The violence that took place in Belfast between 1920 and 1922 was unique in revolutionary Ireland. Peter Hart has described the conflict there as ‘a communal war and a sectarian war, fought on the basis of ethnic mobilisation rather than paramilitary organisation’.1 Violence comprised rioting, sniping, bombing, burning, reprisal killing, and forced expulsion. Belfast followed its own revolutionary timeline and, in A. C. Hepburn’s words, ‘appeared to be one of the most peaceful places in Ireland’ until it witnessed a wave of rioting in July 1920 that coincided with the removal of thousands of Catholic workers from the city’s shipyards.2 The following two years saw peaks of violence, usually around the traditional Orange celebrations in July, followed by periods of relative peace and culminating in the most intense period of violence during the first six months of 1922.3 In this regard, the violence formed part of a longer tradition of ethnic rioting and communal disturbances dating back to the 1850s and continuing to the present day.4 As intense as it was, there was little that was new about violence in Belfast at this time.
A label commonly used, then and since, to describe the violence that occurred in Belfast (and similarly in Lisburn) against Catholics between 1920 and 1922 is ‘pogrom’ and Tim Wilson has referred to a ‘competition in murder’ whereby rival communities used violence aimed at inflicting enough suffering to bring about defeat for the opposition.5 Though Catholics were disproportionate victims of violence, both sides of the religious divide perpetrated violence against the rival community ranging from intimidation and expulsion to killing.
Estimates of fatalities from two years of violence have varied from 409 to 498.6 Eunan O’Halpin and Daithi Ó Corráin have counted 225 deaths as a result of political violence between January 1919 and December 1921.7 In addition, up to 2,000 serious injuries were inflicted.8 Robert Lynch has recorded 650 homes burned, 8,000 civilians forced from their homes, and 6,000 from their jobs in 1920 alone, while estimates for evictions and workplace expulsions for the full two years are as high as 23,000 and 10,000 respectively.9 It is often impossible, though, to identify the perpetrators of lethal violence in Belfast and non-lethal activity is even more difficult to track. Threatening letters, a staple of Irish political and radical agitation, barely register among the limited police outrage statistics available. In May 1922, for example, ‘Sinn Fein’ threatening letters comprised only six of 264 reported outrages and ‘had very little effect’.10 In July, the Grand Jury of the Belfast Commission heard that intimidation by threatening letter accounted for 29 of 721 outrages during the period under review; the previous period had only marked a marginally higher proportion of 31 out of 676 outrages.11 Reports of breaches of the Truce after 11 July 1921 are unenlightening and, as one civil servant remarked, ‘The value of these Returns may, I think, be estimated from the nil Return for Belfast for week ended 26th instant.’12 Daily reports submitted by the RIC Commissioner detail shooting, raiding, bombing, and other acts of physical violence carried out by rival parties in the city. Victims and perpetrators are categorised by religion, rarely by membership of a paramilitary organisation, and most low-level activity went unrecorded.13 Nevertheless, it is clear that ‘a systematic campaign of intimidation’ was inflicted against civilians on both sides of the religious divide in the city.14
Even within the confines of Belfast city, there are regional variations in the civilian experience of violence and intimidation. Tim Wilson has demonstrated that violence was overwhelmingly concentrated in the working-class areas of the city. The neighbourhoods of the middle-class bourgeoisie were largely unaffected and they were only exposed to danger while crossing working-class districts on their way to the (largely peaceful) city centre. Dangerous as those trips could be, middle-class memoirs tend to reflect a sense of adventure rather than terror.15 Fatalities were heavily concentrated around a small number of districts, all directly outside the city centre, and the areas with the highest density of violence are found where heavily segregated areas of Catholics and Protestants meet. Physical barriers (such as factories running between the Catholic Falls and Protestant Shankill Roads) and the built environment of the city served to limit and channel violence.16 The concentration of violence in small, urban areas added to its intensity but even within affected areas there were noticeable ‘micro-boundaries’ to be observed. Locals remained acutely aware of these boundaries.17
In spite of the difficulty of quantitatively tracking everyday violence in Belfast, this chapter will attempt to assess interaction between the IRA and both sides of the communal divide in Belfast, analysing as far as possible the nature of and motivation for civilian defiance. It will also discuss IRA punishment and the restrictions under which it was carried out. But first, it will examine the relationship between the IRA and the civilian population as depicted in witness statements and military pension applications.
