Unfree Derry- A Timeline of Republican Derry during the "Dark 50's."
When the "Northern Campaign" started in the early 40's the IRA's Derry Brigade boasted over 150 volunteers. By the time it ended in 1945, internment and the hand of the B Specials and RUC had reduced that number to nearly zero. 4 members of the Brigade died of medical neglect in prison and many others were debilitated. Many who were interned felt little inclination to become re-involved or else found little worth returning to in the IRA. Others, like Sean Keenan, lived in sem-retirement, or like Hugh McAteer, turned their hand to parliamentary politics.
In 1947 a shell of an organization reemerged in Derry. They drilled and organized, building up a real but unseen presence. Eamon Timoney, a respected 40's man, took the reins as O/c and remained in that position throughout the 50's.(1) Tim Pat. Coogan describes him and his fellow organizer Scamus Ramsaigh as "unusually good men."
Hugh McAteer polled 21,000 votes as a Sinn Fein candidate in the Westminster elections. His election officer, Ned Gillespie, a Tan War veteran, announced "There is a much deeper issue involved than the mere winning of a seat. A hastily recruited, and to a very large extent, inexperienced election organisation did very well. We are satisfied with the result. I consider it to be a good sign for the future of Sinn Fein in the area."
The tricolor had recently been banned but around Easter many still turned up flying over the city in prominent places. The St Patricks Day parade was banned as well, as it had been the year before.(2)
A number of cultural organizations were formed around this time. A branch of the Gaelic league, Craobh Sean Dolan, was created in 49. "(We) never established a formal teaching discipline," founding member Dermot Kelly recalls. "This did not, of course, deter us from spreading the Gaelic word locally and loudly." Membership was small but active and in the course of the next few years organized a number of popular events and ceilidhs.(3)
In 1951 a St Patrick's day parade, led by the Nationalist Party and Anti-Partition League, marched into the walled city center with a Tricolor at the head. The RUC used this as a pretext to a baton charge the parade, and after some rioting it was scattered. Tricolors were also hoisted over the offices of the Derry Journal and even on Walker's Pillar, a landmark for local Orangemen.
A song was written in honor of the events of the day:
‘Twas on the 17th of March,
In the year of Fifty-One,
Inside the Walls,
There were some squalls,
That’s where the deeds were done,
Some Irishmen, they bore the flag,
of Orange, White and Green.
Brooke’s R.U.C. dare not agree,
to let the flag be seen."
Cllrs. James Doherty and James Hegarty, and and APL member, James Lynch were arrested in the aftermath.
Similar scenes played out across the 6 counties throughout the 50's. Orange marches, however, passed without incident in the city.(4) One Orange march in Derry was facilitated by over 600 policemen with commando units to back them up- yet the Unionist politicians claimed that permitting nationalist parades would strain the police. (5)
In July of 51 De Valera visited the city to celebrate the opening of Gaelic Week. There was some protest from republicans who had endured his regime in the 40's, but the image of Dev as the War of Independence leader was still strong and most of nationalist Derry turned out to welcome him. "Large areas such as the Bogside, the Brandywell, William Street and many other districts were festooned with Irish Tricolours, papal flags and bunting. Eucharistic arches were resurrected, altered and erected along the route that the Chief would travel," Dermot Kelly recalled in "The Derry Journal." A party of Old IRA veterans escorted him through the city. "We could follow the progress of the procession by the eruptions of cheering from the crowds that thronged the streets which probably had never seen a congregation of such magnitude or enthusiasm. The atmosphere was charged with emotion as elderly women were seen to ‘break down in tears’ and, with others, thanked God that they had lived to see the day."(6)
By this time the IRA in the city were around twenty strong and confident enough to suggest a raid for arms on Ebrington, a territorial army barracks inside a RN/RAF anti-submarine school. Chief of Staff Tony Magan came up from Dublin to investigate, and he another GHQ member took part in the raid. The action was "was well rehearsed beforehand; each man knew his job and the part he had to play." They smashed two locks and sawed through a door to gain entry. Twenty Lee Enfields, twenty stens, two brens, 6 BESA machine guns, and ammo were loaded into a truck outside and within two hours the arms were away and the truck back in its garage.
The British were unaware of the raid until a few hours later when the IRA put out a statement. People at first refused to believe that the IRA had done it- the IRA, to their knowledge, had been non-existent since the 43-45 period. Reality was quite the contrary. The raid was a tremendous boost to the IRA, its morale, and its arsenal, and set the pattern for many more raids of its kind (a strategically sophisticated "silent theft without armed confrontation.") (7) The weapons were superior to anything the Free State Army had.
