MEN OF THE NORTH
Part One: The Cause of Campbell
"We men of the north had a word to say
And we said it then, in our own dour way
And spoke as we thought was best."
- "The Man from God Knows Where"
And we said it then, in our own dour way
And spoke as we thought was best."
- "The Man from God Knows Where"
THE SAVOY CINEMA
In July 1953 the Savoy Cinema in Newry was destroyed in an explosion.
The posters on the outside had been proclaiming the arrival of a documentary about the recent crowning of Queen Elizabeth II, "A Queen is Crowned." The documentary condensed the 8 hour coronation proceedings into 79 minutes, thus providing to those who could not see the event in person an opportunity to watch it in their local cinema, in crisp and then-expensive technicolor, accompanied by Lawrence Olivier's narration. The pomposity of the script, no less than the grandiose coronation itself, elicited cringes from nationalists, for whom the coronation was a cause for protests across the country against partition and the general misery of their lot in the North.
The Newry town council, with a large Nationalist majority, was the only one in the North to refuse to pass a resolution congratulating the Queen. Nationalist Councilor Matt Cunningham made a short speech opposing any such bill, saying: “As an Irishman I am proud of my birthright. The British government imposed partition, against the wishes of the Irish people; and there is no need to tell you about the treatment, which minority has received from the Northern government. We should tell the British government to withdraw their forces, and let the people of the Six Counties join with the rest of Ireland.” There was no protest or opposition to the above from the Unionist councilors.(1)
None of the cinemas in the south would show the film, so the "shoneens" -anglophilic Irishmen, who were mostly in Dublin- who wished to see it had to go north to cinemas in County Down and Belfast. To remedy the latter, the railway which acted as the primary link between the two capitals was cut. To remedy the former, the cinemas were destroyed thus, the IRA hoped, rendering the island coronation-free.
The Savoy was the loyalist owned theater in Newry; the other two in the city were owned by nationalists. It sat close to 800 people, and the showings were heavily booked ahead by the southern shoneens.(2) The IRA first sent a warning, or a threat, to the cinema not to show it. The owners ignored it, though a 24-hour police guard was put on the premises.(3)
One Sunday night while a movie was being shown, "some person or persons" concealed themselves in the theater. When it was finished and viewers had vacated, they planted a bomb on the frame supporting the balcony. Avoiding the police, they vacated the scene and awaited the explosion; but there was none. The fuse would not ignite. There was nothing to do but return inside, once more dodging the police, and reset it, a dangerous task during which at any point the fuse could gave gone off.(4)
When it did explode, the balcony collapsed, the roof was blown apart, the seating area was destroyed, the screen badly damaged, and the front wall and foyer were blown in. The police, in a different section, were unharmed although the building was gutted inside.
The owners did emergency repairs and announced the proverbial show would go on, even if not in time for the scheduled opening. The damage was initially put at £3000. When it was rebuilt, a wide screen was installed and the general consensus was the new cinema was a great improvement on the old one.(5).
Sectarian divisions were "not rigid," as can be discerned from the conciliatory attitude of the Unionist councilors, but they did become more visible at times like this. One local remembers the reaction: "When the Savoy Cinema was blown up by the IRA, I came racing home for dinner to my granny’s house and burst into the tiny living-room shouting “the Catholics blew up the Savoy!” Kathleen Hughes, her Catholic next-door neighbour, who, unknown to me, was sitting behind the opened door, firmly informed me that the dire deed had been done by the IRA, not by “the Catholics”. This was a distinction which had not occurred to my seven-year old brain. Looking back, I think that it was a formative moment."(6)
The bombing was widely reported in the papers. The IRA worked a similar explosion at a cinema in nearby Banbridge, following the same technique, but like most sequels it did not live up to the original either in damage caused or public stir elicited. There was no onslaught of condemnations; in fact, rather than outrage, the public reaction seems to have been one of mild amusement or ridicule. The attitude was well summarized by one commentator who, writing about the attacks, described up the IRA and its operations as merely "...an expression of bad taste, an eruption of Irish exuberance that went a bit too far." Additionally, no one was hurt, something which we shall see later on was a defining factor.
The IRA's internal newsletter, An t-Oglach, painted a more sophisticated picture and was glowing in its description of the skill that went into the operation:
"That the Headquarters training classes in engineering are proving successful in turning out efficient Engineers was clearly demonstrated in some recent Army operations, e.g the destruction of Newry cinema, extensive damage to Banbridge cinema and the blowing up of the railway bridge and cutting of the line on the Armagh/Louth border.
