Facts and Figures of the Belfast Pogrom

This is the story of one of the most curious books in Ireland.

Facts and Figures of the Belfast Pogrom 1920-1922‘ by G.B. Kenna is a book very much shrouded in mystery. Written and printed in 1922, thousands of copies were printed for distribution but only eighteen ended up in circulation. The rest were apparently pulped to prevent the book reaching the shops. It is, of course, well known that the author wasn’t actually ‘G.B. Kenna’ but the name of the publisher, the ‘O’Connell Publishing Company, Dublin’ similarly appears to be fictitious. So, what was going on?

Cover of the original edition of Facts and Figures of the Belfast Pogrom 1920-1922

The book began in the work of the Publicity Committee of the Provisional Government in 1922 (as the early Free State government was known). Michael Collins had sent Cork man Patrick O’Driscoll to Belfast in mid-February 1922 to gather statements on the intense violence that had been happening in the city. Northern IRA units had been sending a stream of intelligence reports to Dublin with accounts of the violence since 1920. It had always been assumed by Collins, IRA GHQ and others, that these accounts exaggerated not just the extent of the violence, but Craig and the Unionists’ role in inciting it, and the behaviour of the B Specials and others that had led Belfast Catholics to label it as a ‘pogrom’ (the use of the term ‘pogrom’ is discussed further below). Given the disputes over the Anglo-Irish Treaty he signed in December 1921, at the very least, Collins now needed the northern IRA units to not openly oppose the treaty. O’Driscoll being sent was likely part of the same trust-building exercise by pro-treaty supporters in Dublin that had included a promise of arms and ammunition to the northern IRA units if they backed the treaty. Highly regarded by Collins, O’Driscoll (later a Dáil reporter) was to explore the truth of the ‘pogrom’ claims.

The statements and information O’Driscoll collected began to be appear in Provisional Government bulletins during March 1922. Collins likely sought to use the revelations as leverage during his own negotiations with the northern Unionist leader Sir James Craig (these negotiations led to the Craig-Collins Pacts). O’Driscoll also advised Collins that the Catholic bishops and community leaders were demanding that someone publish a detailed exposé to counteract the propaganda the unionist press had been printing since 1920. This included funerals of Catholics being wrongly reported as IRA victims, attacks on Catholics being wrongly ascribed to the IRA and photographs of damaged ‘Protestant’ homes that had actually been owned by ‘Catholics’. [You can read more about a typical example, Weaver Street, here.]

Collins asked the Catholic Bishop of Down and Conor, Joseph MacRory, to release Father John Hassan, the administrator in St Mary’s, Chapel Lane in the centre of Belfast, to work on gathering suitable material for a book. Hassan had previously been the parish priest in St Joseph’s in Sailortown and was familiar with, and well known in, the districts which had seen the most violence. He had also been recording the details of events since 1920. Hassan set out to gather information to address the black propaganda issues (sometimes at the expenses of completeness in his statistics).


Fr John Hassan (courtesy of his great grand nephew, Niall Hassan)

Hassan, however, told O’Driscoll that he personally didn’t feel up to the task of writing a book on the subject and it was agreed with Collins that it be entrusted to a member of the Publicity Committee, Alfred O’Rahilly, who would be supplied with the necessary information by Hassan. O’Rahilly, a noted mathematician and theologian, was the Registrar of University College Cork and had been the constitutional advisor to the treaty delegation in 1921. He had helped draft a constitution for the new Irish Free State earlier in 1922 and was very much a Catholic intellectual, having initially trained as a Jesuit. O’Driscoll said that O’Rahilly was going to write “…one of the most powerful indictments of Orangeism ever published” (see J. Anthony Gaughan’s biography of O’Rahilly).