11 people were arrested afterwards but they were all released and no further arrests made. Security was increased at Ebrington but by the late 50's both the Air and Naval facilities were closed.
The Saor Uladh split around the same time took a number of volunteers from the Derry Brigade; Phil O'Donnell, a veteran of the British Army, Joe Coyle and Tommy McCool, who would later die in a premature explosion, and around half a dozen others who were frustrated with the IRA's perceived stagnancy. Other than the unauthorized operation in Derry City (in October) which spurred the split, their activities in the area were minimal although the Derry men were vital to the organization. Connie Green, a quiet worker from Derry City and former commando, was their training officer. (8)
The Anti-Partition Leage-led St Patricks Day parade was baton-charged once more, resulting in the worst rioting Derry had seen in over 30 years. 30 people were injured, including 10 hospitalized and 2 with fractured skulls. Rioting carried on into the early hours of the next day, when two priests were called in to mediate.(9)
Barney McMonagle writes of the incident: "The impressive display outside Gault's at the corner of Little James Street ("Fresh Fruit, Flowers and Vegetables Daily") was purloined for ammo. A fusillade of turnips, tomatoes and carrots stopped a baton charge up Sackville Street.
"The Derry Journal published a picture of a cop with a club about to crack down on the head of Helen Kelly, daughter of Paddy and Gretta, the horse dealers. It caused no end of outrage at the time. Eddie McAteer created a fuss at Stormont over it. It was talked about in Derry for years." (10)
The picture was sent to many other papers but only one in Manchester carried it. Writes Seamus Deane, "That was the first time that I felt just how closed off we were; that there was no chance of having the injustice of the Protestant sectarian state or its militant and paramilitary apparatus exposed." (11)
Unlike later years, both parades were forgotten and "had no political sequel." It was however the last one for the time being and the RUC kept a heavy presence in the streets on St Patrick's Day in the years following. (12)
After the success of the 1951 "Gaelic Week," the local Gaelic League group organized another. Seamus MacManus was the guest speaker. Only 100 people turned up for him- a far cry from Dev's crowd, but there were still various events, contests, and fundraisers to raise money which was eventually given to the Catholic Building Fund. (13)
Derry volunteer Manus Canning was chosen for the ill-fated Felstead arms raid. He spent the next 6 years inside various English jails.
At a political level, 1953 saw the election of Eddie McAteer- brother of Hugh- as a Nationalist MP on the Foyle constituency. The Nationalist Party was politically simple and more or less a Catholic response to the Orange state. Yet it was the primary organization in which most Nationalist-minded Derry men and women entrusted their hopes for improvement.
In his time, Eddie was the public face of Catholic and Nationalist Derry. "Eddie was closely engaged with many of the problems affecting the everyday life of constituents. The acute housing problems in Belmont and Springtown camps, gerrymandering, religious discrimination in employment and the campaign to have a University built in Derry were all to the fore." (14)
Newly-crowned Queen Elizabeth visited the city while on a 3 day tour of the North but the visit passed without incident.
The IRA continued to organize. Derry city was their primary locale in the county, with much smaller cells in other centers. Liam O'Comain, from nearby Limavady, recalls what it was like to join the IRA during this period:
"It was a freezing night with hailstones battering us as we cycled to our meeting point full of enthusiasm, and when we reached our destination a large gaunt figure wearing a red beret walked out of the shadows and upon brief introductions led us along country lanes to a large barn where four other men were holding a training session. After introductions, one of the latter whom I shall refer to as Kenneth, took us to the other end of the barn where he questioned us thoroughly — it was more like the third degree — at the end of which we each took an oath of allegiance and became volunteers of the Irish Republican Army.
.... Following a period of training with a 303 and a Thompson sub-machine gun, we concluded with some drill and then we all left into a blizzard, with my friends and I cycling the home journey full with the sense of achievement." (15)
Manus Canning, standing for Sinn Fein from jail in England, pulled 35% of the vote in the Westminster elections. He was defeated by Unionist Robin Chichester-Clark. (16)
A plan was considered by the IRA called "Operation Thermite," in which it was proposed to flood the Naval Air base at Eglington by blowing up a wall retaining the Foyle river. The idea was abandoned. (17)
Fianna Uladh held their first function in the city, a ceileidh at the Guildhall. Liam Kelly gave a speech and answered people's questions about the organization, while challenging both the Anti-Partition League and Sinn Fein. The Irish Times quoted him as saying "Come into our ranks and we will put something more effective into your hands than humble petition or a sheaf of resolutions."
