seamus dubhghaill

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


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Death of 1981 Hunger Striker Thomas McElwee

Thomas McElwee, Irish republican volunteer in the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA), dies on August 8, 1981 at the age of 23 after 62 days on hunger strike at Long Kesh Prison.

McElwee, the sixth of twelve children, is born on November 30, 1957, into the small, whitewashed home built by his father, along the Tamlaghtduff Road in Bellaghy, County Derry, Northern Ireland. He attended St. Mary’s primary in Bellaghy, and then Clady intermediate. After leaving school he goes to Magherafelt technical college for a while, but later changes his mind and goes to Ballymena training centre to begin an apprenticeship as a motor mechanic. Harassment from loyalist workers there forces him to leave and he then goes to work with a local mechanic.

McElwee and his cousin Francis Hughes form an independent Republican unit, which for several years carries out ambushes on British Army patrols as well as bomb attacks in neighbouring towns such as Magherafelt, Castledawson, and Maghera.

In October 1976, McElwee takes part in a planned bombing blitz on the town of Ballymena. Along with several colleagues, he is transporting one of the bombs, which explodes prematurely and blinds him in his right eye. He is transferred from the Ballymena hospital to the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast for emergency surgery to save his remaining eye. It is three weeks before he is able to see at all.

After six weeks McElwee is transferred again, this time to the military wing of the Musgrave Park Hospital. One week before Christmas, he is charged and sent to Crumlin Road Gaol.

At McElwee’s subsequent trial in September 1977, having spent over eight months on remand in Crumlin Road, he is charged and sentenced to 20 years imprisonment for possession of explosives and the murder of Yvonne Dunlop, who is killed when one of the firebombs destroys the shop where she is employed. His murder charge is reduced to manslaughter on appeal, although the original jail term stands. He returns to the blanket protest he had joined immediately after his trial, in the H-Blocks of Long Kesh.

Imprisonment is particularly harsh for McElwee and his brother Benedict who are frequently singled out for brutality by prison warders, outraged at the stubborn refusal of the two to accept any form of criminal status. On one occasion he is put on the boards for fourteen days for refusing to call a prison warder ‘sir.’ In a letter smuggled out to his sister Mary, Benedict writes of the imprint of a warder’s boot on his back and arms after a typical assault. However, throughout the brutality and degradation they have to endure serves only to deepen yet further, and harder, their resistance to criminalisation.

McElwee joins the 1981 Irish hunger strike on June 7, 1981 and died on August 8, 1981, after 62 days on the strike. Indicative of the callousness of the British government towards prisoners and their families alike, he is denied the comfort of his brother’s presence at that tragic moment. He dies after 62 days of slow agonising hunger strike with no company other than prison warders – colleagues of those who had brutalised, degraded and tortured him for three-and-a-half years.

In 2009, Republican Sinn Féin (RSF) name their Waterford cumann after McElwee, replacing that of George Lennon, O/C of the Waterford Flying Column who led the IRA anti-Treaty Republicans into Waterford City in March 1922. The Waterford RSF had adopted the Lennon name without the permission of his son who noted that his father had, in later years, become a committed pacifist and opponent of the Vietnam War.

McElwee is the main subject of the song Farewell to Bellaghy, which also mentions his cousin Francis Hughes, other members of the independent Republican unit and deceased volunteers of the South Derry Brigade of the Provisional IRA. He is also the subject of The Crucifucks‘ song The Story of Thomas McElwee.


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Birth of Bobby Storey, Provisional Irish Republican Army Volunteer

Robert “Bobby” Storey, a Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) volunteer, is born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, on April 11, 1956. Prior to an 18-year conviction for possessing a rifle, he also spends time on remand for a variety of charges and in total serves 20 years in prison. He also plays a key role in the Maze Prison escape, the biggest prison break in British penal history.

The family is originally from the Marrowbone area, on the Oldpark Road in North Belfast. The family has to move when Storey is very young due to Ulster loyalist attacks on the district, moving to Manor Street, an interface area also in North Belfast. His uncle is boxing trainer Gerry Storey and his father, also called Bobby, is involved in the defence of the area in the 1970s when Catholics are threatened by loyalists.

Storey is one of four children. He has two brothers, Seamus and Brian, and a sister Geraldine. Seamus and his father are arrested after a raid on their home which uncovers a rifle and a pistol. While his father is later released, Seamus is charged. He escapes from Crumlin Road Prison with eight other prisoners in 1971, and they are dubbed the Crumlin Kangaroos.

On his mother Peggy’s side of the family there is also a history of republicanism, but Storey says the dominant influences on him are the events happening around him. These include the McGurk’s Bar bombing in the New Lodge, some of those killed being people who knew his family, and also Bloody Sunday. This then leads to his attempts to join the IRA. He leaves school at fifteen and goes to work with his father selling fruit. At sixteen, he becomes a member of the IRA.

On April 11, 1973, his seventeenth birthday, Storey is interned and held at Long Kesh internment camp. He had been arrested 20 times prior to this but was too young for internment. In October 1974 he takes part in the protest at Long Kesh against living conditions where internees set fire to the “cages” in which they are being held. He is released from internment in May 1975. He is arrested on suspicion of a bombing at the Skyways Hotel in January 1976 and a kidnapping and murder in the Andersonstown district of Belfast in March 1976, but is acquitted by the judge at his trial. He is arrested leaving the courthouse and charged with a shooting-related incident. He is released after the case cannot be proven, only to be charged with shooting two soldiers in Turf Lodge. Those charges are dropped in December 1977. The same month he is arrested for the murder of a soldier in Turf Lodge, but the charges are again dropped. In 1978 he is charged in relation to the wounding of a soldier in Lenadoon, but is acquitted at trial due to errors in police procedure.

On December 14, 1979, he is arrested in Holland Park, London, with three other IRA volunteers including Gerard Tuite, and charged with conspiring to hijack a helicopter to help Brian Keenan escape from Brixton Prison. Tuite escapes from the same prison prior to the trial, and the other two IRA volunteers are convicted, but Storey is acquitted at the Old Bailey in April 1981. That August, after a soldier is shot, he is arrested in possession of a rifle and is convicted for the first time, being sentenced to eighteen years’ imprisonment.

Storey is one of the leaders of the Maze Prison escape in 1983, when 38 republican prisoners break out of the H-Blocks, the largest prison escape in British penal history and the largest peacetime prison escape in Europe. He is recaptured within an hour, and sentenced to an additional seven years imprisonment. Released in 1994, he is again arrested in 1996 and charged with having personal information about a British Army soldier, and Brian Hutton, the Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland. At his trial at Crumlin Road Courthouse in July 1998, he is acquitted after his defence proves the personal information had previously been published in books and newspapers.

Having spent over twenty years in prison, much of it on remand, Storey’s final release is in 1998, and he again becomes involved in developing republican politics and strategy, eventually becoming the northern chairman of Sinn Féin.

On January 11, 2005, Ulster Unionist Member of Parliament for South Antrim David Burnside tells the British House of Commons under parliamentary privilege that Storey is head of intelligence for the IRA.

On September 9, 2015, Storey is arrested and held for two days in connection with the killing of former IRA volunteer Kevin McGuigan the previous month. He is subsequently released without any charges, and his solicitor John Finucane states Storey will be suing for unlawful arrest.

Storey dies in England on June 21, 2020 following an unsuccessful lung transplant surgery. Sinn Féin president Mary Lou McDonald describes him as “a great republican” in her tribute. His funeral procession in Belfast on June 30 is attended by over 1,500 people including McDonald, deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill, and former Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams, but is criticised for breaking social distancing rules implemented in response to the COVID-19 pandemic which, at the time operating in Northern Ireland, limited funeral numbers to no more than 30 mourners.

In the 2017 film Maze, dramatising the 1983 prison break, directed by Stephen Burke, Storey is portrayed by Irish actor Cillian O’Sullivan.


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The Milltown Cemetery Attack

The Milltown Cemetery attack takes place on March 16, 1988 at Milltown Cemetery in Belfast, Northern Ireland. During the large funeral of three Provisional Irish Republican Army members killed in Gibraltar, an Ulster Defence Association (UDA) member, Michael Stone, attacks the mourners with hand grenades and pistols.

On March 6, 1988, Provisional IRA members Daniel McCann, Seán Savage and Mairéad Farrell are shot dead by the Special Air Service (SAS) in Gibraltar, in Operation Flavius. The three had allegedly been preparing a bomb attack on British military personnel there, but the deaths outrage republicans as the three were unarmed and shot without warning. Their bodies arrive in Belfast on March 14 and are taken to their family homes. Tensions are high as the security forces flood the neighbourhoods where they had lived, to try to prevent public displays honouring the dead. For years, republicans have complained about heavy-handed policing of IRA funerals, which have led to violence. In a change from normal procedure, the security forces agree to stay away from the funeral in exchange for guarantees that there will be no three-volley salute by IRA gunmen. The British Army and Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) will instead keep watch from the sidelines. This decision is not made public.

Michael Stone is a loyalist, a member of the Ulster Defence Association (UDA) who had been involved in several killings and other attacks, and who describes himself as a “freelance loyalist paramilitary.” He learns that there will be little security force presence at the funerals, and plans “to take out the Sinn Féin and IRA leadership at the graveside.” He says his attack is retaliation for the Remembrance Day bombing four months earlier, when eleven Protestants had been killed by an IRA bomb at a Remembrance Sunday ceremony. He claims that he and other UDA members considered planting bombs in the graveyard, but abandon the plan because the bombs might miss the republican leaders.

The funeral service and Requiem Mass go ahead as planned, and the cortege makes its way to Milltown Cemetery, off the Falls Road. Present are thousands of mourners and top members of the IRA and Sinn Féin, including Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness. Two RUC helicopters hover overhead. Stone claims that he entered the graveyard through the front gate with the mourners and mingled with the large crowd, although one witness claims to have seen him enter from the M1 motorway with three other people.

As the third coffin is about to be lowered into the ground, Stone throws two grenades, which have a seven-second delay, toward the republican plot and begins shooting. The first grenade explodes near the crowd and about 20 yards from the grave. There is panic and confusion, and people dive for cover behind gravestones. Stone begins jogging toward the motorway, several hundred yards away, chased by dozens of men and youths. He periodically stops to shoot and throw grenades at his pursuers.

Three people are killed while pursuing Stone – Catholic civilians Thomas McErlean (20) and John Murray (26), and IRA member Caoimhín Mac Brádaigh (30), also known as Kevin Brady. During the attack, about 60 people are wounded by bullets, grenade shrapnel and fragments of marble and stone from gravestones. Among those wounded is a pregnant mother of four, a 72-year-old grandmother and a ten-year-old boy. Some fellow loyalists say that Stone made the mistake of throwing his grenades too soon. The death toll would likely have been much higher had the grenades exploded in mid-air, “raining lethal shrapnel over a wide area.”

A white van that had been parked on the hard shoulder of the motorway suddenly drives off as Stone flees from the angry crowd. There is speculation that the van is part of the attack, but the RUC says it was part of a police patrol, and that the officers sped off because they feared for their lives. Stone says he had arranged for a getaway car, driven by a UDA member, to pick him up on the hard shoulder of the motorway, but the driver allegedly “panicked and left.” By the time he reaches the motorway, he has seemingly run out of ammunition. He runs out onto the road and tries to stop cars, but is caught by the crowd, beaten, and bundled into a hijacked vehicle. Armed RUC officers in Land Rovers quickly arrive, “almost certainly saving his life.” They arrest him and take him to Musgrave Park Hospital for treatment of his injuries. The whole event is recorded by television news cameras.

That evening, angry youths in republican districts burn hijacked vehicles and attack the RUC. Immediately after the attack, the two main loyalist paramilitary groups—the UDA and the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF)—deny responsibility. Sinn Féin and others “claimed that there must have been collusion with the security forces, because only a small number of people knew in advance of the reduced police presence at the funerals.”

Three days later, during the funeral of one of Stone’s victims, Caoimhín Mac Brádaigh, two British Army corporals, Derek Wood and David Howes, in civilian clothes and in a civilian car drive into the path of the funeral cortège, apparently by mistake. Many of those present believe the soldiers are loyalists intent on repeating Stone’s attack. An angry crowd surrounds and attacks their car. Corporal Wood draws his service pistol and fires a shot into the air. The two men are then dragged from the car before being taken away, beaten and shot dead by the IRA. The incident is often referred to as the corporals killings and, like the attack at Milltown, much of it is filmed by television news cameras.

In March 1989, Stone is convicted for the three murders at Milltown, for three paramilitary murders before, and for other offences, receiving sentences totaling 682 years. Many hardline loyalists see him as a hero and he becomes a loyalist icon. After his conviction, an issue of the UDA magazine Ulster is devoted to Stone, stating that he “stood bravely in the middle of rebel scum and let them have it.” Apart from time on remand spent in Crumlin Road Gaol, he spends all of his sentence in HM Prison Maze. He is released after serving 13 years as a result of the Good Friday Agreement.

In November 2006, Stone is charged with attempted murder of Martin McGuinness and Gerry Adams, having been arrested attempting to enter the Parliament Buildings at Stormont while armed. He is subsequently convicted and sentenced to a further 16 years imprisonment. He is released on parole in 2021.


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The Clerkenwell Explosion

The Clerkenwell explosion, also known as the Clerkenwell Outrage, is a bombing that takes place in London on December 13, 1867. The Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), nicknamed the “Fenians“, explode a bomb to try to free one of their members being held on remand at Clerkenwell Prison. The explosion damages nearby houses, kills 12 people and causes 120 injuries. None of the prisoners escape.

The whole of Ireland has been under British rule since the end of the Nine Years’ War in 1603. The Irish Republican Brotherhood is founded on March 17, 1858 with the aim of establishing an independent democratic republic in Ireland, and the Fenian Brotherhood, ostensibly the American wing of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, is founded in New York City in 1859.

On November 20, 1867, Ricard O’Sullivan Burke and his companion Joseph Casey are arrested in Woburn Square in London. Burke had purchased weapons for the Fenians in Birmingham. Burke is charged with treason and Casey with assaulting a constable. They are remanded in custody pending trial, and imprisoned at the Middlesex House of Detention, also known as Clerkenwell Prison.

Burke’s IRB colleagues try to free him on Thursday, December 12, without success. They try to blow a hole in the prison wall while the prisoners are exercising in the prison yard but their bomb fails to explode. They try again at about 3:45 PM the following day, December 13, using a barrel of gunpowder concealed on a costermonger‘s barrow. The explosion demolishes a 60-foot section of the wall, but no one escapes. The prison authorities had been forewarned and the prisoners were exercised earlier in the day, so they are locked in their cells when the bomb explodes. The blast also damages several nearby tenement houses on Corporation Lane on the opposite side of the road, killing 12 people and causing many injuries, with estimates ranging from around 30 to over 120.

Charges are laid against eight, but two turn Queen’s evidence. Michael Barrett and five others are tried at the Old Bailey in April 1868. Lord Chief Justice Sir Alexander Cockburn and Baron George Bramwell preside with a jury. The prosecution is led by the Attorney General Sir John Karslake and the Solicitor General Sir William Baliol Brett supported by Hardinge Giffard QC and two junior counsel. Defence barristers included Montagu Williams and Edward Clarke.

Barrett, a native of County Fermanagh, protests his innocence, and some witnesses testify that he was in Scotland on December 13, but another identifies him as being present at the scene. Two defendants are acquitted on the instructions of the presiding judges in the course of the trial, leaving four before the jury. Following deliberations, three of the defendants are acquitted, but Barrett is convicted of murder on April 27 and sentenced to death. Barrett is hanged by William Calcraft on the morning of Tuesday, May 26, 1868 outside Newgate Prison. He is the last man to be publicly hanged in England, with the practice being ended from May 29, 1868 by the Capital Punishment Amendment Act 1868.

The trial of Burke and Casey, and a third defendant, Henry Shaw, begains on April 28, all charged with treason. The prosecution claims that Burke had been involved in finding arms for the Fenians in Birmingham in late 1865 and early 1866, where he was using the name “Edward C Winslow.” The case against Casey is ultimately withdrawn, but Burke and Shaw are found guilty of treason on April 30 and sentenced to 15 years and 7 years of penal servitude respectively.

