Learn all he can and put his training to the best advantage: Irish republicans in the British Army

It is probably not coincidental that the passing of the very last of the generation who fought in the first world war has coincided with a rise in overt nationalism centred around displays of the poppy as a symbol of British military commemoration. With the second world war generation, too, now dwindling rapidly, an aggressively vocal lobby insistently equates both generation’s sacrifice, as individuals and units, with a celebration of British imperial policy and militarism. This is conducted at such a volume that it drowns out any nuanced discussion of the experience of serving in the British forces. This is maybe most acute for those, particularly in Ireland, whose relatives were more likely driven into the British Army by circumstances than any political conviction.
You can get a clear, and unapologetic, sense of what the poppy, as a symbol, is intended to commemorate from the British Legion. Under its pages on remembrance, it specifically stipulates that it includes the recent conflict in the north (one in which the British army was allowed to use violence with impunity). The Legion also pointedly includes…those who fought with them and alongside them”, which would obviously cover the local unionist militias, the RUC and UDR, which were both discredited and then disbanded. Arguably it also extends to the unionist paramilitary groups like the UDA and UVF who fought ‘alongside them’, given the British government’s continuing refusal to open up its archives on the extent to which it operated those groups as local counter-gangs.
There is peculiar lobby among the likes of Fine Gael and the Irish Labour party that try and promote the poppy. The kindest thing that can be said about it is that they appear to barely have a surface knowledge of what the British Legion actually tells us the poppy is meant to commemorate. Ironically, the leader of the Irish government probably wore a British Legion poppy in Leinster House the other day simply to provoke Sinn Féin members present (in the hope that he could use a backlash to retrospectively validate his embarrassing car crash comments about sexism in an interview the previous day).
What we are seeing there, really, is the long term impact on censorship in the south. After Section 31 of the broadcasting ban lapsed, media censorship, and the world view it had promoted, have more or less persisted in a voluntary form. No real attempt has been made in the south to either revisit events or explore other perspectives on the conflict in the north and, in reality, most people who formed their views, values and opinions under Section 31 have no sense of having been exposed to heavily censored media coverage. That pretty much extends to any genuine understanding of the typical Irish experience in the British military which many seem to completely blur with a broader anti-republicanism sensibility.
Ex-servicemen (and indeed some still enlisted in the British army) appear to have always been a component of republican organisations. IRB leader William Harbinson’s life is illustrative of how young men typically ended up in the British Army. Driven from his birthplace in Ballinderry to Liverpool at the height of the famine, he enlisted underage. Perhaps unsurprisingly, his army service was punctuated with bouts of ill-health. Yet, through the likes of Harbinson, the IRB organisation appears to have relied upon serving British soldiers for access to military capability and arms.
The year after Harbinson’s death, James Connolly was born – brought up in great poverty, he too enlisted underage in the British Army and was one of a number of those who participated in 1916 that had a military background. It is notable, now, how the input of ex-servicemen surely contributed to the overall tactical view of the IRB. It embraced using some form of conventional standing army to establish an Irish republic, either using serving soldiers (as in 1867) or the Irish volunteers and Citizen’s Army (as in 1916). After 1916, and the formation of an Irish Republican Army, ironically, the tactical remit instead shifted to guerrilla actions (even though it still had many members who were former British soldiers).
In Belfast in 1920-22, ex-servicemen were prominent in the ad hoc defence of districts that came under attack from unionists. Joseph Giles, a former soldier killed when the military opened fire in Bombay Street on 22nd July 1920 is noted as an IRA volunteer in Jim McDermot’s Northern Divisions. Other former soldiers, like Daniel Hughes and Freddy Craig, were killed when unionists attacked their home districts or, as in the case of Malachy Halfpenny, were abducted, tortured and killed by B Specials. In some districts, like Ballymacarret, many ex-servicemen were believed to have joined the IRA and provided the spine of the republican forces that defended the district from attack. Certainly, in most IRA units, former British soldiers provided the technical support to maintain weapons and train in their use. Even in the 1950s, the IRA was able to place members inside British Army barracks in preparation for arms raids. In the 1970s, again in the face of unionist violence, ex-servicemen (this time, formally) grouped themselves under the banner of the Catholic (later ‘Local’) Ex-Servicemen’s Association.
In areas of high socio-economic deprivation (across Ireland), the needs of the British for servicemen offered an opportunity for the paid work (and pension) and a trade that were often denied to them in their own districts. How far the economic necessity that drove them into the services was underscored by political support is difficult to disentangle.
One hundred years ago, Charles O’Neill, my great-grandfather, a veteran of both India and the Boer War, was serving on the Italian front. He also had a brother at sea with the British Navy. After the war he was still burnt out of Ballyhackamore and driven from his work by ‘loyalists’. Whether he was political at all, never mind supportive of British imperial policy, he was to be brutally schooled in the value placed on his military service. Yet economics also dictated that two of his sons (my granny’s brothers, Andy and Charlie) also fought in the British Army during the second world war (my granny also had one brother-in-law in the US Army and another as Adjutant-General of the IRA). Charles, Andy and Charlie’s experience was probably typical. Political or not, they chose not to serve in the likes of the RUC or UDR that the British Legion now commemorate as having fought alongside the British Army. I suspect the current flag-waving poppy celebrations of the British Legion would be completely alien to them.
The traditional inclusion of ex-servicemen within Irish republican organisations is often overlooked and has probably yet to be fully explored. Opening it up may provide some rich insights. While a British soldier in Dublin, James Connolly likely participated in war games that included defending Dublin city. Given that he was one of a number of former servicemen who took part in the Rising, was the often derided military plan for the Rising based on an insight into the British defensive strategy practised in war games in which the likes of Connolly took place?
Connolly may also have provided the most succinct rationalisation of the motivation behind a young Irish man joining the British Army “…let him make the best of it and learn all he can and put his training to the best advantage he can when he comes out. A well-trained soldier will always find his allotted place in the community.

