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Promoting Irish Culture and History from Little Rock, Arkansas, USA


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The Downing Street Mortar Attack

The Downing Street mortar attack was carried out by the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) on February 7, 1991. The IRA launches three homemade mortar shells at 10 Downing Street, London, the headquarters of the British government in an attempt to assassinate prime minister John Major and his war Cabinet, who were meeting to discuss the Gulf War.

During the Troubles, as part of its armed campaign against British rule in Northern Ireland, the Provisional Irish Republican Army repeatedly uses homemade mortars against targets in Northern Ireland. The IRA carries out many attacks in England, but none involve mortars. In December 1988, items used in mortar construction and technical details regarding the weapon’s trajectory are found during a raid in Battersea, South West London, by members of the Metropolitan Police Anti-Terrorist Branch. In the late 1980s, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher is top of the IRA’s list for assassination, following the failed attempt on her life in the Brighton hotel bombing.

Security around Downing Street is stepped up following increased IRA activity in England in 1988. Plans to leave a car bomb on a street near Downing Street and detonate it by remote control as Thatcher’s official car is driving by had been ruled out by the IRA Army Council owing to the likelihood of civilian casualties.

The Army Council instead sanctions a mortar attack on Downing Street and, in mid-1990, two IRA members travel to London to plan the attack. One is knowledgeable about the trajectory of mortars and the other, from the IRA’s Belfast Brigade, is familiar with their manufacture. An active service unit (ASU) purchases a Ford Transit van and rents a garage and an IRA co-ordinator procures the explosives and materials needed to make the mortars. The IRA unit begins making the mortars and cutting a hole in the roof of the van for the mortars to be fired through. Once preparations are complete, the two IRA members return to Ireland, as the IRA leadership considers them valuable personnel and does not wish to risk them being arrested in any follow-up operation by the security services. In November 1990, Thatcher unexpectedly resigns from office, but the Army Council decides the planned attack should still go ahead, targeting her successor John Major. The IRA plans to attack when Major and his ministers are likely to be meeting at Downing Street and wait until the date of a planned cabinet meeting is publicly known.

On the morning of February 7, 1991, the War Cabinet and senior government and military officials are meeting at Downing Street to discuss the ongoing Gulf War. As well as the Prime Minister, John Major, those present include politicians Douglas Hurd, Tom King, Norman Lamont, Peter Lilley, Patrick Mayhew, David Mellor and John Wakeham, civil servants Robin Butler, Percy Cradock, Gus O’Donnell and Charles Powell, and Chief of the Defence Staff David Craig. As the meeting begins, an IRA member is driving the van to the launch site at the junction of Horse Guards Avenue and Whitehall, about 200 yards from Downing Street.

On arrival, the driver parks the van and leaves the scene on a waiting motorcycle. Several minutes later, at 10:08 AM, as a policeman is walking towards the van to investigate it, three mortar shells are launched from a Mark 10 homemade mortar, followed by the explosion of a pre-set incendiary device. This device is designed to destroy any forensic evidence and set the van on fire. Each shell is four and a half feet long, weighs 140 pounds, and carries a 40-pound payload of the plastic explosive Semtex. Two shells land on Mountbatten Green, a grassed area near the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. One explodes and the other fails to detonate. The third shell explodes in the back garden of 10 Downing Street, 30 yards from the office where the cabinet is meeting. Had the shell struck 10 Downing Street itself, it is likely the entire cabinet would have been killed. On hearing the explosion, the cabinet ducks under the table for cover. Bomb-proof netting on the windows of the cabinet office muffle the force of the explosion, which scorches the back wall of the building, smashes windows and makes a crater several feet deep in the garden.

Once the sound of the explosion and aftershock has died down, the room is evacuated and the meeting reconvenes less than ten minutes later in the Cabinet Office Briefing Rooms (COBR). No members of the cabinet are hurt, but four people receive minor injuries, including two police officers injured by flying debris. Immediately after the attack, hundreds of police officers seal off the government district, from the Houses of Parliament to Trafalgar Square. Until 6:00 PM, civilians are kept out of the area as forensic experts combed the streets and government employees are locked in behind security gates.

The IRA claims responsibility for the attack with a statement issued in Dublin, saying, “Let the British government understand that, while nationalist people in the six counties [Northern Ireland] are forced to live under British rule, then the British Cabinet will be forced to meet in bunkers.” John Major tells the House of Commons that “Our determination to beat terrorism cannot be beaten by terrorism. The IRA’s record is one of failure in every respect, and that failure was demonstrated yet again today. It’s about time they learned that democracies cannot be intimidated by terrorism, and we treat them with contempt.” Leader of the Opposition Neil Kinnock also condemns the attack, stating, “The attack in Whitehall today was both vicious and futile.” The head of the Metropolitan Police Anti-Terrorist Branch, Commander George Churchill-Coleman, describes the attack as “daring, well planned, but badly executed.”

