Some previously unrecognised 1920-1922 IRA fatalities in Belfast (by Kieran Glennon)

Here’s an interesting post from Kieran Glennon (author of From Pogrom to Civil War) on the recent pension files released by the Military Archives. Kieran looks at some previously unrecognised IRA fatalities during the 1920-1922 period and some other points of interest in the files. The newly identified IRA fatalities are John McCartney (killed 25th July 1920) and Henry Mulholland (killed on 10th July 1921) in Bombay Street, he was originally from Tyrone and taken back there to be buried). As with some earlier casualties, both were older men, McCartney (36) and Mulholland (49), which has been noted with some other early fatalities. There is clear gap now between the scale of republican fatalities in Belfast in 1920-1922 and official records, such as those named on the County Antrim memorial in Milltown and various republican publications.

[The parallels between the July and August 1920 violence in the Kashmir Road and Cupar Street and events in August 1969 are uncanny including deployment of heavy machine guns and armoured cars against civilians – at one point a field gun was brought to Divis Street].

Further information also seems to be emerging of the Belfast IRA getting actively involved in the civil war in the key period up to August 1922 (providing the backdrop to the suppression of Facts and Figures of the Belfast Pogrom) and later.

Here’s Kieran’s post:

The recently released files are of interest for a couple of reasons. We’ve previously discussed a Belfast Roll of Honour here and there are a couple of potential new additions referred to in the latest files. In Davy Matthews’ interview with the Pensions Board, he mentioned “6 were killed at street corner including Giles and McCartney, vols. at time of Cashmere [sic – Kashmir] Road fighting.” Giles is mentioned in “Northern Divisions”, but John McCartney, killed on 25th July 1920, is a new name to emerge. Probably owing to the date of his death, he wasn’t included on the Nominal Rolls (you can view the Nominal Rolls and individual pension files at http://www.militaryarchives.ie)..
Similarly, in Rory Graham’s statement to the Board, when asked “Were any men of your company, time of dealing with the mob, shot by the mob?” he replied “Mulholland, who was sitting playing cards.” On 10th July 1921, a Henry Mulholland was killed in Bombay St. He’s included on the Nominal Roll for B Company, 1st Battalion, but listed as “present address unknown” which is an odd way to refer to a deceased comrade. It is also debateable whether he was actually on active service at the time of his death.
By my tally, including these two would bring the tally of Volunteers killed in Belfast during the pogrom to twenty-three, plus Seán McCartney killed at Lappinduff and Seán O’Carroll killed in Louth. Then in addition to those, you’d have the seven Fianna that were killed.
More importantly, the latest files consolidate a thread that had begun to emerge in earlier MSPC releases regarding the anti-Treaty, or Executive Forces, within the Belfast IRA after the 1922 split. In particular, they add new detail to their participation in the Civil War fighting in the south.
The previous MSPC release included the file of Pat Thornbury, who became O/C of the Executive 3rd Northern Division after Joe McKelvey’s election to the Army Executive. Thornbury talked of bringing thirty Belfast IRA men down to Dublin to join in the fighting around O’Connell St at the outbreak of the Civil War. Similarly, Joseph Billings from Belfast talked of being a Barracks Quartermaster for the anti-Treaty garrison at Barry’s Hotel.
The latest release contains the files of Michael Carolan and his brothers Andrew and Alphonsus. Michael was appointed Adjutant of the Executive 3rd Northern Division after the split, was shot and wounded in Grafton St in Dublin in early July, then made Director of Intelligence for the IRA in the autumn. His two brothers carried despatches for him in Dublin though they don’t appear to have been involved in the actual fighting.
Although his pension claim was unsuccessful, the file on Patrick McWilliams contains two references from former superior officers which indicate that a second column of Belfast men set off for Dublin at the start of July 1922 but could get no further than Dundalk. They remained in Louth and took part in attacks on Free State forces there.
Another member of the Belfast column operating in Louth was Charles McCaull Stewart. A Presbyterian, at the outset of the pogrom he had been an apprentice welder in Harland & Wolff but he joined the IRA in Ardoyne in the spring of 1921. After a brief return to Belfast in July 1922, he made his way to Roscommon where he joined up with the anti-Treaty East Mayo flying column in August. Interestingly, in his statement to the Pension Board, he says “We reported in Ballaghadereen” rather than “I reported”, so there may also have been other Belfast men involved in that unit.
On the other side of the Treaty divide, Daniel McAllister from Cushendall in Antrim had come south to the Curragh for training in late June 1922 along with the remnants of the pro-GHQ 2nd and 3rd Northern Divisions, but he says that he and six others left in mid-August as a refusal to take up arms against republicans in the Civil War.
Given that only 154 members of the Belfast Brigade can be identified as having joined the Free State Army, while the entire membership of over 400 men still active in Belfast on 1st July 1922 are listed as being Executive Forces, and some of those turned up in three different counties during the Civil War fighting, the latest files to be released certainly raise some interesting questions about the direction of the Brigade after the Treaty split.

