April 5th, 1942: Tom Williams and ‘legacy issues’

Diagram showing positions of IRA unit, Kashmir Road diversionary attack, 5th April 1942. In possession of IRA Adjutant General Jimmy Steele when he was captured in May 1943 (now in PRONI).


On Easter Sunday, 5th April, 1942, a unit from the Belfast Battalion’s C Company was to carry out a diversionary attack on the RUC on the Kashmir Road. The unit involved were to fire shots at one of the armoured cars that the RUC used to patrol nationalist districts, withdraw to a pre-arranged safe house, dump their arms, then disperse. If the RUC reacted as usual, it would isolate the district, flood it with reinforcements then carry out raids. Meanwhile, with the RUC busy in Kashmir Road, the IRA would hold its Easter Rising commemorations elsewhere, unimpeded.

Part of the IRA’s own report into what happened next is summarised by a map captured in May 1943 (now in the public records office). Since the streetscape has almost changed beyond recognition, I’ve added a map of the area, as it was in the 1940s, below. The captured diagram shows the positions taken up by the unit O/C, Tom Williams, and the other volunteers, Dixie Cordner, Jimmy Perry, Joe Cahill and John Oliver. Williams and Cordner were on the footpath behind the last air raid shelter before the junction between Kashmir Road and Clonard Gardens, Cahill and Perry between the last two shelters and Oliver between the second and third shelters. After firing shots they were to head back into Cawnpore Street where a sixth IRA volunteer, Pat Simpson, was waiting for them, then dump their arms and disperse. The arms would be concealed and returned to IRA arms dumps by Cumann na mBan. You can get an idea of the size of the air raid shelters in the photo below (you can also check them out in the film Odd Man Out).

Kashmir Road as it was in the 1940s.

Air raid shelters on the side of the road at the corner of Donegall Street and York Street.

What happened next is relatively well documented. The IRA unit fired shots over a passing armoured car, from which the RUC dismounted and then attempted to pursue the IRA unit into Cawnpore Street. In this case, the RUC men involved, including Patrick Murphy, had been involved in previous armed confrontations with IRA units and had attempted to storm houses at gun point in pursuit of IRA volunteers. By mid-1942, though, the IRA’s Chief of Staff, Eoin McNamee, had decreed that armed IRA volunteers who were at risk of arrest, were to use force if they had a chance of escape. So on 5th April, 1942, the C Company unit followed current IRA policy and exchanged fire with the RUC in Cawnpore Street and Murphy was killed, and, Williams wounded. Having been convinced by the authorities that his wounds were fatal, Williams took responsibility for Murphy’s death in the hope that it would shield the rest of his unit from retribution. Instead, when he had recovered, he was hung as a reprisal in September 1942 (even though he had clearly not fired the shots that killed Murphy), while the others barely escaped execution. You can read one account of their reprieve here in the Connolly Association’s paper, Irish Freedom, from September 1942.

And in case anyone is labouring under the mistaken impression that deliberate delays and obfuscations are a recent tactic of the authorities when attempting to resolve ‘legacy issues’: it was to be 58 years after his execution before Tom Williams was handed over to his family and friends and was able to receive a proper burial.

 

You can read more about Tom Williams and the events surrounding his execution in Jim McVeigh’s book or at some of the links below.

https://treasonfelony.wordpress.com/2015/09/02/two-poems-dedicated-to-ira-lieut-tom-williams-hung-2nd-sept-1942/

https://treasonfelony.wordpress.com/2016/06/30/ira-special-manifesto-august-29th-1942-and-the-northern-campaign/

https://treasonfelony.wordpress.com/2016/09/01/reprieve-petition-refusal-the-irish-press-2nd-sept-1942/

https://treasonfelony.wordpress.com/2016/10/12/the-falls-curfew-1942/

 

You can also watch a great documentary at the link below (if it is still available).

https://treasonfelony.wordpress.com/2016/09/02/oglach-tom-williams-an-turas-deireanach-documentary/

 

The Falls Curfew, 1942

The issue of Republican News that was published just after Tom Williams‘ execution on 2nd September 1942, stated that “…neither the passions of the people, nor the fiery demand for action of the Volunteers, will make the Army authorities enter into hasty or unplanned action.” Just over a month after Williams’ execution, the IRA did enter into that ‘action’.

At the start of October 1942 there was a sustained series of attacks by the IRA across Belfast (part of what is often inaccurately depicted as a ‘northern campaign‘). On the night of Tuesday 6th October, a bomb in Raglan Street injured three RUC constables, Tague, Hoey and Thompson, and two children, twelve-year-old John Langan and thirteen-year-old Sarah McCrest. On the Wednesday night, IRA volunteers threw a bomb on the Cullingtree Road, then detonated a second at the entrance to Cullingtree Road Barracks. A seventeen-year-old, Alexander Mawhinney from the Grosvenor Road happened to be passing and was injured in the side by splinters from the bomb.

The next night, an RUC constable, Wilson, was shot and wounded when the IRA opened fire on an RUC patrol in the Cullingtree Road. The same night a bomb was thrown at an RUC patrol between Upper Library Street and Kent Street. The bomb fell behind an air raid shelter onto waste ground. The RUC then fired shots at the IRA volunteers who threw the bomb but no-one was injured.

