Monday, November 25, 2013
Connie Green and the Rosslea Raid
CONNIE GREEN AND THE ROSSLEA RAID
By 1955, several years had passed since Liam Kelly was expelled from the IRA and formed Saor Uladh, but there had been little action in that time beyond training and organizing. The organization initially consisted of most of the Derry and Tyrone brigades, but membership spread to pockets around the country, fueled primarily by the IRA's lack of action in the North, in addition to ideological differences such as what some saw as a "civil war mentality" in the Southern IRA men who dominated policy making and strategy.
IRA intelligence kept tabs on the organization, and reported back in mid-1955 that they appeared to be planning an attack on one of several targets. In the end they chose the RUC barracks in Rosslea, a sleepy two story building guarded by 4 or 5 men. The object was to capture their store of weapons (whatever political implications were intended is up for debate). Despite being an elected official on both sides of the border, Liam Kelly would be taking part, along with men from around the country, from Derry to Cork.
At 5:40 on the morning of November 26th, a column of Saor Uladh men in two cars approached the barracks. They placed a mine by a guardroom window on the bottom floor and withdrew to the back. It exploded, shaking the building to its foundations and setting off the alarm, providing a 6' x 3' hole through which they could enter. The entry party went through whilst raking the bottom floor with gunfire. To the side was the stairway leading to the top floor, where the arms rack was. They first called up for the policemen to surrender.
Sergeant William R Morrow, in charge of the station and living in the married quarters, had jumped out of bed, grabbed a sten gun, and was watching through the shadows and smoke as the other policemen roused themselves. He responded to Saor Uladh's call to surrender with a burst of gun fire into the sea of smoke below. There then followed an exchange of gunfire at the stairway for some time (one report said 15 minutes). What Sgt Morrow did not know was that he was shooting at a World War 2 veteran and former British special forces soldier, Connie Green. Saor Uladh's training officer, he was leading the attack on the stairway but was hit in the side. From his position, Morrow saw some movement and then there was silence. He crept downstairs and found the raiders taken their wounded leader and had withdrawn, abandoning some of their own arms in the process (including American tear gas pistols and Thompson guns.*) (1) The whole affair lasted only 20 minutes.
The B-specials were mobilized for an enormous, lengthy manhunt, sweeping the countryside and raiding local houses for arms. Nothing turned up however; the column was gone.
Gordon Knowles, an orderly, had been on the ground floor by the window and was knocked unconscious by the mine blast. He then received 7 gunshot wounds in the back from the fire of the entry party, though they most liked were not even aware of his presence. He was rushed to the hospital in critical condition, and was on the danger list for some time. By a miracle he survived (and ended up marrying the nurse who took care of him). Sgt Morrow received the George Cross for his actions at the stairway.
Connie Green was less fortunate. He was spirited off by his comrades to the other side of the border and brought to a farmhouse belonging to James and Ellen McKenna near the village of Tydavnet. Medical help was much more difficult to get however and after a friendly priest administered Last Rites, he died a few hours later. He was 35.
While smarting from his death, Kelly did his best to ease the disastrous threat of publicity. He called up his friend and political ally Sean MacBride, asking for there to be no inquest. That was impossible, but MacBride pulled some strings to have the inquest held secretly. Garda detectives took control of the house, removed evidence, and oversaw the controlled inquest. The verdict was listed as death from shock and hemorrhage. The doctor recalled "There was no name... In the age collumn I wrote 'about 30'. That was all." (2)
Connie was buried the next day in Carrickroe Cemetery (north of the border, in his native Ulster) with the rites of the Catholic Church and a full salute from his comrades.
At dinner with the column on the night before the raid, Connie Green had remarked it was their "last supper." It turned out to be prophetic. (4)
His mother knew he was missing but only learned he was dead from a priest who knew of the burial. His death came as a shock to the family, who were unaware of any republican activities of his. They hardly ever spoke about it afterwards. His friends, among whom he was well liked, knew him just as a war veteran turned plasterer and had not know of any "involvement" either.