The Weaver Street bombing and not dealing with the past

In Belfast, on 13th February 1922, some children playing in Milewater Street, at the corner of Weaver Street, off the York Road, were approached by two Special Constables and told to go and “play with their own” (Special Constables invariably being Protestant, the children were Catholics in a largely Protestant district). They joined other children in the mainly Catholic-occupied Weaver Street and played on a swing attached to a lamp-post. Ten minutes later, two men came to the North Derby Street end of Weaver Street (one eye witness claimed one Special Constable had just spoken to the same two men). They were about 20 metres away from where the children were playing. One of the men then threw a bomb into the middle of the children. As the bomb exploded, gunfire directed into Weaver Street from North Derby Street, covered the two men’s retreat.

Weaver St map

Map showing Weaver Street running from North Derby Street to Milewater Street (which isn’t named on the map)

The explosion killed or injured Mary Johnson (13), Catherine Kennedy (14), W.J. Dempsey (13), Annie Pimley (16), John O’Hanlon (16), Elizabeth O’Hanlon (11), Murtie O’Hanlon (16), Barney Kennedy (10), John McCluskey (12), Rose Ann McNeill (13), Mary McClinton (18), Mary Kerr (6), Susanne Lavery (14), George O’Connor (16), Joseph Conway (12), Patrick Maguire (14), Kate O’Neill (14), Robert McBirney (16) and William Connolly (13). All lived in Weaver Street. Adults standing in their doorways were also badly injured.

The force of the blast threw the children up into the air and caused catastrophic injuries, maiming many of those who survived. Mary Johnson and Catherine Kennedy died immediately. Eliza O’Hanlon died the next day. Statements made in the press and in Westminster indicate that three of those injured had died by the next day, the third being O’Hanlon. By the time the inquest was held on 3rd March, a fourth girl had died from the blast. Two adults were to succumb to their injuries. Margaret Smith died on the 23rd March, while Mary Owens (who lived in nearby Shore Street) died from injuries sustained in the blast on the 6th April.

This was not the first bombing of its kind. On September 25th the previous year, a bomb had been thrown into a group of Catholic children on Milewater Street, injuring nine, including four under six years of age. One man, George Barry, died from injuries he received. The bomb had such force that two houses were wrecked. A bomb had also been thrown by loyalists into a group of school children in Herbert Street on 12th January, injuring six (the Belfast Telegraph erroneously reported it as an IRA attack). The same month, a bomb had been thrown into Weaver Street from a passing taxi.

The Belfast Telegraph claimed the 13th February bomb was one of the largest ever used in the city. It also implausibly offered justification for the bomb attack, saying shots had earlier been fired at an armoured car in Weaver Street. In retrospect, the Belfast Telegraph’s link to an attack of an armoured car merely ties the Special Constabulary closer to the bombing (the ‘Specials’, created at roughly the same time, performed the Black and Tans roles in repression and reprisals in the north).

James Craig also included a reference to the bomb in a report sent to the Colonial Secretary, Winston Churchill and read in Westminster the next day. It stated that there had been…

..the indiscriminate throwing of bombs over a wall into Weaver Street, a Sinn Fein area, which resulted in the death of two children and the wounding of fourteen others. These outrages are greatly deplored by my Government, especially the latter dastardly deed, involving the lives of children.

Craig was more concerned about a gun battle in Clones between republican forces and Special Constables travelling to Enniskillen the day before the Weaver Street bombing. Joe Devlin fumed that Craigs wording was deliberately vague and that some international press had been led to believe that the bomb was thrown by republicans.

As sectarian attacks continued through 1921 and 1922, and even after the 13th February bomb, the (relatively) safe places for Catholic families to live in that part of the York Road had shrank to the area around Weaver Street. The attacks continued to intensify in early summer. On 18th May Thomas McCaffrey from Shore Street was killed. On the night of 20th May, Thomas McShane from Jennymount Street was killed. That same night the remaining Catholic residents of Weaver Street, Milewater Street, North Derby Street, Shore Street and Jennymount Street, some one hundred and forty-eight families, were forced from their homes at gunpoint. By the 21st May 1922 the Catholic community that had established itself around Weaver Street had fled. The 1924 street directory only shows one household remaining from the 1918 directory (in comparison, nearby Seaview Street had two thirds of the same households). Houses in Weaver Street remained occupied until the 1960s as Unilever and the Associated Feed Mills bought up property around Shore Street, Weaver Street and Milewater Street eventually enclosing all but the York Road end of Milewater Street.

