Sailortown and the violence of 1935

Last weekend, as part of the launch for the Belfast Battalion book, I gave a talk in St Joseph’s Church in Sailortown in Belfast. The talk looked at the experience of residents during the violent, summer of 1935 (rather than at the broader politics of what happened). A couple of themes that emerge from it are, particularly when viewing the press coverage, is the number of children who were eye witnesses (if not actual participants). I think they provided a physical link to the later violence in 1969 which has strong parallels with that of 1935.

While putting the talk together, I also came across a couple of fatalities not usually included in the death toll of 1935, including two year old boy called Joseph Walsh. Among the darkness, though, there was one positive. In 1935, residents recognised that erecting ‘peace walls’ did more harm than good as it actually heightened a sense of siege and perpetuated division.

I re-recorded the audio for the talk over the same slides and you can watch it below or on YouTube.

Thanks to everyone who came to the talk and launch in St Josephs on the Saturday morning and the launch in the evening in the Felons Club.


I mentioned Ronnie Monck and Bill Rolstons 1987 book on Belfast in the 1930s (Belfast in the Thirties: An Oral History), but here’s some more reading:

…the minority, whom we consider rebels to the British Throne, the British flag, and to Protestant Ulster

Attacks on the press, calls for unionist unity, warnings that their heritage and Protestantism had been sold out. Not 2018, but 1935 and a meeting of the Ulster Protestant League (UPL) in the Ulster Hall. Many of the issues raised appear to be timeless, though, as you could find them echoed in similar meetings in the likes of 1969, the 1980s, the 1990s or the present.

A couple of weeks before the meeting, speaking in Bessbrook, the Unionist Prime Minister, Craigavon, had “…emphasised the duty of all loyal citizens to support the defence organisations upon which, more than upon anything else, Ulster relies — the Ulster Unionist Council, the Orange and Black Institutions, the Ulster Women’s Unionist Council, the Apprentice Boys of Derry, and the Ulster Unionist Labour Association. These, he says, suffice for the purpose, and his advice to Loyalists generally is to avoid other so-called, defence organisations, of mushroom growth, which serve no useful purpose, and are, in fact, a source of danger.

Craigavon’s criticisms of the likes of the UPL are significant as it hints at it’s political distance from the senior Unionist leadership, albeit a difference measured in nuances rather than real variations in policy. Ultimately, despite a growing base of knowledge on the Belfast IRA in the 1930s, we still are limited in what we know about who directed non-state violence on the unionist side, such as the likes of the UPL. The following account of the UPL meeting appeared in the Belfast Newsletter on Thursday 10th October 1935.


Call for Sir Dawson Bates Resignation


LIVELY scenes were witnessed at a meeting in the Ulster Hall, Belfast, last night, under the auspices of the “Maiden City Protestant League.” Mr. S. Thompson presided and there was a large attendance. Several bands were on the platform.

The meeting was opened with prayer and the singing of “O God, our help in ages past,” but in a short time there was shouts to put out the reporter of a Nationalist newspaper.

Disorder occurred and a rush was made towards the Press table. Stewards and ‘members of the platform party  intervened, however, and Mrs. Hartnett one of the speakers, pleaded for fair play. Order was then restored and the proceedings were continued. Subsequently the reporter left, being escorted out of the hall by stewards.

The Resolutions

The following resolutions, which were proposed by Mr. R. Ritchie and seconded by Mr. J. McBurney, were passed amid applause:

(1) “We, the loyalists of Belfast, assembled in the Ulster Hall, wish to protest against the speech of Lord Craigavon made at Bessbrook. promising protection to the minority, whom we consider rebels to the British Throne, the British flag, and to Protestant Ulster.

(2) We loyalists wish once again to voice our demand for the resignation of Sir Dawson Bates, Minister of Home Affairs, and, Sir Charles Wickham, Inspector General of the R.U.C., and if the Prime Minister continues to ignore our resolution we will proceed to have a plebiscite taken all over the City of Belfast and the rest of Ulster.”

Mr. McBurney alleged that Protestants had been waylaid in Greencastle, where he came from, and no action had been taken by the police.


The Chairman expressed his pleasure at presiding over such a vast meeting both inside and outside the hall, and in the name of their common Protestantism he called on all to join in this great movement for their beloved cause. This had been described as a unity meeting, because they had on the platform representatives from virtually every Protestant organisation in Belfast and throughout the Province. Last, but not least, once again Derry Walls come closer to them that night, for they bad a representative there from the Maiden City.