Special Branch photo of Alfred O’Rahilly who it labels as Director of SF Propaganda

After the Provisional Government’s North East Advisory Committee met on 11th April 1922 to review events, O’Rahilly met with Collins on the 20th and agreed to write the book. In early May he sent an outline to Kevin O’Higgins’ secretary (Patrick McGilligan) but O’Rahilly was then busy with university business until June. As Kieron Glennon has pointed out (in From Pogrom to Civil War), the dire reports from the north at the 11th April meeting and O’Driscoll’s eye witness accounts surely alarmed Collins and Richard Mulcahy over their capacity to retain the confidence of northern IRA units. Mulcahy had been Chief of Staff of the IRA and was now Chief of Staff of the new Free State’s ‘National Army’. They then agreed to an abortive, disorganised and ultimately futile northern offensive by the IRA in mid-May 1922. That offensive eroded most of the northern IRA’s remaining resources and capacity to no obvious purpose (other than perhaps diverting their attention from events further south).

In early June, O’Driscoll wrote to O’Rahilly to advise him that all the necessary material was now available. He also told O’Rahilly that Fr Hassan was starting to get uneasy as he hadn’t yet heard from O’Rahilly. By now, though, the outbreak of hostilities between pro- and anti-treaty supporters had taken centre stage in the south. The Provisional Government set-up a new North East Policy Committee without Collins but including the likes of Ernest Blythe, a republican with a northern Protestant background. Hassan continued to work on collecting information for the book. O’Rahilly’s public standing, though, meant that he was caught up in attempts to broker peace between pro- and anti-treaty supporters in Cork and he seems to have been unable to commit to completing his part of the work at the time. According to Gaughan it was then decided that, as an interim report, Hassan would publish the information he had gathered to date as a book. This was to be funded by Collins and O’Rahilly would follow it with his own devastating polemic in due course.

So Hassan pulled together the material he had gathered to date. He appears to have finished up at the start of August as the book contains details of sentences handed out in court in Belfast on the same date that he wrote the foreword, 1st August 1922. The foreword explicitly set out the motivation behind writing the book: “…to place before the public a brief review of the disorders that have made the name of Belfast notorious… A well-financed Press propaganda… has already succeeded in convincing vast numbers of people, especially in England, that the victims were the persecutors… What the Catholics of Belfast would desire most of all…is an impartial tribunal set up by Government to investigate the whole tragic business… considering the magnitude of these outrages…?

But by the 1st August 1922 Michael Collins had only three weeks left to live.

The timing seems to be quite significant. On 2nd August Collins and the northern IRA units had agreed to cease offensive operations in the north and were instead to adopt a policy of passive resistance and non-recognition of the Northern Ireland government. The 3rd August issue of the Irish Bulletin from the Publicity Committee included a summary of some of the information gathered by Hassan. The next day the Freeman’s Journal called it a “…an admirable antidote to the lying propaganda which has been flooding this country for many months past.

However, Ernest Blythe made very different proposals to the North East Policy Committee a few days later on 9th August. Instead, Blythe suggested that they should push the IRA and northern Catholics to recognise the authority of the Northern Ireland government and actively support it. However Blythe’s rationale was that the current policy (non-conciliation) was supported by the (anti-treaty) IRA and so the Provisional Government should reverse its position on the north as a way of “…attacking them [the IRA] all along the line.” Furthermore, Blythe wrote, “The ‘Outrage’ propaganda should be dropped in the Twenty-Six Counties. It can have no effect but to make certain of our people see red which will never do us any good.” Blythe effectively proposed sacrificing the book, details of the Belfast pogrom and revealing the truth of what had happened in Belfast since 1920 for tactical reasons during the civil war. Perhaps to test the public reaction, Blythe’s proposals were clearly leaked to some newspapers, such as the Donegal News, which reported them on 12th August as ‘rumours circulating in Dublin’. The leaks claimed they were actually proposals that had been agreed between a northern bishop and a leading British cabinet minister (this may have been mischievous as Blythe, at least, knew that Bishop MacRory had recently met Lloyd George in London). On 19th August the Provisional Government endorsed Blythe’s proposals.

Ernest Blythe

Presuming Hassan had immediately given his manuscript to the printers, it seems unlikely that it had been composited, printed and bound before either the 19th August when Blythe had the Provisional Government agree to drop it or Collins’ death on 22nd August (Collins was apparently to meet with Alfred O’Rahilly the night after he was killed). As such, it seems likely that the book was literally in the printers when Collins died. Since Collins hadn’t yet challenged other members of the Provisional Government over endorsement of Blythe’s proposals, or had a chance to argue they should be dropped, Blythe’s policy stood and that was the end of Facts and Figures of the Belfast Pogrom 1920-1922. For now.

