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.

 

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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.