The 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)