Hassan’s own obituary in the Irish Independent (5/1/1939) confirms the story but adds a different spin to the reason why the book was censored, “By order of the Provisional Government an edition, running into many thousand copies, was printed for distribution on a world-wide scale, but before the time of publication things in the North took a better turn, and it was decided not to proceed further with it.” Hassan being from Banagher in Derry, he had a lengthy obituary in the Derry Journal (6/1/1939) which also confirms that “…when printed, the publication had been withdrawn…” although the Derry Journal implied that had happened earlier in 1922, during the Craig-Collins talks (which is clearly incorrect based on the content of the book). In a 1970 article in the Irish Examiner (9/9/1970), historian Andrew Boyd was closer to the truth in suggesting that the Provisional Government thought publication of the book “…was more likely to incite war than promote peace.

While Boyd’s phrasing suggests slightly more altruistic motives, failure to publish the book may have had much more longer term repercussions. Many of the issues raised throughout the book, and much of Hassan’s language, finds dark echoes in the violence in Belfast in 1935 and again from 1969 onwards. Given that between January 1919 and June 1922, around 20% of all War of Independence fatalities occurred in Belfast, the almost absolute absence of meaningful histories of the period in Belfast, until ‘Facts and Figures’ was eventually made widely available in 1997, is still astonishing. A moment, which could have possibly seen some sort of coming to terms with the immediate past in 1922, was entirely missed. Failing to quickly unpack the legacy of 1920-1922 may also have been crucial to creating the type of long-term dynamics around ‘dealing with the past’ that we still see today. While the Provisional Government effectively censored reporting on the violence in Belfast after 19th August 1922, the likes of Belfast Newsletter and Northern Whig could continue, unchallenged, to dismiss accounts of the violence as shameless propaganda.

A final key point, here, is in the use of the term ‘pogrom’ in the books title. In recent decades, historians like Robert Lynch and Alan Parkinson have been at pains to dismiss the use of the term. However, contemporary commentators who had witnessed the violence in Belfast in 1920-1922, had absolutely no qualms about using it. Ironically, the current accepted definition of ‘pogrom’, used by the likes of Werner Bergmann and David Engels, is “…a unilateral, non-governmental form of collective violence initiated by the majority population against a largely defenseless ethnic group”. That collective violence generally manifests as riots and is directed at the minority group collectively rather than targeting specific individuals. There is also an the implication that officials have connived at it, but not directly organised it. This is exactly how Hassan uses the term, but not Lynch or Parkinson [Lynch claims, for it to be a pogrom, victims should be mostly women and children, Parkinson that it should be state organised. Neither interpretation is consistent with current accepted definitions of a ‘pogrom’]. Kieron Glennon, though, thought it appropriate and used the term in the title of his From Pogrom to Civil War.

Today, pretty much no-one will want the term ‘pogrom’ used. But as pointed out earlier, the real moment for coming to terms with all this likely passed with the original suppression of ‘Facts and Figures’ in 1922. Yet Hassan himself makes the most important point of all in his own dedication at the start of the book. Proportionally, very few people took an active part in the pogrom, and of those many were likely caught up in it rather than instrumental in making it happen. Hassan makes that point explicitly at the start of the book, dedicating it to that vast majority who took no hand or part in it: “The many Ulster Protestants, who have always lived in peace and friendliness with their Catholic neighbours, this little book dealing with the acts of their misguided co-religionists, is affectionately dedicated.

Facts and Figures of the Belfast Pogrom 1920-1922 by G.B. Kenna, in its original cover, is available again now via Amazon.

Kieron Glennon’s From Pogrom to Civil War is published by Mercier Press. The details of Ernest Blythe’s proposals to the North East Policy Committee are included in his papers in UCD (IEUCDAP24) and quoted at length by Glennon.

J. Anthony Gaughan’s biography of O’Rahilly, Alfred O’Rahilly is published by Kingdom Books.

The appropriateness of the term ‘pogrom’ is discussed by Robert Lynch (in his 2008 paper in the Journal of British Studies, “The People’s Protectors? The Irish Republican Army and the “Belfast Pogrom,” 1920-1922”) and Alan Parkinson in The Unholy War (published by Four Courts).

