Christopher Owens in conversation with Dr John Ó Néill, author of Belfast Battalion: A History of the Belfast IRA 1922-1969.
In spite of the endless fallout of the Boston College and Loughinisland cases, the books on our recent history continue to find new and underexplored areas to discuss, enriching our understanding of past events.
An active presence online via his Treason Felony blog and Twitter, I am grateful to Dr.Ó Néill for taking the time to answer these questions.
John Ó Néill: A number of reasons - originally, I'd been preparing material for a biography of Jimmy Steele and, bar Sean O Coinn's A Rebel Voice, there wasn't anything of any detail to provide a Belfast IRA context for his IRA activity after 1922. I'd noticed minor discrepancies in dates and events between the main histories of the IRA (like those by Tim Pat Coogan's and John Bowyer-Bell) that I felt needed corrected and had accumulated various source materials for the Belfast IRA in that period that suggested there was scope for a book. The start point (the Civil War) and end point (September 1969) seemed obvious and, as far as possible, I tried to pace the book so that whole periods of years weren't skipped or glossed over. I had partly chosen the end date because I wanted to try and concentrate on the chronology of events in Belfast up September 1969 without writing it as if everything that subsequently happened was pre-ordained.
I also avoided dealing with the post-1969 period for another reason. The application of Information Policy (British Army's counter insurgency theory) and it's pervasive outworking into media, academia, commentary and a conscious attempt to control the narrative of events has made writing actual histories of the post-1969 period incredibly problematic. A review of the literature on the role of the media (the likes of Bill Rolston and David Miller's War on Words: A Northern Ireland Media Reader) makes it clear that a key aim of Information Policy was distorting perceptions so that, now, it is difficult to disentangle fiction from reality. Many people have become (through their own experiences) so heavily invested in a particular narrative it is hard to see how they could step back and engage with different perspectives. So, I didn't want to get bogged down in that.
CO: Reading Belfast Battalion, one is able to see that several issues that would come to a head in the late 60's. It seems there is a collective amnesia about these events in the popular conscience which was then used by differing sides to paint themselves in a more flattering light. While doing your research, would you say that the Jimmy Steele speech in Ballyglass Cemetery was the biggest surprise?
JO'N: It was one of the things that surprised me but to be honest the biggest surprise was discovering Tarlach O hUid's books on the Belfast IRA in the 1930s-1940s that everyone had overlooked (probably as they were in Irish), similarly Vincent McDowell's novel Ulster Idyll which his daughter confirmed was intended to be a thinly-disguised memoir and historically accurate. The longer term relationship of the Belfast IRA and the left is really intriguing and I think it produced more surprises than I expected. Bob Bradshaw wrote a memoir in the Irish Times in 1969 that gave the Belfast IRA's rationale for not engaging directly in the Outdoor Relief Strike.
Basically, the Belfast staff felt that to give the strike any chance to succeed the IRA couldn't be visibly involved as the Unionists would immediately exploit that to split the workers - Bradshaw also stated explicitly that the Belfast IRA was pretty far to the left at the time. Similarly there was a largely unheralded IRA/left republican club in existence in 1939-41. People are more familiar with the Peadar O'Donnell line ('a battalion of armed Catholics') on the Belfast IRA and the left but I feel that a lot of questions over O'Donnell's methods come out of the Belfast Battalion book. In some ways O'Donnell's depiction of the Belfast IRA seems to have been re-heated for the 1960s (without any critical engagement with whether it was a fair comment or not).
CO: The recent death of Billy McKee saw Chris Hudson (who played a part in negotiations with the UVF leading to the 1994 ceasefire) take the opportunity on Facebook to claim that McKee "Had to be imprisoned during WW11, because he was a Nazi sympathiser" This "IRA helping Nazis" claim seems to be the most enduring myth from this period and is often regurgitated by unionist politicians (some of whom claim that the IRA both stood on the Cave Hill and directed the bombers or were actually in the planes themselves). Do you think that, as well as serving a purpose, it's also an example of how some unionist commentators are willing to go in order to deflect from the fact that Catholics were not particularly welcome in the state of Northern Ireland at this time?
JO'N: That IRA-Nazis trope seems to be entirely a modern - it first got given a bit of traction about 1990 when Sam McAughtry (I think) claimed that an unnamed, but now dead, former IRA member once told him that the Belfast IRA helped the Nazis bomb Belfast. This is another good example of my earlier point about how historical narrative has been purposely compromised and distorted as part of security policy. I tried to detail what I could find on the Belfast IRA and German contacts during the war - judging by repeated IRA attempts in 1941-42 to make it clear that they no more supported Nazi occupation as UK occupation, they were obviously sensitive to it at the time. Ironically, contemporary newspapers make it abundantly clear that the Unionists were heavily criticised for various failures to provide air raid shelters, enforce blackout discipline and for not acting on clear signs that major air raids were imminent in Belfast.
At no time during the war did they resort to a 'but the IRA' defence, even when under real pressure over their own failings. It wasn't for another 40 odd years that the IRA helped the Nazis to bomb Belfast myth started being put about. You would struggle to find any unionist commentator who has reflected in any length on the experience of Catholics in the north after 1922.
CO: You've talked about the difficulty with this work at times due to a lot of the history being lost in the mists of time. But some of it was recorded by the IRA itself and is available in reports. This is a concept a lot of people seemingly struggle with, that such an organisation would have such paperwork. Had a lot of it been lost over time, or were there other issues in getting hold of them?
JO'N: Yeah, it seems contradictory for a clandestine organisation like the IRA to have written records, but plenty of them exist. People also forget that the Belfast IRA of the 1930s and 1940s contained individuals (like Jack McNally, Davy and Hugh Matthews, Jimmy Steele, Dan Turley etc etc) who had served in the IRA under the likes of Collins and Mulcahy prior to 1922. The IRA's sense of itself extended to trying to maintain the IRA's constitution, organisation and structure and, as far as it could, administrative practices such as written reports and memos. Moss Twomey (Adjutant General and Chief of Staff during the 1920s and 1930s) maintained an archive of such documents for the period up to about 1936 that is in UCD now. Brian Hanley has studied them in some detail.
There were other dumps of documents held by individuals (who seem to be mainly Cumann na mBan members) that are now in the National Library in Dublin and other archives. You wouldn't know what you would find in them - I found what seems to be Pearse Kelly's own typed copy of the notes of Stephen Hayes interrogation in one archive and I'm sure there's plenty more interesting finds in other collections. John Bowyer Bell seemed to have amassed a collection of either copies or originals of documents that he had got access to in researching his book Secret Army in the 1960s but I'm not sure what happened to it. I found that Crown Record files (in PRONI) were also a good source for documents seized by the RUC. The RUC also seized some IRA document dumps (such as one found in a house in Devonshire Street in Belfast in 1942). There also occasional documents that are held in private hands. Internal IRA reports and documents dating from as late as 1969 have been published by various sources.
CO: Your blog (Treason Felony) is a great resource for this period, with photos, writings and maps (especially the map of the Belfast IRA in this period) and it compliments a point that Dolours Price made; that republicans were very much an exclusive, elitist group that stood apart from ordinary nationalists. Although they lived next door to them, they were very much a secretive organisation and they could always regroup in some shape or form when arrests were made. From compiling these stories and evidence, what impression do you get of the typical IRA volunteer in this period?
JO'N: In so far as the elitist goes, I'm quite interested in how republicans used commemoration in this period from the 1920s to 1960s - often it is represented as a kind of martyr worship - I imagine people feel it has synergies between with Catholic devotion to saints. If you look at the County Antrim memorial erected by the National Graves Association in Milltown, the lists of names from 1920 onwards are quite incomplete (a significant number of IRA casualties from 1920-22 are not listed). That suggests a less slavish devotion to martyrology - I think the real purpose of commemoration was part of that elitism - republican fatalities and those subjected to long terms of imprisonment were probably focused on to deter those who felt they couldn't handle the pressures of carrying out IRA operations or imprisonment (i.e. they would either fail at the critical moment or succumb to pressure to inform).
Various memoirs attest to how, once in the IRA, for security reasons as much as anything else, you typically socialised amongst other republicans and avoided activities where your absence would maybe get noticed (when you were involved in IRA activities). Jimmy Drumm's son Seamus says that when his father was interned he could return home after a number of years in prison and some people who lived in their street didn't know he was gone or didn't realise there people interned. That might reflect indifference (on the part of the public) or elitism or a bit of both.
Brian Hanley has looked at the stated occupations of those involved in the Belfast IRA (e.g. in the 1930s) and there are lists with occupations (e.g. in Donal Donnelly's book) that show the Belfast IRA predominantly drew from the same unskilled or semi-skilled professions where Belfast Catholics typically found employment with only the occasional professional like a teacher or accountant. A bit like the more recent conflict, many of those who spent long years in prison spent considerable time reading, some writing and many learned Irish.
CO: One tale that I was particularly fascinated by was that of Billy McKee and the tricolour (in 1963, McKee removed the flag from an IRA colour party at the annual Wolfe Tone commemoration, leading to an expulsion from Cathal Goulding). In The Lost Revolution, Hanley and Miller don't go into any detail about it and (to me) imply that it was almost an act of cowardice, whereas you rightly point out that McKee (despite being portrayed as a militant) was seemingly attempting to avoid conflict whereas Goulding/Billy McMillen (later of the Officials) could be interpreted as wanting to provoke a fight. This, of course, goes back to the earlier point of people sticking to a particular narrative for their own end, but with these stories emerging we do genuinely get a sense of how internal politics and overreactions in some cases led to a fundamental split and everlasting bitterness. As time marches on, can you see more stories of this ilk emerging?
JO'N: I think (like the tricolour story) - a lot of individual stories are already in the public domain but not necessarily given much emphasis in the narrative of what happened. In reality, I think that Goulding and the senior figures loyal to him totally misjudged how events were going to play out in the summer of 1969 but couldn't admit they got it so badly wrong. Rather than accept criticism for the failure of the IRA to be prepared, Goulding and others went on the attack by dismissing the criticism as really being down to conservative opposition to elements of his political strategy. In that regard, as I mentioned earlier, it was easy to rehash Peadar O'Donnell's maxim about a 'battalion of Catholics' (and I suspect that O'Donnell's real problem with Belfast was that it wouldn't provide him with a platform from which to mount a challenge for the leadership of the IRA).
CO: In Belfast Battalion, you talk about the lack of accounts in regards to seemingly organised loyalist violence. Gareth Mulvenna has talked about the struggles of getting some loyalists to speak about their experiences. Do you hold out hope for a Belfast Battalion style book focusing on loyalists from this period?
JO'N: I don't know if we will get a book in that sense. There are maybe two divergent dynamics at work here - just as the IRA wrote reports and memos, I think the IRA needed to substantiate itself by being visible, issuing statements and newspapers. Where violence clearly emanated from a unionist source there were no claims of responsibility, statements issued or any public voice that claimed to speak on behalf of those who (e.g. carried bombings in the 1930s). To me, this is entirely intentional - unionist politicians, press and RUC typically downplayed attacks and there were no mass raids or arrests (often the telling signature that the RUC believed unionists were involved - IRA attacks were inevitably followed by intense raids and multiple arrests).
All this signalled to the Catholic community that those who carried out the attacks were beyond the reach of the law (I don't think this is much different from contemporary issues like parades and bonfires where unionists effectively claim the right to be exempt from the regulations and legal norms of society). It isn't even entirely clear who was directing the bombings etc in the likes of the 1930s (which is why I am not sure whether there is merit is differentiating between 'unionists' and 'loyalists' as the division often seems purely superficial).
There were a handful of arrests of Protestants for gun/bomb attacks during street violence in 1935 although it isn't clear from court proceedings whether they were co-ordinating their actions with others in some unionist grouping or it was part of the general melee of violence.
CO: Since the publication, have others approached you with their own tales involving family members?
JO'N: Part of the reason for setting up the blog was to see if it could reach people who were willing to add their own stories from family history and I've had a few of those. I've been fortunate in the number of people who were able to add details, open up new lines of inquiry and provide documents and images.
CO: Are you familiar with Paddy Hoey's Shinners, Dissos and Dissenters? He writes that: "republican activist media space and its writing comes to represent a Gramscian idea of contesting hegemony, or the battle for control or dominance of the space politically and culturally." Considering the context of the times with republican (as well as) communist papers and radio broadcasts being banned, would you say that these papers/broadcasts were just as important as the commemorations in terms of keeping the IRA alive and, inadvertently, reinforcing the sense of elitism that some perceived of republicans?
JO'N: Yeah, I think there is an element of that alright. In some ways, the rewards people got for participating in republican and communist organisations were so limited that feeling they were part of an elite isn't necessarily something they wanted to avoid either (as the elitism in itself may have added attraction for people to potentially sacrifice their liberty or life for the sake of contesting hegemony).
It happened in more ways than we probably consider. For example - I had a look before at Belfast republicans and the GAA and how naming GAA clubs after the likes of Joe McKelvey, Tom Williams, Seamus Burns etc enabled them to create a sort of virtual architecture for Belfast. Denied access to creating and naming the physical landscape of the city, its statuary and public monuments, instead they populate or erect monuments of sorts in a different type of public space (in this case the activity of the GAA, including fixtures and match reports where the names are repeated on a daily/weekly basis).
CO: Have you any future projects lined up?
JO'N: I had started out off trying to put together a biography of Jimmy Steele. Next year is the fiftieth anniversary of his death, so I would hope to complete and publish one to coincide with that anniversary.
⏩ Christopher Owens was a reviewer for Metal Ireland and finds time to study the history and inherent contradictions of Ireland.