In November, Derry man Connie Green was killed in a Saor Uladh attack on a police station in Fermanagh. His death was a shock as his parents and workmates were unaware of his republican activities. He was hastily buried in Monaghan to avoid a public scandal, but word leaked out to the outrage of Unionists, Partitionists in the South, and even the IRA who feared they would be caught up in the repression that inevitably followed. He was Derry's first casualty of the campaign, but as he was not in the IRA his death was nearly written out. (18)
Organizers arrived in Derry City and South Derry in August to train volunteers and collect intelligence on potential targets. (19)
In December, the Derry City brigade received only 12 hours notice that "Operation Harvest" was to begin. In spite of this and a poor supply of explosives, a 5 man team was able to destroy the BBC transmitter in Rosemount and make a clean getaway. (20) A radar station at Barricault was also destroyed.
In South Derry a flying column led by Seamus Costello was at work, and at Magherafelt burned down their secondary target, the courthouse, with a mix of parrafin and creosote.(21) They also destroyed several bridges across the Bann linking Derry to Antrim. Not long after, Costello's activity ended when a grenade exploded in a safe house, setting off a loaded thompson gun. He bore the brunt of the explosion, lost a finger, and was sent south to recuperate. (22)
Christmas eve was marked with shots being fired at two barracks and arrests.
On January 15 two volunteers from Dublin, Pearse Doyle and Pat Hodgins, were arrested in a cottage at Glenshane Pass. On the same day a police hut along the border was destroyed and two days later a transformer at Eglington was damaged. On the 17th Derry City was plunged into darkness for a short while when a homemade gelignite bomb was thrown over the fence of a transformer on the outskirts of the city. On the 22nd a police hut in Claudy and a bridge at Glenshane were damaged. (23)
Derry City was now heavily militarized, with pressure increasing from the RUC, Police commando teams, and the B-Specials, against whom the IRA had forbidden activity to prevent an explosion of sectarian conflict. Eamon Timoney expressed his frustration to the leadership; "'Our boys are anxious to let the “B” patrols have it, but I have objected... If you say the word “let them have it” we will not say no." (24) Operations continued nonetheless. On Febuary 8th a mansion being used as a government store was destroyed and two transformers damaged, and there was a shootout on the night of the 15-16 at Duncreggan. 18th- shots exchanged in Colraine. 22nd- Transformer at Maghera attacked.(25)
In early 57 a plan was devised to shut down the railways in the North by wrecking trains and then attacking the breakdown cranes sent to fix them. As there were a limited number of breakdown cranes, it would only take a few attacks before they were eliminated and railroads were paralyzed.
Eamon Timoney worked as a clerk in Derry's railway station and was able to procure timetables and information. On March 2nd two volunteers stopped a goods train shortly outside Strabane, ordered the crew to return on foot, and took over the train themselves. A few miles from Derry they set it on maximum speed and jumped off. According to the plan, charges were to have been placed in the line which would blow the train into the river (and, later, the breakdown crane). Some activities earlier had resulted in heavy security along the way and those tasked with placing the charge were unable to do so. The train, unopposed, crashed full speed into the train station; "the result was a most expensive wreck." No one was hurt. (26)
By itself the operation was a success, but the greater plan was not carried through and most of Derry City's republicans were lifted or went underground in the aftermath.
Timoney was arrested while OTR on March 30th and spent the rest of the campaign in Crumlin Road jail. He was first sentenced to four years but successfully defended himself and proved the prosecution's witnesses had perjured themselves. Failing in this, the state brought him up on different charges and sentenced him to ten years. Fellow POW Seamus Linehan recalls he was a "great character, always in the best of form and always willing to help fellows get over the (depression of being inside.)”(27)
Meanwhile, operations continued around Co. Derry:
March 3rd- GNR goods office in Derry City burned.
March 16th- Transformer blown up at Gulladuff
March 17th- Transformers damaged
March 30th- In Dungiven, five busses and a lorry destroyed in an Ulster Transport Authority Garage. Damage estimated at 30,000 pounds.
March 31st- In Derry City (the day after Timoney was arrested) over 100 houses were searched, 23 arrested, and 300 lbs of gelignite seized. Over the next two days more arms were discovered in a GAA club and in a farmhouse.
"Raids! Raids! Raids!" Eddie McAteer lamented in a public statement. "After 30 odd years of Unionist assurances that the Border has been stabilised, we find our selves right back in the terrible twenties. This is the harvest sown by years of repression and Unionist plotting against the minority entrusted to their tender mercies. How long Oh Lord, how long?”