Volunteer recollections of violence in Belfast
Northern Volunteers are generally under-represented among the record of the Bureau of Military History and the relatively small number of Belfast veterans who did leave testimony with the BMH offer little insight into their interaction with the civilian population. Most are simply keen to emphasise that they were operating in a ‘hostile’ environment. Thomas Flynn insisted that ‘70% of the population’ were ‘actively against us’, while intelligence officer David McGuinness reflected on the one-sided nature of the intelligence war in Belfast: ‘British Intelligence organisation in Belfast area had an overwhelming amount of material to work on, such as ‘A’, ‘B’, and ‘C’ Special Constabulary, and at least 75 per cent of the civil population.’18 Seamus Mckenna compared the situation in Belfast unfavourably to that in Dublin where
the majority of the population were sympathetic and those who were not, were afraid to display hostility in any way. The position was different in Belfast where we had three-fourths of the population bitterly hostile (and many of them actively so), worse than one would find in an English city.19
Despite the repeated implication that most Catholics were either actively or passively hostile to the IRA, the Catholic population as a whole is framed as exposed, vulnerable, and (reluctantly) in need of republican protection from Protestant incursion. In contrast to the narrative painted elsewhere in the BMH, in Belfast the civilian population are not active participants in the independence struggle; Thomas Flynn is the only Belfast veteran to refer directly to civilian collaboration with the IRA: ‘The ordinary Nationalist civilian did not take an active part in these attacks [on the ‘Orange’ element]. These people, however, made their houses available to the I.R.A. and helped us in every way possible. They fed us and made every possible provision for our comfort.’20
A similar trend is evident in the 1920s and 1930s when Belfast IRA veterans applied for military service pensions.21 In a reference for Roger MacCorley, Seamus Woods wrote: ‘As O/C No 1 Brigade 3rd Division his duties included the defence of the Catholic civilian population who were subject to constant attack from a hostile majority in Belfast.’22 As they went on to do later with the BMH, Belfast veterans repeatedly emphasised the difficulty of operating in the city. Seán O’Neill, former OC of the Belfast Brigade, hoped the pensions committee ‘fully appreciate the circumstances amid which the Northern and particularly the Belfast I.R.A. had to work, and I would remind them that after the Treaty their work was carried on under the Craig regime, under which there was little hope of political amnesty’.23 James McCarra, who also had service in Dublin and Glasgow, remarked that ‘it was more difficult to be an I.R.A. man in Belfast’, while John McCoy, an IRA officer in Armagh and later a BMH investigator, confirmed that ‘In Belfast you would not get 40 yards when somebody, some of the so-called civilians would fire on you.’24
When recording a war record for posterity or applying for a pension based on hierarchical definitions of ‘active service’ it made sense to draw attention to the unique risks inherent in republican activity in the city.25 The process of applying for a pension also forced Belfast veterans to think again about the enemies they had faced and define who it was they had been on active service against. While preparing for the submission of Belfast claims Denis McCullough, chair of the ‘Belfast Battalion 1916’ committee, went as far as producing an ‘Explanatory statement of special circumstances connected with the National Struggle in Belfast Area’. The statement pointed to the heavy odds stacked against the Belfast IRA. By 1920, it claimed, the ‘Nationalist element’ were protected by 1,200 Volunteers but ‘This force was opposed by 64,000 (Official figures) – composed of (a) British military, (b) R.I.C., (c) A. B. and C. Special Constabulary – armed, (d) Imperial Guard – armed.’ Moreover, ‘I.R.A. forces were fighting amongst a hostile civil population and all through the struggle for Independence these forces in Belfast and District were handicapped much more than any other unit in Ireland in this respect.’26 In his sworn statement on behalf of colleague Patrick McCarragher, Roger MacCorley similarly emphasised that ‘The general atmosphere there was that out of a population of 400,000 … you had about 2,000 or 3,000 sympathisers. Every man’s hand, even the hand of the so-called nationalists, were turned against us. Even membership in the Organisation was particularly dangerous.’27
There are frequent admissions of significant and dangerous hostility among the Catholic/nationalist population but often a reluctance to engage with or define that hostility, both in terms of its practitioners and its nature. Hugh O’Neill’s endorsement of Belfast Fianna member Robert Graham failed to acknowledge the Catholic community at all in its definition of ‘enemy’: ‘The applicant was to my personal knowledge very active in all operations against the enemy. Whether the enemy was R.I.C., Specials or hostile loyalists.’28 Tom McNally, one of only four Belfast IRA veterans to provide an interview to Ernie O’Malley, was unusual in stating a clear sense of the origin of Catholic hostility: ‘A lot of our own you couldn’t trust … the Catholic population with their Hibernian background would let you down suddenly all the time’; ‘The Hibernians were of no use to us. Indeed, they were a menace through their weakness.’29 In his BMH statement, McNally more explicitly equated the ‘anti-national’ Catholic element with Hibernianism: ‘it was quite clear to me that some of our Catholic neighbours were not reliable – particularly the A.O.H. brand and this is a point I would like to emphasise.’ For McNally, the IRA in Belfast were not only up against ‘the Unionist elements’ but also ‘the A.O.H. elements, plus the very large ex-British soldier family type were antagonistic and were prepared to give information to the authorities.’30
As will be seen, the Catholic population in Belfast had a complex and shifting relationship with the IRA and, while the city’s religious divide made it easy to identify Protestant/loyalist enemies, the Catholic community were much more difficult to label. In describing their experiences years later, Belfast IRA veterans attempted to apply sense and logic to their war by placing it within a framework that did not always reflect its messy and often contradictory reality.
The IRA and the Catholic population