On the Friday afternoon Dawson Bates, as Minister of Home Affairs in the northern government, put part of the Falls Road under curfew from 8.30 pm to 6 am. The curfewed area extended on side along the Grosvenor Road from the junction with Durham Street to the Falls Road itself, from there down Divis Street as far as the Barrack Street junction, then along Barrack Street and Durham Street to the Grosvenor Road. The RUC continued to raid within the curfew area over the Friday night and Saturday morning detaining nine people. On the Friday night a bomb was thrown at Shankill Road RUC Barracks, outside the curfewed area. It shattered the windows in the polic station but caused no injuries.

curfew-area

Area of the Falls Road put under curfew in 1942 (outlined in red).

That night the IRA Chief of Staff, Hugh McAteer, had arranged to pay a visit to see if an old school friend, who was an RUC Constable, could be of any use to the IRA. Instead, the RUC Constable had informed his colleagues and McAteer and his Director of Intelligence, Gerard O’Reilly, were picked up by the RUC. McAteer felt particularly foolish at the circumstances of his arrest.

On the Saturday night there were two further bomb attacks. In Raglan Street (inside the curfewed area) a bomb was thrown at an RUC patrol just as the curfew started. The blast broke some windows but there were no injuries. The RUC opened fire with revolvers at the IRA unit involved but did not manage to hit them or detain them. The predictable searches followed within the curfewed area and seven arrests were made.

A couple of hours later an IRA unit threw a bomb at Donegall Pass RUC Barracks. The bomb fell short and detonated in the middle of the street shattering windows in the barracks and surrounding shops. Five people were injured, including three women, Ella Harrison, Victoria Wilson and Annie Clements, who were brought to hospital (although all were discharged the same evening). The crowd in adjoining Shaftesbury Square scattered as RUC Constables ran out of the Barracks and fired off shots. This alerted B Specials on patrol on Botanic Avenue. More shots were fired at the men who were believed to have thrown the bomb, as they ran up Botanic Avenue. But one passerby who saw the bomb exploding said he didn’t see anyone except the RUC fire shots and it isn’t entirely clear who was exchanging fire. Whoever fired the shots, two B Specials, James Lyons and Joseph Jackson, were seriously wounded. Jackson was shot in the side while Lyons was shot in the chest and died in hospital during the night. Accounts of the shooting in Irish Press 10th October and Sunday Independent 11th October 1942 contain eye-witness reports that suggests only the RUC opened fire. Nor do the issues of Republican News around that date and subsequent memoirs appear to make any claim that the IRA shot Lyons. The file on his inquest is still closed to the public (see PRONI, BELF/6/1/1/7/81).

The next day, another attack appeared to have been foiled when Joe Campbell and Joe Quigley were arrested in possession of a primed Mills bomb near Legoneil Barracks. With Lyons death and McAteer’s arrest, the IRA attacks tapered off dramatically in Belfast. The RUC also made a series of arms finds in Ardoyne in the middle of October, capturing arms dumps in a house in Etna Drive, waste ground in Etna Drive, a nearby garage, waste ground in Belsheda Park and a house in Holmdene Gardens. A further dump was captured in Clyde Street (in Ballymacarret) at the end of October The IRA assumed an informer was at work, which may also have prompted it to close down operations. In mid-November, PJ Lawlor was charged with possession of grenade components and the hearing was held in camera, further increasing suspicion that someone was helping the RUC.

On top of the mass arrests (and subsequent internments) that followed Williams’ execution in September, the northern government clearly anticipated making further raids. On Friday 16th October, two hundred and fifty internees were shipped off to the eighteenth century dungeon that was Derry Gaol (where there had been a prison riot in 1939).

The loyalist bombing campaign also continued. On the night of Wednesday 28th October, a bomb was thrown at St. Brigid’s Parochial House in Derryvolgie Avenue. It struck the roof and rolled down onto the ground at the front door where it detonated. It damaged windows and doors and blew debris into the house. The two resident priests were inside but were unhurt. The bomb was a homemade canister.

On the 30th October, the IRA carried out a number of further attacks in Belfast. A bomb was detonated outside the Harbour Police Station in Corporation Square, beneath a recruiting poster. The RUC fired shots after the IRA volunteers who planted the bomb but were unable to apprehend them. Separately, the RUC challenged two men in Herbert Street in Ardoyne. As the men ran off the RUC gave chase into a crowd outside a small shop. According to the RUC the men dropped a loaded revolver and Mills bomb as they ran. The Mills bomb exploded sending out a shower of splinters that wounded two RUC Constables (Davis and Carnduff), a 7-year-old boy, five teenagers and a woman. Two days after the Herbert Street explosion, a canister bomb was thrown over the wall of a factory that was being used as a British army billet but did no damage. In the raids that followed the two attacks, over seventy people were arrested and detained by the RUC.

For several weeks, there were no further incidents, although the curfew remained in place. At the end of November, the IRA detonated another bomb, this time at the Talbot Street electrical substation. The bomb was similar to those thrown at RUC Barracks in October and went off at the base of a perimeter wall. The blast broke windows for fifty yards on either side of the sub-station.

On the night of December 4th, a B Special called Thomas Armstrong confronted two men in College Street. After a brief confrontation with the men, Armstrong tried to come to grips with them. Instead one of the men broke away and drew a revolver, opening fire on Armstrong who was wounded twice in the back. This appears to be the same incident described by Harry White in his memoir, Harry. White and others on the Belfast staff then proceeded to court martial a Belfast staff officer over the finds made in October. More than anything else, the distraction of that court martial appears to have been responsible for the ending of IRA attacks in Belfast for some time.

