by some people as conflict over left wing politics is really a conflict over control from Dublin or control from Belfast,” he said.
“If you want to talk about a new Ireland, even republicans have always found it difficult to work out coexistence between Belfast and Dublin in terms of direction and everything else.
“I emphasise it quite a lot through the book, but in the 1920s and 1930s the Belfast IRA aren’t really represented at GHQ in Dublin. There is a constant difference in political initiatives that Dublin drives versus what the Belfast IRA want to see. It ebbs and flows and then in the 1940s it goes the other way. What actually happens is that Stephen Hays is stood down as the Chief of Staff of the IRA and the Belfast IRA take over GHQ and relocate it to Belfast.
“Even in 1969, the political dimension of socialism, communism or left wing politics was only introduced a few years later and you see that if you take what people wrote at the time was not was they wrote subsequently because they were trying to find a spin on it that worked for them.
“At the time Bombay Street was burned, the IRA Chief of Staff and his Army Council members were being paid to stage a training camp in the Dublin mountains in that week in August. It really illustrates the difference in experience of that time.
“I do think it’s a theme that you can extrapolate into modern politics to say that these are things that need to be borne in mind. Republicans who, on paper, have this same ideal or objective, can still have serious disagreements.”
The story of the Belfast IRA with its ebbs and flows in activity does, of course, have its moments of intense drama, some of which have been surprisingly obscured by time. One such story, which Dr Ó Néill rightly said has a “cinematic quality”, is that of Dan Turley, a veteren Belfast republican who was mistakenly shot as an informant.
“It’s a tortuous story,” Dr Ó Néill said. “It goes back to the 1920s. There was some conflict between him and some people from GHQ in Dublin. It blows up in the 1930s when a number of arms dumps were found in Belfast. At the time somebody else is blamed and is suspended from the IRA. Turley then gets blamed because the RUC gives false information to somebody who passes it on to the IRA. You don’t know from subsequent events if it was somebody who was working with the RUC, or whether they were unwittingly getting involved.
“Turley gets shot three years after he was expelled from the IRA. Within months of being exiled from Belfast he was contacting the IRA Army Council and they seem to endorse his return. He gets shot when the Belfast IRA is under serious pressure at the end of 1936. Members had been banned from taking military action over that period, so it’s questionable who actually shoots him.
“Clearly, from other events, Turley wasn’t actually guilty. His family stay involved in republican politics for years afterwards.
“In the middle of all this there is the story of when he gets shot in Clonard, people see it and run over. He has his hand on the inside of his jacket, they think that he was going to pull a gun and defend himself, but he actually had a Child of Prague statue that he had his hand on. I asked his grandson if the story was true, and he told me it was, and he told me that he still has the statue on the mantelpiece in his house.”
He added: “Dan Turley was involved in the IRB with Sean Mac Diarmada in Belfast in the 1900s. He was the Director of Elections for the First Dáil for Sinn Féin in Belfast. He’s one of those people, and there’s quite a few of them, that are obscure figures that should probably be better known, as much to inform people of their own history as anything else.”
Although Dr Ó Néill’s account ends in 1969 when the IRA finally split, Belfast Battalion gives a clearer picture of the reasons for the fall out, and helps illuminate the trajectory taken by the Provisional IRA and the Official IRA in the immediate aftermath. Although the events of 1969 are tumultuous, Dr Ó Néill highlights how personal differences and individual personalities played a significant part in the IRA’s more recent parting of the ways.
“One of the interesting things about it, and it does speak to modern republican politics, is that, in Belfast, to stay involved in something like the IRA throughout the 20s, 30s, 40s or 50s, there’s a certain type of independent mindset that people needed,” he said. “You need a certain mindset to retain the aims and objectives that they had and to pursue this idea of an Irish Republic.
“People overlook that when they’re wondering why republican groups are so fractious. You need to be independent minded and strong willed to battle the oppression that they did. The natural outform of that is fragmentation because the people involved are not the sort of people who will roll over in a debate – they very much stuck to their guns.
“We often overlook the long-term impact of something like that. There are things that drew them together, but when when things that caused any kind of conflict emerged you see these strong personalities come out.”