For a discussion of Werner Bergmann’s definition of a pogrom see Heitmeyer and Hagan’s survey paper in International Handbook of Violence Research, Volume 1. David Engels views are reviewed in Dekel-Chen, Gaunt, Meir and Bartal’s Anti-Jewish Violence. Rethinking the Pogrom in East European History.

Thanks to Martin Molloy and Niall Hassan for the photograph of Fr Hassan. Father John Hassan was born in Coolnamon, near Feeney in Derry in 1875 and went to school first at Fincairn, then Ballinascreen, then St. Columbs in 1892. In 1894 he went to Maynooth and then Rome the following year where he was ordained in St John Laterans by Cardinal Respighi on 9th June 1900. He was fluent in Italian, French and German as well as Irish and English. He returned to the Down and Conor diocese in Ireland, serving in parishes in Ballycastle, Castlewellan, Downpatrick and Kilkeel before he was transferred to Belfast, firstly to St Josephs in Sailortown in1910. He moved to St Mary’s, Chapel Lane in 1916 where he was involved in the events described above, staying there until 1929 when he moved as parish priest to Ballymoney were he died in 1939 (from Derry Journal, 6/1/1939). 

…candidature of most interest to women is that of Mr. James Connolly…

Another piece on James Connolly and woman’s suffrage. In this case, a lead article in The Irish Citizen (11/1/1913) urging people to support Connolly during the 1913 municipal elections in Belfast. The Irish Citizen was the Irish Women’s Franchise League’s own newspaper.

Irish Citizen

Connolly stood for elections as a Councillor to Belfast City Council in the Dock Ward, the heavily congested district encompassing Sailortown, Tigers Bay, North Queen Street and the New Lodge Road. His opponent was the Unionist candidate, David Jones, a butcher from York Street. The highly restricted access to electoral rights meant that the odds were heavily stacked against Connolly. The election, which took place on 15th January, recorded the number of electors in Dock Ward as 3,473 (some of whom had more than one vote). The 1911 census shows that the number of men over the age of 21 in Dock Ward was 5,701, so even with the restricted entitlement to vote, the Dock Ward electorate at most was 60.9% of the adult males (in practice, given plural votes, it was even less). Adding in the number of women excluded from the electorate shows that the 1913 electorate was a mere 29.6% of adults over 21 in the Dock Ward (in modern terms where 18 year olds have the vote, it would be only 26.5%).

Connolly, was nominated as a ‘Labour Nationalist’. He summarised his own political beliefs prior to the election: “As a lifelong advocate of national independence for Ireland, I am in favour of Home Rule, and believe that Ireland should be ruled, governed, and owned by the people of Ireland. I believe that men and women having to face the battle of life together, could face it better were all enjoying the same political rights.

He was nominated by James Turley and Francis MacMahon, both from the New Lodge Road, the more affluent area of the ward (highlighting that, as well as gender, there was a direct link between relative wealth and access to the vote). Turley was the National School teacher at Star of the Sea on Halliday’s Road. Francis MacMahon owned a shop on the New Lodge Road at the corner of Trainfield Street (the family continued to run it into the 1960s). The polling stations for the election were Hillman Street National School (also the count centre), York Street National School and Earl Street National School.

Hillman Street

Hillman Street National School, the main polling station and count centre in 1913.

Initially, an additional candidate had been proposed, Charles McShane – a clerk from Gilford Street who was backed by Bernard Magee (a North Queen Street pawnbroker) and Frank McKernan, a Sailortown publican (suggesting McShane was to be a Nationalist candidate). Once the list of proposed candidates was published, there was a limited time for candidates to withdraw before the list was finalised. The day after they were announced, the Belfast Newsletter (7/1/1913) reported that the Belfast High Sherriff and others tried to persuade candidates to stand aside or to they would have their nominations declared void so Corporation both didn’t incur the expense of an election and unionists didn’t risk splitting the vote in some areas. McShane withdrew from the election, likely to give Connolly a free run. This may also have been the purpose of Connolly being designated as the ‘Labour Nationalist’ candidate.