The northern government finally lifted the Falls Road curfew after 74 days on 22nd December 1942.

September 6th 1940: execution of Tom Harte and 1916 veteran Paddy McGrath

THPatMcG

On 6th September 1940, De Valera’s government had Patrick McGrath and Thomas Harte executed in Mountjoy Prison. The other prisoners heard McGrath and Harte being brought from their cells and marched away, then the volley of shots being fired. A commemoration was held inside the prison that morning by the remaining republican prisoners at which the oration was given by George Plunkett, the brother of executed 1916 leader, Joseph Plunkett. McGrath himself was a veteran of the fighting in Dublin in 1916.

At the time of Tom Williams execution in 1942The Irish PressFianna Fáil’s own newsheet, faithfully reported on the run-up to the execution and the reprieve campaigns. In 1940, there was some coverage of the various legal challenges to the execution, but  nothing in the couple of days before the execution. The report on the execution itself was terse:

The Stephen Hayes confession contains a claim that in the interval between McGrath and Harte’s arrest and their execution, De Valera’s government had threatened to execute McGrath and Harte unless: “(1) The Army in the South would hold no armed parades. (2) That arms in the South be dumped. (3) That no aggressive action be taken against the Free State Military or Police Forces. (4) That no supplies of arms and ammunition be sent to the Units in the Six Counties.” While verification of anything in the Hayes confession is problematic, the alleged go-betweens like Sean Dowling, were criticised in War News at the time. In September 1940, the only IRA volunteers executed since the 1920s had been Peter Barnes and James McCormick, by the British government, in February 1940.

In November 1942, two months after Williams’ execution, another IRA volunteer, Maurice O’Neill, was sentenced to death by De Valera’s government over the death of Detective Officer Mordaunt in Donnycarney that October. In O’Neill’s case, as with Tom Williams, Paddy McGrath and Tom Harte, there was no case made that they had fired the fatal shots. Again, there was little reporting outside of the legal proceedings. The Irish Press report on the execution (carried  on the 12th November) was similarly brief:

With no little irony (on 5th November), The Irish Press had reported that O’Neill had been sentenced to death alongside an article on the 1916 memorial which was in the National Museum at the time.

Oglach Tom Williams: An Turas Deireanach (documentary)

Am not sure if this is still available to buy, but can currently be watched on Youtube.

It’s worth the time to sit down and watch as it is a great piece of film because so little has been recorded about the generations of republican activists in Belfast before the 1960s.

Reprieve Petition Refusal: The Irish Press, 2nd Sept 1942

Mr. Marrinan had earlier gone to Stormont hoping to interview the Prime Minister, Mr. Andrews. He was accompanied by Mr. C. E. Reddin, Dublin Secretary Licensed Grocers and Vintners Association. Unable to see Mr. Andrews, Mr. Marrinan saw the Secretary to the Cabinet, Mr. Robert Gransden, before the Cabinet meeting began.

Mr. Marrinan said that Williams, out of loyalty to his comrades, accepted the guilt in his alleged voluntary statement and that position was not accepted at the trial. Why did tho Cabinet reverse that procedure and use Williams’ statement to decide his fate? Medical evidence disclosed that there were five wounds in the constable’s body, and the evidence showed that the bullet which passed through the heart causing instant death, was not caused by Williams. Prayers were said by groups of people in streets in the Falls Road area to-night. The Rosary was said outside the house in Bombay Street where Williams lived with his grandmother, Mrs. Fay.

The Reprieve Committee in Dublin stated last night that in the event of Williams’ execution every business was expected to close down to-day between 11 and 12 noon. The public are expected to attend places of worship and offer prayers for the repose of the.soul of Williams. Last evening Mr .Shane Leslie, who is staying in Dublin, had an interview with Messrs. Sean MacBride, L. J. Duffy and Roger McHugh, representing the Reprieve Committee. It was later announced that Mr. Leslie forwarded to the Duke of Abercorn the following telegram: “Recalling days of chivalrous rivalry at Derry and acknowledging your dignity and humanity under the present difficulties, I venture to believe that you can secure a common sympathy amongst all Irishmen. In days when Irishmen on both sides of the Boyne are meeting a common enemy. I believe a single stroke of your pen could secure peace and good feeling in Ireland for the rest of our time“.

Mr. Leslie, as a Nationalist candidate, contested Derry City against the Duke, then representing the unionist interest, at the first general election in 1910.

Before blackout a crowd of children assembled outside the prison and knelt in prayer. They were moved on by the police and they marched away towards the city centre singing, :

Mr. C. B, Reddin, Secretary of the Licensed Grocers’ and Vintners’ Association, announced in Belfast last night it was the request of his Association that all licensed premises in the Twenty-Six Counties should close their premises’to-day (Wednesday) from 11 to 12 noon. Before going to Stormont, Mr Reddin had a conference with Senator T. Lynch, Councillor J. Kilpatrick, Capt. Denis Ireland, President of the Ulster Union Club, and Mr. Eamonn Donnelly.