He continued: “The personalities in the split go back decades and have nothing to do with 1969, almost. There were longstanding emnities between individuals that come to the fore. Billy McMillen, for example, who was OC at the time, had left the IRA in the 1950s after falling out with Jimmy Steele. Other people like Des O’Hagan had left as well and came back to the IRA in the 1960s.
“There were faultlines that had been there for a long time and disputes that come to the fore again in 1969. Again, the theme of Belfast and Dublin comes up because some people aren’t happy with the direction from Dublin, who they think don’t understand the dynamics north of the border.
“The funny thing that affects what happens after the split is, because the Belfast IRA was traditionally led from the lower Falls, what becomes the Official IRA concentrate on that area, whereas the Provisional IRA concentrate on the other districts. That’s a factor that people have often overlooked when trying to understand the split itself.
“The decision was informed by what people understood the Belfast IRA to be about and they thought that if you were in control of the lower Falls then you were in control of the IRA in Belfast. The traditional constituency for the IRA had spread much further than the red brick terraces of the lower Falls. Long shadows are being cast and you can see the impact of these things down the road.
“I think the book might help people understand some of the dynamic involved. There are so many positions and attitudes are so entrenched that you might not be able to change many of them. I’m probably not very sympathetic to Cathal Goulding and GHQ, but if you’re from Belfast and you’re trying to write it then it’s hard not be that way. You have your own baggage and your own emotional engagement in what you’re doing and that always comes out. I wouldn’t be apologetic about it.
“I think it’s worth people approaching afresh.
“I deliberately chose to stop in 1969 because all the things that happened afterwards aren’t inevitable. Because we know the people who were involved but we don’t know enough about them and there’s not enough written about them to get for people to get to grips with them.
“A few people have tried to do it, like Martin Dillon, Tim Pat Coogan, Ed Moloney, Eamonn Mallie, Richard English – lots of people have written about the IRA, but in terms of trying to understand the interpersonal relationships between the key figures and the history of their relationships.
“If you’re interned with people in Crumlin Road Gaol for a few years in the 1950s or 1960s, with the best will in the world you might not want to sit in a room with them again, whereas your politics forces you to do that.
“We need to understand a little bit of that to understand how that influenced certain events, rather than trying to fit things into a grander narrative. People might not tell these thing in conventional histories. There are some things that people told me during the research that I just couldn’t put in the book.”
A lack of documentary evidence, such as the incomplete runs of Belfast’s republican newspapers from the 30s and 40s, was just one of the challenges faced by Dr Ó Néill as he was conducting his research. However, he also believes that personal histories and family stories, including those of his own family, have a further historiographical gap to fill.
“My mother’s family would have been involved in politics going back around 100 years,” he said.
“As some of the older generation started dying out I realised how important their stories were.
“One of my mother’s cousins, Arthur Steele, was in prison in the 1940s and he had fantastic delivery telling the stories. He was really dry and droll – he knew exactly what he was doing. It’s a great oral history that wasn’t being recorded. Arthur died a few years ago and it’s one of the voices that is missing in a book like this because you’re not able to go back to him and ask him about it. You can create a very dry history based on newspapers articles and, but it’s the stories that you get from people that add the colour in. You then start getting at how personalities drive events, rather that people trying to tie them to bigger issues such as class politics, or whatever else.
“I’m fully anticipating that the more people who read this the more people will find things that aren’t correct, and that’s kind of the purpose. This isn’t the publication to end all publications, this is very much the starting point. I want people to read it and, paradoxically for most people, I would be happy for people to correct me on certain things so we can build up a bigger picture than this.”
He continued: “A lot of the history has been lost. It has probably been told within families, but there is no public voice. Nobody has been able to speak to them all, most of them are dead. A lot of that is knocking around in other people’s heads if it was talked about at all.
“There is the old rule that silence is golden. I’ve heard a few people say that their father maybe only opened up about things a year or two before they died, and that they wished they had done it before then.
“ A lot of that information might be lost, which is why we need to do things like this.”