He had joined the army at the age of 16. During World War 2 he saw action in North Africa as a sergeant in the commandos, and later in Italy, before transferring to the paratroopers. He was given the Africa Star and Italy Star, though he was reticent about his wartime experiences. He was a handy boxer as well. Later as Saor Uladh's training officer he brought experience that was unrivaled by any volunteer at the time. Liam Kelly later remarked in a booklet of ballads about Green that he was "a remarkable soldier, and given all he had been through, it is even more remarkable he died on the receiving end of RUC bullets in his native Ulster." (3)
Liam Kelly had persuaded Connie to join his fledgling organization in the first place, and was present as he died; his memory would stay with him the rest of his life. When organizing in America decades later, Kelly named a support group of transport workers the "Connie Green" Republican Club. Its fund-raising abilities were legendary, and consisted of nearly all non-Irish workers. Connie would have been proud.
On the surface, it was a daring move by Saor Uladh to initiate its own war when the IRA appeared to be doing nothing. Beyond that, they had lost an invaluable volunteer and events backfired on them in every possible way.
The British authorities at first blamed the usual suspects in the IRA. The IRA quickly denied responsibility. Suspicion then fell on Laochra Uladh, Brendan O'Boyle's organization, but it had more or less died with O'Boyle earlier that year. No one knew there was another group at work, and its leader was a member of their own assembly in Storemont.
The IRA's statement disclaming the attack contained a warning for people not to join Saor Uladh, though without naming them. The IRA had been none too warm towards them or their leader, political heretics and strategic liabilities, and the Rosslea attack certainly did nothing to endear them.
In response Fianna Uladh put out a statement berating the IRA for aiding the state's "process of elimination," which would focus repression against them:
"Fianna Uladh neither admits nor denies responsibility. It is now and always our policy not to felon set, inform on political prisoners, or to give any information whatsoever to the usurpers of our country which would aid the process of elimination, which in our opinion helps the English army of occupation and its satellites."
On December 16, Saor Uladh finally accepted responsibility for the raid, but the war of words over statements denying involvement would continue for the rest of Saor Uladh's existence (to the chagrin of its volunteers).
All this made no difference to the public. Ruairi O'Bradaigh later explained how "IRA attacks, eg Armagh, Omagh and Arborfield in England had been against the British army and were acceptable to the broadest section of opinion. Not so Roslea and Dublin took advantage of this." Response was indeed overwhelmingly negative, particularly when it was realized Sgt Morrow's wife and two children were in the barracks- albeit nowhere near the targeted weapons or mine blast. John Costello, the Taoiseach himself, exclaimed "We have seen Irishmen fighting Irishmen in the presence of a woman and her children," and then, a chilling threat to all Republicans: "your next move is your last!"
To make matters worse, word leaked out a man was killed and secretly buried. The Sunday Independent ran a story on the 28th, based on rumors, questioning why more was not being said about this. After much finger pointing and frenzied statements the secret inquest (or lack thereof) came to light. Unionists in the North were livid. Secretary of Home Affairs Hanna declared "I charge the Government in the South to be morally responsible for the raid." Another said it was an example of why their fathers had refused to join the 26 Counties in the first place.
The Rosslea Raid set off a chain of events which led to the IRA commencing their Border Campaign in 56. Despite the backlash, Saor Uladh did not go away; it remained active for another 5 years, and its volunteers went on for decades more. It was just one expression of the sentiment for freedom for Ireland, for which Connie gave his life, along with thousands like him. As Patrick Pearse wrote,
"They shall be remembered forever,
They shall be alive forever,
They shall be speaking forever
The people shall hear them forever."
*- From the cache Brendan O'Boyle gathered; his supporters transferred it to SU after his death.
1-Details of the attack from J Bowyer Bell's book.
2- Most of the information on Connie Green and his war record from "Milestones in Murder" by Hugh Jordan.
3- Statements and inquest background from "The IRA" by TP Coogan
Most other info from newspaper clippings and personal reminisces. Information is scant, often contradictory, and the handful of people present who could clear things up are now mostly deceased, so apologies for any inaccuracies; any corrections or additions for the record would be greatly appreciated.