Armed confrontations between the IRA and RUC in Belfast

Armed confrontations between the Belfast IRA and RUC were not commonplace. While IRA volunteers engaged the RUC in 1932 during the Outdoor Relief riots and again during the attempted pogrom of 1935, in the former case they were not acting under IRA orders while in both instances it occurred during more general violent clashes. During the 1930s and into the early 1940s, there were numerous occasions on which the IRA and RUC exchanged fire in Belfast. While two RUC fatalities occurred in 1933, otherwise anyone wounded during the exchanges generally survived including both RUC and IRA personnel. By the late 1930s, though, IRA volunteers could expect at least ten years in prison if arrested. Tactically, by early 1938, the RUC also appeared to be showing more bravado in armed raids on houses they believed were occupied by the IRA, starting with the aftermath of the shooting of William Smyth, when an RUC party including Constable Patrick Murphy tried to storm a house in John Street. The IRA’s Northern Command O/C (later Chief of Staff), Eoin McNamee, had also directed volunteers to resist arrest if armed, where they could practicably expect to escape.

This was all to come to a head in 1942, starting with Cawnpore Street where Constable Patrick Murphy was shot dead at number 53, for which the O/C of the IRA unit involved, Tom Williams, was later to be hung. This was to establish a pattern over the next two years which saw more fatalities in Belfast including several more members of the IRA and RUC.

The main confrontations up to 1942 are detailed below. After 1944, confrontations between the IRA and RUC did not really occur again until 1969.

One of the first direct, armed, confrontations occurred in December 1932, when the RUC ran into a group of IRA volunteers being drilled in Finaghy (the RUC claimed seventy to eighty men were present). The men scattered when the RUC appeared and while at least two IRA volunteers, John Turley and Chris McLaughlin, appear to have been armed, there was no exchange of fire.

On the 28th February 1933, during the railway strike, the Belfast O/C ordered an IRA unit to the Great Northern’s lorry exit at the corner of Durham Street and Grosvenor Road. There, at the request of the unions, they were to fire warning shots at strike-breaking lorry drivers. The drivers were being guarded by about twenty-five RUC men.

IRA volunteers Bob Bradshaw and Joe Pimley went down the Grosvenor Road and took up positions in the darkness at eleven o’clock. Bradshaw opened fire on the lorries as they emerged. Meanwhile Pimley discovered that his pistol was defective and couldn’t provide covering fire. After three shots, Bradshaw’s firing position was identified and an RUC sergeant came at him firing (the RUC reported they had come under fire from six gunmen). Once Bradshaw counted off the RUC sergeant’s six bullets he made a break for Stanley Street followed by Pimley.

Two RUC Constables, Lally and Ryan were going along Albert Street when they heard shots. Realising that other RUC men on duty at the goods yard on the Grosvenor Road must be under fire, they headed towards Stanley Street. When they turned into Stanley Street, they saw two men (which must have been Bradshaw and Pimley) firing revolvers. The two RUC constables were quickly forced to duck as they too came under fire from other RUC men firing from the Grosvenor Road. As Bradshaw and Pimley came up Stanley Street, they realised they were cut off and ducked down Cullingree Street where they were joined by Jack Crosskerry (who had been one of the lookouts and had presumably escaped into Cullingtree Street via Trelford Street).

Lally and Ryan then ran back into Albert Street intending to get down to Durham Street and cut the three off again. Bradshaw had also managed to reload his gun. At roughly the same time, they all reached the junction of Albert Street and Durham Street, where the three IRA volunteers had crossed the road and were walking in front of the Queen Victoria Public Elementary School (now demolished).

MapBradshaw

The scene of the shooting on 28th February 1933.

As Ryan rounded the corner he saw three men on the other side of the road rather than the two he had saw in Stanley Street. As Cullingtree Street was joined to Albert Street by Fox Row and Grosvenor Road by Trelford Street, the three IRA volunteers could have easily bypassed Ryan and Lally. Presumably Ryan was unsure if they were the same men as he pointed his revolver at them and shouted “What are you fellows up to?” as he crossed over the road. Ryan, Pimley and Bradshaw were now within five yards of each other. Lally appears to have been a little behind Ryan and was carrying his revolver in his hand.

Ryan, Lally and Bradshaw all opened fire.  Ryan got off three shots but was hit by four bullets fired by Bradshaw, two in the stomach, one in the chest and one in the face. He collapsed to the ground immediately. Lally fired but hit nothing. Pimley again tried his gun but, as his ammunition was dozed, it was to no effect. Lally then fired several wild shots, emptying his revolver after Bradshaw, Pimley and Jack Crosskerry as they ran up Albert Street. Several girls who witnessed the shooting said they kept glancing back at the scene as they fled.

Ryan was brought to the Royal Victoria Hospital but his wounds were fatal. He was the first RUC man to die in action against the IRA since 1922. Bradshaw, Pimley and Crosskerry all fled to Dublin (despite RUC reports, none were wounded in the incident). The strikers, who were mostly Protestant, were not put off by the fatality and the strike continued (there was another bomb attempt on 2nd March at Adelaide locomotive sheds). Meanwhile the RUC tore the Grosvenor Road apart searching for the gunmen. The northern government offered a reward of £1,200 for information.

In October 1933, two RUC Constables, Anderson and Fahy, were on protection duty guarding George Gibson at his Roumania Street home. Three men carrying revolvers, their faces masked by handkerchieves, approached them from the Servia Street corner and told the two RUC men to put their hands up. Anderson drew his revolver and at least one of the gunmen opened fire. Anderson was hit in the wrist and staggered out into the road where a second bullet hit him in the stomach. Fahy threw himself on the ground. He then fired off a few shots from his revolver but didn’t manage to hit anyone. The gunmen escaped back down Servia Street. The next day a revolver, with two chambers empty, was found inside the railings of Dunville Park, five hundred metres away. One eyewitness reported that the three young men involved were followed by four youths, suggesting this was an organised IRA operation. During the night Anderson died from his wounds in hospital. It is not clear now whether the attack on the RUC in Roumania Street was planned, although it has echoes of the attack carried out on orders from the Belfast O/C in Durham Street the previous year (as described above). George Gibson reportedly moved out of the house to an unknown destination the next day.

In response, the RUC flooded the district with Lancia cars and carried out a series of raids over the next couple of days, mainly between 4 am and 5 am in the mornings. They swooped and arrested suspected IRA volunteers in Belfast, including most of the Belfast staff. In the early morning of Friday 13th alone, they detained thirty-three men across the city. By the Friday evening the RUC had served detention orders on forty-nine men who had been moved into Crumlin Road Prison. At one stage sixty men were detained but no prosecution was ever made.

While the December 1935 Campbell College raid had led to a running gun battle in which the IRA and RUC blazed off shots at each other to little real effect. At one stage this included an RUC Constable Ian Hay and three IRA volunteers firing revolvers at each other in a kitchen which measured about three and half metres by three metres in which there were also Billy and Cassie Hope, Jean Getty and her two children. Remarkably only Hay was hit, being wounded by four bullets (although he made a full recovery). IRA volunteer Eddie McCartney, who exchanged shots with the RUC elsewhere that evening was captured and sentenced to ten years.

Two months later, an IRA party drilling off the Glen Road on the night of 9th February was observed by an RUC sergeant who tried to use cover to get close and observe them. The IRA look-out had spotted him though and jumped out brandishing a revolver. In the ensuing struggle, the look-out fired off two shots but lost the revolver.  As the look-out ran off the sergeant fired two shots after him but was knocked to the ground by the other IRA volunteers who also made good their escape.

In the week after De Valera’s new constitution came into force in January 1938, a pressure group within the IRA carried out an unauthorised attack, on this occasion trying to kill an ex-prison warder, called William Smyth, who Harry White says had a reputation for beatings when he worked in Belfast prison where he had been a warder between 1927 and 1936. Smyth now worked as a night watchman on Divis Street in the stables of Wordie and Company. While he had worked in Belfast prison he was believed to be under threat and had been placed under RUC protection, but that had been withdrawn. On the night of 5th January, six IRA volunteers entered the yard, all carrying revolvers at 8.20 pm. They confronted Smith and one opened fire, wounding Smith four times, with one wound just above the heart.

When they were leaving the scene, four of the IRA volunteers ran into RUC Sergeant Latimer and Constable Patrick Murphy in a patrol car. In court the RUC were to claim to have been unaware of the shooting and had merely observed four men ‘jaywalking’ on Divis Street. Latimer and Murphy had decided to intercept them after they headed into John Street across the waste ground at the corner of Divis Street and John Street. They seem to have intended to check out the ‘jaywalkers’ as they rejoined the footpath at other side of the waste ground in John Street. When the IRA volunteers observed the RUC car turning into John Street, they presumed that the RUC were aware of the shooting that had just taken place. The IRA volunteers had barely rejoined the footpath when the RUC patrol appears to have passed them. Thinking that the RUC were aware that the shooting had just taken place, one IRA volunteer opened fire at the car. Even though the range was short the shots missed and one passed through the window of Theresa McNally’s house, number 20 on the other side of John Street, smashing a flower pot on the windowsill and then hitting the fire place. A chaotic chase by the RUC followed.

The patrol car’s attempt to cut off the escaping IRA volunteers in John Street was now delayed by a children’s bonfire that stopped the car going any further along the street. With the patrol car now in their way, one volunteer had to roll under the side of car and out the other side then run off. Latimer and Murphy had to dismount the car and follow the men on foot along John Street. They thought they had one IRA volunteer cornered where he had ran through the front door of a house close to the end of John Street. Latimer and Murphy then burst into the house with their weapons at the ready only to find he had ran straight through and disappeared over the yard wall. In the end all six IRA volunteers escaped.

Map Wordle

The stables of Wordie and Co was located roughly opposite the end of Barrack Street (on Divis Street). The IRA unit escaped across the road into John Street.

Another IRA volunteer (one of the two who hadn’t tried to escape along John Street) left his revolver on a windowsill as they left the scene. A local girl picked it up only for the IRA volunteer to return, take it off her and put it back on the windowsill (this appears to have been pre-arranged – the weapon was being left to be picked up and returned to an IRA arms dump). It had disappeared by the time the RUC heard the story and turned up looking for it.  Smyth’s wounds were almost fatal, but he managed to make a full recovery.

Another attempt to storm a house was then made in August 1940 when the RUC got suspicious of a man who ran into a house in Baker Street. Up to five RUC constables drew their revolvers and then tried to storm the house. A crowd then formed at the house which the RUC tried (and failed) to disperse by firing shots in the air. But then IRA volunteers, who had gathered at the top of the street, opened fire on the RUC constable who had been left to guard the door. More RUC constables then joined in and up to sixty shots were exchanged. In the end RUC reinforcements arrived to extract the party from Baker Street. Further raids were then carried out in the area leading to twelve arrests.