National Graves Association book online: 1916-1966 Belfast and Nineteensixteen

As the centenary of the 1916 Rising is being commemorated, it seems fitting to post up a copy of the booklet produced to mark the fiftieth anniversary in Belfast.

Ostensibly, the booklet was one of two produced 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. In the 1950s and 1960s, Jimmy Steele had 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.

The book represents one dimension of republican commemoration and remembrance that also included poetry and songs, physical monuments, occasionally, but rarely, buildings (such as Pearse Hall) and equally significant but less tangible memorials such as naming GAA clubs, pipe bands and cultural organizations after key individuals.

Commemoration, as a theme, provides a window on the wider republican communities, often reflecting the degrees of division and fragmentation. Noticeably, the singular focus that the Twelfth gives unionism is absent in republican commemoration despite a generally agreed pantheon from Tone to Connolly. This autonomy and independence in commemoration is arguably integral or a function of revolutionary organizations that espouse republican equality as opposed to monarchy (although the depth of antagonism often shown is deeply unproductive, except to opponents of republicanism, and needs to be overcome some way if republican ideals are to be realised). Physical monuments, up to the 1970s, were largely confined to the republican plots at Milltown with their representative, but by no means comprehensive, listings of the dead. The incompleteness and ambiguity of the original lists on the County Antrim Memorial in Milltown belies any idea that republicanism is overly obsessed with history (otherwise the monument would be informed by painstaking detail of all relevant dead, with correct dates, etc). But, in reality, some dead are listed there to remind republicans of a common purpose and to deter the faint-hearted. One message, also found in songs and poems, is clearly that to participate is to risk death, usually misinterpreted as glorifying ‘sacrifice’, when possibly the opposite is intended – it is to put off those who may succumb to treachery to avoid that ‘sacrifice’. The location, in a Catholic cemetery at Milltown, does clash with the idealism of secular republicanism but is possibly the only physical space which unionism would concede for such a purpose (as it conveniently allows unionism to Catholicise it to fit its own narrative). Notably, McArts Fort on Cavehill was the venue of choice until the 1920s (revived temporarily in the 1960s).

That said, Belfast and Nineteen Sixteen, for its era, overcame many of these issues. It includes republican and left republican voices, both male and female, and originating within and outside the contemporary republican movement. It also encompassed those who supported and opposed the Treaty in the 1920s.

Contributions to Belfast and Nineteen Sixteen included articles by Cathal O’Shannon, Dennis McCullough, Nora Connolly O’Brien, Joe McGurk, Liam Gaynor and Steele himself. An additional item was an older piece about James Connolly written by Constance De Markievicz. It also contained poems and songs by Steele, Francis O’Grady and Cathal O’Shannon.

McCullough had been President of the Military Council of the IRB and local commandant in Belfast in 1916. He had also been a key figure in various IRA veteran organisations that were dominated by supporters of the Treaty. O’Shannon was a prominent Labour activist. Their collaboration in the book signalled a broad rapprochement across various strands of the left and republicanism. Connolly O’Brien’s contribution reflected on the key role the women of Cumann na mBan played in 1916.

You can view the whole book here: Belfast and Nineteen Sixteen

Roll of Honour, Belfast, 1916-1966

The current County Antrim Memorial contains a number of panels listing those considered to have given their lives in pursuit of an Irish Republic in the period from 1916 to 1966. A review of those listed for Belfast appears relatively incomplete when set against the various criteria that appear to have been applied to identify individuals who merited inclusion on the memorial, including those killed in action, accidental deaths on active service, murdered while active and those who died as a result of imprisonment or protest. While the County Antrim Memorial lists some names, it possible to suggest quite a further names for inclusion based on the same criteria.
I have included this list with names only below for anyone wishing to quickly scan through it. Names in bold are those already listed on the County Antrim Memorial in Milltown Cemetery, Belfast. The discrepancies are interesting and I’ll post a bit more about what it tells us about commemoration and republicanism at a later date.
I have added notes on some individual cases underneath. In some instances it is not immediately possible to pinpoint the date of death since that detail isn’t accessible. In other cases inclusion may not be merited, for various reasons of geography or association.
Please use the comments section to update details where appropriate, suggest further omissions, or give reasons for removing individuals from this list. With that in mind, I’d like to put a time limit on this, so there is an agreed list that can be posted up by Easter Sunday.

You can view the names on the County Antrim Memorial here and here.