When drawing attention to deviants within the Catholic community, Belfast’s militant republicans spoke vaguely: ‘the anti-Irish element of the population’; ‘never a very strong National outlook at best’; ‘so-called nationalists’.31 It is clear both from contemporary documents and later accounts that republican activists in Belfast recognised that they did not enjoy, and had perhaps never expected, universal support from within the Catholic community. The IRA’s primary focus on the conflict against Britain did not reflect the needs or desires of most of their co-religionists and they were, as Robert Lynch has pointed out, ‘very much divorced by choice from the mainstream of the Catholic civilian population’.32 In that context it made sense, as Tom McNally did, to apportion blame to the AOH. Politically, the Catholic population remained loyal to moderate nationalism as seen by the comfortable victory of Joseph Devlin, Irish Parliamentary Party politician and national president of the AOH, over Éamon de Valera in the May 1921 general election. Hibernians were regularly victims of IRA violence.33 Tim Wilson, however, has argued perceptively that across Ulster there was far more fluidity at the grass roots between republicans and Hibernians than has often been allowed.34 When Belfast native James McStravick was interned in 1922, for instance, a local AOH branch wrote to the Minister for Home Affairs on his behalf to attest that ‘Mr McStravick is a respectable member of society, and we can vouch that he has never been connected with any illegal organisations’ but was, in fact, ‘an uncompromising opponent of Sinn Fein in all the local elections, and in proof of that statement I may add that he is an active member of the “John Redmond” and “Joseph Devlin” Branches of the United Irish League’. McStravick’s son was an alleged IRA activist and enquiries were made about a case of mistaken identity but the RUC insisted their intelligence was sound, adding that ‘Too much reliance cannot be placed on the authority of the A.O.H. (B of E) as in documents found in St Mary’s Hall it was ascertained that one of their most important members evidently was in close touch with the I.R.A.’ McStravick’s own plea to secure his release, in which he emphasised his service with the Royal Irish Rifles during the Boer War and lamented that he was now ‘Lying on Board a Prison Ship after being a True British Loyal Subject to H.M. The King’, further emphasises the potential fluidity of allegiance.35
Catholic ex-soldiers from the Great War were a potentially problematic group for Belfast republicans. Some certainly joined the IRA and Tom McNally told Ernie O’Malley that republicans ‘had to rely upon the Irish Volunteers and on some of the ex-soldiers’.36 Ex-servicemen who joined after the Truce were regarded with suspicion or even open hostility and denied positions of responsibility or access to important information.37 Many more remained completely aloof of republicanism. A Belfast Telegraph report on the shipyard expulsions pointed out that ‘Loyalist workers’ were graciously ‘prepared to hold out the hand of fellowship to those of their Roman Catholic fellow-workmen, some of whom were ex-Servicemen, who were avowed Loyalists’.38 One Catholic ex-soldier wrote to Joseph Devlin after he had been removed from his job, proclaiming himself an ‘Irish Nationalist’ and wishing to ‘expose the infernal lie that none but Sinn Feiners was expelled from work in Belfast’.39 Devlin informed British Prime Minister David Lloyd George that the case was ‘only typical of hundreds of others whom I know’.40 In another recorded case, Thomas Bailie was expelled from Harland and Wolff and, despite complying with the wishes of a ‘Vigilance Committee’ to supply two respectable Protestant referees, was not allowed to resume work. Bailie complained that his treatment was evidence of a purely anti-Catholic ‘pogrom’ and described himself as ‘a Loyal R.C. ex-serviceman’. Remarkably, he had tried to join the B Special Constabulary but had been threatened with death and ‘was not called on for duty as he was the only R.C. who joined up from the place in which he lives, and it was not considered advisable to do so’.41 Catholic policemen, on the other hand, could be some of the IRA’s most valuable sources of information.42
The Catholic clergy also offered resistance to the IRA. Seamus Woods reported in June 1922 that some priests ‘have said from the pulpit that they will not give absolution to anyone who is a member of a secret military Organisation. They have refused to hear Fianna boys’ Confessions.’43 Thomas Fitzpatrick was forced to evacuate a church he had been guarding during curfew hours when the parish priest informed his men that ‘he had arranged with the British military to guard the church for him’.44 Roger MacCorley remembered covertly taking possession of rifles held by a priest who had insisted that ‘under no circumstances were these arms to get into the hands of the I.R.A.’45 More seriously, it was later alleged that an unidentified member of the clergy had caused the postponement of a meticulously planned operation to burn Belfast city centre in retaliation for the burning of Cork city by Auxiliaries in December 1920. Patrick McCarragher learned that ‘a Volunteer made a confession to a Priest and the Priest happened to be an Imperialist and he notified the authorities. The morning it was to take place, the 1st January , the whole centre of the City was infested with British military’. Roger MacCorley offered a slightly different but equally damning version of events: ‘The Bishop got wind of it some way and evidently got in touch with Hqrs. here and Hqrs. in Belfast and the whole thing got called off much to the disgust of all and sundry.’46 Like most defiance offered by the Catholic clergy, this informing seems to have gone unpunished; neither does it appear in statements to the BMH or the O’Malley notebooks.
The absence of any real claim to a majority hold on the Catholic population severely disrupted IRA ‘civil’ operations in the city. Edicts were, at best, difficult to enforce. On arriving in Glasgow, for instance, Roger MacCorley was surprised to see a crowd of Belfast ‘refugees’: ‘We had issued an order that no able-bodied man was to leave the Brigade area even for a day.’47 Republican courts were only carried on in ‘a small way’ in the city and no IRA levy was struck.48 Joe McKelvey, then OC of the 3rd Northern Division, informed Richard Mulcahy that it was ‘always with difficulty we were able to raise sufficient funds to keep the work of the Army going in this area.’ McKelvey intended to raise a levy after the Truce but the lack of support for any such project, even in Catholic areas, is evidenced by his candid admission that ‘its enforcement will be difficult’.49 McKelvey’s prediction was prescient, as a letter advertising a sweepstake in aid of the arms fund in March 1922 makes clear: ‘It is impossible to raise collections here, so we ask you to assist us by disposing of a few tickets to enable us to buy some war material.’50 This reluctance to offer full support to the republican campaign is not surprising in the context of the potentially devastating economic effects of inter-communal violence in Belfast.