The bombing enrages the British public, souring relations between England and Ireland and causing a panic over the Fenian threat. The radical, Charles Bradlaugh, condemns the incident in his newspaper, the National Reformer, as an act “calculated to destroy all sympathy, and to evoke the opposition of all classes.” The Metropolitan Police form a Special Irish Branch at Scotland Yard in March 1883, initially as a small section of the Criminal Investigation Department, to monitor Fenian activity.

In April 1867, the supreme council of the Irish Republican Brotherhood condemns the Clerkenwell Outrage as a “dreadful and deplorable event,” but the organisation returns to bombings in Britain in 1881 to 1885, with the Fenian dynamite campaign.

(Pictured: The House of Detention in Clerkenwell after the bombing as seen from within the prison yard)


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The Crumlin Road Gaol Escape

crumlin-road-jail-escapeEight Provisional Irish Republican Army prisoners escape from Crumlin Road Gaol in Belfast, one of the most heavily guarded prisons in Europe, on June 10, 1980. Using handguns that had been smuggled into the prison, they take prison officers hostage and shoot their way out of the building and exit through the front gate.

The regime inside Crumlin Road Gaol on that day is just like any other. The prison had been the scene of several protests regarding strip-searching shortly beforehand, but the rules had been somewhat relaxed. On A and C Wings the remand prisoners are outside in the yard for exercise. As usual, several men from each wing are called for visits. Some of these visits are from solicitors and an area of the prison is set aside to allow legal teams and the accused a place to discuss their business in private.

When warders come to return one set of prisoners to their wing, the operation begins. One of the Volunteers produces a gun, forces the warders to release the other prisoners and then locks about ten warders in the cell. They then make their way to B wing’s visiting area and arrest all the warders, visitors and solicitors who are there, before locking about thirty up in a room. One warder named Killen reaches for his baton, is disarmed and hit over the head.

Two warders and a solicitor are ordered to strip and three of the IRA Volunteers, dress in two uniforms and a suit respectively, calmly walk to the main gate which is opened for them. They then pull guns on the real warders in this key security area and make them lie on the ground until their five comrades run across a small courtyard to join them.

Once outside however, the alarm is set off and British Army sentries pour a hail of automatic fire at the prisoners from a watch tower before they are able to reach the front gate. Undeterred, the prisoners dash through the bullets, weaving from side to side to throw off their attackers.

As the men make their escape, clearly visible to republican prisoners in cells on the top landing of A wing, loud cheers go up and makeshift flags are flown from the windows.

Outside the prison, cars have been parked by the IRA’s Belfast Brigade in the car park of the health clinic beside the courthouse, their ignition keys hidden under the floor mats. The prisoners run across the road towards the health centre, dodging bullets as they run. The escapees head towards the loyalist Shankill area where they commandeer cars to help their getaway.

Stunned by the daring escapees, the crown forces erect checkpoints across Belfast and along all border routes.

Seven of the escapees, known as the “M60 gang,” are brothers Tony and Gerry Sloan, Gerard McKee, Joe Doherty, Angelo Fusco, Paul ‘Dingus’ Magee and Tony Campbell. All are from Belfast and charged in connection with either an M60 machine gun attack in 1980 on a Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) patrol in Andersonstown, or with the siege on the Antrim Road in May 1980, when a Special Air Service (SAS) captain is killed. The eighth escapee is Pete Ryan from Ardboe, County Tyrone who had been charged with killing an RUC Reservist and an Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR) soldier.

All eight men reach safe houses within an hour and, after a lying low for a short while, are spirited over the border to begin new lives “on the run.”

One week later, at the annual pilgrimage to the graveside of Wolfe Tone, the father of republicanism, which is always a source of renewed strength for its participants, the crowd is given an added morale boost when at the closing ceremony, one of the escapees, Paul ‘Dingus’ Magee, makes a dramatic appearance on the platform.

There are many more attempts to break free from Crumlin Road Gaol before it finally closes its doors in April 1995, having being used as a weapon in the attempted suppression of the Irish freedom struggle for 151 years.

(From: An Phoblacht Magazine, http://www.anphoblacht.com, June 15, 2006 edition)