Who’s That Knocking on My Door: 75th anniversary of the death of Rocky Burns.

Today marks the 75th anniversary of the death of Seamus ‘Rocky’ Burns, the only O/C of the Belfast IRA to be shot dead while he was in the role.
Rocky Burns

Seamus ‘Rocky’ Burns in his coffin, from Resurgence, September 1946.

On the 10th February 1944, he and another member of the IRA left the Continental Café on Chapel Lane (now St. Mary’s Repository and the Holy Shop beside the Hercules Bar) and walked along Chapel Lane where they were stopped by two plain clothes RUC men and asked to produce their identification. Burns had previously evaded arrest when he had faulty identification by asking the RUC Sergeant who had challenged him for advice and then sitting through a lecture on how to go about getting the correct identification. On this occasion, Burns and his companion were turned around and told they were being brought back along Chapel Lane to Queen Street RUC Barracks. As they were walking crossing into Queen Street, a uniformed RUC Constable, John Trainor, from the Waterside in Derry, was on the other side of the road. In a later compensation hearing it was stated that Trainor had recognised Burns and was intending to join the others at Queen Street Barracks. Trainor was an ex-British soldier and former Army light heavyweight boxing champion.
After his death, the RUC stated that they had wanted Burns in relation to an attempt to shoot a prison warder, Nathaniel Robinson, on 25th January 1944 (just over two weeks previously). Relations between the republican prisoners in Crumlin Road, Derry and Armagh and the prison staff had rapidly deteriorated following the escapes of January and March 1943. This had culminated in the sentenced prisoners holding a strip strike in the middle of 1943 followed by a hunger strike by women prisoners in Armagh in the winter of that year. Since internment had recommenced in 1938, confrontations between the IRA and prison staff had oscillated wildly between a modus vivendi and a number of violent episodes in which warders had been attacked outside the prison, killing at least one, Thomas Walker, in February 1942. Since 1940, a significant number of republican prisoners had either died in the various prisons or been released when terminally ill only to die at home shortly later (eg see the account of the Al Rawdah here). Indeed, while he had been interned himself, Burns had been vociferous in calls for the Belfast Battalion of the IRA to carry retaliation against prison staff on the outside.
In 1939, Burns, then only 18, was in Derry Gaol when the republican internees took over a wing on Christmas Day. Like the rest, Rocky was subject to indiscriminate beatings by the Specials, RUC and British soldiers when the internees lost control of the wing again. When the B Specials, RUC and fire brigade were trying to break into the wing, they used a battering ram on the barricaded steel door, accompanied by Rocky singing ‘Who’s That Knocking At My Door?’ (click the link below to hear a popular version of the song from the 1930s).
On the 25th January, two men had confronted Robinson as we walked down Alliance Avenue on his way into Crumlin Road prison. One shot was fired at him. While the bullet did hit his hand, Robinson’s belt buckle deflected it, preventing a more serious injury. When he was brought hospital it was widely reported that he had identified one of those involved, following Burns death the press identified one of his attackers as Burns. This may be an incident referred to by Harry White in his own biography (Harry) in which he was involved in an IRA operation against a prison officer and in which he too was identified. In Harry, White doesn’t identify the second man with Burns on February 10th although it doesn’t appear to be White himself.
Whether Trainor had been deliberately positioned to cover Burns or not, according to the statement made at the inquest on 21st February, as the party crossed Castle Street onto Queen Street Burns pulled his revolver and tried to make a run for it. The official account claimed he had shot one of the RUC men then ran along Queen Street for twenty yards and then collapsed.
The reports from the subsequent inquest (on 21st February) are slightly unclear. Burns was shot through the liver and received three other bullet wounds. Bullets hit the window frame of the radio shop, two doors down from Queen Street RUC Barracks, while Burns gun had discharged five rounds, with one remaining in the chamber. The initial RUC statement on the incident, reproduced in the Northern Whig on 11th February, stated that Trainor had already joined the two plain clothes RUC men while they were escorting Burns and his companion to Queen Street Barracks. However, the exact sequence of events is unclear.
Trainor was hit by a single bullet that hit him in the arm, passing through his shoulder and neck which suggested that he had his arm raised and was firing his revolver. Whether he had approached Burns and the others as they walked on to Queen Street and told the others who Burns was, or had pulled his gun to cover Burns on realising who he was, he was the only RUC officer wounded in the exchange. Harry White seems to have believed that all Burns wounds came from one of the plain clothes officers. Burns companion managed to escape in the confusion.
Queen Street

The scene of the fatal shooting today. The spot where Burns tried to break away is the foreground of the image, he collapsed roughly just before where the bus is pulled in. 

Dr Eddie McEntee, who had his practice in King Street, was brought around to attend to the wounded. McEntee was himself a former member of the Belfast IRA and brother of Sean McEntee, then a minister in the Free State government. Burns was brought to the Royal Victoria Hospital where his condition never improved and he died on the morning of Saturday 12th February 1944. Trainor was later discharged from the RUC due to his wound (in September 1944 he was awarded £1,250 compensation).
Burns had first been imprisoned as a seventeen year old Fianna member in April 1938, for possession of a banned publication.  Released that September he joined the IRA, only to get picked up in the September 1939 internment sweep that coincided with the outbreak of World War 2. Interned in Crumlin Road, then Derry Jail, he was one of those who escaped and was recaptured in March 1943, spending time in the Curragh before making a pre-arranged resignation from the IRA, signing out of prison, then returning to Belfast where he took over as Belfast O/C following the arrest of Jimmy Steele in May 1943.
IMG_0974

Burns and other recaptured escapers on a lorry in March 1943.