Shipyard expulsions created issues for Belfast Catholics not faced by their co-religionists in the south. When a signed renunciation of Sinn Féin was proposed as a condition for the reinstatement of Catholic shipyard employees, workers were placed in what Alan Parkinson has described as a ‘Catch 22’. Very few signed and this should not necessarily be seen either as a declaration of allegiance to republicanism or defiance of the Crown but rather the result of communal pressure; many Catholics ‘would have been deterred … by the inevitable ostracism which it would produce within their own community when some men returned to work and others did not’.51 Careers and livelihoods were directly and devastatingly impacted by the violence and a communal perception among Catholics that they were victims of a sectarian ‘pogrom’ created a dynamic unique to Belfast. The city’s Catholic civilian population were also exceptionally regular perpetrators of violence. Belfast’s Catholics displayed a ‘genuine communal solidarity’ in defending their communities but one that was formed ‘at the neighbourhood level under siege conditions’.52 In an atmosphere of oppression, revenge, and reprisal, the traditional republican focus on separation from Britain was often lost. ‘There was a lot of defending areas, organising the I.R.A. to save the Catholic positions, but there was really no Nationalist fight.’53 On 12 July, Joe McKelvey reported that amidst rioting sparked by the killing of three Auxiliaries, a ‘Catholic mob’, infuriated by the burning of their homes, had set fire to a large business in the city and were ‘almost beyond control’. The crowd beat a passing Volunteer when he attempted to intervene.54
Here, perhaps, lies the key to understanding the nature of IRA interaction with the Catholic population in Belfast. Wilson has written that, contrary to a historiography that tends to emphasise the weak nature of Catholic support for the IRA campaign against ‘England’, it can be seen that where the IRA was effective in acting as a defender against the Protestant majority active support was frequently forthcoming; sustenance and safe houses were provided, guns were smuggled, escapes facilitated, and bin lids drummed to warn of approaching Crown forces.55 Belfast Catholics were pragmatic enough to protect their own interests and a deputation of merchants informed a meeting in the Colonial Office that ‘the Catholic business men in Belfast excluding republicans and the professional men, would be ready to recognise the Northern Government, but for the rest of the Catholic population the idea of religious persecution dominated their political preferences’.56 It was only after the onset of the Truce in July 1921 that the Catholic community could accept republicans as defenders of their interests. Once the Truce had inculcated belief in a republican ‘victory’, support for the IRA among the Catholic population very quickly reached its peak. Seamus Woods reported that the IRA had only enjoyed the support of a quarter of the population before 11 July 1921 but ‘with the signing of the Truce the Catholic population, believing for the moment that we had been victorious and Specials beaten, practically flocked to our standard’.57 Roger MacCorley recalled that a spate of looting by Hibernians at this time ‘was due to pique that our people were now accepted by the British as the official representatives of the Irish people’.58 Even the city’s police commissioner conceded that its new public profile and ability to drill openly in Catholic areas had allowed the IRA to ‘dominate the Devlinites’.59
Woods accepted that the IRA’s newfound support base had been won:
not so much out of sympathy with our National aspirations, and our fight for National freedom, but more on account of the part the Army had played in defending the minority against organised attacks by non-uniformed Crown forces.60
By mid-1922, he still believed that ‘the I.R.A. have the support of the whole people – of every Catholic in Belfast’ but the tide had already begun to turn.61 Unlike the rest of the country, Belfast did not enjoy an immediate (if temporary) return to peace in the months following the Truce and instead witnessed more rioting, looting, and tit-for-tat killing. Robert Lynch has, tellingly, pointed out that over three-quarters of Catholic fatalities inflicted by the loyalist community followed shortly after an IRA operation.62 From 1920, young militants like Woods and MacCorley had protested vigorously against the cautious policy adopted by ‘weak souls’ in their Brigade aimed at preventing reprisals on the Catholic population but the young revolutionaries’ limited offensive activity in 1922 was followed by often brutal retaliation.63 Having faced two years of regular violence, terror, and disruption, and disillusioned by the continuing violence inflicted upon them, the Catholic community withdrew its support completely.
The testimony of IRA veterans generally fails to acknowledge the potentially provocative nature of their own actions.64 But at the height of the most intense period of violence in early 1922, Woods and McGovern, who remained loyal to GHQ after the Treaty was passed, had blamed the element within the Belfast IRA who supported the IRA ‘Executive’ in the Four Courts in Dublin:
The operations of the Executive forces have been the cause of trouble to our troops since their formation. They have been ill-timed and carried out in places which afforded the least danger. The men who were responsible have shown no consideration whatever for the civil population, they have destroyed their morale, and have turned them against the I.R.A. in general.
The civil population, apparently unable to distinguish between pro- and anti-Treaty elements, looked upon ‘all as the I.R.A. and condemn all accordingly’.65 Particular scorn was reserved for the killing of two Specials in May, which had resulted in a violent attack on a Catholic area ‘that was the hardest blow the civil population had got, and it almost broke their morale’.
The community responded by cooperating with the police in the hope of putting a stop to republican activity. Reports to GHQ in Dublin from July 1922 describe how a Special Constabulary ploy of occupying commandeered buildings in the Catholic Falls Road area ‘with a view to fraternising with the Catholic population’ had met with success. Seamus Woods noted that some were ‘taking advantage of the situation’ to give ‘all available scraps of information to the enemy’.66 Seamus McGovern, the divisional adjutant, similarly recorded that civilians were ‘only too anxious to acquiesce, and I’m very much afraid are at present giving information’, further suggesting that the arrest of a number of useful Volunteers was the result of information gleaned from within the Catholic community. The argument was not, however, that IRA operations should cease to save the Catholic population from reprisal attacks but that it was the isolated, ineffectual actions of the ‘Executive’ forces that were problematic. It was suggested that the systematic campaign of ‘burnings’ that had been carried out on ‘loyal’ homes and businesses in the city in early 1922 had meant ‘the sympathy and support of the people was slowly coming back to us’ and a return to that policy was advocated. It was also considered that in the event of a wide-scale IRA offensive in Belfast and across the six counties they ‘would be compelled to mete out Capital Punishment amongst the Catholic civilian population’.67
By the final quarter of 1922, with the collapse of the ‘joint-IRA offensive’ and attention increasingly drawn towards civil war in the south, the northern IRA’s campaign had ended in defeat.68 In Belfast, the police saw a clear explanation for republican failure. The RUC commissioner reported ‘a strong move on the part of the Catholics not to continue the trouble as far as they could to prevent any further trouble from their areas’.69 Neighbours had passed information on the perpetrators of two shootings to the police, a greater willingness to ‘co-operate with the R.U.C. and Special Constabulary’ was noticed, and ‘every effort is being made by the Catholic population to control the gunmen’.70 A final insult to republicans was seen in the tearing down by parishioners of a number of posters displayed on church gates urging them to avoid all contact with the RUC and Specials, ‘apparently much to the satisfaction of those leaving the Church’.71 Communities had effectively decided to frustrate the work of any armed Catholic, republican or otherwise, and, according to the police, the ‘excellent relations between inhabitants and the police’ was ‘galling to, amongst others, the Republican gunmen’.72