A further statement from the IRA appears in An Phoblacht, with a spokesperson stating “Like any colonialists, the members of the British establishment do not want the result of their occupation landing at their front or back doorstep … Are the members of the British cabinet prepared to give their lives to hold on to a colony? They should understand the cost will be great while Britain remains in Ireland.” The attack is celebrated in Irish rebel culture when the band The Irish Brigade releases a song titled “Downing Street,” to the tune of “On the Street Where You Live,” which includes the lyrics “while you hold Ireland, it’s not safe down the street where you live.”


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The Founding of Saor Éire

Saor Éire, a left-wing political organisation, is established on September 26, 1931 by communist-leaning members of the Irish Republican Army, with the backing of the IRA leadership. Notable among its founders is Peadar O’Donnell, former editor of An Phoblacht and a leading left-wing figure in the IRA. Saor Éire describes itself as “an organization of workers and working farmers.”

It is believed that the support of the then IRA chief of staff Moss (Maurice) Twomey is instrumental in the organisation’s establishment. However, Tim Pat Coogan claims that Twomey is doubtful about the organisation, worrying about involvement in electoral politics and possible communist influence.

During its short existence Saor Éire uses the republican publication An Phoblacht, under the editorship of Frank Ryan, to report on its progress and to promote its radical, left-wing republican views.

On the weekend of September 26-27, 1931, Saor Éire holds its first conference in Dublin at Iona Hall. One hundred and fifty delegates from both the Irish Free State and Northern Ireland attend the conference against a background of police raids on the houses and offices connected with Saor Éire and An Phoblacht. Seán Hayes is chairman, while David Fitzgerald acts as secretary.

The conference elects an executive of Hayes, Fitzgerald, Sean McGuinness, May Laverty, Helena Molony, Sheila Dowling, Sheila Humphreys, D. McGinley, Mick Fitzpatrick, Seán MacBride, Michael Price, Peadar O’Donnell, Mick Hallissey, M. O’Donnell, Patrick McCormack, Tom Kenny, L. Brady, Nicholas Boran, John Mulgrew and Tom Maguire. George Gilmore and Frank Ryan are also involved.

The constitution elaborates upon the aims by describing a two-phase programme. The first phase is described as being one of organisation and propagandising in order to organise a solid front for mass resistance to the oppressors. This is to build upon the day-to-day resistance and activity towards “rents, annuities, evictions, seizures, bank sales, lock-outs, strikes and wage-cuts.” This challenge, it is believed, would lead to power passing from the hands of the imperialists to the masses. The second phase is one of consolidation of power through the organisation of the economy and a workers’ and working farmers’ republic.

Ideologically Saor Éire adheres to the Irish socialist republicanism developed by James Connolly and Peadar O’Donnell. As a consequence of the heavy influence of O’Donnell, Saor Éire strongly advocates the revival of Gaelic culture and the involvement of the poorer rural working communities in any rise against the Irish capitalist institutions and British imperialism.

The organisation is attacked by the centre-right press and the Catholic Church as a dangerous communist group, and is quickly banned by the Free State government. The strength of reaction against it prevents it from becoming an effective political organisation. O’Donnell and his supporters attempt a similar initiative two years later with the establishment of the Republican Congress in 1933.


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The Founding of Saor Éire

saor-eire

Saor Éire, a left-wing political organisation, is established on September 26, 1931 by communist-leaning members of the Irish Republican Army, with the backing of the IRA leadership. Notable among its founders is Peadar O’Donnell, former editor of An Phoblacht and a leading left-wing figure in the IRA. Saor Éire describes itself as “an organization of workers and working farmers.”

It is believed that the support of the then IRA chief of staff Moss (Maurice) Twomey is instrumental in the organisation’s establishment. However, Tim Pat Coogan claims that Twomey is doubtful about the organisation, worrying about involvement in electoral politics and possible communist influence.

During its short existence Saor Éire uses the republican publication An Phoblacht, under the editorship of Frank Ryan, to report on its progress and to promote its radical, left-wing republican views.

On the weekend of September 26-27, 1931, Saor Éire holds its first conference in Dublin at Iona Hall. One hundred and fifty delegates from both the Irish Free State and Northern Ireland attend the conference against a background of police raids on the houses and offices connected with Saor Éire and An Phoblacht. Seán Hayes is chairman, while David Fitzgerald acts as secretary.

The conference elects an executive of Hayes, Fitzgerald, Sean McGuinness, May Laverty, Helena Molony, Sheila Dowling, Sheila Humphreys, D. McGinley, Mick Fitzpatrick, Seán MacBride, Michael Price, Peadar O’Donnell, Mick Hallissey, M. O’Donnell, Patrick McCormack, Tom Kenny, L. Brady, Nicholas Boran, John Mulgrew and Tom Maguire. George Gilmore and Frank Ryan are also involved.