When the election count took placein Hillman Street National School a crowd had gathered outside, carrying torches and headed by a band and Union Jack (Hillman Street was heavily unionist at the time) to await the declaration of the result by the deputy returning officer, Mr John Hanna. The result was that Connolly had received 905 votes to Jones 1,523 on a turnout of 69.9%.

Prior to the election, The Irish Citizen, had been critical of the Socialists in Dublin (in the same issue as above), reporting that “…a Socialist speaker denounced the women’s movement as side-tracking the workers, an issue which should be avoided.” However, the Irish Citizen isolated Connolly from that criticism and fully endorsed his candidacy:

In Belfast, the candidature of most interest to women is that of Mr. James Connolly for Dock Ward. Mr. Connolly is undoubtedly the ablest Labour Leader in Ireland; he is also the strongest supporter of woman suffrage to be found in the ranks of Irish Labour. Both in Dublin and Belfast he has done much to educate his party on the vital importance of the women’s fight for freedom. Last summer, while the organised opposition to suffragist meetings was at its height in Dublin, Mr. Connolly travelled specially to Dublin to speak at one of the Phoenix Park meetings of I.W.F.L. at considerable risk and inconvenience, to testify to his support of the fight for free speech and political emancipation. While, for reasons set out in our leading article, we do not recommend to women suffragists any general support of Labour candidates as such, we strongly hold that in the case of a man like Mr. Connolly, of whose genuine attachment to the women’s cause there can be no doubt, the fullest possible support should be given him by organised bodies of women. We hope Belfast suffragists will do all they can to secure Mr. Connolly’s return. The Belfast City Council, whose Lord Mayor, a bitterly anti-suffragist MP refused even to receive a resolution in favour of the Conciliation Bill, badly needs men like Mr. Connolly to bring into it a breath of freedom. Others all withdrew the next day (Belfast Newsletter reported that the Belfast High Sherriff and others tried to persuade candidates to stand aside or to have their nominations declared void so Corporation didn’t incur the expense of an election).

A previous post on Connolly’s adoption of the hunger strike tactic from the suffragettes later in 1913 can be read here (with links to previous posts on Connolly).

The start of the peace lines: Belfast, 1969.

Fifty years ago this summer peace lines were erected across parts of Belfast, most famously along a line that roughly follows the course of the River Farset from Divis Street to the Springfield Road. Here, I look at how it was first built in September 1969 and some of its predecessors in Belfast. I also take a look at the coincidence of its location and the River Farset.

It is often overlooked that the British Army had been deployed in Belfast before August 1969. It had initially been used to guard infrastructure and key installation in April 1969 in the face of an ongoing unionist bombing campaign. That deployment was then extended in mid-August due to the rapidly intensifying violence which led to the widespread erection of barricades by residents in various districts in Belfast (a book on the violence that summer – Burnt Out – has just been published by Michael McCann).

1969 knife rests


Military barrier of ‘knife rests’, 16th August, 1969 (Getty Images)

Immediately troops were on the streets, many public figures pressed for the removal of the barricades as a symbol of a return to normality. A short term solution to this was to replace the physical barriers with soldiers, what was described in conversation between Irish diplomat K. Rush and Sir Edward Peck of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office as a ‘human barricade’. While the Irish representatives made it clear that it believed that the ‘human barricade’ was preferable to physical alternatives, Peck implied there was a need for a physical barrier due to British soldiers being a ‘scarce commodity’. Photographs from 15th and 16th August 1969 show the interim measures put in place along side the military – mainly portable wire obstacles, such as knife rests, in place at various locations. After discussions over the replacement of barricades between community leaders, the IRA and the British Army there were tentative moves to start dismantling and replacing the residents’ ad hoc barricades. These took many forms, including everything from burnt out vehicles to solid barriers of broken paving stones to shuttering erected on scaffolding. Immediately the British Army was to replace the ad hoc barricades with knife rests, which in ‘Catholic’ districts, were to be jointly guarded by the British Army and Citizen’s Defence Committee.