The total collapse of Catholic support can also be explained in the context of the demobilisation of the RIC. While the RIC in the twenty-six counties was being disbanded, the constabulary in the north-east were kept on until a new police force could be constituted for the northern state. Uncertainty about their futures and an acute awareness of the fate suffered by many of their southern colleagues led to a distinct loss of morale and increased indiscipline within the ranks of the Belfast RIC. As Tim Wilson has astutely argued, it is in these conditions that ‘hard-line loyalist elements’ within the demoralised RIC, who had largely refrained from retributive violence, may have ‘decided to demonstrate in particularly spectacular fashion that they were still willing and able to lash out at their perceived enemies’.73 Given the high profile of the McMahon killings in March 1922, alongside the growing belligerence of the Special Constabularies, who had been filling the security vacuum in Belfast, it should not be surprising that Catholics fearing similar acts would have been reticent about openly supporting the IRA.74 Seamus Woods, for instance, reported in July 1922 that an increase in effective Crown force raiding, Special Powers legislation, and the fear of ‘floggings’ had made civilians ‘very loath to keep “wanted men” or arms’.75 The Belfast Criminal Investigation Department claimed its operations had effectively limited violence in the city by September 1922 and the increased risk of violent reprisals – from which the IRA could offer limited protection – encouraged Catholic civilians to avoid, and if possible prevent, trouble.76
In September 1922, the RUC commissioner for Belfast, J. F. Gelston, remarked sensibly that ‘It is only from the political society to which offender belongs that useful information can be obtained, that emanating from a hostile or opposing faction can scarcely be relied on … and useful information rarely finds a leakage through hostile channels.’77 To the IRA, then, the Catholic community was a potentially far more damaging source of informers than its loyalist enemies. A resident of the majority Catholic Forest Road, for instance, secretly supplied the Northern Ireland government with a list of names and addresses of Belfast IRA and Fianna Éireann members in 1922.78
Tom McNally remarked to Ernie O’Malley that in 1921 there ‘was not much doing except the shooting of lads who were giving evidence against some of our lads’ but the Belfast IRA do not seem to have shot a single alleged ‘spy’ in Belfast by December 1921.79 As seen in Table 5.1, the IRA can be said certainly to have shot two civilians (both Protestants) and probably another seven (all but one of whom was Protestant). If the IRA shot these, or others, as suspected informers, it is unusual that they did not advertise the killings or label the bodies as was done elsewhere. The difficulty of operating in the city may go some way towards explaining either the absence of executed spies or the failure to claim killings publicly. Communal boundaries and state protection, for instance, made higher-profile targets difficult to reach. In July 1922, a magistrate received a notice from the IRA accusing him of being ‘a bad Catholic’ and warning that he would be shot. He believed the warning was ‘not to be disregarded’ and requested protection, which was provided, but did not want ‘a man walking with him on the streets of Belfast, as he generally keeps to the centre of the City’.80 All five Catholics certainly shot by the IRA were members of the RIC, guilty by membership of that force. Commenting on fatalities across the ‘six counties’ between December 1921 and May 1922, the assistant secretary to the cabinet reported to the Irish Office that among 80 Roman Catholic civilians killed and 138 wounded, ‘many of these were loyal Catholics shot by I.R.A.’81 While applying for a pension in the 1930s, Joseph Billings described a night where ‘we were shooting into the Catholic crowd. I had a Stains rifle and fired towards where the shooting was coming from. We were always at that kind of work.’82 Billings made no reference to casualties but some Catholic fatalities may have been the result of such dispersing fire. Others may have resulted from accidents or ‘friendly fire’, though geographer Niall Cunningham has concluded that this ‘may be adequate to explain a small minority of fatalities, but is probably not satisfactory to stand as a general characterisation’.83 Some of the killings for whom the perpetrator or motive remains unknown (included in Table 5.1) may have been Catholics shot as a punishment or a warning but it seems that, more often than not, serious defiance within the Catholic community went unpunished.
Auxiliary Division Royal Irish Constabulary
Royal Irish Constabulary
Ulster Special Constabulary
Between 1919 and 1921, the IRA killed at least 36 members of the regular RIC and Auxiliary Division, as seen in Table 5.1. Memoirs and testimony give detailed descriptions of the killing of Crown forces and defensive operations against loyalist paramilitaries, snipers, and rioters but are more reticent about attacks on Protestant civilians. So what of the IRA’s offensive action against Protestants and the Protestant community? As Table 5.1 shows, the IRA certainly killed nine Protestants, and probably a further six. Six of the nine fatalities definitively attributable to the IRA were policemen but all six probable killings were civilian. Again, however, these civilian casualties were not deliberately claimed by republicans. Even among this small sample of nine civilian killings, it seems clear that the IRA were more likely to shoot Protestants than Catholics, even if Catholics were more likely to have useful intelligence. Robert Lynch has suggested that the IRA killed a substantial number of Protestant civilians and a ‘conservative estimate would put the figure at thirty, although it is probably as high as fifty’. If this was the case, it would be significant, indicating that the IRA killed significantly more Protestant civilians than it did police or military and would be a remarkable figure overall, given the small number of active republican gunmen in the city.84 Allowing for killings in unknown or dubious circumstances (as many as 100 in Table 5.1), and the potential for IRA members to have been involved in some killing during riots, Lynch’s estimate would point to a significant, and perhaps unrealistic, escalation in killing after January 1922.
Finding and mapping the extent and nature of non-lethal violence by the IRA against Protestants is more difficult again. It is often impossible to distinguish republican violence from that carried out by other Catholic individuals or groups but the Belfast IRA or its members were certainly implicated in some of the low-level terror inflicted on Protestants, including robbery, beatings, the burning of Orange halls, and the expulsion of Protestants families from mixed and border areas of the city.85 Attempts to purge Protestants from areas with a Catholic majority met with some success and, although there is nothing to suggest a systematic campaign, something in the region of 1,000 Protestants were forced from their homes in nationalist-controlled areas.86 Over 20 per cent of the total expulsions in Belfast were Protestants expelled by Catholics; in September 1920, the Impartial Reporter described Protestants ‘cleared out by the hundred’ including a Labour leader who had ‘held aloof from party strife’ removed ‘simply because he had been a Protestant’.87 Though significantly smaller in numbers, the Protestants expelled from their homes were less likely to remain in Belfast and the city’s Catholic population had actually grown, if marginally, by 1926.88 Some of the IRA’s lethal violence against Protestants was indiscriminate and decidedly sectarian in nature, including victims who may or may not have had any implication in the violence against Catholics. This is most viscerally seen in bomb attacks on trams carrying Protestant workers from their jobs. Trams were targeted specifically as their destination made clear that they could be carrying Protestant passengers.89 The Unionist MP William Twaddle, shot by the IRA a short distance from his business in May 1922, was a rare Protestant victim of high social or political standing.90 This may have been at least partially the result of a sense of frustration at an inability to identify or punish those actually involved in attacks on the Catholic community or to target high-profile Unionists.