The constitution elaborates upon the aims by describing a two-phase programme. The first phase is described as being one of organisation and propagandising in order to organise a solid front for mass resistance to the oppressors. This is to build upon the day-to-day resistance and activity towards “rents, annuities, evictions, seizures, bank sales, lock-outs, strikes and wage-cuts.” This challenge, it is believed, would lead to power passing from the hands of the imperialists to the masses. The second phase is one of consolidation of power through the organisation of the economy and a workers’ and working farmers’ republic.

Ideologically Saor Éire adheres to the Irish socialist republicanism developed by James Connolly and Peadar O’Donnell. As a consequence of the heavy influence of O’Donnell, Saor Éire strongly advocates the revival of Gaelic culture and the involvement of the poorer rural working communities in any rise against the Irish capitalist institutions and British imperialism.

The organisation is attacked by the centre-right press and the Catholic Church as a dangerous communist group, and is quickly banned by the Free State government. The strength of reaction against it prevents it from becoming an effective political organisation. O’Donnell and his supporters attempt a similar initiative two years later with the establishment of the Republican Congress in 1933.


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Birth of Activist & Feminist Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington

hanna-sheehy-skeffingtonJohanna Mary “Hanna” Sheehy-Skeffington, Republican activist and feminist, is born in Kanturk, County Cork, on May 24, 1877.

Sheehy is the eldest daughter of Elizabeth McCoy and David Sheehy, an ex-Fenian and Member of Parliament (MP) for the Irish Parliamentary Party, representing South Galway. One of her uncles, Father Eugene Sheehy, is known as the Land League Priest, and his activities land him in prison. He is also one of Éamon de Valera‘s teachers in Limerick. When Hanna’s father becomes an MP in 1887, the family moves to Drumcondra, Dublin.

Sheehy is educated at the Dominican Convent on Eccles Street, where she is a prize-winning pupil. She then enrolls at St. Mary’s University College, a third level college for women established by the Dominicans in 1893, to study modern French and German. She sits for examinations at Royal University of Ireland and receives a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1899, and a Master of Arts Degree with first-class honours in 1902. This leads to a career as a teacher in Eccles Street and an examiner in the Intermediate Certificate examination.

Sheehy marries Francis Skeffington in 1903, and they both take the surname Sheehy Skeffington, which they do not hyphenate but use as a double name. In 1908, they found the Irish Women’s Franchise League, a group aiming for women’s voting rights.

Sheehy-Skeffington gets into numerous scuffles with the law. She is jailed in 1912 for breaking windows of government buildings in support of suffrage as part of an IWFL campaign. That same year she also throws a hatchet at visiting British Prime Minister Herbert Asquith. She loses her teaching job in 1913 when she is arrested and imprisoned for three months after throwing stones at Dublin Castle and assaulting a police officer in a feminist action. While in jail she goes on hunger strike and is released under the Prisoner’s Temporary Discharge of Ill Health Act but is soon rearrested.

Being free from her teaching job enables Sheehy-Skeffington to devote more time to the fight for suffrage. She is influenced by James Connolly and during the 1913 lock-out works with other suffragists in Liberty Hall, providing food for the families of the strikers.

She strongly opposes participation in World War I which breaks out in August 1914, and is prevented by the British government from attending the International Congress of Women held in The Hague in April 1915. The following June her husband is imprisoned for anti-recruiting activities. He is later shot dead during the 1916 Easter Rising after having been arrested by British soldiers.

Sheehy-Skeffington refuses compensation for her husband’s death, which is offered on condition of her ceasing to speak and write about the murder. Rather, she travels to the United States to publicise the political situation in Ireland. In October 1917, she is the sole Irish representative to League for Small and Subject Nationalities where, along with several other contributors, she is accused of pro-German sympathies. She publishes British Militarism as I Have Known It, which is banned in the United Kingdom until after the World War I. Upon her return to Britain she is once again imprisoned, this time in Holloway prison. After release, Sheehy-Skeffington attends the 1918 Irish Race Convention in New York City and later supports the anti-Treaty Irish Republican Army (IRA) during the Irish Civil War.

In 1926, Sheehy-Skeffington becomes a founding member of Fianna Fáil and is elected to the party’s Ard Comhairle. During the 1930s, she is assistant editor of An Phoblacht. In January 1933, she is arrested in Newry for breaching an exclusion order banning her from Northern Ireland. At her trial she says, “I recognize no partition. I recognize it as no crime to be in my own country. I would be ashamed of my own name and my murdered husband’s name if I did…Long live the Republic!” She is sentenced to a month’s imprisonment.

Sheehy-Skeffington is a founding member of the Irish Women Workers’ Union and an author whose works deeply oppose British imperialism in Ireland. Her son, Owen Sheehy-Skeffington, becomes a politician and Irish Senator.

Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington dies in Dublin on April 20, 1946, at the age of 68 and is buried with her husband in Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin.