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).
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.
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).
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. 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 January 1939 bombing (Irish Press, 20th January 1939).
 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.