In October 1921, a Presbyterian ex-serviceman named Arthur Hunt was kidnapped, beaten, and was allegedly due to be shot when the ‘prison’ in which he was held was raided by police and his release secured. Hunt appeared as a Crown witness leading to the arrest and imprisonment of ‘Twelve leading Gunmen’.91 Despite the authorities’ very genuine concern for Hunt’s safety – ‘He cannot remain in the City … he will certainly be murdered’; ‘the house is watched day and night by S.F.’; ‘his life is not worth a moment’s purchase outside his own house’ – the absence of any opposition as he attempted to emigrate is evidence of the limited opportunities available for precisely targeted reprisals against the Protestant community.92 Thomas Fitzpatrick recalled that the IRA did not have much success dealing with members of a shadowy ‘Protestant organisation’ aimed at shooting ‘Catholics in their homes and in workshops’, though ‘Simon Timoney got a couple of them one day.’93
Alan Parkinson has found that intimidation was most likely to occur where there was a majority of one denomination or on streets flanking exclusively Protestants areas.94 IRA incursion into loyalist-dominated areas, then, was limited. There were, of course, significant additional risks attached to mounting attacks in majority Protestant communities. The likelihood of encountering a large, hostile, and well-armed crowd was high, and escape potentially difficult. The IRA’s most intense period of activity against the Protestant/loyalist population came shortly before its collapse in 1922. Roger MacCorley stated that the IRA had to divide its operations into two strands: ‘defensive operations’ to protect the Catholic community and ‘offensive operations’ against the Protestant/loyalist majority.95 While MacCorley and his fellow republicans were able to inflict proportionally large casualties, contribute to the expulsion of hundreds of Protestants from Catholic areas, and cause significant damage to property (all while suffering relatively few casualties), they ultimately failed on both counts. The Catholic community continued to suffer disproportionate and often horrific violence during two years of conflict and any successful offensive operations were undermined by brutal reprisal attacks by state forces and loyalist gangs. By the end of 1922, the Northern government and the Protestant/loyalist majority remained firmly in place while the republican movement in the city emerged as emphatic losers.
Robert Lynch’s work on the Belfast IRA has highlighted ‘questions about the IRA’s ability, and also perhaps its desire, to defend Catholic areas’ and suggested that it is as an ‘avenger, as the righter of wrongs, against the perceived authors of the “pogrom” that we may find the defining aspect of its relationship with the Catholic minority’.96 It was, certainly, a more complex relationship than some of the testimony would allow and the enemy within was, in many ways, the most difficult to define. Catholic Hibernians, ex-servicemen, policemen, and the upper bourgeoisie were all viewed by the IRA as potential enemies but did not always suit easy definition. Initially aloof of ‘fratricidal strife’ and wary of anything that might distract energy from the war against ‘England’, the Belfast IRA never developed a fully homogenous relationship with the Catholic community it claimed to protect.97 In its broader aims it was ineffective, and it lost its war, but the Belfast IRA still managed to inflict damage – both in terms of fatalities and destruction of property – in marked contrast to its small numbers. Ultimately, though, an inability to develop and maintain a mutually beneficial relationship with its community and a failure to bring the Catholic population willingly under a republican banner contributed to its defeat.
Belfast was, indeed, unique in the context of revolutionary Ireland but personal interest and human decency could, on occasion, transcend the sectarian divide. As seen elsewhere in the country, personal safety was one of the key, overriding considerations among non-combatants to which Belfast were not immune. At a time when both sides were expelling the ‘disloyal’ element from their communities, some Catholics and Protestants ignored communal divides to ensure mutual safety. As early as July 1920, the police divisional commissioner noted that there had been ‘wholesale cases of persons of contrary views – religious and political – changing residences’ in the city.98 Reporting on the Belfast expulsions, the Impartial Reporter noted that ‘Between the two sections there have been numerous exchanges of houses by mutual consent, and where arrangements of this kind have been entered into there has not been any interference with the dispossessed parties during the period of transfer.’99 The RIC commissioner might have complained that this was done ‘without consulting landlord or Agents’, but house-swapping was mutually beneficial, as experienced by John Boyd’s grandparents:
I was told that the Boyds had heard of a Catholic family who were scared of being chased out of their house which was in a Protestant area, and they wanted to get out before this happened. When grandpa and grandma heard of this they met the Catholics and agreed to switch houses because Beechfield Street was adjoining the small Catholic area of Ballymacarrett. This would be doing the Catholic family a good turn and doing themselves a good turn too.100
There is also evidence, despite hardened communal boundaries, of civilians showing a sense of fair play towards neighbours and expressing revulsion towards violence and intimidation in any form.101 Even UVF gun runner Colonel Frederick Hugh Crawford could write, if self-indulgently, that after a minor public assault by two nationalist brothers (one of whom was an ex-soldier) he was met in a ‘Sinn Fein district’ by locals who apologised to him and lamented he had not shot the young men involved: ‘you are an honourable, inoffensive gentleman and willing to oblige anyone, etc.’102 But, as Tim Wilson has pointed out, cumulatively these individual acts and displays of preference were nothing like enough to prevent repeated outbreaks of serious violence.103
1 Hart, The I.R.A. at war, p. 249.
2 A. C. Hepburn, Catholic Belfast and Nationalist Ireland (Oxford, 2008), p. 205.
3 For detailed surveys of the nature of violence in Belfast, see Alan F. Parkinson, Belfast’s unholy war: the troubles of the 1920s (Dublin, 2004); McDermott, Northern divisions; Lynch, The Northern IRA, esp. pp. 66–89; Niall Cunningham, ‘“The doctrine of vicarious punishment”: space, religion and the Belfast Troubles, 1920–22’, Journal of Historical Geography, 40 (2013), pp. 52–66.