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William Harbinson: a New Lodge ‘Fenian’

September 11th 2017 marks the 150th anniversary of the death of William Harbinson in Crumlin Road prison. On the evening of his death, Harbinson was found dead in his cell and the coroners inquiry heard he had an unexplained head wound but did not establish if it occurred prior to his death. The Head Centre of the Irish Republican Brotherhood in Belfast, Harbinson lived in the cottages known as Pinkerton Row just above the junction of North Queen Street and the New Lodge Road (roughly where Pinkerton Walk is today).

Map of Belfast in 1860s showing North Queen Street, the Infantry Barracks (later Victoria Barracks) and the lower New Lodge Road. Pinkerton Row is unmarked appears to be the line of cottages just above ‘Trainfield’. The breaks in the houses on that side of the New Lodge Road roughly correspond to Bruslee Street, Carntall Street, Carnmoney Street and Pinkerton Street that all linked back to Artillery Street (which appears on the map as dotted lines). These streets were flattened in the 1960s and 1970s. The Half Bap and Little Italy districts extend from the bottom right of the map.

Harbinson was a Staff Sergeant in the Antrim Rifles and had access to the Infantry Barracks arsenal. He was one of a number of ‘Fenians’ among the serving garrison in the barracks. The IRB had consciously inserted soldiers in the British Empire’s army and used them to both cultivate further recruits and bring back a quantum of military know-how and material to the organisation. In many respects this was an expression of the complex relationship between the Empire and its Irish subjects.

Harbinson’s life is illustrative of how young men typically ended up in the British Army. Driven from his birthplace in Ballinderry to Liverpool at the height of the famine, he enlisted underage. Perhaps unsurprisingly, his army service was punctuated with bouts of ill-health. The year after Harbinsons death, James Connolly was born – brought in great poverty, he too enlisted underage in the British Army and was one of a number of those who participated in 1916 that had a military background. In Belfast in 1920-22, ex-servicemen were prominent in the ad hoc defence of districts that came under attack from unionists. Many of them became involved in the IRA. In the 1970s, again in the face of unionist violence, ex-servicemen (this time, formally) grouped themselves under the banner of the Catholic (later ‘Local’) Ex-Servicemen’s Association. So, in many respects, Harbinson reflects a tradition within republicanism that is often overlooked. James Connolly rationalised the motivation behind a young Irish man joining the British Army “…let him make the best of it and learn all he can and put his training to the best advantage he can when he comes out. A well-trained soldier will always find his allotted place in the community”.

Harbinson also reflects a largely unexplored aspect of republican tradition across north Belfast. In some respects, like Harbinson, this is connected to the presence of the Infantry Barracks and Irish soldiers serving there. But he is far from the only senior IRB figure to have lived in the north of the city. Frank Roney, Head of Centre in Belfast before Harbinson, was from Carrickhill. Robert Johnston served on the Supreme Council from the 1860s, FJ Biggar was co-opted onto the Supreme Council by the end of 1870s. Henry Dobbyn was also prominent in the IRB. That generation was slowly eased out and replaced by the likes of Denis McCullough (President of the IRB’s Supreme Council in 1916). All lived in the north of the city, on of around North Queen Street or the Antrim Road. Johnston was the father of Eithne Carbery, the pre-eminent poet of the nationalist revival of the late 19th century and editor of the Shan Van Vocht newspaper. Her brother, James and cousin James were also active in the IRB (the likes of Major John McBride were also connected to north Belfast through St Malachy’s College). Another Antrim Road resident, Winifred Carbery, was Connolly’s assistant throughout the Easter Rising.

