John McQuillan, a forgotten IRA volunteer shot by the RUC in 1942

John McQuillan’s name doesn’t feature in any republican roll of honour yet the eighteen year old appears to have been in the I.R.A. when he was shot dead by the R.U.C. in January 1942.

That month there were significant tensions as the I.R.A. in A wing of Crumlin Road staged a week long mass hunger strike in protest at conditions within the prisons and the refusal to grant them political status. On 27th January, the day after the hunger strike ended, John McQuillan and John Crean entered a shop on the Ravenhill Road and tied up the owner apparently intent on robbing the shop. The R.U.C. (led by District-Inspector Geelan of C.I.D.), though, were lying in wait in a back room of the shop and emerged, killing McQuillan with a single shot to the heart while Crean was arrested. McQuillan was eighteen years old. His older brother, Kevin Barry McQuillan, had been arrested with two automatic pistols the previous year and was in A wing of Crumlin Road with the sentenced I.R.A. prisoners.

John McQuillan is not usually listed anywhere as an I.R.A. volunteer. Nor does his death seem to merit even a footnote in conventional histories of either the I.R.A. or the era.

A memo to the Adjutant of the I.R.A.’s Northern Command from the Army Council on 6th February 1942, clearly on foot of an earlier report to the Army Council, does mention his death though. It states “The McQuillan shooting was very unfortunate. Let me have a report of the court of inquiry later.”

This reference seems to imply that McQuillan was indeed an I.R.A. volunteer although the proposed ‘court of inquiry’ suggests he wasn’t acting in an official capacity. Geelan’s presence also appears to indicate that the R.U.C. believed it to be political. It subsequently transpired that McQuillan had visited the shop the previous night and said he would be back the next night. McQuillan was found to have been carrying a Spanish Webley revolver, a weapon the I.R.A. was known to possess based on later arms finds.

Spanish (Eibar) Webley

At John Crean’s trial at the end of February, the court was told by the R.U.C. that Crean was in the I.R.A. and he didn’t dispute the claim. Crean eventually only received a twelve month sentence for the robbery. The I.R.A. has never officially acknowledged McQuillan as a member.

Crean’s wasn’t the only death. On Friday 6th February, a prison officer, Thomas Walker, was cycling along Durham Street on his way over to work in Crumlin Road. A number of men got out of a waiting car and fired a burst from a Thompson gun at Walker, hitting him twice in the chest. It turned out that the I.R.A. killed Walker in mistake for another warder.

Further reactions to McQuillan’s death can be recognised in susequent I.R.A. actions. In February and March, motions passed by the I.R.A. Belfast Battalion Convention were approved by a Northern Command Convention and Extraordinary Army Convention included: [5] “That the political squad of the C.I.D. be executed”; and [12] “That enemy raiding parties should be attacked”.

Motion 5 looks like a response to John McQuillan’s death in January (indeed within days of the Convention approving the motion the Belfast I.R.A. tried to kill Sergeant William Fannin of C.I.D.). One outcome of motion 12 being passed was to be the confrontation in Cawnpore Street that Easter.

You can read more about all these in the new Belfast Battalion book.

Time must pass as years roll by:

Early in the morning of 2nd September, 1942, seventy five years ago, prison staff moved a cupboard aside in Tom Williams’ cell in C Wing of the Belfast Prison, on the Crumlin Road. It revealed a door that led into the execution chamber. Williams was led into the chamber where he was hung at 8 am. Visitors to the prison today can visit the cell and are walked through the same doorway into the execution chamber. However, even after his execution, Williams remains were effectively imprisoned in Crumlin Road for nearly sixty years until his reburial in 2000.

Shirt in which Tom Williams was executed (in Republican Museum, Conway Mill).

Williams was executed as a reprisal for the death of an RUC Constable, Patrick Murphy, in April that year in Cawnpore Street (you can read the full story in Jim McVeigh‘s Execution: Tom Williams). Williams and Murphy were two of a handful of fatalities during the low intensity conflict between the IRA and northern government between 1938 and 1944. This included four other RUC officers, a prison warder and three IRA volunteers (a greater number died from the poor conditions in the prisons over the same period).

Only a matter of days before the execution Williams five co-accused had saw their own death sentences commuted. But a broad-based reprieve campaign (in the south) for Williams fell on deaf ears. The day of the execution was fairly chaotic. Crowds of nationalists who had gathered to pray for Williams outside the prison were jeered by unionists who sang songs and taunted them. A subsequent protest march into the city centre after the execution had led to small disturbances but these paled into significance alongside the trouble that followed a large scale swoop by the armed forces of the northern government. Large numbers of Catholics were detained, many eventually served internment notices (having no charges proferred against them). The subsequent violence and, weeks later, a number of reprisals for Williams execution led to a protracted curfew in the Falls.

There were over one hundred sentenced republican prisoners in Crumlin Road at the time of Williams’ execution and several hundred internees. They fasted on the day of Williams’ execution. Mass was to be said at 8 am and the chaplain had arranged to time a key point in the service, when he was to raise the communion host, would coincide with the exact time of Williams execution. The resonance of the symbolism of sacrifice in Catholic theology was easily understood and it broke up many of those present.

One of those present, Jimmy Steele, later published a poem called ‘The Soldier’ which was dedicated to Williams. Another sentenced prisoner who was in A wing the morning of the execution, Arthur Corr, wrote a song called ‘Tom Williams’ (early versions of it in print appear anonymously). Corr wrote it in his cell in A wing after Williams’ execution.