July 11th- 50 rifles found by police.
August 10th- Swatragh Barracks was "extensively destroyed" in a machine gun attack. Many homes were raided in the aftermath and the Army searched the Sperrin mountains
August 26- Post office garage damaged by fire.
August 30th- Telephone exchange at Brookehall wrecked.
September 19- Derry city RAF building damaged.
September 25- Police drill hall in Tullintrain bombed.
October 27- shootout with police patrol
Such a list of incidents can be misleading if taken at face value. First, the many small targets reflect an insufficient supply of explosives rather than lack of ambition on the volunteers' part. Second, there is no indication of the pain and work by the IRA and their supporters. Many men from around the country spent weeks hiding in dugouts, overstressed, sleep deprived, dirty, and undernourished, waiting for the right moment.
Bowyer Bell, for example, describes a South Derry man, "something of a genius in the devising of dugouts and dumps," who designed a hideout in Knockoneil in which an ASU was crammed. When the latter arrived, however, they found the local volunteers had been lifted or transferred and they had to rebuild a network from scratch. They had to set up training classes, coordinate meetings, construct new dumps and dugouts, and set up a new intelligence network. From the summer of 57 until early 58 they organized and waited. After several setbacks, the reward for all their efforts was- in January 1958- a second attack on Swartagh and some explosives operations. (29)
Such lists are also only indicative of what was carried out; there is no indication of the many operations planned for and foiled, or forced to be abandoned at the last minute. A good is example of this is seen in an early "Operation Harvest" plan was captured by the Free state in 1957. In the plan Derry played a larger role than it eventually did in real life, with "Derry City, Derry North, Derry South, Derry South-East" named as bases for columns. (Only Derry City and South Derry had forces of size.)
The document went on to describe their targets:
"In Derry City— Lisahally oil refinery, G.N.R. Station and L.M.S. Station, B.B.C. relay transmitter station, Custom House and Tax Office.
Derry North — Radar station at Barricault.
Derry South— Destruction of Territorial Army Barracks at Magherafelt and mining power plant in the same town; seizure of Dungiven R.U.C. post; blowing up field guns at Newbridge Airport and destruction of the base itself; blocking of the Derry-Belfast road at Glenshane Pass and preparation of an ambush there; destruction by local units of Ballyroan R.U.C. post and B-Special range.
In Derry South-East— Destruction of bridges across the Bann at Toome, New Ferry, and Portglenone." (30)
As Sean Cronin notes, it was an "early draft." (31) Fewer men took part in Derry activities than the document set out, and several attacks (such as that on the field guns) were either abandoned or were prevented by other reasons.
In 1958 there were six POWs in the Crum from Co Derry, all serving 10 year sentences, including:
Eamon Timoney, 32, Artillery Street, Derry City
Liam Flanagan, 22, Carrowmena, Maghera
Patrick Fox, Derry City
Patrick Joseph O'Kane, Dungiven
Manus Canning was finishing up his sentence in Wormwood-Scrubs, England.
In the Free State, Michael McEldowney from Maghera was serving a six month sentence in Mountjoy, and Laurence Bateson of Maghrafelt was interned in the Curragh. (32)
In January, bridges were damaged at Curran and Glenshale, and customs huts at Killea and Molenan wrecked. Operations for the rest of the campaign were few and far between.
In July, an Orange March went through the all-nationalist town of Dungiven unnanounced, and against orders, and riots ensued. Catholics responded with a boycott of Orange-owned businesses. The last march had been in 1953, which resulted in riots, and the authorities had banned such events, to the chagrin of Loyalists. The next sunday a Union Jack, on an electric pole on the grounds of a Catholic Church, was taken down and there were three more days of riots. A 1959 parade was rerouted to prevent a recurrence of events resulting in a schism of sorts within the Orange Order between local hardliners, and their supporters, and those who followed the rulings. Ironically most local protestants supported the rerouting. (33) While not a serious confrontation, the Dungiven incident is indicative of how easily tensions could flare up despite the overall appearance of calm.
1959- Manus Canning again squared off with Chichester-Clarke in the Westminster Elections. Liam O'Comain canvassed with his election officer, Gerry "the bird" Doherty:
"(We) covered the constituency a number of times and he enjoyed going through staunch unionist areas crawling as I thundered out the propaganda and in return receiving threats from many of the inhabitants." (34) Despite their efforts, Canning came in with even fewer votes than before. Fewer people took part in the election as well, reflecting the overall dissilusionment with republican politics. (35)
THE LAST DEATH
The last casualty of the campaign was the accidental death of 18 year old volunteer John Duffy on May 7, 1963. He was examining arms with Mickey Montgomery in the latter's home when a revolver went off, wounding Duffy. Montgomery called a priest and Duffy died shortly after.