4 Hart, The I.R.A. at war, p. 249.
5 Wilson, Frontiers of violence, p. 198.
6 Hart, The I.R.A. at war, p. 248; Parkinson, Belfast’s unholy war, p. 13.
8 Parkinson, Belfast’s unholy war, p. 13. Robert Lynch has recorded a significantly lower figure of 1,100 wounded: Robert Lynch, ‘The people’s protectors? The Irish Republican Army and the “Belfast Pogroms”, 1920–22’, Journal of British Studies, Vol. 37, No. 2 (Apr. 2008), p. 375.
9 Lynch, ‘“Belfast Pogroms”, 1920–22’, p. 375; Parkinson, Belfast’s unholy war, p. 13.
10 Divisional Commissioner, RIC, Bi-Monthly Reports, 1921–22 (PRONI: HA/5/152).
11 Irish Times, 18 Jul. 1922.
12 Liaison Officers’ Reports, ‘Breaches of the Truce by Sinn Fein’ (PRONI: HA/32/1/4).
13 RIC Commissioner’s Reports, Belfast, Nov. 1921–Mar. 1922 (HA/5/149–50).
14 Hart, The I.R.A. at war, p. 247.
15 Wilson, Frontiers of violence, pp. 176–81.
16 Cunnigham, ‘Space, religion and the Belfast Troubles’, pp. 58–61.
17 Wilson, Frontiers of violence, p. 178.
18 BMH WS 429 (Thomas Flynn); BMH WS 417 (David McGuinness). Some of the issues surrounding the use of the BMH are briefly outlined in the concluding chapter.
19 BMH WS 1016 (Seamus Mckenna).
20 BMH WS 429 (Thomas Flynn).
21 The following is based on applications for Military Service Pensions submitted by veterans of the Belfast IRA and made available online in the first official releases of pension application records by the MAI in 2014.
22 Roger Edmund MacCorley application (MAI: W24/SP/12076). Frank Magee insisted that MacCorley was ‘one of (if not the) best men in Belfast’ while Woods confirmed that he ‘had the best I.R.A. record I know of’.
23 Seán O’Neill to President, Military Service Regulation Board, 13 Jun. 1935 in Patrick McCarragher application (34/REF/7576).
24 James McCarra application (MAI: 34/REF/21270); Patrick McCarragher application (34/REF/7576).
25 For the genesis and administration of the pension scheme, see Marie Coleman, ‘Military Service Pensions for veterans of the Irish Revolution, 1916–1923’, War in History, 20(2), pp. 201–21.
26 ‘Explanatory statement of special circumstances connected with the National Struggle in Belfast Area’ (MAI: IRA Nominal Rolls, Belfast Brigade, RO/402).
27 Patrick McCarragher application (34/REF/7576).
28 Robert Graham application (24/SP/4349).
29 Tom McNally (UCDA: P17b/99).
30 BMH WS 410 (Thomas McNally).
31 ‘Report on Situation in No. 1 (Belfast) Brigade’, attachment to OC 3rd Northern Division to CS, 20 Jul. 1922; Adjutant, 3rd Northern Division to CS, 7 Jul. 1922 (UCDA: P7/B/77); Patrick McCarragher application (MAI: 34/REF/7576).
32 Lynch, ‘“Belfast Pogroms”, 1920–22’, p. 384.
33 Lynch, ‘“Belfast Pogroms”, 1920–22’, pp. 382–3; Lynch, Northern IRA, p. 99.
34 Wilson, Frontiers of violence, pp. 130–2.
35 Internment Files, James McStravick (PRONI: HA/5/1494).
36 Tom McNally statement (UCDA: P17b/99). See, also, Wilson, Frontiers of violence, p. 130 n. 68.
37 Lynch, Northern IRA, p. 82.
38 Belfast Telegraph, 3 Aug. 1920.
39 Michael Cunningham to Joseph Devlin, 29 Oct. 1920 (PAL: LG/F/6/3/27).
40 Devlin to David Lloyd George, 1 Nov. 1920 (PAL: LG/F/6/3/27). See also, Lloyd George to Edward Carson, 2 Nov. 1920 (PAL: LG/F/6/3/27).
41 Thomas George Bailie to [Craigavon?], 14 Sept. 1922; DI for IG, RUC Belfast to Secretary, Minister for Home Affairs, 13 Oct. 1922 (PRONI: HA/32/1/291).
42 Tom McNally statement (UCDA: O’Malley notebooks, P17b/99); file on Denis Sheehan (PRONI: HA/32/1/430); Tim Wilson, ‘“The most terrible assassination that has yet stained the name of Belfast”: the McMahon murders in context’, Irish Historical Studies, Vol. 37, No. 145 (May 2010), p. 101; McDermott, Northern divisions, pp. 22–4.
43 OC 3rd Northern Division to CS, 27 Jul. 1922 (UCDA: P7/B/77).
44 BMH WS 395 (Thomas Fitzpatrick).
45 BMH WS 389 (Roger MacCorley).
46 Patrick McCarragher application (MAI: 34/REF/7576).
47 Roger MacCorley (UCDA: P17b/98).
48 BMH WS 429 (Thomas Flynn).
49 OC 3rd Northern Division to CS, 16 Aug. 1921 (UCDA: P7/A/23).
50 OC B Company, 3rd Battalion, No. 1 Brigade, 7 Mar. 1922 (PRONI: HA/5/859).
51 Parkinson, Belfast’s unholy war, p. 40. One ‘Expelled English Roman Catholic’ had no such qualms and wrote to the Belfast Telegraph to request a ‘form of declaration’: Belfast Telegraph, 27 Aug. 1920.