So, on the 150th anniversary of his death, it is worth remembering how William Harbinson reflects many aspects of republican history in north Belfast (and further afield) that really should warrant further exploration in the future.

Belfast Fenian leader, William Harbinson

In July 1867 Belfast IRB leader William Harbinson was brought up on charges of treason felony. He died in Belfast prison in September 1867 before he was brought to trial. While his name was given to the original republican plot in Milltown and his funeral was attended by over 40,000 people (in defiance of opposition from the Catholic clergy), I suspect relatively few people have heard of him.

Photograph of William Harbinson from 1867. In an attempt to build intelligence on the IRB, the authorities photographed arrested leaders, which was very innovative for the time. The photograph of William Harbinson was first reproduced by Joe Graham in Rushlight.

The Irish Republican Brotherhood was founded in 1858 to establish Ireland as an independent democratic republic. In the United States, there was a parallel American organisation, known as the Fenian Brotherhood which tended to give its name (Fenians) to the wider movement. The outbreak of the American Civil War stalled the development of the Fenians. The support given by the Anglo-Irish aristocracy, Orange Order and the wealthy to the confederacy and slave owners energised the IRB in Ireland, inspiring the likes of Frank Roney, from Carrickhill, to be sworn into the IRB by 1862. Roney was to be the first Belfast and Ulster Head Centre. Like Robert Johnston, who was to replace Roney on the Supreme Council of the IRB by the start of the 1870s, Roney met and knew some United Irishmen who had been active in 1798 (Johnston was 99 when he died in 1937).

At local level, the IRB was formed into units of ten volunteers, whose leader was called a ‘centre’. At county or district level (referred to as a ‘Circle’), a ‘Head Centre’ was elected by a convention of the centres.  The organisation was governed by an eleven member Supreme Council, seven electoral divisions (four provinces of Ireland, Scotland, North and South England) each returned a member at a convention at which a divisional committee of five was also elected. While the IRB was a clandestine organisation, its Supreme Council met in Dublin and some records of its meetings survive (see here).

Some modern historians dispute the scale and nature of the IRB in Belfast, but contemporaries like Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa and John Devoy were complimentary of the work done in Belfast. The authorities also seemed similarly impressed as, when arrests began, the proportion of suspects detained in Belfast was on a par with other centres of IRB activity like Dublin, Cork and Tipperary.

[You can read more about the IRB in Belfast in an article on Frank Roney published by Kerby Miller and Breandán MacSuibhne in the journal Eire-Ireland last year, or in Catherine Hirsts’ 2002 book ‘Religion, Politics, and Violence in Nineteenth-Century Belfast: The Pound and Sandy Row’.]

In Belfast, the IRB had revealed itself in response to Orange Order violence in August 1864. It recruited many soldiers, including William Harbinson, a staff sergeant in the Antrim Rifles who had access to the arsenal of weapons held in the barracks in Belfast. Soldiers also drilled and trained other IRB volunteers in Belfast. This allowed the IRB to prepare for an insurrection. After the American Civil War ended in 1865, it actively recruited veterans and collected weapons, intending they also be available for any uprising in Ireland.

William Harbinson was born in Ballinderry in 1832 (in 1867 his age is mistakenly given in newspaper accounts as 41 or 44). His father, John Harbinson, may be the same one who is recorded living in Portmore in Griffiths Valuation in the 1850s. He was underage when he joined the 39th Foot Regiment in Liverpool, undoubtedly fleeing the famine, in February 1847. Ballinderry lost a sixth of its population during the famine. The Northern Whig had referred to the famine, in the previous month, as ‘the present favourable crisis … for conveying the light of the Gospels to the darkened minds of the Roman Catholic peasantry’. After a slump in the linen industry, as well as potato blight impacting on Antrim in late 1846, January 1847 had saw overt attempts to Catholics to convert to Protestantism in return for famine relief. The rate of fatalities during the famine rapidly increased in 1847 year. Exposure to the famine may have left its mark on Harbinson, as he was discharged from the army as unfit for service, due to ill health, in May 1852, from when he was pensioned until July 1853.

At the time of his marriage to Catherine McClenaghan in St Patrick’s, Donegall Street, in April 1857, he was working as a labourer and living in Wesley Place, while Catherine was living in Inkerman Terrace, both close to what is now Shaftesbury Square. William and Catherine appear to have had one child, a son, William John, who was born in October 1859 but died young (he was baptised in St Malachys, suggesting they were still living close to the Markets). His brother Philip, who also to be prominent in the IRB, moved to North Queen Street.

William returned to the army serving in a local militia regiment, the Antrim Rifles, where he rose to the rank of colour sergeant. In 1864, the Belfast Morning News reported that he was presented by a valuable gold watch and chain by the non-commissioned officers and privates of K Company of the Antrim Rifles, in John Edgars bar in John Street on Thursday 11th August. Oddly, that episode occurred during the bloody riots that began on the evening of the previous Monday, with the Pound, and John Street, at the epi-centre of the violence. That was the same year Harbinson was recruited into the IRB.