The Republican movement put out a statement, saying (in part): “The sympathy of the entire Movement is tendered to the family of the dead youth. No blame is attached to the other man, who barely had the revolver in his hand when the shot went off.”
His death set off a trigger of events. “The city had not seen such intense police activity since the outbreak of violence in the North in 1956,” one reporter wrote. Montgomery went into hiding while the police conducted searches, roadblocks, and inquiries. A rather large arms dump was uncovered and valuable gear seized, leading Unionists to claim they had foiled an IRA plot. (36)
During his first year inside "The Crum", Eamon Timoney had written an article for the secret POW paper "Saoirse," calling for republicans to take up local issues- "day-to-day local government with co-operatives, with economic and social issues" and to revive the left-republicanism of the 30's (37). The analysis was "not particularly deep" (38) but it certainly reflected the direction republicans in Derry were to take in the following years.
The 1950's had been for Derry "a grim decade, marked by high levels of emigration, continued discrimination, occasional conflict and rare good news." Over 12% of the city's population emigrated.(39) The city was "an unemployment blackspot in Northern Ireland, itself the most depressed region in the UK." (40) The latter half of the Border Campaign introduced a new generation of young republicans, men like Eamonn Melaugh, Liam O'Comain, Johnny White and Mickey Montgomery, who were committed to ending the social evils of institutionalized sectarianism, unemployment, homelessness and poor housing conditions that affected the people. In the following decade organizations sprung up like the Derry Housing Action Committee and the Citizens Action Committee, with the IRA lending its muscle behind the scenes. Baton charges by the RUC and B Specials received international coverage and spurred people to take part in the new social revolution- quite unlike the reaction to the St Patricks day incidents in the 50's. The rejuvenated movement in Derry showed "fluid radicalism"(41) that transcended the various divisions and brought together republicans, nationalists, socialists, and the ordinary people of Derry, both Catholic and Protestant.
The 50's were indeed "dark years", but the people of Derry showed dignity and strength throughout the long road to freedom, during both good times and bad.
As written by Patrick Pearse,
"I say to my people that they are holy,
That they are august despite their chains.
That they are greater than those that hold them."
Notes and Sources:
1- J Bowyer Bell, "The Secret Army."
5. Christopher Humble, "The Flight of the Earls." Page 88.
7. Saoirse, June 2001, "50 Years Ago Today" and Bowyer Bell, pages 250-51.
8. Fianna Uladh report from the Irish Times, 1955. Rosslea etc, from Hugh Jordan, "Milestones in Murder" and "The IRA" by Tim Pat Coogan.
15. Liam O'Comain, "In Pursuit of Revolution in Ireland: Thoughts and Memiors of an Irish Revolutionary." Retrieved from irelandsown.net/TRMakingRev
17. Tim Pat Coogan, "The IRA."
18 Hugh Jordan, "Milestones in Murder." Also TP Coogan.
19. Richard English, "Armed Struggle." Pg 73.
20. Bell, "The Secret Army"
23. John Maguire "IRA Internments and the Irish Government: Subversives and the State, 1939- 1962."
24. Belfast Newsletter, quoted in Henry Patterson, "Ireland Since 1939."
26. Bell, "The Secret Army." Bell quotes extensively from a manuscript by Timoney and Seamus Ramsaigh called "The Campaign of the 50's: Notes and observations on the Campaign in the North with Especial reference to Republican activities in Derry." Deire-Fomhair, 1967.
27. Seamus Linehan, "A Rebel Spirit: the Life and Times of Seamas O Lionochain" https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?v=info&expand=1&nearby&id=140265629383498&refid=17
28. Maguire. Quote from McAteer from "Resistance" by Sean Cronin.
30. Sean Cronin, "Resistance." Reprinted by Irish Freedom Press.
32. The United Irishman, 1958
33. Dominic Bryan, "Orange Parades: The Politics of Ritual, Tradition and Control."
34. O'Comain, "In Pursuit..."
36. "50 Years Ago," Saoirse, May 2010.
37. Sean Swan, "Official Irish Republicanism."
38. Brian Hanley and Scott Millar, "The Lost Revolution."
41. Hanley and Millar.