52 Hart, The I.R.A. at war, p. 23.
53 Tom McNally statement (UCDA: P17b/99).
54 OC 3rd Northern Division to CS, 12 Jul. 1921 (UCDA: P7/A/22).
55 Wilson, Frontiers of violence, pp. 149–50.
56 Report of meeting at the Colonial Office, 2 Jun. 1922 (TNA: CO 906/25).
57 ‘Report on Situation in No. 1 (Belfast) Brigade’, attachment to OC 3rd Northern Division to CS, 20 Jul. 1922 (UCDA: P7/B/77).
58 BMH WS 389 (Roger MacCorley).
59 Commissioner J. F. Gelston quoted in Hepburn, Catholic Belfast, p. 220.
60 ‘Report on Situation in No. 1 (Belfast) Brigade’, 20 Jul. 1922 (UCDA: P7/B/77).
61 Quoted in Wilson, Frontiers of violence, p. 149 n. 157.
62 Lynch, ‘“Belfast Pogroms”, 1920–22’, p. 378.
63 BMH WS 389 (Roger MacCorley); BMH WS 395 (Thomas Fitzpatrick).
64 See, for example, the testimony of Roger MacCorley, perhaps the most active republican gunman: BMH WS 389 (Roger MacCorley); Roger Edmund MacCorley application (MAI: W24/SP/12076).
65 Adjutant, 3rd Northern Division to Cs, 7 Jul. 1922 (UCDA: P7/B/77).
66 ‘Report on Situation in No. 1 (Belfast) Brigade’, attachment to OC 3rd Northern Division to CS, 20 Jul. 1922 (UCDA: Mulcahy Papers, P7/B/77).
67 Adjutant, 3rd Northern Division to CS, 7 Jul. 1922 (UCDA: P7/B/77).
68 Lynch, Northern IRA, pp. 95–175.
69 Gelston to IG, 25 Sep. 1922 (PRONI: HA/32/1/182).
70 Gelston to IG, 25 Sep. 1922 (PRONI: HA/32/1/182); ‘Report on the State of City of Belfast’, 26 Sep. 1922 (/290).
71 Report to Commissioner, Crime Special Branch, Belfast, 25 Sep. 1922; DI to Commissioner, City of Belfast, 25 Sep. 1922 (/5/1032).
72 DI to Commissioner, City of Belfast, 25 Sep. 1922 (/5/1032).
73 Wilson, ‘McMahon murders in context’, p. 97.
74 In the early hours of 24 March 1922, five men dressed in police uniforms entered the home of Catholic publican Owen McMahon and shot him dead along with three of his sons and a barman named Edward McKinney. A fourth McMahon son later died of wounds and a fifth survived his injuries.
75 ‘Report on Situation in No. 1 (Belfast) Brigade’, 20 Jul. 1922 (UCDA: P7/B/77).
76 ‘Statistics of results of CID raids in Belfast and Northern Ireland’ (PRONI: HA/32/1/267).
77 ‘Report on the state of the City of Belfast’, 26 Sep. 1922 (/1/290).
78 File on letter from James J. Orr, Forest Street, 1922 (/1/261). Forest street was home to 111 Roman Catholics and twelve non-Catholics in 1911: 1911 census returns (census.nationalarchives.ie) (24 June 2015).
79 Tom McNally statement (UCDA: P17b/99); O’Halpin and Ó Corráin’s research for The dead of the Irish revolution (forthcoming) has not found evidence of an executed ‘spy’ in Belfast. Kieran Glennon makes reference to one Catholic shot as a ‘police spy’ but does not provide any additional information or a citation: Glennon, From pogrom to civil war, p. 270.
80 Watt to Solly-Flood, 7 Jul. 1922 (MAI: BMH CD/310/9). Dougal lived outside the city in ‘a fairly safe place’ but travelled in to Belfast by car.
81 Blackmore to Hemming, 30 May 1922 (PAL: LG/F/20/1/21).
82 Joseph Patrick Billings application (MAI: 34/REF/1089).
83 Cunningham, ‘Space, religion and the Belfast Troubles’, p. 54.
84 Hart, The I.R.A. at war, p. 248.
85 Lynch, ‘“Belfast Pogroms”, 1920–22’, p. 386.
86 Hart, The I.R.A. at war, p. 250.
87 Impartial Reporter, 9 Sep. 1920.
88 Hart, The I.R.A. at War, p. 256.
89 Lynch, ‘“Belfast Pogroms”, 1920–22’, p. 386.
90 Parkinson, Belfast’s unholy war, p. 220.
91 Mrs Hunt to Prime Minister, Belfast, 1 Dec. 1921 (PRONI: HA/32/1/140A). Hunt was living in the Protestant Shankill area in 1911: 1911 census returns, Arthur Hunt (census.nationalarchives.ie) (29 June 2015).
92 See file on Arthur Hunt (PRONI: HA/32/1/140A). Hunt eventually settled in Australia.
93 BMH WS 395 (Thomas Fitzpatrick).
94 Parkinson, Belfast’s unholy war, p. 40.
95 BMS WS 389 (Roger MacCorley).
96 Lynch, ‘“Belfast Pogroms”, 1920–22’, p. 385.
97 BMH WS 1016 (Seamus McKenna).
98 MCRs, Belfast, Jul. 1920 (TNA: CO 904/112).
99 Impartial Reporter, 9 Sep. 1920.
100 MCRs, Belfast, Jul. 1920 (TNA: CO 904/112); John Boyd quoted in Parkinson, Unholy war, p. 61.
101 Parkinson, Unholy war, p. 61.
102 Diary of Colonel Frederick Hugh Crawford, 23–24 Jul. 1920 (PRONI: D640/11/1).
103 Wilson, Frontiers of violence, p. 161.