 
The view today of where Weaver Street met North Derby Street. This is more or less where the bomb was thrown from.

Today, Shore Street and Weaver Street are gone, no longer visible on the streetscape of Belfast. Patiently neglected over the decades after 1922, their former occupants were dispersed around other districts of the city. Similarly, the detail of its own particular sadness, sectarianism and savagery are now, largely, long forgotten. The memory of the violence of 1920-22, mostly unarticulated, was indelibly etched into the psyche of the Catholic residents of Belfast.

Some 20-25% of those killed in the 1920-22 conflict died in Belfast but, with few notable exceptions, little was written or said about it over the decades that followed (even today only a handful of books have been written about it). So despite what has happened since 1969, few have considered how the memory of 1920-22 influenced communities. Even fewer have considered the role an absence of public discourse around the violence of 1920-22 may have had in later outbreaks of sectarian violence in the 1930s and 1960s.

Today, the very obliteration of Weaver Street from the streetscape of Belfast, somehow elevates it as an appropriate metaphor for the eclipse of public discourse on the violence of 1920-22.

Terminology: ‘Tan War’ or ‘War of Independence’?

So is the ‘Tan War’ or ‘War of Independence’ the preferred term to describe the period from 1919 to the truce in 1921? Next year will be the centenary of the Easter Rising of 1916, which was known at the time as the ‘Sinn Féin Rebellion’ and other variants of ‘Rebellion’ (‘Easter’ or ‘Irish’ or just ‘1916’). All these were gradually displaced over time by the name ‘Easter Rising’ which it will be almost universally known as next year.

One way of measuring this is to compare the frequency with which the terms ‘Easter Rebellion’, ‘Sinn Féin Rebellion’ and ‘Easter Rising’ are found in Google Books or The Irish Times in the decades after 1921. Up to the 1960s, they all appear with more or less the same frequency, apart from the 1940s when ‘Easter Rebellion’ was the main term used. From the 1960s, ‘Easter Rising’ became the common term used. In that decade it was used twice as often as the other terms combined.

A variety of terms are also used to describe the post-1916 revolutionary period in Ireland. But even defining the time span in question is tricky. Can you even, meaningfully, regard it as merely post-1916? Indeed, it can be taken to mean the years that begin with the militarisation of independence with the formation of the UVF in 1912, or the mass importation of weaponry starting with the Larne gun-running of April 1914. Clearly, a case can be made that it was the Easter Rising of 1916 that really draws a line between the unsuccessful constitutional Home Rule projects of the mid-1880s onwards and the eclipse of constitutional nationalism in favour of militant revolutionary separatism.

It is possible to argue for an earlier date if you believe that it is all unified within a historical continuum that includes the founding of the Irish Republican Brotherhood in 1858, or more loosely, back through the famine to 1798 and beyond. Alternatively, it is possible to argue for a post-Great War date of 1918, by when the Home Rule on offer had also been watered down to nothingness, and, linking it to the election of that year and subsequent formation of the First Dáil.

Two of the most commonly used terms can both be regarded as unsatisfying. Many republicans deride the use of the phrase ‘War of Independence’ since, obviously, independence was not what emerged at the end of the ‘war’. In the 1920s (and after), it was more common to cite the actions and strategies of both the Dublin and Belfast administrations as evidencing the lack of independence achieved. Based on its frequency of use in Google Books and The Irish Times, ‘War of Independence’ seems to have gained currency after the Republic of Ireland Act came into force in 1949. Up to then ‘Black and Tan War’ or ‘Tan War’ was more commonly used.

The ‘Tan War’ term though, is relatively meaningless in Belfast where the reprisals and killings carried out by the Black and Tans, and, Auxiliaries from the summer of 1920, were, instead, carried out by RIC officers and unionist militias. It is clear from the tenor of contemporary and later correspondence, such as the Pension Award archives, that the Belfast Brigade’s limited engagement with the Black and Tans or Auxiliaries was used to minimise the Brigade’s overall contribution. This in spite of the fact that around 25% of all casualties in Ireland from 1919 up to the outbreak of violence in Dublin in mid-1922 occurred in the Belfast Brigade’s operational area. The violence deployed by the Black and Tans and Auxiliaries was supplied, instead, by the unionist militias and RIC in the north. With honourable exceptions, the proportional intensity of the northern violence is largely understated in accounts of the period. Arguably, the phrase ‘Tan War’ similarly fails to address the reality of the period in ignoring the Belfast (and general northern) experience.

Once the 1916 centenary is out of the way and attention drifts to the period after 1918, it will be interesting to see what becomes the prefered terminology.