Burns was such a larger than life figure that his death was keenly felt (you can read more about him here). He is also one of those who Laurie Green based his main character on in the novel and film, Odd Man Out.
Seamus ‘Rocky’ Burns is buried in the Harbinson plot in Milltown cemetery.

 

 

Rocky Burns, 1921-44

Rocky Burns was the 23 year old O/C of the Belfast IRA who was shot dead in February  1944.
Jim Burns, also known as Seamus and, more commonly, Rocky, had first been imprisoned as a seventeen year old Fianna member in April 1938, for possession of a banned publication.
Released that September he joined the IRA, only to get picked up in the September 1939 internment sweep that coincided with the outbreak of World War 2. He was brought to Springfield Road barracks along with Liam Burke and 32 others. There Rocky confronted the B Specials rather than be pushed around, as he was well able to look after himself, but Liam Burke records that while there was some bad language from the Specials and RUC, there were no serious physical assaults.
Burns, Burke and the others were first interned in Crumlin Road, then moved to Derry Jail just before Christmas 1939. The internees in Derry mutinied on Christmas Day, seizing a wing. When the B Specials, RUC and fire brigade were trying to break into the wing, they used a battering ram on the barricaded steel door, accompanied by Rocky singing ‘Who’s That Knocking At My Door?’ Like the rest, Rocky was subject to indiscriminate beatings by the Specials, RUC and British soldiers when the internees lost control of the wing again.
Rocky was then sent back to Crumlin Road. Eamon Ó Cianáin was to describe him as the sort of person everyone needed to help them do their time, particularly when it was open-ended like internment. According to Ó Cianáin, Rocky almost made internment bearable. Tarlach Ó hUid also recounts stories of Burns’ antics in Crumlin Road (in Faoi Ghlas), describing his comic routines and practical jokes. A fad at the time was to refer to people as ‘Bores’ based on their interests. To Rocky and Seamus McKearney, Ó Cianáin was the Singing Bore, others were Gaelic Bores, Chess Bores, Physical Culture Bores, Football Bores, Music Bores etc. To Ó Cianáin and others, Burns was the Messing Bore. He also had a more serious side and, despite his youth, was considered a proficient Gaelic speaker and teacher. He also acted in a number of plays put on by the internees.
In October 1942, Rocky had again been moved back to Derry prison due to the overcrowding in Crumlin Road (September 1942, after Tom William’s execution, had saw a big upsurge in arrests and internment). He arrived in time to take part in the escape bid in March 1943. To be part of the official escape team you had to be willing to report back for duty immediately on release. Harry White (in his biography Harry) recounts stories of Rocky in Derry Jail, where he was in the cell next to Joe McGurk. McGurk had experienced prison at various times in the 1920s and 1930s (and was to again in the 1950s) and had learnt how to cope with imprisonment. Howeverm he hadn’t previously had to cope with having the Messing Bore, Rocky, as a neighbour.
Rocky would put on a female voice and call through his cell window: “I say, is that you Mrs Donaghy, did you hear that poor man McGurk was lifted again?
He would then provide the response too, “Oh dear, oh dear.
He also had another routine where he pretended a B Special was battering on his cell door, shouting “Get down, get down from that winda ya bastard.
Burns would then respond in his own voice, “Oh is it me? Mind ye wouldn’t talk like that to Joe McGurk.
Like most of the other escapers he got picked up and ended up in the Curragh, although, like Jimmy Drumm and others, he had intended to go back to Belfast. Pat Hannon, who was in the Curragh with Rocky also remembered him as full of fun. Under instructions from Harry White, he resigned from the IRA, signed out from the Curragh, then rejoined the IRA and returned to Belfast in May where he became O/C of the Belfast Battalion after Jimmy Steele was arrested in Amcomri Street.
When his sister Madge was a prisoner in Armagh Gaol, the warders were nervous that Rocky was on the loose and might try and break her out. They were so apprehensive that one night, they were convinced Rocky was coming down the chimney. She was to be refused parole to attend Rocky’s funeral.
He had several narrow shaves once he was back in Belfast. On one occasion, he was sat on a trolley bus when an RUC man told him there was a problem with his identity card. As Rocky gripped his revolver he asked the RUC what he thought he should do with it. The RUC man advised him to get it changed. In early February 1944, Burns was using safe houses in Ballymacarrett and Ardoyne. He left Albert Price in Ardoyne on the morning of the 10th February en route to meeting Billy Perry, Harry O’Rawe and Harry White in a bar on Francis Street that evening. But that afternoon, about 5.50 pm Rocky was picked up as suspicious by two RUC detectives leaving the Continental Café on Castle Street, although initially it didn’t appear that they knew who they were detaining. As they were walking along Chapel Lane on the way to Queen Street barracks, Rocky broke away from the two detectives accompanying him and, drawing a revolver, tried to make good his escape, not realising a third policeman was behind them. He received four bullet wounds to his stomach and chest and died on the Saturday.
Burns was such a larger than life figure that his death was keenly felt. Jimmy Steele was to write new words to the tune of The West’s Awake and titled it ‘Seamus Burns‘:
His youthful years for thee he spent
Within the prisons of the foe,
Until their prison bars he rent
To serve you still in weal and woe ;
They tracked him with their might and power,
These human blood hounds crossed his way ;
Dear Ireland this was but the hour
You asked of him death’s price to pay.

Rocky Burns is buried in the Harbinson plot in Milltown cemetery.

Notes
1
There is a brief biography of Rocky by Jimmy Steele in Antrim’s Patriot Dead and MacEoin’s Harry p142-43.s
2
MacEoin 1997, 443.
3
Quinn 1998, 104 and see McNally 1989, 111.
4
MacEoin 1997, 603.
5
Resigning, signing out and re-joining was how IRA volunteers justified signing out, as they didn’t then sign out as members of the IRA.