By late 1865, the British government closed down The Irish People, the IRB newspaper founded in Dublin in 1863, and arrested staff including Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa. A few months later, it suspended Habeas Corpus to legalise the arrest and detention without trial of suspected IRB members and sympathisers (a process that would later be more familiar to people as ‘internment’). In early 1866, it began to utilise those powers to stage a number of arrests in Belfast, beginning with Michael McGonigal on the 19th February, the next day Frank Roney (apparently using the surname O’Neill) was arrested at a pub at the junction of Peter’s Hill and the Old Lodge Road owned by Gordon O’Neill. Others arrested that day included John O’Rorke, a pensioner with a wooden leg who had a barbers shop in Millfield, Patrick Hassan (of the 83th New York Irish Volunteers) and Harbinson.

Roney and Harbinson were imprisoned in Crumlin Road and Mountjoy, although both were eventually regain their freedom due to public pressure for the general release of republican prisoners and letters of support from their family and prominent individuals. Harbinson was released in September and Roney in November.

Harbinson appears to have taken over as Head Centre in Belfast. Roney remained on the Supreme Council, travelling to Paris and London on IRB business. Early in 1867, Harbinson also travelled to London. It was later alleged by an informer, John Massey, that Harbinson represented Ulster at a meeting of the Supreme Council in February 1867 (see The Nation, 7th December 1867).

On Thursday 7th March, Harbinson was arrested at his house in Pinkertons Row, just off North Queen Street. The police had been watching the house the previous night and raided the house immediately once Harbinson’s wife, Catherine, had opened the window shutters at 7 am on the Thursday morning. Harbinson was still in bed and another IRB volunteer, John Murray, was found in the kitchen of the house. Harbinson was held by the police while Murray was taken to Banbridge.

It was alleged in the press (from  Monday 11th March – see likes of The Examiner) that Harbinson had taken over as Belfast Head Centre from Roney. The newspapers claimed there were six Centres in Belfast who had all observed the security protocols meaning that it had been difficult to penetrate the IRB with informers. This bit of information was possibly a cover for John Murray, who had been arrested on 14th February, remanded, then released. Murray was to give evidence against Harbinson and others at a remand hearing in court in mid-July.

After his arrest Harbinson was held under the Habeas Corpus Suspension Act in Crumlin Road then sent to Mountjoy. He was returned to Crumlin Road on 24th May, presumably with the intention of bringing charges against him and other IRB leaders that had been arrested in Belfast including the likes of his brother Philip and Francis Rea.

William Harbinson was brought to court for an ‘investigation’ along with Edward Gilmore, Patrick Keith and Richard Lavery on 13th July. By the end of the month, a treason felony charge was brought against Harbinson in front of a Grand Jury which found that he would have to stand trial. The trial was to take place at the Spring Assizes in March 1868. In prison, Harbinson and the other interned IRB suspects were able to have their food brought in to them rather than eat the prison diet. They also were not forced to do prison work and were permitted frequent exercise, association, books and tobacco (this is what would later be classed as political status).

On the night of Monday 9th September, William Harbinson was found dead in his cell in Crumlin Road during the 9 o’clock check by staff. An attempt to hold an inquest the next day was delayed until his brother Philip (who was also imprisoned) and father-in-law, Edward McClenaghan, could attend.

At the inquest, the prison governor’s evidence stated that he always thought Harbinson was of ‘delicate’ appearance, although neither he, Catherine Harbinson nor his lawyer had made any complaint about his health. The inquest heard from prison staff that he had been outside exercising for around four hours that day and returned to his cell at either two o’clock or four o’clock and was last reported at quarter to six as sitting reading on his bed. When found, he was lying undressed on the floor as if he had fallen out of bed, although staff reported that there were no marks on his body. The inquest found he had died of disease of the heart and it was officially recorded as the bursting of aneurism aorta and he had been delicate a considerable time. This may have been the same condition which had led to his discharge from the army in 1852 and may have had its roots in damage done to his health by the famine.

While the Catholic hierarchy had been trying to counteract the rise of the IRB, it found it impossible to limit Harbinson’s funeral. On Sunday 15th September, round 40,000 people are believed to have either watched or taken part in the procession, which began in North Queen Street and carried the remains to Laloo, in Ballinderry. It travelled via Donegall Street, Bridge Street, High Street, Castle Place and the Pound to the Falls Road. The original republican memorial erected in Milltown in 1912 was named the Harbinson Plot in his honour.

Harbinson’s funeral was to be the largest republican event held in Belfast until Bobby Sands funeral in 1981.

You can read more accounts of the funeral and Harbinson on Joe Graham’s Rushlight webpages.