On 9th September, the Unionist Prime Minister Chichester Clarke met with his Joint Security Committee at Stormont Castle, including the Ministers of Home Affairs, Education and Development, the Army GOC and Chief of Staff and various RUC, Army and Civil Service figures. The conclusions from the meeting noted that “A peace line was to be established to separate physically the Falls and the Shankill communities. Initially this would take the form of a temporary barbed wire fence which would be manned by the Army and the Police. The actual line of fence would be decided in consultations with the Belfast Corporation. It was agreed that there should be no question of the peace line becoming permanent although it was acknowledge that the barriers might have to be strengthened in some locations.” That opening phrase ‘peace line’ now entered the security lexicon, although ‘peace wall’ was occasionally, if more rarely, used (prior to 1969 the phrase ‘peace line’ was generally just associated with the demarcation line from the end of the Korean War).

That evening, Chichester Clarke made a broadcast that was televised on the news on BBC, UTV and RTE (you can watch it and other footage of the peace lines being constructed here). He stated that: “We have now decided that the army will erect and man a firm peace line to be sited between the Divis Street area and Shankill Road on a line determined by a representative body from the city hall. In conjunction with this action, barricades will be removed in all areas of Belfast, both Protestant and Catholic.” The initial reaction from representatives of the ‘Catholic’ residents was very negative.

The knife rests and residents’ barricades were thus to be replaced with wire entanglements straight out of the British Army’s Manual of Fields Works (All Arms). The first to be erected were constructed of barbed wire strung between multiple bays of pickets. The pickets were placed in holes drilled through the road surface and then hammered into place (as shown in the photos below). Wire was then strung between the pickets to create the required obstacle. As they were solely composed of pickets and wire, they controlled movement but did not create a visual barrier. The construction of the peace line at the corner of Cawnpore Street and Cupar Street on 10th September 1969 is shown below (taken as stills from television footage).

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The ‘representative body from city hall’ that was going to determine the route was to be chaired by the Lord Mayor, Alderman Joseph Cairns. It included all the councillors from the wards involved (this is based on reporting in the Irish Press 11/9/1969 and contemporary television footage and interviews). This body was to identify where to locate the ‘peace line’ street by street. The start and end points were largely self-defined by flashpoints and the rioting of the past weeks. However, negotiating the exact position often involved arguing over (literally) which individual houses it needed to accommodate on the Falls Road/Divis Street or Shankill Road side of the line.

The actual construction works were undertaken by British Army Engineers escorted by the 2nd Grenadier Guards and began at about 4.30 pm at either end, starting in the east at Coates Street (which was closest to the Millfield/Divis Street end) and in the west from the Springfield Road end of Cupar Street. In theory, work was to progress towards a centre point on the route agreed by the working group. Initially installing the peace line seems to have stopped at 9 pm on the 10th September and then resumed again at 8 am on 11th (these times are quoted in the press on 11th September). Despite the intention of the western and eastern sections converging, progress at the eastern end was obstructed by a failure to agree the position of the wire entanglement on Dover Street and it was the last to be completed. According to The Irish Press (11/9/1969), on the first day work had begun with rival crowds singing “Go home you bums, Go home you bums…” to the soldiers involved.

Photos of the peace line just after it was constructed on 10th/11th September at Cupar Street and Lucknow Street are shown below (from Irish Independent 11th and 12th September 1969).

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The immediate impetus for the erection of the ‘peace line’ was presumably as preparation for violence that was expected to accompany the imminent release of the Cameron Report (on the circumstances that led to violence the previous year). There had been leaks since early September that signalled that the report would be critical of the Unionist government and the RUC. This was confirmed when it was published and widely discussed in the media on the 11th and 12th September. However, reactions to the Cameron Report, in particular recommended changes to the RUC meant that the ‘peace line’ did not stop violence continuing.

Newspapers reports on 26th and 27th September show how the night of the 25th September had quickly exposed the limitations of the wire entanglements as a ‘firm peace line’. In Coates Street, a crowd from the Shankill Road side simply threw petrol bombs over the ‘peace line’ and burned out a number of houses. Repeated violence in Coates Street and Sackville Street also saw crowds breach the wire entanglements to attack houses on the other side of the peace line.

The failure of the ‘peace line’ had clearly been noted by the military. The Belfast Telegraph had reported on Wednesday 24th September that the British Army had been removing residents’ barricades by agreement and only a handful were left. The paper noted that “As far as West Belfast is concerned, some of the heavy steel ones are remaining for a few days until the Army replaces them with special corrugated iron affairs that will foil snipers and stop cars speeding up and down the streets.” By the weekend of 27th-28th September it was abundantly clear that the tactics employed by crowds attacking from the Shankill Road side were exposing the frailty of the ‘peace line’. Just as the wire entanglements were merely being pushed aside, soldiers were carrying rifles with live ammunition and, at this date, simply stepped back rather than open fire on the crowd. Contemporary accounts clearly show that the troops had been deployed without either training or suitable equipment for crowd control (apart from CS gas). Similarly, the wire entanglements were completely ineffective as obstacles when it came to snipers and missiles.

By Monday 29th September British Army engineers had begun to erect ‘concertina-type’ barriers in Coates Street/Sackville Street (eg see Belfast Telegraph 2/10/1969). The authorities also announced tactical changes in how the British Army would deal with rioters, including an acknowledgement of the passive role taken by the Army to date, such as when soldiers stood aside while rioters entered and burned houses in Coates Street. It claimed that some soldiers would now be deployed without guns but with two foot batons instead. The ‘concertina-type’ barriers that were to replace the wire entanglements would be fifteen feet in height and would completely seal off the ends of individual streets (the same reports in Belfast Telegraph dismiss claims that the peace line was to be extended to fifty feet in width). The new barriers were constructed from corrugated iron sheeting erected on wooden studding. Photographs from Coates Street show the first of these being constructed (Getty Images). They appear to be closer to around ten feet in height that the proposed fifteen feet.

Coates Street concertina type

The completed concertina-type barrier, with a reinstated wire entanglement obstacle in front of it, is visible in this photograph taken in December 1969 (Getty Images).

Sackville Coates

Questions to the Unionist Minister of Home Affairs at Stormont, Robert Porter, from Unionist MP Norman Laird indicated that it was the Minister of Home Affairs who had the authority to close roads (Stormont Hansard, 2/10/1969) and that the concertina-type barriers were erected by the Army with Porter’s agreement (see Stormont Hansard 7/10/1969). In the latter debate, Porter stated that the corrugated iron barricades were intended to be purely temporary. Fifty years later the peace line and many others still remain. Ironically, though, none of the current peace-line appears to contain any surviving sections of the first ‘concertina-type’ barrier.

The practice of physically segregating districts and individual streets in Belfast was not new in 1969. When intermittent violence throughout the early 1930s peaked on 12th July 1935, British soldiers were deployed to act, initially, as a ‘human barricade’. As that violence continued to escalate quickly, in particular in York Street and Sailortown, on 16th July the RUC began erecting physical barriers by closing off the end of streets with hoardings including New Andrew Street, New Dock Street, Marine Street, Ship Street, Fleet Street and Nelson Street. This was then extended to streets in the Old Lodge Road by the 19th July (eg see Belfast Newsletter 17/7/1935, Northern Whig 19/7/1935). These were ‘concertina-type’ barriers, made of corrugated iron and seven feet in height (eg see description in Irish Times, 30/4/1936). Despite continued protests from businesses in the area, they were only taken down in the middle of June 1936 (see Northern Whig, 13/6/1936). Notably, some residents claimed that the barriers had been unwanted as they simply prolonged and reinforced division (eg the likes of Jackie Quinn, quoted in Munck and Rolstons’ Belfast in the Thirties: an Oral History).

The barrier on New Dock Street is shown below (from Irish Press 19/7/1935, for more see here).

irish-press-19.7.35.png

Prior to 1935, the same ‘peace line’ structures had been also used during 1920-22. This included all the same elements that were to be found in 1969: human barricades, knife rests, wire entanglements and hoardings. The latter two are recorded in Ballymaccarrett in particular. The Belfast Newsletter reported on 24th July 1920 that Seaforde Street and Wolff Street had been closed with wire entanglements the previous day. Two days later the paper reported that sandbagged and wire barricades had been put in place at Seaforde Street, Short Strand, Middlepath Street, Lackagh Street, Harland Street and Wolff Street. Timber barriers were then erected at the Newtownards Road end of Seaforde Street and Young’s Row in early March 1922 (see Belfast Newsletter 13/3/1922). Despite continued opposition, the barriers at the end of Seaforde Street and Youngs Row were only taken down towards the end of 1923 (newspaper reports in the summer of 1923 clearly show the barriers were erected on the authority of the Minister of Home Affairs). The sequence of wire entanglements, knife rests and timber barriers being put up and taken down at Seaforde Street is shown below (from various sources: Illustrated London News 4/9/1920; cartoon from Illustrated London News 31/7/1920; Sunday Independent 4/12/1921; construction timber barrier, March 1922, from here; timber barrier being removed in 1923 from Snapshots of Old Belfast 1920-24, by Joe Baker, 2011).

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There were also sandbagged military posts and wire entanglements at various other locations around the city. A Dáil Publicity Department Communication published by the Irish Independent on 22nd June 1922 described how “There is now a fort or blockhouse on the Sth African system along every 100 yards of Falls Road. The windows are sandbagged and wired.” A still from a Pathé newsreel of Belfast in 1922 is shown below. The reference to the South African system was clearly intended to invoke a tactical comparison with the blockhouses and concentrations employed by the British Army during the Second Boer War and other newspaper reports make reference to the tactics deployed then in Transvaal.

Pathe Falls

The picture below (from Getty Images) shows a sandbagged blockhouse in Belfast at an unspecified location (possibly opposite Falls Park) in 1920. While the file is dated 1st January 1920, it says on ‘Orange Day’ which seems to mean 12th July 1920.

blockhouse

Finally, it is interesting to look at the physical location and course of the peace line (see map). Belfast in Irish is usually rendered as Beal Feirste and which is assumed to derive from its location at the mouth of the River Farset which enters the Lagan at High Street (the Farset seems to take its name from sandbanks where it enters the Lagan). A fourteenth century borough was founded where the Farset, Lagan and various routeways converged, with the layout of High Street, Ann Street and the various entries likely dictated by the layout of the medieval borough’s property boundaries. An earlier church site at Shankill lay alongside a ford over the Farset as it flowed down towards the Lagan (at today’s Lanark Way/Shankill Road junction). The name Shankill (Sean Cill or ‘old church’) shows it predates a later church, known in the seventeenth century as the Corporation Church, that lay close to where St George’s is today on High Street. Pre-seventeenth century documentation of Belfast is so inadequate that a handful of reference to a ‘chapel of the ford’ are usually taken to mean another church that predates the Corporation Church, but the ‘chapel of the ford’ but could equally be referring to Shankill (given that it also sat on a ford over the Farset).

peacelinefarset

Map (based on 3rd Edition OS Map), showing course of River Farset (blue), peace line (red) and Shankill Church (green with white cross).

Where north and west Belfast slope down to the Lagan there are various streams and rivers that could be damned to power mills and factories, attracting industry and drawing workers in from the countryside. This led to the growth of industries and residential areas for the workers on this side of the city. The Shankill Road and Falls Road, which converge along the Farset, drew in workers to the factories, mills and foundries that established in an industrial district along the banks of the Farset itself. Religious and ethnic tensions were constantly preyed upon, arguably to the benefit of the factory and mill owners who could play on sectarian fears to deflect from poor work and housing conditions. The communities that then grew along both the Shankill and Falls Road, on either side of the River Farset, tended to have greater proportions of Protestants (Shankill) and Catholics (Falls) as intermittent violence throughout the nineteenth century often lead to sporadic increases in segregation (and thus perpetuated the tensions). The final expression of this appears to be the tracing of the ‘peace line’ in September 1969 along a route that mirrors that of the Farset itself.

You can read more about the summer of 1969 in Michael McCann’s bookBurnt Out and about the wider background (for free for the next few days) in Belfast Battalion.

A current project by James O’Leary of University College London is documenting the peace walls at http://www.peacewall-archive.net which can be viewed here.

 

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:

http://cain.ulst.ac.uk/othelem/chron/ch1800-1967.htm

http://www.theirishstory.com/2013/01/09/belfast-riots-a-short-history/#.XA-0k_Z2uXY