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


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The Execution of Tom Williams, IRA Volunteer

File source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Vol._Tom_Williams.jpgThomas Joseph Williams, a volunteer in C Company, 2nd Battalion of the Belfast Brigade in the Irish Republican Army (IRA), is hanged in the Crumlin Road Gaol on September 2, 1942 for his involvement in the killing of Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) police officer Patrick Murphy during the Northern campaign.

Williams is born in the Beechmount area of Belfast on May 12, 1923. He is the third child in a family of six. After the death of his mother, he and his brother go to live with their grandmother at 46 Bombay Street in the Clonard area of Belfast. The Williams family has to leave the small Catholic enclave in the Shore Road area of Belfast after their house is attacked and burned.

As a child, Williams suffers from asthma and as a result is often very ill. He attends St. Gall’s Primary School but leaves at an early age to obtain work, which at the time is difficult due to discrimination. His work therefore consists of labouring and as a delivery boy.

As soon as Williams is old enough, he joins Na Fianna Éireann, the republican Scout Organisation founded by Constance Markievicz in 1909, becoming a member of the Con Colbert slua in the Clonard area. Alfie Hannaway, a friend of Williams, is his OC in Na Fianna, and assigns him to the rank of Quartermaster for the company. He takes his role in Na Fianna very seriously and all who came to know him are struck by his dedication and maturity, even at this early age.

At the age of 17, Williams is old enough to become a volunteer and joins C Company of the IRA in the Clonard area where he lives. Due to his “dedication and his remarkable ability” he is appointed to the role of Adjutant of C Company.

At Easter 1942 the government of Northern Ireland bans all parades to commemorate the anniversary of the Easter Rising. An IRA unit of six men and two women stage a diversionary action against the RUC to allow three parades to take place in West Belfast, but in this clash a RUC officer is killed and the six IRA men are captured. The RUC officer, Constable Patrick Murphy, a father of nine children, from the Falls Road area of Belfast, is one of a minority of Catholics serving in the RUC.

There is debate over the years about who actually fired the fatal shot. The six IRA members are convicted and sentenced to death for murder under the law of common purpose. Five have their sentences commuted. The sentence of Williams, who acknowledges that he is the leader of the IRA unit involved and takes full responsibility for the actions of his men, is not commuted.

Williams is hanged in Crumlin Road Gaol in Belfast on the morning of September 2, 1942. The executioner is the official English hangman Thomas Pierrepoint, assisted by his nephew Albert Pierrepoint. Afterwards Williams’ body is interred in unhallowed ground in an unmarked grave within the grounds of the prison. His remains are only released in January 2000 after the closure of the prison in 1996 and a lengthy campaign by the National Graves Association, Belfast.

Williams’s funeral is held on January 19, 2000 and is attended by thousands, with burial at Milltown Cemetery. Joe Cahill, Williams’s cell mate, and John Oliver, sentenced to death with Williams but later reprieved, as well as Madge McConville, who had been arrested with Williams, Greta McGlone, Billy McKee, Eddie Keenan and perhaps least known, Nell Morgan, Williams’s girlfriend at the time of his death, are all present. Six senior Sinn Féin members including Gerry Adams are also present in St. Paul’s Church on the Lower Falls Road for the Mass.

Williams is remembered in a ballad Tom Williams. Various recordings have been made, most notably by the Flying Column and Éire Óg, who preamble their version with the story of the campaign to release his body. The now disbanded, Volunteer Tom Williams Republican Flute Band from Glasgow, Scotland is named in his memory as is the Tom Williams Camogie Club in Belfast.

(Pictured: Tom Williams’ headstone at Milltown Cemetery after being reinterred)


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The Bayardo Bar Attack

bayardo-bar-attackThe Bayardo Bar attack takes place on August 13, 1975 in Belfast as a unit of the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA), led by Brendan McFarlane, launch a bombing and shooting attack on a pub on Aberdeen Street, in the loyalist Shankill Road area of the city.

By 1975, the conflict in Northern Ireland known as “the Troubles” is more than six years old. On February 10, 1975, the Provisional IRA and the British government enter into a truce and restart negotiations. There is a rise in sectarian killings during the truce, which ‘officially’ lasts until early 1976. The truce, however, is interrupted in the early hours of July 31, 1975 by the Miami Showband killings at Buskhill outside Newry, County Down.

Two weeks later, on August 13, 1975, the Bayardo Bar is crowded with people of all ages. Shortly before closing time a stolen green Audi automobile, containing a three-man unit of the IRA’s Belfast Brigade, pulls up outside. It is driven by the unit’s leader Brendan “Bik” McFarlane, a 24-year-old volunteer from Ardoyne. Volunteers Seamus Clarke and Peter “Skeet” Hamilton get out and approach the pub’s side entrance on Aberdeen Street. One of them immediately opens fire with an ArmaLite, instantly killing doorman William Gracey and his brother-in-law Samuel Gunning, with whom he had been chatting outside. The other volunteer then enters the pub, where patrons are drinking and singing, and drops a duffel bag containing a ten-pound bomb at the entrance. Both men make their getaway back to the waiting car. As panicked customers run to the toilets for safety, the bomb explodes and brings down a section of the old brick-and-plaster building upon them. The bodies of civilian Joanne McDowell and UVF member Hugh Harris are later found beneath the rubble of fallen masonry. Seventeen-year-old civilian Linda Boyle is pulled out alive, but dies of her injuries at the hospital on August 21. Over 50 people are injured in the attack.

A Belfast Telegraph article later claims that, as the IRA unit drives away down Agnes Street, they fire into a crowd of women and children queuing at a taxi rank although there are no fatalities. Within 20 minutes of the blast, the IRA unit is arrested after their car is stopped at a roadblock. The ArmaLite that had been used to kill Gracey and Gunning is found inside the car along with spent bullet casings and fingerprints belonging to the three IRA men.

The IRA does not initially claim responsibility, however, IRA members later state that the Bayardo was attacked because it was a pub where Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) members met and planned terrorist assaults against nationalists. The pub is in the UVF-dominated middle Shankill Road area, and the Ulster Banner is displayed from its upper windows. A former IRA prisoner claims that fellow inmate Lenny Murphy told him he had left the Bayardo ten minutes before the attack and that the Brigade Staff had just finished holding a meeting there.

Loyalists, especially the UVF, respond with another wave of sectarian attacks against Catholics. Two days after the pub attack, a loyalist car bomb explodes without warning on the Falls Road, injuring 35 people. On 22 August, the UVF launches a gun and bomb attack on McGleenan’s Bar in Armagh. The attack is strikingly similar to that at Bayardo. One gunman opens fire while another plants the bomb, the explosion causing the building to collapse. Three Catholic civilians are killed and several more are wounded. That same night, another bomb wrecks a Catholic-owned pub in nearby Blackwatertown, although there are no injuries.

In May 1976, Brendan McFarlane, Seamus Clarke, and Peter Hamilton are convicted in a non-jury Diplock court and sentenced to life imprisonment inside the HM Prison Maze for carrying out the Bayardo murders. In 1983 McFarlane leads the Maze Prison escape, a mass break-out of 38 republican prisoners, including Clarke and Hamilton.


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Belfast’s Bloody Sunday

Bloody Sunday or Belfast’s Bloody Sunday is a day of violence in Belfast, Ireland (present-day Northern Ireland) on July 10, 1921, during the Irish War of Independence.

Belfast sees almost 500 people die in political violence between 1920 and 1922. Violence in the city breaks out in the summer of 1920 in response to the Irish Republican Army (IRA) killing of Royal Irish Constabulary Detective Oswald Swanzy after Sunday services outside a Protestant church in nearby Lisburn. Seven thousand Catholics and some Protestant trade unionists are driven from their jobs in the Belfast shipyards and over 50 people are killed in rioting between Catholics and Protestants.

Violence in Belfast wanes until the following summer of 1921. At the time, Irish republican and British authorities are negotiating a truce to end the war, but fighting flares up in Belfast. On June 10, an IRA gunman, Jack Donaghy, ambushes three RIC constables on the Falls Road, fatally wounding one, Thomas Conlon, a Roman Catholic from County Roscommon, who, ironically, is viewed as “sympathetic” to the local nationalists. Over the following three days, at least 14 people lose their lives and 14 are wounded in fighting in the city, including three Catholics who are taken from their homes and killed by uniformed police.

Low-level attacks continue in the city over the next month until another major outbreak of violence that leads to “Bloody Sunday.” On July 8, the RIC attempt to carry out searches in the mainly Catholic and republican enclave around Union Street and Stanhope Street. However, they are confronted by about fifteen IRA volunteers in an hour-long firefight.

On July 9, a truce to suspend the war is agreed in Dublin between representatives of the Irish Republic and the British government, to come into effect at noon on July 11. Many Protestants/unionists condemn the truce as a “sell-out” to republicans.

On the night of July 9/10, hours after the truce is announced, the RIC attempt to launch a raid in the Lower Falls district of west Belfast. Scouts alert the IRA of the raid by blowing whistles, banging dustbin lids and flashing a red light. On Raglan Street, a unit of about fourteen IRA volunteers ambush an armoured police truck, killing one officer and wounding at least two others.

This sparks an outbreak of ferocious fighting between Catholics and Protestants in west Belfast the following day, Sunday July 10, in which 16 civilians lose their lives and up to 200 houses are destroyed. Of the houses destroyed, 150 are owned by Catholics. Most of the dead are civilians and at least four of the Catholic victims are ex-World War I servicemen.

Protestants, fearful of absorption into a Catholic Ireland and blindly angered by the presence of heresy and treason in their midst, strike at the Catholic community while vengeful Catholics strike back with counter-terror. Gun battles rage all day along the sectarian “boundary” between the Catholic Falls and Protestant Shankill districts and rival gunmen use rifles, machine guns and grenades in the clashes. Gunmen are seen firing from windows, rooftops and street corners. A loyalist mob, several thousand strong, attempt to storm the Falls district, carrying petrol and other flammable materials.

A tram travelling from the Falls into the city centre is struck by snipers’ bullets, and the service has to be suspended. Catholics and republicans claim that police, mostly from the Ulster Special Constabulary (USC), drive through Catholic enclaves in armoured cars firing indiscriminately at houses and bystanders. The police return to their barracks late on Sunday night, allegedly after a ceasefire has been agreed by telephone between a senior RIC officer and the commander of the IRA’s Belfast Brigade, Roger McCorley.

The truce is due to come into effect at midday on Monday, July 11, but violence resumes that morning. Three people are shot dead that day, including an IRA volunteer who is shot minutes before midday. In the north the official truce does not end the fighting. While the IRA is involved in the violence, it does not control the actions of the Catholic community. Tuesday July 12 sees the Orange Order‘s annual Twelfth marches pass off peacefully and there are no serious disturbances in the city. However, sporadic violence resumes on Wednesday, and by the end of the week 28 people in all have been killed or fatally wounded in Belfast.

The violence of the period in Belfast is cyclical, and the events of July 1921 are followed by a lull until a three-day period beginning on August 29, when another 20 lives are lost in the west and north of the city. The conflict in Belfast between the IRA and Crown forces and between Catholics and Protestants continues until the following summer, when the northern IRA is left isolated by the outbreak of the Irish Civil War in the south and weakened by the rigorous enforcement of internment in Northern Ireland.

At the time the day is referred to as “Belfast’s Bloody Sunday.” However the title of “Bloody Sunday” is now more commonly given in Ireland to events in Dublin in November 1920 or Derry in January 1972.


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Execution of IRA Officer Joe McKelvey

joe-mckelveyJoe McKelvey, Irish Republican Army (IRA) officer, is executed by firing squad along with three other Anti-Treaty militants, on December 8, 1922, during the Irish Civil War.

McKelvey is born into a nationalist family in Stewartstown, County Tyrone. He has a keen interest in the Gaelic Athletic Association and the Irish language. He studies as an accountant and gains some of the qualifications necessary for this profession, but never fully qualifies. He works for a time at the Income Tax Office on Queen’s Square in Belfast and later finds work in Belfast’s engineering industry with Mackies on Springfield Road. He joins the Irish Republican Brotherhood and the Irish Volunteers, which after 1919, become known as the Irish Republican Army (IRA). He is a founding member of the O’Donovan Rossa Club, Belfast, founded in 1916 on the Falls Road. Each year the club honours him with a juvenile hurling blitz, an invitational competition which is participated in by clubs throughout Ireland.

McKelvey participates in the Irish War of Independence (1919–1921) against the British, in which he commands the IRA’s Belfast Brigade. On August 22, 1920, he helps to organise the killing of Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) Detective Oswald Swanzy in Lisburn. The killing itself is carried out by IRA men from Cork, but McKelvey arranges a taxi to carry the assassins to and from the scene and disposes of their weapons. In reprisal for this shooting, 300 Catholic homes in Lisburn are burned out. McKelvey is forced to lie low in Dublin for some time after these events.

In March 1921, the IRA is re-organised by its leadership in Dublin into Divisions and McKelvey is appointed commander of the Third Northern Division, responsible for Belfast and the surrounding area. In May 1921, McKelvey’s command suffers a severe setback, when fifty of his best men are sent to County Cavan to train and link up with the IRA units there, only to be surrounded and captured by the British Army on Lappanduff hill on May 9. In most of Ireland, hostilities are ended with a truce declared on July 11, 1921.

McKelvey is alone among the leadership of the Belfast IRA in going against the acceptance of the Anglo-Irish Treaty. Most of his comrades support Michael Collins‘ assurances that, although the Treaty accepts the partition of Northern Ireland from the rest of the country, this is only a temporary concession which will be dealt with later. McKelvey does not accept this. As a result, he leaves his command as head of the IRA Third Northern Division and joins the Anti-Treaty IRA in Dublin.

In March 1922, McKelvey participates in the anti-Treaty IRA‘s repudiation of the authority of the Dáil, the civil government of the Irish Republic declared in 1919, and is elected to the IRA Army Executive. In April 1922 he helps command the occupation of the Four Courts in defiance of the new Irish Free State. This action helps to spark the civil war between pro- and anti-Treaty factions. McKelvey is among the most hardline of the anti-Treaty republicans and briefly, in June 1922, becomes IRA Chief of Staff, replacing Liam Lynch.

On June 28, 1922, the new Irish Free State government shells the Four Courts to assert its authority over the militants defending it. The Republicans in the Four Courts surrender after two days of fighting and McKelvey is captured. He is held for the following five months in Mountjoy Prison in Dublin.

On December 8, 1922, Joe McKelvey is executed by firing squad along with three other Anti-Treaty militants, Rory O’Connor, Liam Mellows, and Richard Barrett. The executions are ordered in reprisal for the Anti-Treaty IRA’s murder of Sean Hales, a Pro-Treaty member of the Third Dáil.


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Bloody Friday in Belfast

bloody-friday-1972At least twenty Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) bombs explode in Belfast on July 21, 1972, during the Troubles in what has become known as “Bloody Friday.” Most of the bombs are car bombs and most target infrastructure, especially the transport network. Nine people are killed, including two British soldiers and five civilians, while 130 are injured.

In late June and early July 1972, a British government delegation led by William Whitelaw holds secret talks with the Provisional IRA leadership. As part of the talks, the IRA agrees to a temporary ceasefire beginning on June 26. The IRA leaders seek a peace settlement that includes a British withdrawal from Northern Ireland by 1975 and the release of republican prisoners. However, the British refuse and the talks break down. The ceasefire comes to an end on July 9.

Bloody Friday is the IRA’s response to the breakdown of the talks. According to the IRA’s Chief of Staff, Seán Mac Stíofáin, the main goal of the bombing operation is to wreak financial harm. It is a “message to the British government that the IRA could and would make a commercial desert of the city unless its demands were met.” Some also see it as a reprisal for Bloody Sunday in Derry six months earlier. The attack is carried out by the IRA’s Belfast Brigade and the main organiser is Brendan Hughes, the brigade’s Officer Commanding.

The bombings occur during an 80-minute period on the afternoon of Friday, July 21. At least 24 bombs are planted. At least 20 explode and the rest fail to detonate or are defused. At the height of the bombing, the middle of Belfast “resembled a city under artillery fire; clouds of suffocating smoke enveloped buildings as one explosion followed another, almost drowning out the hysterical screams of panicked shoppers.” According to The Guardian, “for much of the afternoon, Belfast was reduced to near total chaos and panic. Thousands streamed out of the stricken city…and huge traffic jams built up. All bus services were cancelled, and on some roads hitch-hikers frantically trying to get away lined the pavements.”

Nine people are killed and 130 are injured, some of them horrifically mutilated. Of those injured, 77 are women and children. All of the deaths are caused by two of the bombs – at Oxford Street bus depot and at Cavehill Road. The Oxford Street bomb kills two British soldiers and four Ulsterbus employees. One employee is a Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) reservist, one is an Ulster loyalist paramilitary, and the other two are civilians. The Cavehill Road bomb kills three civilians.

The IRA’s Belfast Brigade claims responsibility for the bombings and says that it had given warnings to the security forces before the bombs exploded. It says that the Public Protection Agency, the Samaritans and the press “were informed of bomb positions at least 30 minutes to one hour before each explosion.” Mac Stíofáin says, “It required only one man with a loud hailer to clear each target area in no time” and alleged that the warnings for the two bombs that claim lives are deliberately ignored by the British for “strategic policy reasons.”