Sean McCaughey







Roll of Honour, Belfast, 1916-1966

Charlie Monaghan, IRB, 21/04/1916

James Johnston, IRB, 1917

Bernard MacMackin, IRB, 29/5/1917

Vol. Joseph Giles, Óglaigh na hÉireann, 20/7/1920

Fian John Murray, Fianna, 28/8/1920

Edward Trodden, IRB, 26/9/1920

Vol. John McFadden, Óglaigh na hÉireann, 26/9/1920

Vol. Sean Gaynor, Óglaigh na hÉireann, 26/9/1920

Vol. Sean O’Carroll, Óglaigh na hÉireann, 30/11/1920

Vol. Dan Duffin, Óglaigh na hÉireann, 23/4/1921

Vol. Pat Duffin, Óglaigh na hÉireann, 23/4/1921

Vol. Sean McCartney, Óglaigh na hÉireann, 8/5/1921

Alexander McBride, Sinn Féin, 11/6/1921

Vol. Alexander Hamilton, Óglaigh na hÉireann, 11/7/1921

Vol. James Ledlie, Óglaigh na hÉireann, 12/7/1921

Vol. Freddie Fox, Óglaigh na hÉireann, 15/8/1921

Vol.Murt McAstocker, Óglaigh na hÉireann, 25/9/1921

Vol. Bernard Shanley, Óglaigh na hÉireann, 16/12/1921

Vol. David Morrison, Óglaigh na hÉireann, 27/12/1921

Vol. Patrick Flynn, Óglaigh na hÉireann, December 1921

Vol. James Morrison, Óglaigh na hÉireann, 14/2/1922

Vol. Thomas Gray, Óglaigh na hÉireann, 16/2/1922

Fian Thomas Heathwood, Fianna, 6/3/1922

Vol. Frank McCoy, Óglaigh na hÉireann, 14/2/1922

Vol. Andrew Leonard, Óglaigh na hÉireann, 13/3/1922

Vol. Augustine Orange, Óglaigh na hÉireann, 18/3/1922

Vol. Edward McKinney, Óglaigh na hÉireann, 24/3/1922

Fian Joseph Burns, Fianna, 18/4/1922

Fian J.P. Smyth, Fianna, 18/4/1922

Fian William Toal, Fianna, 25/5/1922

Vol. William Thornton, Óglaigh na hÉireann, 18/6/1922

Fian Joseph Hurson, Fianna, 23/6/1922

Fian Leo Rea, Fianna, 23/6/1922

Vol. Edward McEvoy, Óglaigh na hÉireann, 9/8/1922

Vol. Joe McKelvey, Óglaigh na hÉireann, 8/12/1922

Vol. Pat Nash, Óglaigh na hÉireann, 31/1/1925

Vol. Francis Doherty, Óglaigh na hÉireann, 1933?

Vol. Dan Turley, Óglaigh na hÉireann, 4/12/1937

Vol. Liam Tumilson, Óglaigh na hÉireann, 14/3/1937

Vol. Jim Stranney, Óglaigh na hÉireann, 31/7/1938

Vol. Sean Martin, Óglaigh na hÉireann, 25/4/40

Vol. Jack Gaffney, Óglaigh na hÉireann, 18/11/1940

Vol. Joe Malone, Óglaigh na hÉireann, 21/1/1942

Vol. Terence Perry, Óglaigh na hÉireann, 7/7/1942

Vol. Gerard O’Callaghan, Óglaigh na hÉireann, 31/8/1942

Vol. Tom Williams, Óglaigh na hÉireann, 2/9/1942

Vol. Richard Magowan, Óglaigh na hÉireann, 1943

Vol. Seamus Burns, Óglaigh na hÉireann, 12/2/1944

Fian Sean Doyle, Fianna, 10/4/1944

Vol. Tom Graham, Óglaigh na hÉireann, 1944

Vol. Dickie Dunn, Óglaigh na hÉireann, 1945?

Vol. Sean McCaughey, Óglaigh na hÉireann, 11/5/1946

Brendan O’Boyle, Laochra Uladh, 2/7/1955

Vol. Tommy O’Malley, Óglaigh na hÉireann, 10/12/1959

Vol. Patrick McLogan, Óglaigh na hÉireann, 21/7/1964


Notes on some individual entries:

Johnston and McMackin both had their health broken by their internment in Frongoch, both died immediately after release (see Belfast and nineteensixteen). In Johnston’s case it isn’t clear if he was directly involved with the IRB.

John Murray, 20 years old, from Glenview Street, who was shot in the abdomen on the night of 28th August 1920. Was dead before he reached the Mater Hospital. Address given as 11 Glenview Street in Facts and Figures of the Belfast Pogrom, where the head of household is given in the 1918 Belfast Street Directory as John Murray (the father of the deceased). Included on County Antrim Memorial.

Augustine Orange, Castlereagh Road, was found shot dead in Clermont Lane during the night of 18th March 1922, reputedly after returning from a St Patrick’s Ball. He is named in a list of those who served in republican forces at the back of Antrim’s Patriot Dead but no further detail is included. His older brother worked as a telegraphist and he may have been involved in intelligence work.

Joseph Burns, 18th April 1922, listed as accidentally shot. Not reported in newspapers. Not listed in Facts and Figures of the Belfast Pogrom. Included on County Antrim Memorial, inclusion suggests there were republican casualties in 1920-22 that were either not conventionally reported or disguised through circumstances.

J.P. Smyth is listed as ‘shot dead’ on 18th April 1922. Not reported in the newspapers although The Irish Times carries an account of a sniper shot dead in the Bone by an army patrol who had not been identified. Not listed in Facts and Figures. Similar case to Burns, above.

William Toal, 17, of 42 Mayfair Street, was wounded during the night of Thursday 25th May. He died in hospital the next day. Facts and Figures gives a date of 26th May 1922. Included on County Antrim Memorial, date of death given as May 1922.

Thomas Heathwood, Upton Street, killed on 6th March 1922. Listed as ‘Thomas Eastwood’ killed on 6th March 1922 in Facts and Figures but described as a Fianna member in the press in March 1922.

Joseph Hurson, 15, an apprentice cabinet maker of 87 Unity Street and a second lieutenant in A Company, 2nd Battalion. Listed as killed on 23rd June 1922 in Facts and Figures but was actually killed on 4th July 1922 when he was shot through the eye at his own front door.

Leo Rea, 16. 107 Leeson Street a shop assistant and Fian in A Company, 1st Battalion, and also listed as attached to E Company and Engineers. Listed as killed on 23rd June 1922 in Facts and Figures. Shot dead at 8.30 am on Merrion Street, off the Grosvenor Road and died an hour later in the Mater Hospital.

William Thornton, Catherine Street (IRA section leader, C Company, 3rd Battalion), shot dead by RUC in Gloucester Street. 18 June 1922. For more see here.

Bernard Shanley, C Company (also listed as Engineering Company), 2nd Battalion. Killed on picket duty, 15th December 1921. Not listed in Facts and Figures. On picket duty in Bankmore Street, when he was attacked by a mob. Revolver ammunition proved defective and he was shot . Died a few hours later in Mater Hospital on 16th December.

James Morrison, 126 Sultan Street and E Company, 1st Battalion. Killed 14th February 1922. His company had fired on loyalists who were using workmen on the tramway track as cover close to Dunville Park. When one, Thomas Blair, was killed, Specials carried out a reprisal and James Morrison was wounded and died later that day in the Royal Victoria Hospital. Listed as killed on 15th February 1922 in Facts and Figures.

Andrew Leonard, 53 Mary Street, A Company, 4th Battalion. Wounded in the neck during fighting in Townsend Street on 6th March 1922 and died on the 13th March. Listed as killed on 13th March 1922 in Facts and Figures (and his address given as Duffy Street). He is listed as killed in action, A Company, 4th Battalion.

Alexander Hamilton, Plevna Street shot dead during trouble on the Springfield Road on the early morning of 11th July 1921 (listed as KIA, A Company, 4th Battalion).

Edward McKinney, was a barman who worked with the McMahon family and was killed along with many of the family on 24th March 1922. Known to have been a member of Óglaigh na hÉireann.

Joseph Giles, shot dead in Bombay Street on 22nd July 1920. An ex-soldier. Believed to have been an IRA volunteer (see Northern Divisions by Jim McDermot).

Frank McCoy, Forfar Street. Section leader, A Company, 4th Battalion. Died on 14th February 1922.

Edward McEvoy, Kerrara Street, Ardoyne, killed in an attack by Free State troops at Ferrycarrig in Wexford, 9th August 1922.

Pat Nash 31st January 1925, veteran republican. Health broken by prison protests, was released from internment to die at home. This was typical of the northern government, and a similar fate befell other republicans like Francis Doherty (in 1933), Joe Malone (1942), Terence Perry (1942), Richard Magowan (1943), Tom Garham (1944), Dickie Dunn (1945) and Tommy O’Malley (1959). Other internees who died in the 1940s and may be from Belfast include Cathal Kerr, J. Rooney, Joe McGinley, Seamus Keenan and Mickey McErlean.

Dan Turley was shot in error in 1936 after a dubious court martial in 1933. Harry White, as Chief of Staff, appears to have informally recognised Turley’s innocence by 1944.

Liam Tumilson and Jim Straney had went to Spain from Óglaigh na hÉireann where they were killed in action fighting fascism. Others generally listed as Belfast republicans are Dick O’Neill, Danny Boyle and Thomas Kerr.

Brendan O’Boyle was the leading figure in the Laochra Uladh group.

Patrick McLogan had a long republican career, but did command D Company, 1st Battalion, Belfast Brigade from July 1919 to April 1920 and so could arguably be listed with the Belfast Roll of Honour. He was killed when a gun accidentally discharged.

Prayers in the rain, Milltown 1935

In 1935 the Easter Rising commemoration at Milltown cemetery was banned by the northern government as had happened in previous years. Some 200 RUC men were drafted in to seal off the cemetery and prevent any ceremony being held. In defiance of both the northern government, and the elements (it poured rain), some 2,000 republicans gathered at the cemetery gates despite the rain. Fr J Bradley, from St Patricks, gave out the Rosary as the crowd knelt in the rain (he can be seen standing in the middle of the crowd in the photo below).

Crowd kneeling in the rain outside Milltown cemetery, Easter Commemoration 1935

Crowd kneeling in the rain outside Milltown cemetery, Easter Commemoration 1935

This public show of defiance was the largest attendance at an Easter Rising commemoration in Belfast to date (and would be until the mid-1950s). The practice of saying the Rosary had become a hallmark of the Belfast commemorations in the 1930s. Since the northern government could not prevent a religious ceremony being held it had been the sole public act of commemoration that Belfast republicans could hold. Notably, this was probably the last major gathering of republicans or nationalists in Belfast prior to the pogrom that summer. Even before the Outdoor Relief Riots in October 1932, An Phoblacht had been warning that there were signs that the northern government would attempt to divide the community by initiating a pogrom. Mini outbreaks followed but a fully-blown violent assault on areas where Catholics were resident, in particular around Lancaster Street, the Docks, North Queen Street and York Street, finally came in 1935. Perhaps the northern government were spooked into action by the defiance seen at Easter in Belfast. Notably, de Valera was too, as he had a Belfast IRA training camp raided on the eve of the pogrom and detained many of the Belfast IRA volunteers who were there. The timing was not believed to be a coincidence.