It was published in the Belfast IRA newspaper, Resurgent Ulster, in 1954. It has been subsequently recorded by various people without assigning credit to Corr. I’ve linked a version recorded here by the great Eamon Largey who knew both Steele and Corr and would have learned it from them (it is also uncredited on the Flying Column album ‘Folk Time in Ireland‘). I have also reprinted it in full below. Corr undoubtedly wrote other songs for also which he appears not to have received any credit.

In that sense, the sentiment of the opening lines “Time must pass as years roll by, But in memory I shall keep, Of a night in Belfast Prison, Unshamefully I saw men weep…” is very much real.

The extent to which songs and ballads communicated political messages is probably worthy of more attention. A striking emotional theme and a catchy melody was surely the most effective of propaganda tools and, as we all know, once a tune is stuck inside your head, it’s hard to get it out of there.

Tom Williams

by Arthur Corr

Time must pass as years roll by

But in memory I shall keep

Of a night in Belfast Prison

Unshamefully I saw men weep.

But a time was fast approaching,

A lad lay sentenced for to die,

And on the 2nd of September

He goes to meet his God on high.

To the scaffold now he’s marching

Head erect he shows no fear

And while standing on that scaffold

Ireland’s Cause he holds more dear

Now the cruel blow has fallen

For Ireland he has given his all,

He who at the flower of boyhood

Answered proudly to her call.

Brave Tom Williams we salute you.

And we never shall forget

Those who planned your cruel murder

We vow to make them all regret.

Now I saw to all you Irish soldiers

If from this path you chance to roam

Just remember of that morn

When Ireland’s Cause was proudly borne

By a lad who lies within a prison grave.

[This is the updated version of a previous post]

Tom Williams, 75 years on

Early in the morning of 2nd September, 1942, seventy five years ago, prison staff moved a cupboard aside in Tom Williams’ cell in C Wing of the Belfast Prison, on the Crumlin Road. It revealed a door that led into the execution chamber. Williams was led into the chamber where he was hung at 8 am. Visitors to the prison today can visit the cell and are walked through the same doorway into the execution chamber. However, even after his execution, Williams remains were effectively imprisoned in Crumlin Road for nearly sixty years until his reburial in 2000.

Shirt in which Tom Williams was executed (in Republican Museum, Conway Mill).

Williams was executed as a reprisal for the death of an RUC Constable, Patrick Murphy, in April that year in Cawnpore Street (you can read the full story in Jim McVeigh‘s Execution: Tom Williams). Williams and Murphy were two of a handful of fatalities during the low intensity conflict between the IRA and northern government between 1938 and 1944. This included four other RUC officers, a prison warder and three IRA volunteers (a greater number died from the poor conditions in the prisons over the same period).

Only a matter of days before the execution Williams five co-accused had saw their own death sentences commuted. But a broad-based reprieve campaign (in the south) for Williams fell on deaf ears. The day of the execution was fairly chaotic. Crowds of nationalists who had gathered to pray for Williams outside the prison were jeered by unionists who sang songs and taunted them. A subsequent protest march into the city centre after the execution had led to small disturbances but these paled into significance alongside the trouble that followed a large scale swoop by the armed forces of the northern government. Large numbers of Catholics were detained, many eventually served internment notices (having no charges proferred against them). The subsequent violence and, weeks later, a number of reprisals for Williams execution led to a protracted curfew in the Falls.

There were over one hundred sentenced republican prisoners in Crumlin Road at the time of Williams’ execution and several hundred internees. They fasted on the day of Williams’ execution. Mass was to be said at 8 am and the chaplain had arranged to time a key point in the service, when he was to raise the communion host, would coincide with the exact time of Williams execution. The resonance of the symbolism of sacrifice in Catholic theology was easily understood and it broke up many of those present. One of those present, Jimmy Steele, later published a poem called ‘The Soldier’ which was dedicated to Williams. Either Steele or another sentenced prisoner who was in A wing the morning of the execution, Arthur Corr, wrote a song called ‘Tom Williams’ (early versions of it in print appear anonymously and neither were later credited with song). It was published in the Belfast IRA newspaper, Resurgent Ulster, in 1954. Steele edited the paper and usually included his own poems without any credit. Jimmy Roe, though, believed Corr, a noted singer but not known as a songwriter, composed the song. It has been subsequently recorded by various people without assigning credit to either. I’ve linked a version recorded here by the great Eamon Largey who knew both Steele and Corr and would have learned it from them (it is uncredited on the Flying Column album ‘Folk Time in Ireland‘). I have also reprinted it in full below.

Whether it was Corr or Steele (both of whom came from North Queen Street), when hearing the opening lines “Time must pass as years roll by, But in memory I shall keep, Of a night in Belfast Prison, Unshamefully I saw men weep…” it should be born in mind that both were present in A wing and in the prison chapel at the time of the execution.

 

Tom Williams

Time must pass as years roll by

But in memory I shall keep

Of a night in Belfast Prison

Unshamefully I saw men weep.

But a time was fast approaching,

A lad lay sentenced for to die,

And on the 2nd of September

He goes to meet his God on high.

To the scaffold now he’s marching

Head erect he shows no fear

And while standing on that scaffold

Ireland’s Cause he holds more dear

Now the cruel blow has fallen

For Ireland he has given his all,

He who at the flower of boyhood

Answered proudly to her call.

Brave Tom Williams we salute you.

And we never shall forget

Those who planned your cruel murder

We vow to make them all regret.

Now I saw to all you Irish soldiers

If from this path you chance to roam

Just remember of that morn

When Ireland’s Cause was proudly borne

By a lad who lies within a prison grave.

 

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.