In July 1941, the Belfast IRA made an attempt to raid the head office of McAleveys bookmakers in Berry Street. A six-man IRA unit took part, gaining entrance to the office at around 7 pm when the takings were being counted. Staff managed to raise the alarm and two B Specials appeared as the IRA unit were about to leave empty-handed. The Specials opened fire on the IRA unit in the doorway of the bookmakers. Only one volunteer got clean away, despite having the B Specials fire a shot after him. Of the remaining five, Robert Dempsey sustained stomach wounds, while Thomas Marley, Gerry Watson, Gerry McAvoy and Bobby McGuinness were all arrested. None of the IRA unit fired a shot during the incident. All five were given ten years in prison a couple of weeks later.

The IRA’s ‘Northern Campaign’

Did the IRA mount a ‘northern campaign’ in 1942-43? According to some historians the IRA began a campaign against the northern government in 1942, which most call the ‘Northern Campaign’. Oddly, though, there is no evidence to suggest that the IRA ever formally began such a campaign.

In early 1942, under Sean McCool then Eoin McNamee, the IRA’s Army Council had debated its policy towards the northern government and the possibility of a northern campaign. The context of this was the long-standing conflict both within the IRA and between the IRA and the southern government over whether the IRA could endorse, passively accept or even just merely tolerate the legitimacy of the southern government. The real issue was whether the IRA should cease any form of military activity against the southern government and concentrate its efforts against the northern government. This was an ongoing bone of contention between the IRA structures north of the border, and, the IRA centre and GHQ in Dublin.

In the sequence of events that led up to the Belfast IRA removing Stephen Hayes as (Acting) IRA Chief of Staff in 1941, two major command meetings had been raided at which there was to be a decision  on whether to mount a formal northern campaign. The removal of Hayes is probably best understood in the context of a Belfast-Dublin dynamic within the IRA and northern frustration at IRA GHQ’s perpetual inability, or unwillingness, to engage in a northern campaign. Apart from brief spells under Kerrymen Sean Harrington and Charlie Kerins, the IRA Chief of Staff after Hayes was normally a northerner, with Pearse Kelly, Sean McCool, Eoin McNamee, Hugh McAteer and Harry White all filling the role up to 1945.

Not that the IRA hadn’t actually considered a ‘northern campaign’. Tom Barry, as Chief of Staff in 1937-38, had gone as far as preparing a plan (basically to seize Armagh in the hope that it would force the Free State to intervene on the side of the IRA). The plan, such as had been put together, was the subject of gossip in Cork then quickly abandoned. Barry hadn’t really consulted with the northern IRA leadership on the plan, though. The IRA Command meeting in Crown Entry in 1936 also appears to have been intended to consider a northern campaign but it too was raided. That it was to double up as a command conference would be the reason why many more senior commanders were present than required for a court martial (the meeting’s stated purpose). Arguably, the sabotage campaign in England, proposed by Sean Russell, was partly a compromise to avoid focusing the IRA’s efforts solely against the northern government (and by doing so, tacitly accepting the hegemony of the southern government south of the border). By 1942 the IRA’s internal debate had still progressed no further than a general proposal to relocate as much weaponry as possible to where it would be used in such a campaign. Much of this is related in Bowyer-Bell’s The Secret Army (although it is presented as part of a formal ‘northern campaign’).

After repeated changes of Chief of Staff in Dublin in 1941 and 1942, Hugh McAteer had taken over from Eoin McNamee and, by July 1942, relocated the IRA’s centre to Belfast where an IRA Executive was to be put together to oversee future activity. Sean Russell’s campaign in England had been the final realisation of a long-proposed strategy going back to the Irish Republican Brotherhood and Fenians. It had been viewed with significant skepticism by the Belfast IRA who had supported it and enthusiastically built up the Northern Command created as part of the campaign, but was then very quick to declare Russell’s campaign as over. Some in Belfast even suspected that the IRB itself had been reactivated behind the scenes as part of the campaign (and that it included both activists on the Free State and IRA side). The relocation of the IRA’s centre to Belfast was equally the manifestation of a twenty-year long northern lobby within the IRA that wanted the organisation to concentrate on removing partition over any confrontation with the southern government. It was thought that all the intrigue, rumour and calamity that seemed to whirl around the IRA’s centre in Dublin would be removed by relocating that centre to Belfast.

As events then unfolded in late August 1942, the now Belfast-centric IRA intended to make a violent response to the six proposed executions of IRA volunteers in Crumlin Road prison (one being Tom Williams). These were to be carried out on 2nd September and this response is often what is described as the ‘northern campaign’. In IRA parlance, though, it had no official standing as a distinct campaign. Indeed, when Russell’s campaign was formally called off by the IRA’s Army Council in 1945, there was no mention of a ‘northern campaign’. However, as part of the preparations for an as yet unplanned future campaign, arms dumps were being assembled at various strategic locations, some close to Belfast. The northern IRA was also using this window of opportunity to get control of whatever weaponry the IRA had available, which would allow it to plan and execute a campaign at its own choosing.

As posted previously, on Sunday 30th August, the IRA issued a ‘Special Manifesto’ that restates the ‘…National principles actuating the Irish Republican Army…’. Again, nowhere does this declare that the IRA is embarking on a northern campaign. The previous day Tom Williams five co-accused had been reprieved meaning only Williams was to be hung. The IRA still intended to make some form of violent response. Politically and among civic society the very active reprieve campaigns continued to try and halt Williams’ execution.

At one of those assembled arms dumps, on the 31st August, at Budore near Hannahstown, an IRA volunteer, Gerard O’Callaghan, was surprised by an RUC search party and shot dead (allegedly finished off while wounded, although there was no inquest or autopsy to confirm the details). Another volunteer that was arrested at the scene, Charles McDowell, appeared to be suffering from shell shock afterwards, such was the volume of gunfire from the RUC during their raid. This happened against the already grim backdrop of Williams’ imminent hanging.

When the RUC raided two farms at Budore, the full inventory of what was recovered is extensive but gives an idea of the weaponry available to the Belfast IRA and its Northern Command. It included eight Thompsons (plus magazines), eight Lee-Enfields, forty revolvers, fourteen automatic pistols, a tear gas pistol, two older pistols, ten revolver barrels, ten revolver butts, twelve revolver cylinders, three automatic pistol barrels, five automatic pistol butts, four automatic pistol magazines, two rifle nose caps, one hand guard for a rifle, a .22 sporting rifle, a round of .40 rifle ammunition, four hundred and ten rounds of .45 Thompson ammunition, eight thousand six hundred and sixteen rounds of .303 ammunition, one thousand three hundred and seventy-eight rounds of .45 revolver ammunition, eight hundred and one rounds of .380 automatic pistol ammunition, thirty-five rounds of .380 revolver ammunition, one hundred and fifty-five rounds of .22 rifle ammunition, forty-one 12-bore shotgun cartridges, a sling grenade, two gas shells, a 3 inch shell, seven holsters, five leather webs/bandoliers, twelve cotton bandoliers, cleaning rods and rifle chargers.

There were also explosive materials including three barrels of potassium chlorate, one hundred and twenty-five grenade cases, eight grenade detonators, three hundred and five detonator sleeves, two hundred and ten grenade detonator screws, forty tear gas grenades, fifty-one tear gas grenade fuses, a coil fuse, an electric firer, three galvanometers, a box of percussion caps, one hundred and sixty sticks of gelignite, four 3-lb tins of gunpowder and an additional bag of gunpowder.

lRA Vol. Jerry O’Callaghan

 

Over that same weekend, the reach of the reprieve campaign gives some indication of the breadth of public sentiment the IRA hoped a northern campaign might ultimately be able to harness as a source of political support. Ironically, many of those involved were not to publicly oppose the six executions of IRA volunteers carried out by De Valera’s government. But that reflects how much deeper was the emotional resonance of IRA action in the north over the south. There were Belfast and Dublin Reprieve Committee’s. Tom William’s solicitor, D.P. Marriman had tried to get an interview with the northern government’s Prime Minister, Andrews, but instead got a meeting with Grandsen, Secretary to the Cabinet. Marriman was accompanied at the meeting by the Dublin secretary of Irish Licensed Vintners’ Association who, in turn had tried to get ex-Belfast Lord Mayor Sir Crawford McCullagh to use his influence (Marriman also wrote to the Governor of Northern Ireland). There was sufficient support in high places for pleas to be made to King George of England and the British Home Secretary, plus a message by Sir Hubert Gough to Mr. Churchill, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Cardinal Hinsley and the moderator of the Free Church Federal Council saying a reprieve would be timely and appropriate. There were also pleas sent to the Duke of Abercorn from former political rivals. The National Union of Seamen wrote to the head office in England, the British TUC was asked to intervene.

IRA Vol. Tom Williams

The Dublin Reprieve Committee made a call for all businesses, shops, manufacturers, offices and transport companies to close from 11 am to 12 pm on the day of the execution. Those that announced their members would close included the Licensed Grocers’ and Vintners’ Association, the Irish Newsagents’ Association, the Irish Retail Tobacconists Association, the Fruiterers’ and Confectioner’s Association, as did the Dublin Trades Union Council.  The Committee also asked people, where possible, to go to churches and other places of worship to pray for the repose of Tom Williams’s soul (which many did). The 11 o’clock mass in the Pro-Cathedral in Dublin was to be offered for that intention. Similar calls were made in Limerick, Galway, Tipperary, Cork, Waterford and smaller provincial towns like Sligo, Portlaoise, Listowel and Portarlington. Some buildings, including public buildings, flew flags at half mast. One shop which did not close on O’Connell Street in Dublin had its front window broken. Most Dublin cinemas did not open until 6 pm.

In Belfast, pubs and shops closed for the day in nationalist districts. Transport workers and dock workers also downed tools for the day in Belfast in protest. Many factories and businesses close to nationalist districts also closed for the day, more in anticipation of trouble than out of sympathy. The RUC patrolled the Falls Road and other nationalist districts in armoured cars.

There was surprisingly little trouble in Belfast on the day of the execution. From 7 a.m., the Crumlin Road for a quarter of a mile on either side of the jail was closed by the police. Trams bringing workers to factories were prevented from stopping. Crowds, mostly women, began to gather at Carlisle Circus and the Old Lodge Road. The atmosphere inside Crumlin Road itself was dreadful. The republican prisoners had agreed to fast for the day and the Catholic prisoners were to attend mass at 8 am to coincide with the time set for the execution.

Out in front of the prison, by ten minutes to eight Catholics among the crowd knelt on the streets and recited the rosary. Women who had gathered at the relatively ‘mixed’ Old Lodge Road junction with Crumlin Road began singing loyalist songs like ‘Dolly’s Brae’ ‘The Sash My Father Wore’ and ‘God Save the King’ and shouted abuse at those kneeling in prayer. The RUC evenutally pushed the crowds back. At the corner of Cliftonpark Avenue and the Crumlin Road a group of kneeling women were ordered by baton wielding RUC men to to move on.

After 8 am when Williams’ was led through the adjoining door of his cell into the execution chamber. The Catholic chaplain had arranged that a key point in the mass, when he raises up the communion host, would coincide with the exact time of Williams execution.

It broke up many of those present.

Outside, as the crowds then moved on from the prison, a group of mostly young women with black scarves marched down the Crumlin Road into the city centre, singing ‘A Soldier’s Song’ and ‘Kevin Barry’. In Wellington Place, near the City Hall, the RUC charged and scattered the crowd (which by then numbered around three hundred), who, in turn, responded by throwing bottles and other missiles taken from dust bins. By the time things were calmed, two men and a few women were arrested. Two of those arrested, James O’Hara and William O’Sullivan got three months for riotous behaviour. All the while the RUC was intensely patrolling the Falls Road and other districts in armoured cars and broke up any groups of people that gathered to prevent crowds forming.

Under these circumstances, that was surprisingly little violence.

It turned out that the RUC patrolling in nationalist districts was largely the prelude to a massive wave of arrests in Belfast and elsewhere that began the next day. After the relative calm in Belfast, the RUC detained over two hundred people on the morning of the Thursday including both men and women. The RUC chased a number of people through the streets before arresting them.

Immediately after the execution, on the Wednesday evening, the IRA had mounted a botched raid on the border in Armagh, in which a number of Belfast IRA volunteers had participated. Outside Belfast a small number of IRA attacks took place in the days after the execution, mostly in the first 48 hours including attacks in Randalstown, Belleek and Clady (where two RUC constables were shot dead).

In Belfast IRA actions were almost confined to the same time frame but all appear to be relate to the continuing RUC raids rather than a formal response to Williams execution.  One young IRA volunteer, Gerry Adams (who was sixteen), was wounded by the RUC when he opened fire at them with a revolver in Sultan Street. Another direct confrontation between the IRA and RUC occurred in Leeson Street where a B Special patrol encountered an IRA unit. During an exchange of fire, Special Constable Cochrane, firing from behind the cover of an air-raid shelter, shot James Bannon who had been armed with a Thompson sub-machine gun. Bannon collapsed to the ground and the IRA unit had to carry him away from Leeson Street with two providing covering fire with their revolvers. Bannon was taken in an ambulance from a house in Sultan Street and later arrested, he had wounds in his arm and stomach. In Servia Street, a follow up search by the RUC after more shots were fired, recovered a revolver that had been dropped in James Lynam’s house. Both Lynam and John McNally were arrested, although Lynam wasn’t an IRA volunteer. Gerald Hodgson (Grosvenor Road) was picked up and charged with possession of illegal documents, while Joe Quinn and Tom Collins were arrested over the finding of a revolver, ammunition and three Mills bomb in Distillery Street. Patrick Tolan and Michael Morris were also charged with possession of arms. Given the number of arrests made by the RUC, the number of formal charges is low (most of those arrested were simply interned without charge).

A week later, on the afternoon of 10th September 1942, the RUC raided the publicity HQ of Northern Command at 463 Crumlin Road in Belfast. After a brief stand-off in which some shots were exchanged, John Graham and David Fleming were both arrested. The RUC recovered six revolvers and ammunition, a full print run of the September edition of Republican News (which the IRA pointedly had re-printed that night and issued the next day, regardless), a duplicator, typewriter and radio broadcasting equipment and more literature. This included booklets on the Constitution and Governmental Programme of the Republic of Ireland, the Constitution of Óglaigh na hÉireann, fifty copies of the Special Manifesto, a memo on the Hannahstown Arms Raid, a Report of Northern Command Convention held in March 1942, one hundred recruiting posters and headed notepaper entitled ‘IRA, Northern Command Headquarters, Belfast‘. There was no ‘northern campaign’ plan found.

Despite all the evidence to the contrary, the term ‘northern campaign’ is still used by some to describe this period after Williams’ execution, when there was literally a handful of IRA operations, no plan and no sustained activity. While, arguably, the loss of the dumps at Budore and the raids in the forty-eight hours after the 2nd September may have stopped a campaign from taking place, there was no operational plan for such a campaign beyond a general assault on the armed forces of the northern government as a response to Williams execution.

The next issue of Republican News, the first following Williams’ execution, stated that “…neither the passions of the people, nor the fiery demand for action of the Volunteers, will make the Army authorities enter into hasty or unplanned action.” This seems to confirm that there was no formal ‘northern campaign’ planned for the immediate future.

Militarily, in 1942, the IRA still lacked the depth of resources to achieve its goals. The main focus of its campaign by the start of 1943 was to generate publicity and win support for the cause of Irish unity and independence to feature in the political shake-up that would come with the end of the world war. The real target, in that sense, was Irish-America. There had been considerable pressure among Irish-Americans for any US support for the British war effort to be contingent upon concessions from the British over Irish unity. Even after US entry into the war on the allied side, this strategy made a certain amount of sense while the outcome of the war was still in doubt and there was the prospect of a negotiated settlement. It was only really in early 1943, as the Allies moved towards demands for an unconditional German surrender, that the prospect of an international peace conference receded. In that regard, the IRA’s policy, as such, by late 1942 and then in 1943, was not a ‘northern campaign’ but rather to attempt to stage set-piece operations intended to garner publicity with a view to appealing to a broader political constituency that might support the achievement of Irish unity and independence. By the end of 1943, though, the main footprint of IRA policy was dictated by the need to address prison issues north, south and in Britain and any thoughts of a formal campaign were pushed out into the future.