In the following day’s Press reports they would probably read that instead of a unity meeting being held in the Ulster Hall representative of all the Protestant societies and organisations they were simply a gathering of mushrooms. A voice — Lord Craigavon. The most eloquent reply they could give to that, was that they were the most virile mushroom he had handled. They knew what they did with mushrooms They had to rise early in the morning to get mushrooms, but they would have to get up very early before they could sell Protestantism. (Applause) They were determined that the result of that meeting that a question would arise for all Protestants in Belfast and throughout Ulster to have a form of unification, and they were hopeful that not only would there be unity of Protestant organisations and Protestant societies but as a result a new Protestant Party would come into being. (Applause.)

A Protestant Party

The Protestant party that they visualised would require no labels. It used to be quite sufficient for them, as Protestants, for a man if he were the right kind of label to get their votes. But that, was not going to take place any longer because under that system their cause, their heritage, and their Protestantism had been sold daily to the enemy by those in whom they had put their trust. They called upon Protestant men and women to rally round in that endeavour to bring Protestants together in one united body so that they could ask Protestant people defy every politician who would betray them.

The object of their meeting was to do away with Popery, whether in Stormont or in Dublin. Their purpose was the unification of all Protestant organisations in a central committee that would decide on a policy acceptable to all. In the hands of the Central Committee Protestantism would always have first consideration. (Applause.)

Lord Craigavon Criticised

Councillor Gallagher, Derry, began by thanking Lord Craigavon for being more or less responsible for that night’s meeting. It was due to his remarks a few weeks ago at Bessbrook regarding “mushroom organisations”. After that the officers of the various societies represented there that night thought the time would come when they should be amalgamated into one big mushroom—or rather Orange Lily. Lord Craigavon had also said that the Orange Order and the Apprentice Boys of Derry were behind him and behind Sir Dawson Bates and Sir Charles Wickham in everything they had done during the last twelve or thirteen years. (Cries of “Shame.”)

Councillor Gallagher then asked the meeting if they agreed with everything that Lord Craigavon and the other two men had done.

There was a thunderous shout of ” No!” and an outbreak of applause.

What, asked Councillor Gallagher, had come over their old leaders after fighting so loyally years ago? Why was it that Protestants who were supposed to have guns in their possession were sent to prison for six months or a year while Roman Catholics actually found with guns were fined 40s, with time to pay. If some disloyalist met with an accident seven or eight young Protestant men were arrested probably to satisfy the Roman Catholic Press.

Rush to Press Table

At this stage there was much commotion as some members of the gathering made a rush towards the Press table. Members of the platform party and stewards, however, appealed for fair play and the situation became calmer.

Continuing, Councillor Gallagher, referred to the Roman Catholics demand for an inquiry into the Belfast riots, and said that he could not understand why the Government did not grant the inquiry. They all knew who started the trouble and who suffered most. Was it because he Government knew that proper police protection had not been given to the Orangemen on 12th July.

Mrs D.G. Hartnett said that she was working for the amalgamation of Protestants in Belfast and Ulster. Their object was to keep Ulster in the Empire. They should press upon the Government to have some form of Protestant defence force so that the terrible occurrences of July last could not happen again. That force should be properly armed and equipped, ad if possible be under the Government. They were going to have it, and had decided to have it. They wanted the old Ulster Volunteer Force back again.

Talking about leaders, Mrs. Harnett said that there must be hundreds and thousands of men who could take the wheel as well as the old gang. (Loud applause) They should not be afraid of a big name. (Laughter) There were just as good men in the Shankill district and East Belfast who could be their leaders. (Applause.) They were determined to have a disciplined Protestant force to protect their homes. There were in Ulster as good men as their forefathers were. (Applause)

A number of other speakers addressed the meeting in similar terms.

Police Precautions

A large force of police on foot and in cars escorted the bands and their followers to and from the hall. Those who came from the Shankill Road area were accompanied by a very strong detachment of Constabulary on account of their having to pass through the fringe of a Roman Catholic quarter at Peter’s Hill. The services of the police, however, were not required, the marching and singing throng passing along unmolested.

The speeches in the hall were relayed by means of loud speakers to the large crowd which was unable to gain admission to the building.

I’m going to give a talk on what happened to some local residents of Belfast’s Sailortown during the riots in the summer of 1935 (rather than the political context). Some 643 compensation cases came before the Belfast Recorder’s Court that autumn. In these, individuals gave personal accounts of their injuries and how they occurred. Sometimes brief, sometimes in more detail, but all likely reflecting what later formed the substance of how local people on all sides of the community framed their own experiences of the events of 1935. The talk will take place in St Joseph’s Church in Sailortown on 8th December (starting at 11 am) and any and all are welcome. The talk is to help launch my book on the Belfast IRA, 1922-1969.

York Street 1935.png

British troops on patrol off York Street (Illustrated London News, 20/7/35).