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The Beginning of the IRA’s Border Campaign

The Irish Republican Army (IRA) begins what it calls “The Campaign of Resistance to British Occupation” on December 12, 1956. Also known as the “Border Campaign,” it is a guerrilla warfare campaign carried out by the IRA against targets in Northern Ireland, with the aim of overthrowing British rule there and creating a united Ireland. Although the campaign is a military failure, but for some of its members, the campaign is justified as it keeps the IRA engaged for another generation.

The border campaign is the first major military undertaking carried out by the IRA since the 1940s, when the harsh security measures of the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland governments had severely weakened it. In 1939 the IRA tries a bombing campaign in England to try to force British withdrawal from Northern Ireland. From 1942 to 1944 it also mounts an ineffective campaign in Northern Ireland. Internment on both sides of the border, as well as internal feuding and disputes over future policy, all but destroy the organisation. These campaigns are officially called off on March 10, 1945. By 1947, the IRA has only 200 activists, according to its own general staff.

Chief of Staff of the Irish Republican Army Tony Magan sets out to create “a new Army, untarnished by the dissent and scandals of the previous decade.” Magan believes that a degree of political mobilization is necessary and the relationship with Sinn Féin, which had soured during the 1930s, is improved. At the 1949 IRA Convention, the IRA orders its members to join Sinn Féin, which partially becomes the “civilian wing” of the IRA.

By the mid-1950s, the IRA has substantially re-armed. This is achieved by means of arms raids launched between 1951 and 1954, on British military bases in Northern Ireland and England. By 1955, splits are occurring in the IRA, as several small groups, impatient for action, launch their own attacks in Northern Ireland. In November 1956, the IRA finally begins planning its border campaign.

On December 12 the campaign is launched with simultaneous attacks by around 150 IRA members on targets on the Border in the early hours. A BBC relay transmitter is bombed in Derry, a courthouse is burned in Magherafelt by a unit led by an 18-year-old Seamus Costello, as is a B-Specials post near Newry and a half-built Army barracks at Enniskillen is blown up. A raid on Gough Barracks in Armagh is beaten off after a brief exchange of fire.

The IRA issues a statement announcing the start of the campaign, “Spearheaded by Ireland’s freedom fighters, our people have carried the fight to the enemy…Out of this national liberation struggle a new Ireland will emerge, upright and free. In that new Ireland, we shall build a country fit for all our people to live in. That then is our aim: an independent, united, democratic Irish Republic. For this we shall fight until the invader is driven from our soil and victory is ours.”

The year 1957 is the most active year of the IRA’s campaign, with 341 incidents recorded. The most dramatic attack of the whole campaign takes place on January 1 when fourteen IRA volunteers, including Séan Garland, Alan O Brien and Dáithí Ó Conaill plan an attack on a joint Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC)/B-Specials barracks in Brookeborough, County Fermanagh, though they attack the wrong building. On 11 November, the IRA suffers its worst loss of life in the period when four of its members die preparing a bomb in a farm house at Edentubber, County Louth, which explodes prematurely. The civilian owner of the house is also killed.

By 1958, the campaign’s initial impetus has largely dissipated. Certain IRA activities produce public hostility and, by 1958, there are already many within the IRA in favour of calling off the campaign. The Cork IRA, for instance, has effectively withdrawn. By mid-1958, 500 republicans are in gaol or interned, North and South.

The period after the summer of 1958 sees a steep drop in the intensity of the IRA campaign. That the IRA’s campaign had run its course by 1960 is testified by the fact that the Republic of Ireland’s government closes the Curragh Camp, which housed internees in the South, on March 15, 1959, judging them to be no further threat. The Northern Irish government follows suit on April 25, 1961.

In November 1961 a RUC officer, William Hunter, is killed in a gun battle with the IRA in south County Armagh. This is the final fatality of the conflict. Minister for Justice Charles Haughey reactivates the Special Criminal Court, which hands down long prison sentences to convicted IRA men.

Although it had petered out by the late 1950s, by late 1961 the campaign is over and is officially called off on February 26, 1962 in a press release issued that day, drafted by Ruairí Ó Brádaigh who consults with several other persons including members of the IRA Army Council. The campaign costs the lives of eight IRA men, four republican supporters and six RUC members. In addition, 32 RUC members are wounded. A total of 256 Republicans are interned in Northern Ireland during this period and another 150 or so in the Republic. Of those in Northern Ireland, 89 sign a pledge to renounce violence in return for their freedom.

(Pictured: A group of IRA men before embarking on an operation in the 1950s | Photo credited to http://laochrauladh.blogspot.ie/)


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The Gough Barracks Raid

gough-barracksThe Irish Republican Army (IRA) makes an audacious raid on Gough Barracks in Armagh, County Armagh, Northern Ireland on June 12, 1954. It marks the re-awakening of IRA activity in Northern Ireland and a re-arming that leads eventually to the 1956-1962 border campaign.

In January 1954, Leo McCormick, the Training Officer for the Dublin Brigade of the IRA, is on a visit to Armagh. As he passes Gough Barracks, the home of the Royal Irish Fusiliers, he notices that the guard on duty outside the barracks is armed with a Sten gun without a magazine. He concludes rightly that Gough Barracks is in effect being guarded by an unarmed guard.

On his return to Dublin, McCormick informs the Dublin Brigade of his chance observation. Alas, he does not see the end result of his information, as he is arrested soon after and receives four years for possession of a document.

By April, the General Head Quarters decides that they will raid Gough Barracks for arms. But first, they need more information. Eamonn Boyce, the Intelligence Officer of the Dublin Brigade, is asked to travel to Armagh and check out the barracks. He makes several trips to Armagh and soon has a detailed account of life outside the barracks. But GHQ wants more inside details. Charlie Murphy gets over this problem by asking Seán Garland to go to Armagh and enlist in the British Army. Not long after Garland’s enlistment, a stream of maps, documents, time schedules and photographs flow into GHQ for processing.

Finally, a last intelligence coup is arranged. Using Garland’s information, the IRA gets inside the barracks to have a look around. On a Saturday night in May, Boyce and Murphy slip into the barracks as “guests” at a weekly dance. With them they bring a girl, Mae Smith, who is later to become chairperson of Sinn Féin. After a few dances, Garland takes Mae outside for what his fellow soldiers assume is an hour of light passion but is in fact a detailed tour of the entire barracks.

The operation is launched on June 12, 1954, from a farm just outside Dundalk. A large red cattle truck is commandeered at the last moment and nineteen IRA men, about half of the Dublin Brigade, climb in and are informed as to what their target is. It is almost 3:00 on a busy Saturday afternoon when the cattle truck and a car drive into Armagh.

Paddy Ford gets out of the car and walks over to the sentry and asks him about enlisting in the British Army. While the sentry is dissuading Ford of what he considers a foolish course of action, he looks down into the barrel of a .45 caliber Colt revolver in the perspective recruit’s hand. As the sentry is held at gunpoint, three IRA men pass him into the guardhouse. The sentry is then brought in after them. While the sentry is being tied up, a new IRA sentry, complete with British uniform, white webbing belt, regimental cap and sten gun with magazine steps out to stand guard over Gough Barracks.

As soon as the IRA sentry appears, the cattle truck drives through the gate and comes to a halt outside the arsenal door. After fumbling through 200 keys, Eamonn Boyce finds the right one and opens the armoury. Murphy races up the stairs and in the first room two British soldiers demand to know what a civilian wants inside the barracks. Murphy has some trouble getting his revolver out of his pocket and is further embarrassed when the two soldiers refuse to put up their hands. However, another IRA man arrives carrying a Thompson submachine gun, which quickly convinces them to do as they are told. Posting a Bren gun at the armoury window to command the barracks square, the IRA begins stripping the armoury.

During the course of the raid a woman, noticing something is wrong, stops a British officer in the street and urges him into the barracks to investigate. Once inside the gate the officer is taken under control and, protesting that he is an officer and a gentleman, refuses to be tied until a gun is put to his head.

An NCO then notices what is happening, gets into a lorry and drives for the gate, intending to block the exit. An IRA man stands at the gate brandishing a revolver and shouts “Back.” He forces the NCO to reverse the lorry. The NCO is placed under arrest in the guard room. By the end of the raid, the IRA has tied up 19 British soldiers and one civilian.

In less than 20 minutes the job is done. The truck carrying 340 rifles, 50 Sten guns, 12 Bren guns, and a number of small arms drives out of the barrack gates and rumbles through Armagh in the direction of the border. Eamonn Boyce and the group in the car follow after locking every gate and door for which they can find keys. At 3:25 PM the first alarm in the barracks is given but it is not until 5:00 that the general alarm is given and by that time the big red truck is long gone.

The raid for arms in Gough Barracks gains international attention. The IRA, which has been described by some as moribund since the ’40s campaign, has once more risen from its slumber to strike a blow against the forces of occupation. The raid awakes a calling in many to join the IRA and take part in the Border Campaign, which keeps alive the flame of republicanism through to the present time.

(From: “The Gough Barracks raid – Remembering the Past” by Shane Mac Thomáis, anphoblacht.com, June 9, 2005)