Despite the apparent religious fervour of the image, republicans were in perpetual conflict with the Catholic hierarchy in Ireland and the attachment to the rosary being said at Milltown was in its symbolic defiance and resistance to the northern government rather than pious devotion. Ironic too, it was not the Catholicism of IRA members that the northern government feared but rather it’s long term co-operation on various projects with left-wing groups in Belfast (there had even been a mini-purge of senior Belfast republicans who were hostile to the left in 1932 and 1933).

In the aftermath of the 1935 pogrom, the National Council of Civil Liberties investigated both what had happened and the Unionist government’s Special Powers Acts. On the 23rd May 1936 it finally presented its report in London. According to the report, Catholics had been denied all lawful means of conducting their political activities or of advancing the cause of a United Ireland. The Commission of Inquiry reported that:

It is sad that in the guise of temporary and emergency legislation there should have been created, under the shadow of the British Constitution, a permanent machine of dictatorship – a standing temptation to whatever intolerant or bigoted section may attain power to abuse its authority at the expense of the people it rules.[1]

The report itself highlighted the origins and uses of the Special Powers Acts. It identified a constitutional irregularity between the powers conferred by the Act on the Executive (effectively the Minister of Home Affairs) and the limitations of the powers given to the northern government under the Government of Ireland Act 1920 to pass such legislation. It goes on to examine the extent to which the Special Powers Acts created new ‘offences’, removed the normal protections afforded by the law, subjected judicial process to political interference (criticising, in particular, the appointment of Resident Magistrates). It emphasised the roles played by the Orange Order and Protestant Leaguers in attacks on working-class and labour organisations (as well as on Catholics). It also highlighted how the Orders were linked to the government, judiciary and policing and never subjected to the use of the Special Powers Acts themselves. The Commission made reference to the ‘electoral reforms’ which gerrymandered various electoral bodies to guarantee a unionist majority.

It summarised this by saying that the Special Powers Acts: “…places the Executive in a position paralleled only by continental dictatorships…”. It illustrated the report with various cases to show typical ways the act was used to target and harass labour activists, Catholics and republicans.

The conclusion of the report is damning and worth quoting in full:

Through the operation of the Special Powers Acts contempt has been begotten for the representative institutions of government.

“Through the use of special powers individual liberty is no longer protected by law, but is the arbitrary disposition of the Executive. This abrogation of the rule of law has been so practised as to bring the freedom of the subject into contempt.

“The Northern Irish Government has used special powers towards securing the domination of one particular political faction, and, at the same time, towards curtailing the lawful activities of its opponents. The driving of legitimate movements underground into illegality, the intimidating or branding as law-breakers of their adherents, however innocent of crime, has tended to encourage violence and bigotry on the part of the Government’s supporters as well as to beget in its opponents an intolerance of the ‘law and order’ thus maintained. The Government’s policy is thus driving its opponents into the ways of extremists.

“The Northern Irish Government, despite its assurances that special powers are intended for use only against law-breakers has frequently employed them against innocent and law-abiding people, often in humble circumstances, whose injuries, inflicted without cause or justification have gone unrecompensed and disregarded.

“Jurists have hitherto regarded the sovereignty of Parliament and the rule of law as the two cardinal principles of the British Constitution. The Northern Irish Government in abrogating them has ravished the heritage for which generations of Britons have fought and suffered. The Special Powers Acts, the basis of a legal dictatorship, are a vital link in the chain which has been forged around the freedom of the community of Northern Ireland.

“The Commission expresses the belief that the operation of the Special Powers Acts has the most widespread effect upon political life in Northern Ireland. The existing conditions of rule – secured by the supercession of representative government and the abrogation of the rule of law and the liberty of the subject, the basis of Special Powers – cannot be described otherwise than as totally unBritish.

“It is clear to the Commission, that the way to the re-establishment of constitutional government, the prerequisite of law and order in democratic communities, can be paved only by the repeal of the Special Powers Acts. Where the pillars of constitutional rule, parliamentary sovereignty, and the rule of law are overthrown there exist the essential conditions of dictatorship.”