"The section which carried out the operation on the Newry cinema did a splendid job of engineering by causing the maximum amount of damage to their objective whilst doing a minimum of damage to adjoining property.
"Given the materials, almost anyone can cause an explosion; it is only the trained Engineer who can estimate the amount of explosives to use and place the charge where it will be most effective." They further said the unit was to be "commended" for avoiding detection by the police.
All volunteers received a course in the dangerous art of engineering as part of their basic training, which was organized locally. But a chosen few were taken to the IRA's haunts in the country and given special training; a cut above the usual courses, run by the army headquarters, and taught by men experienced in the field. A bomb-battered Armagh veteran of the late 30's, Seamus Trainor, did valuable work training engineers in the North during this period. The new engineers would then use their knowledge at home and pass it on during local training sessions.
Police searches commenced throughout the city.(7)
Joe (center) and two of his brothers at home. (Photo from Cúisle Na nGael)
Joe Campbell worked as a cobbler repairing shoes at the family business, "Campbell's" on Castle Street. In his 30's, he lived at home with his father Patrick, sister, and brothers Teddy, Lennie, and Bobbby, who also worked as cobblers. "Wee Joe," he was known to the locals, with a signature "(walk) with a roll like an overweight jockey"
Besides the daily business of helping new school children and First Communicants (their staple customers) with their shoe needs, "Wee Joe" and Teddy were both members of the IRA. Joe in particular- "A man of immense courage and energy" a friend described him in this regard- had fought in the IRA's campaign during the early 1940's and spent 3 years in Crumlin Road Jail. Upon release from the dungeon-like "Crum" he was unphased by the Army's near-disintegration and signed up again, the IRA's equivalent of re-enlistment. He become one of their engineers, for which he attended the training spoken of in An-tOglach. He operated within the few kilometers of Newry proper; "My republic starts up at Cloghoge bridge," he told Sam Dowling, "and finishes somewhere about the far side of Derrybeg estate. Let them call it whatever the hell they like." (8)
While probing the area following the Savoy explosion, the police found 12 sticks of gelignite hidden in the chimney flue of "Wee Joe's" bedroom. Joe, his father, and brother Lennie were all arrested along with a Michael Hollywood who was on the premises.
Judge Curran presided over the trial. When asked how he pleaded, Joe stood up and to spare his family the pain of a trial, or mistrial, dismissed the proceedings with a short statement:
"I have taken responsibility for the stuff found. I exonerate from all blame these other people who could not possibly have known I had the stuff. Furthermore, as a soldier of the Irish Republican Army I take no further interest in this case."
The rest were dismissed. The trial was as good as over; Joe had resigned himself to the obvious and did not call any witnesses or offer a defense. "You are a destructive agent," Curran said as he sentenced him to 5 years of penal servitude in Crumlin Road Jail. (9)
Joe Campbell had the dubious honor of being the first sentenced Republican prisoner of the 1950's. Other volunteers and activists had been interned, but internment by nature was applied to both innocent and guilty alike and the Army was not inclined to justify the government's actions by claiming them. Being sentenced made an otherwise secret membership into a public badge of honor.
While "Wee Joe" lost five years of his life to yet another sentence in "the Crum", and the army lost a valuable volunteer, the political movement gained a valuable public relations opportunity. Sinn Fein and the IRA had just merged into one movement, and during the next Sinn Fein meeting in Dundalk he was put forward as their candidate for the upcoming Co Louth election. (And it was decided if there was any problem in approving Joe, another man from around the border, Arthur McKevitt would step in as their candidate.)
While not his native area, co. Louth is widely considered to be Ireland's El Paso and in this aspect Joe was familiar with the place. Lying directly across from South Down, separated by a river that creates the border, it is a haven for volunteers going into and out of the North, arms dumps, "dead drops" in the fields at which explosives were left and picked up, and all forms of nefarious activity directed at removing the border, and the Newry unit played a central role in the Northern side of these operations. Just the Easter prior to his arrest he was part of a color party the South Down brigade sent to Dundalk's Easter commemoration.
As candidate he did not have to exert himself in any way; all he had to do was be in prison, and the people in SF would do the rest. And they did with gusto. "The cause of Ireland is the cause of Campbell" became a slogan proclaimed by supporters and scrawled on walls.(10) "Joe Campbell... is a living symbol of Ireland's demand for unity and independence," an appeal read, "Show your support for this demand by helping in every way you can to have him elected..."(11). Dan Sheridan, an Old IRA man and still the official contact for those wishing to join the movement in South Down, was "one of the most active campaigners." But for all their work, he only received 1400 of the votes, the majority going to Fine Gael.
His imprisonment also precipitated the creation of an informal group to collect funds for the dependents of Republican prisoners, called the Republican Aid Committee ("An Cumann Cabhrach"). As the number of POWS increased, the group morphed into an official charity that operated well into the 60's and at its height collected tens of thousands of pounds from various quarters.
Ideally, a secret army's membership and its activities should be a secret. But in the static, close knit nationalist communities of the North secrets had a way of getting out. Or in local jargon, "the dogs on the street know...," meaning everyone knows it, or think they know it. The dogs on the street knew Wee Joe the cobbler was also an IRA man. They thought he was responsible for the bombing, and, somehow, some even knew about the bomb having to be reset and admired his courage doing so. The Special Branch concurred with his responsibility, but had nothing to prove it. Many came to the conclusion he was in jail for it except, legally, Joe was only guilty of having explosives. A Dublin Sinn Fein campaigner, Thomas O Dugbhall, wrote a letter to the Irish Times lamenting the perception, saying: "I should be obliged if you would note that Joe Campbell was not charged with the cinema explosion. Some gelignite had been found in his father's house and his father and brother were arrested. Joe accepted responsibility for it . . .The cinema explosion had taken place some time previously but Joe was not charged In connection with it." (12)
The incident had an interesting economic sequel. The damages in the end totaled £8,200. These were levied on the people of Newry and Warrenpoint, to be paid at an extra 1/4 to 1/2£ each. It was a Glasgow newspaper, the Scots Independent, which pointed out "Either the citizens are innocent, in which event they are being unjustly punished, or they are guilty, in which event the case for partition falls apart at the seams." But perhaps significantly there was no public protest from those paying it.
Part 2: Kevin and the Queen
A WALK UP MARGARET ST.
While Wee Joe languished, unelected, in prison, Newry's drama with the Queen was not over. On August 17, 1954, a year after the coronation, she paid a visit to the North to launch a merchant ship in Belfast, the first time a reigning Queen had made such a move. In the preceding weeks large round-ups were made of republicans, particularly in Belfast, and "thousands" of police were on duty the morning of her arrival.(14)
In the wee hours around 3 am that morning, the O/c of the Newry brigade, Jim Rowntree, met with a couple of young volunteers, Matt Loy and Seamus Kearns, and Kevin O'Rourke from Banbridge who had brought along 3 electrical fuses and a fuse box. As they walked along Upper Margaret Street (a nationalist section) they split into two pairs to avoid suspicion. The little group strolling around at night aroused the interest of a policeman, Sgt. Aiken, and two others making their rounds in the car with him. Particularly a bulge in O'Rourke's pants- in addition to the fuses, he had brought along a loaded .38. (15)
Aiken already knew Rowntree; he passed over the others and approached O'Rourke, who gave his name as Patrick Delaney.
"I'll have to search you" Aiken said.
O'Rourke replied in the negative and pulled out his wallet (which was not that of a Patrick Delaney) to explain the bulge. He was caught unprepared, and no doubt frightened at the increasingly realistic prospect of going to prison. While the policeman looked over his wallet, he stepped back and then ran away.
Aiken gave chase but O'Rourke was a good distance ahead; Aiken fired a warning shot past him and shouted "Come quick" to those in the car. O'Rourke ran down Water Street to a short wall where he dumped the fuses and the .38. The policemen in the car, watching this, were faster than he was and as they pulled up, one grabbed hold of him while another proceeded to search him. Aiken walked over to the wall and found the gear.
"I now know why you ran away." He said.
"I take no responsibility for that" O'Rourke declared.
A couple streets away they found his Austin in which - most telling of all- was a copy of the United Irishman and one of Wee Joe's election leaflets. (16)
Rowntree and the two others had slipped away in the confusion but they were all lifted in an intense series of house raids afterwards. At almost exactly the same time this happened, a bomb went off outside a barracks in Belfast, but it was claimed by a one-man breakaway group, Laochra Uladh. What Rowntree and co had planned to do is unknown. No explosives were discovered on them or in the ensuing searches. The police announced that there was "no question" they were on their way up to Belfast and the papers concluded the four mostly unarmed men, 50 miles away, were a threat to the Queen (which, given the IRA's modus operandi at the time, was out of the question.) Meanwhile the Queen had blissfully "carried on" in spite of a drizzle and christened the ship the "Southern Cross" before heading home.(17)
The authorities were afraid of display that would be created by a public trial, so it was moved at the last minute to the Newry RUC barracks. "The dogs on the street" found out and a crowd formed outside, raising a commotion and trying to peek through the drawn shades (barracks were a far more informal institution in 1954). Had the shades been open they would have watched a five minute scuffle between Kearns and O'Rourke, who refused to stand when required, and the guards trying to make them do so. When charged, they one by declared they had nothing to say until it came to O'Rourke.
"I take all responsibility for the stuff found" he announced.
Unlike Wee Joe's case, it was not as simple as that, as the circumstances in which the stuff was found was quite different from hiding them in a chimney. The four looked like IRA men doing IRA business but, incapable of charging them with that fact alone, the prosecution was pinning possession on all four. "Under the law, possession by one means possession by all" one of the detectives explained to them. The three others made it quite clear they would have none of this.
Seamus Kearns declared: "I am...charged with having the articles with intent to endanger life or cause injury to property. If you admitted that I had none of the arms except the two that God gave me, how could you explain that I could do these things?"
(They noticed some women outside peeking through the windows and for the first time realized why their trial was in the unusual surroundings.)
Jim Rowntree: "The prosecution witness already admitted that I bad none of this stuff in my possession Therefore I could not endanger life. This is the third time that he has asked for a remand, and, as yet, not one basic piece of evidence has been submitted to substantiate these charges. Am I held on suspicion or on evidence?"
Det.-Sergt.—I have to await further instructions in the case
Rowntree: In other words, you are just a stooge or a puppet.
The Magistrate: I cannot allow that as a question.
Rowntree: This is supposed to be a fair trial but it is just a mockery and a complete denial of human rights.
The District-Inspector: This man is making a platform of the proceedings.
Rowntree: I cannot help it If he has not the intelligence to answer the questions.
"With this, the proceedings ended..."(18)
One afternoon in early September, Rowntree, Kearns, and Loy were told to get their things together. They were taken to the head office of the prison where rail vouchers awaited them.
"Why are we being released?" Rowntree asked.
"Don't ask any questions."
When the press inquired the police denied they had been released. In reality the Attorney General ordered it, in so doing bypassing whatever the "possession by all" laws were, saving them from a prison sentence and the government from a disastrously unpopular case.(19)
Convoluted and sometimes ridiculous legal battles like this were a fact of life for northern Republicans. They came and went and were quickly forgotten in the grand scheme of things. It would not be the last time young Loy saw the inside of the Crum. Rowntree was never again arrested and remained O/c until he stepped down in 1958.
That left O'Rourke in the belly of the beast. At 30 years old, he was living at home with his widowed mother and siblings on a 25 acre farm, which he helped run. For extra income he occasionally worked as a bricklayer. He had no trouble with anyone, no history of arrests, republican or otherwise, and this incident came as an anomaly in the record of an otherwise placid citizen.
At his first trial by himself in September, supporters packed the courthouse steps and cheered with shouts of encouragement as he entered. He had to be lifted to his feet and held there when the charge was read, to which he was silent. The court declared him mute by malice although the judge ordered that a plea of "not guilty" be put in. O'Rourke announced for the record: "This is a foreign court, sitting here trying to administer the law in the six north-eastern counties against the will of the majority of the Irish people." The jury found that there was not enough evidence to prove the revolver and fuses were actually his, and he was bundled into the police van for another trial while the crowd cheered him.(20)
He had a total of 6 hearings, all following a routine of refusing to stand up, being "mute by malice," and protesting the illegitimacy of the court. He refused to question the witnesses- the policemen who arrested him- although he did occasionally address the jury. And not without some effect; at his final hearing at the Belfast Assizes in early December the jury took over 90 minutes to reach a verdict and came to the conclusion that there was not enough evidence to prove the .38 belonged to him. The prosecution conceded this point, and proceeded on the second charge, relating to the detonators ("unlawful possession of articles), for which another trial was held within the week and a new jury was brought in which found him guilty.
A constable mentioned Kevin's quiet home life in his favor. The judge, Justice McDermott, seemed favorably inclined with this, but decided:
"I cannot leave out of account the use which could be made of a pistol, fully loaded, like this, and the use to which detonators of this kind can be put. It seems to me you were on some errand of an unlawful kind, and it is necessary to show quite clearly that this kind of conduct will not be tolerated."
Kevin is said to have smiled when his sentence was pronounced, and as he was led away he asked the judge "Is that all you can do?" (21)
Wee Joe was alone, in status as a republican prisoner at least, until early '54 when a movement organizer from Dublin, Leo McCormack, was sentenced and they were now joined by Kevin and the 8 volunteers arrested in the wake of the failed arms raid at Omagh. "There was great comraderie" amongst the small group of prisoners in those days remembers Eamonn Boyce, one of the eight.(22)
In 1955 Sinn Fein had enough confidence to contest the Westminster elections and the republican prisoners would be their candidates, as the mere sight of Irishmen in English prison aroused sentiments of support. The two Down men stood for their county: Joe for North Down, and Kevin for South Down. While a small area in size, North Down is to this day one of the strongest, most uncontested bastions of Unionism. Joe received only 1600 votes, which was considerable given the size of the nationalist community. His opponent, George Currie, took 50,000. Kevin on the other hand, took 19,000 from the nationalist area of South Down and made a considerable challenge to his opponent, Unionist Lawrence Orr. (23) Elsewhere the prisoners won their seats and Danny Donnelly insightfully points out that "the fact that thousnds of respectable people...voted not once, not twice, but three times for a convicted felon...should have told the government that there was, to paraphrase the bard, 'something rotten in the state of Northern Ireland.'"(24)
In 1957 Joe should have been released, but given the outbreak of the IRA's campaign the powers that be decided he was instead to be interned for the duration of the campaign and transferred to D Wing to prevent him from contributing to the war effort. His two brothers soon joined him as internees. The experience in the Crum during the 40's had mellowed him and like most from that era who found themselves in prison again, he kept a low profile. Joe impressed his comrades inside as "such nice fellow" and "a gentleman." One of his hobbies in prison was playing chess, particularly with a volunteer from the south, Jack McCabe. "Their games could go on for days at a time and we always knew when one of them had been check mated, because we would see the chess board being tossed up in the air and one of them walking away in disgust." (25)
As for Kevin, a volunteer from Cork remembers that he too "was a gentleman by nature." While on A Wing (for the long term sentenced men) he shared space with some volunteers from the Cork brigade for whom "he was a tremendous help to us during the remainder of his time explaining the do’s and dont’s of prison protocol, what was safe to eat, how to deal with the screws and in general keeping us up to date with the prison routine."(26) He also was eventually interned, and was joined by his brother Enda.
They ran once more for Sinn Fein in North and South Down in 1959. The one thousand faithful few turned out for Joe, but Kevin's popularity shrank to 6,000 votes, Orr once again coming ahead. Sinn Fein's poor showing is generally attributed to disappointment with the way in which the campaign progressed.
As the campaign, and support for it, ramped down the government felt comfortable enough to release some of the internees, leading to freedom for Wee Joe and Kevin in November and December 1960 respectively. (27).
Upon imprisonment, all rank was lost and the men went back to being "only" volunteers. But understanding the personal ordeal prison entails, the IRA has always afforded members the option of either reporting back to their unit, or going their own way, and nobody thinks less of them if they choose the latter. Kevin returned to work on the family farm, and we hear of no more republican activities from him.
Joe returned to work at the cobbler shop on Castle street. He also reported back to the Newry unit, which had been whittled down by arrests (over 2 dozen members were interned or sentenced) but was nonetheless intact and in need of experienced men as always. He had missed most of Operation Harvest but republicanism was his life and there were larger undertakings.
In an interesting postscript, one of Queen Elizabeth II's acts on the 50th anniversary of her coronation in 2003 was to bestow the status of "city" on Newry.
(To be continued)
*-There is a disparity in accounts. The newspapers and IRA documents unanimously hold that it was blown up before the film was shown. Locals seems to remember it happening after the film was shown. It was blown up after a film concluded, which may have led to the confusion.
Many thanks to Oliver McCaul and Brian Patterson.
Photo at top: Joe Campbell's beret and gloves, harp he made while in the Crum, and Croppy boy statuette presented by comrades from Operation Harvest in recognition of his service.