Clonard Commemoration September 2nd

Oration given by former republican prisoner Albert Allen, chair of the Clonard Commemoration Committee in honour of two Belfast IRA volunteers, Gerard O Callaghan and Tom Williams.

A Charde.

We are gathered here today to commemorate the memory of two C Company Volunteers Gerard O Callaghan and Tom Williams. It is seventy years since both these young and fiercely dedicated IRA Volunteers gave their lives for a cause they both held dear. Both men would be executed merely days apart and this fact would forever leave in the hearts and minds of those who loved and remember them an inextricable link.

In 1942 an IRA convention had pledged to renew its campaign in the North. Gerard O Callaghan a young nineteen year old man from Cavendish Street was to play a vital part in that campaign.

From a young age Gerard had been interested in all things Irish. He was already a member of the Gaelic League when he joined C Company 2nd Battalion at the age of seventeen. Gerard like Tom was born into the newly formed Northern Irish State. A state, which would be characterised and copper-fastened on a bitter sectarian and anti-Irish ethos from its inception. Gerard O Callaghan would have been very aware of the extreme danger he would encounter being a Republican in this vigorously anti-Irish state. Yet it did not deter him. Nor did it hinder his capabilities. Capabilities which very soon saw him rise through the ranks of the IRA.

Gerard has been recognised and remembered as a loyal and dedicated IRA Volunteer. It was that loyalty and dedication which saw him sent on organising and training missions all over the North. It was that loyalty and dedication which took him to a farm between Hannahstown and Stoneyford on that fateful day.

When Gerard O Callaghan went to Hannahstown to assemble arms for use his friend and comrade Tom Williams had just learned of his fate. Tom Williams the young C Company commander had been told on Sunday August the 30th that, while the five men he had been sentenced with were to have their sentences commuted to life imprisonment he was to be executed.

On Tuesday September 1st1942 The Irish News carried the headline, ‘Feverish Last Minute Efforts to Save Williams'. The paragraph beneath read:

On Sunday a reprieve was granted in the case of five men convicted for the Easter Sunday killing of Constable Patrick Murphy. In granting the reprieve the Governor of Northern Ireland decided in the case of Williams the law must take its course.

Gerard O Callaghan and the other IRA Volunteers who went to Hannanhstown that morning were intent on ensuring that British law would not take its course and if it did then it would feel the repercussions.  Sadly a few columns across from the report of Tom’s fate, Gerard O Callaghan’s fate had been already sealed.

Gerard’s execution would send shock waves into a community which was bracing itself trying to come to terms with Tom William’s inevitable fate. The young clerk was identified by his shocked mother and sister at a Barracks in Lisburn. No post mortem had been carried out. An inquest into Gerard’s death had been prohibited under section 10 of the Civil Authorities (Special Powers Act). This act allowed the Minister of Home Affairs to prohibit any inquest in any region of Northern Ireland. The Minister of Home Affairs would have had every reason to use his Special Powers to conceal any records in relation to Gerard’s death.

Few people believed the official version of Gerard O Callaghan’s murder. Few believed the cover-story that the machine gun Gerard was holding when police arrived at the arms dump had jammed. A report issued sometime later highlighted the fact that had the machine gun not jammed the three policemen at the scene would have surely lost their lives. Nothing was said about the fact that Gerard’s bullet ridden body had been covered in unexplained bruises and discarded quite a bit away on the back of a lorry.

News of his death would further escalate the devastation that had been circulating throughout the Crumlin Road Prison in the wake of the execution confirmation. Tom would have been particularly upset on hearing about the loss of his C Company comrade. As well as coming from the same area and IRA Company, they had both been APR (Air Raid Precaution) officers helping direct local people to shelters during the war.

The men from C Company 2nd Battalion housed within the confines of A Wing and beyond were absolutely shattered at the revelation of Gerard’s death. Almost all those recently reprieved from death had known him personally. The total devastation in the jail had reached new heights and those who found themselves the most reluctant of observers had little choice to sit back and watch it unfold.

Billy Mc Kee a veteran of many IRA campaigns quite recently recollected what it was like in the jail at that time.

When news of Gerard’s death reached the prison our morale was very low. Tom was due to be executed the next day-we were in turmoil. The night before the execution no-one slept. The men were all at the windows, listening, whispering, praying and watching. Every-time we heard a sound we thought, maybe that’s it. Maybe Tom will be spared. The night was like an eternity, we were all on a knife edge but nothing happened. Then the next morning we watched the executioner cross the yard and we realised that was it, it was over.

That feeling of it being over had came at the end of a harrowing waiting game. A waiting game which had began the previous Easter Sunday when a group of IRA Volunteers had went out on a purely diversionary operation.

The purpose of the operation had been to fire a few shots over a police car in an effort to re-deploy police resources for a proposed Easter Sunday parade. A follow up operation by the police ended in disaster with Tom being quite badly injured and the pursuing officer killed.

On July 31st all those allegedly involved in the death of Constable Murphy were sentenced to death. That death sentence on all the six youths would remain for a further four weeks despite thousands of petitions and increasing and unabated International pressure.

On Sunday the 30th of August the Stormont Government issued a statement through the Government of Northern Ireland. Shortly before the statement was issued, Tom and his comrades were called to a legal visit. D.P Marrinan announced to the six, 'I have good news for everyone except Tom.' The solicitor later relayed, ‘Tom did not bat an eyelid. When I told him later that the agitation to save his life would continue. He said "thanks do all you can, but I’m alright".’

The feverish dash for a last minute reprieve did not happen and on a cold and sullen September morning Tom Williams with head held high, would walk unfaltering towards the scaffold. According to Tom’s biographer Jim Mc Veigh 'on the morning of his execution Tom arose early dressed, washed and shaved. At around 6-30 he celebrated mass.’

A few minutes before 8am the hangman entered his cell. The two priests walked with him to the foot of the scaffold. Tom leaned over and kissed the crucifix one of the priests was carrying and in the words of Father Alexis, he was calm and steady, totally brave to the end.

A half an hour after the execution. Tom’s five comrades were lead from their cells to the prison chapel. The jail was silent. So too was the chapel except for the sobs of the small group.

One of the priests present began to say Mass but broke down weeping. Another priest stood up and continued with the mass. When the ceremony was over, all present gathered in the sacristy. It was Father Alexis who spoke. Quietly he told those around him 'this morning I met the bravest of the brave.’

To finish I would like to read from a letter dated September 1st 1942 from Tom to his friend and comrade Jimmy Perry. This letter has remained a treasured possession in the Perry family for seventy years.

Dear Jimmy,

I am bidding you goodbye but please we will meet again in the kingdom of heaven. Don’t grieve about me when I go, pray for me, if I am rewarded I will look after you until you come. Well my brave and staunch comrade I’ll continue to pray for your people and you.

Goodbye your comrade Tom.

 It would be almost sixty years before Tom remains would be removed from a prison grave and the two young C Company volunteers would finally be re-united here in Milltown Cemetery.

Go raibh maith agaibh.


  1. Heartbreaking and yet beautiful in the love and pride shown by this bravest of the brave,great oration Albert,

  2. It was very moving. Fine tribute Albert.

  3. Very hard to hold back the tears.
    The letter got the better of me, and i decided I was a Man, and I cried.
    Perfect Oration from Albert.