Anyone who believed that the report might have some impact either in Westminster or Belfast was quickly put straight by Lord Craigavon, Prime Minister of the northern government: “… no importance should be attached to a document containing such misrepresentations…”.[2]

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[1] For instance, see The Irish Times, 25 May 1936

[2] McEoin 1997, 372s

The bombing of the republican plot in Milltown

This is the story of the bombing and destruction of the original republican plot in Milltown cemetery in Belfast. When most people think of the republican plot in Milltown, they usually think of it as the County Antrim memorial erected on the Tom Williams plot in the mid-1960s. The older republican monument, though, is the one erected in 1912 on the Harbinson plot, named after William Harbinson, a Fenian who died while interned in Belfast prison in 1867. The current monument is actually a replica of the original which was destroyed by a bomb in 1937. Its replacement was also destroyed in 1938, and the monument was targeted again later the same year and yet again in 1939.

After the Harbinson plot had been acquired by local republicans in 1912, a granite memorial to the Belfast Fenians and IRB men was erected in the plot. This monument was an obelisk topped by a Celtic cross more or less identical to that standing today. The plot was enclosed by an iron-work fence with some fine Celtic art details (modelled on the Monasterevin-type discs of 1st-2nd century AD date). Two IRA men, Lieutenant General Joe McKelvey and Sectional Commander Sean McCartney were later buried within the plot. McCartney was buried there in 1921 and commemorated in a plaque placed at the foot of the obelisk. McKelvey was re-interred there in 1924 and his re-burial was a seminal moment in the re-organisation of the Belfast IRA. Jimmy Steele included a photo (below) of the original monument in Antrims Patriot Dead, issued by the National Graves Associated in 1966 (Steele also used a similar image as the front cover of Belfast Patriot Graves in 1963).

original harbinson plot

Around 11 am on the morning of the 1st July, 1937, visitors to Milltown cemetery found that the monument in the republican plot had been badly damaged by a bomb (oddly, few people, if any, heard the bomb explode during the night).

Photo of the aftermath of the bombing in Irish Independent, 2nd July 1937.

Photo of the aftermath of the bombing in Irish Independent, 2nd July 1937.

Evidently gelignite had been placed under a corner of the five ton monument and detonated by a fuse. It blew down the obelisk and the cross, tore up the iron railings from around the plinth, and scattered debris over a forty foot radius. A four foot deep crater was left by the explosion. A wreath of flowers on the monument was blown over a wall twenty-five yards away. The plaque to Sean McCartney appeared to have been taken from the plot as it could not be found during searches of the debris (it was later replaced by the stone shield that is there today).

The bombing brought an outraged reaction from the local branch of the National Graves Association, which held an emergency meeting that evening, condemning “…the wanton destruction by explosives of the memorial in the republican plot…”. The Association noted that the presence of the two graves in the plot made “…the outrage all the more dastardly, and should call for protests from every decent-minded person regardless of class or creed.

After the bombing, the Belfast Recorder awarded £75 in damages for the destruction of the monument. This was enough to allow a replica to be made which was erected in the first week of March 1938. The replacement was a twelve foot cross of Newry granite that replicated the one destroyed in 1937.

But at 1 am on the morning of the 11th March another charge of gelignite exploded, having been placed in a hole dug beneath a corner of the monument. The explosion left a two foot deep crater under a corner of the plinth, with a sizeable portion of the plinth blown out of the plot. The top half of the monument also collapsed. Nearby in the graveyard, someone had chalked graffiti on the walls “Welcome home Crown Entry ‘Victims’” (the first of those arrested in 1936 and who had received two years for treason felony were due for release during April 1938). Notably this was the only bombing around this time where the attackers left graffiti. The RUC also investigated ‘footprints’ found at the scene.

The destruction caused by the March 1938 bombing of the republican plot (Irish Independent 12th March 1938).

The destruction caused by the March 1938 bombing of the republican plot (Irish Independent 12th March 1938).

Unlike the bombing in 1937, the destruction of the monument in March 1938 was discovered to be the work of a maverick pressure group within the Belfast IRA that was trying to precipitate armed confrontation between the IRA and the northern government. In January 1938 this group had shot and wounded a former prison warder. The Milltown bombing, though, illustrated the extent of their ruthlessness. Harry White revealed that the ‘ginger group’ (the term White uses) blew up the republican monument but doesn’t give the exact date of this episode other than placing it in the time between the Smith shooting (in January 1938) and his own release from Crumlin Road in May 1938[1]. Notably, Jimmy Steele also neglects to mention the March 1938 bombing directly in a brief history of the Harbinson Plot in Antrims Patriot Dead.

Some of the maverick group are named by White as Sean McCaughey, Albert Price, Pat McCotter, Peter Farrelly and John Rainey. White too became involved with them after his release from Crumlin Road in May 1938. Oddly, the figure to the left of the RUC man in the photo above looks suspiciously like White (but may be his brother John – I’ve since been fortunate enough to get Danny Morrison, a nephew of the Whites, to look at it and he’s pretty sure it’s not either of them). Similarly, the figure behind the RUC man’s left shoulder could even be Sean McCaughey, while the man to his right looks a bit like the Belfast O/C at the time, Sean McArdle. Unfortunately the quality of the photo makes clear identification of anyone in the picture almost impossible.

White describes the March 1938 bomb as a misdirected attempt to rouse the people. The idea that some of the ‘ginger group’ hung around the damaged monument (possibly getting captured on camera), all the while talking up the outrage against the bombing to any nearby journalists, and then urging the Belfast IRA O/C to take action isn’t actually that implausible (although that is pretty speculative, all the same). The Belfast staff did temporarily give way to pressure from the ‘ginger group’ and that night a British army recruiting office in Alfred Street was bombed around 11 o’clock, doing considerable damage but causing no injuries. The IRA had bombed a naval recruiting office in Donegall Street on 10th November the previous year using largely the same tactic of breaking into the office and setting a timed bomb. This had detonated scattering glass and bricks over the street and with the buildings caretaker, James McEwan, still upstairs. He escaped unhurt, but clearly the Belfast IRA staff had clipped the wings of the IRA unit involved for risking casualties. The ‘misguided attempt’ of March 1938 seems to have been intended to give the ‘ginger group’ a pretext to carry out a further attack and demonstrate they could effectively destroy property without causing casualties.

White notes that the ‘ginger group’ was broken up by the Belfast IRA staff after they developed a plan to attempt to free a prisoner (Eddie McCartney, sentenced to 10 years after the Campbell College raid) in the summer of 1938. At some point, the Belfast IRA also became aware of who had planted the March 1938 bomb which might equally have led to the group being broken up. As it was, Sean Russell’s elevation to the IRA’s Chief of Staff in April 1938 also seemed to offer the prospect of the more militant action that the ‘ginger group’ had been demanding.

The March 1938 bomb in Albert Street also appears to have been the last such IRA action for some time. From 1937 to 1939, though, Unionists had carried out and were to continue with a series of bomb attacks on a range of targets including Catholic Churches, residential districts and other facilities such as sport clubs and AOH Halls. These took the form of placed devices that exploded during the night, bombs thrown from cars and bombs thrown over walls into residential areas.

After the March 1938 bombing, work began on another replacement for the republican monument. The work was completed in O’Neill’s sculpting yard in Divis Street. The 15th August was the day it was to be moved to replace the one blown up in Milltown. That night two men were seen at the yard, one kept watch while the other scaled the wall. He left a bomb behind the nearly completed monument which exploded damaging the top of the monument. The two other damaged monuments were also lying in O’Neill’s yard but were not damaged further. The explosion was heard for miles around. Eye-witnesses saw the perpetrators leave and run off towards Castle Junction.

Yet again, work had to begin on a replacement for the republican monument. Finally, in the last week of October (1938), having even been guarded by the RUC, the republican monument was re-erected in the Harbinson plot in Milltown cemetery.

Then, on the night of 18th January, 1939, at around 11.40 pm, residents across Belfast heard yet another loud explosion which shook windows and slates around the Falls Road. The cemetery superintendent, J. Fitzgerald, who lived in the gate lodge, went straight to the republican plot and saw figures rushing off across the Bog Meadows. A quick search revealed that a home-made canister bomb had been placed against the republican monument. Gelignite in the bomb had detonated but, on this occasion, it hadn’t been buried properly and the monument appeared to have survived intact apart from some scorching. Fragments of the iron-fencing were blown a considerable distance away. A photograph of the monument from after the bombing shows that the damage looked fairly minor. However, inspection of the monument by the Belfast Corporation Claims Department (who had paid out after the previous attacks) showed that it had been dangerously loosened and it was again removed to a sculptors yard in Divis Street for repair. This was done under RUC guard and it was finally re-erected in the plot.

Today the monument looks largely as it did when first erected apart from the plain fencing which no longer contains the fine Celtic art of the original.

RUC inspect damage after bombing (Irish Press, 20th January 1939).

RUC inspect damage after January 1939 bombing (Irish Press, 20th January 1939).

[1] See MacEoin 1986 Harry, page 51. Raymond Quinn, in A Rebel View, dates the McCartney escape plan to mid 1937, while White (in MacEoin) puts it after the shooting of Smith in January 1938. For that reason (and the fact that Jimmy Steele glosses over the March 1938 bombing in Antrims Patriot Dead), I’ve opted for Whites dates.