Friday, February 26, 2021

Bonfires on the Border


Saor Uladh, the Hard Border, and the Road to Operation Harvest 


     Customs in Northern Ireland was complicated prior to the open border so familiar to today’s generation.

     Motorists could only cross the border on certain “approved roads.” There were fifteen of these on the entire border. They could only cross at certain times, and there were a number of very official restrictions on what day of the week one could cross and whether you were going in or out. [i] The rules were enforced by lightly trained agents in small makeshift huts, usually of wood or corrugated tin, known by the Kipling-esque title "frontier posts." All the other roads, visible today by their narrow, rocky, footpath-like quality, were reserved for foot traffic with heavy penalties for transgressors. "A motorist crossing the frontier on roads other than (approved ones)" the law said, "is liable to very severe penalties, including confiscation of his car."[ii]

   These customs posts were a favorite all-occasion target for Republicans. The general population disliked the posts, attacks involved no great threat to life or limb, and the border made getting away a simple matter of driving across it. Brendan Behan's first operation was burning down Customs in honor of the Royal investiture in 1937. "We burned them down on both sides with great liberality"[iii] he recalled. A song by Brian O'Higgins on a customs attack in the 20's expressed the sentiment behind them:

"Here´s to the lads that played the game,
Here´s to the minds that planned it,
Here´s to the hands that lit the flame,
Here´s to the winds that fanned it:
May it blaze again from shore to shore
Consuming our land´s disorder:
May it leap and roar from shore to shore
Till it burns away the Border!"


      Three of these frontier posts, Culmore, Galliagh, and Kildrum, were on the border of Derry city and Donegal, a semicircle of land only a few miles long with the river Foyle on one side and Irish border on the other. The next closest crossing is in Strabane, 15 miles south. 

    In 1953 Saor Uladh celebrated Easter vigil by blowing up the huts in this strategically vulnerable area, or so they aimed.[iv] At Culmore and Galliagh they sprinkled the huts with tar and set them alight. At the former, the fire brigade responded almost immediately, and put out the blaze before it caused any damage. Gallaigh was not ignited at all, leading to speculation the raiders were spooked before they could set it alight. At the third, Kildrum they threw a bomb through the window. It only shattered the windows and left the hut perfectly operable.[v] 

     The IRA denied involvement and the RUC quickly pinned responsibility on a new group consisting of former volunteers assembled around the former Tyrone O/c, Liam Kelly. It was their third operation as a separate entity from the IRA- the previous being a takeover of Pomeroy at night to hold an Easter Commemoration, and a hold-up for funds. The organization had no public name or face yet, and did not claim the operation (nor most of their operations).

     They returned in 1956 with better results. Much had transpired in the interim, and this time they were reinforced by the Christle Group’s men, material, and expertise. In the early hours of Armistice Day that year, they launched their new alliance with a joint operation that destroyed 6 customs huts along a 150 mile stretch, mostly in Kelly’s newly adopted home base of County Monaghan. Participants included Kelly, Joe Christle, Gerry Lawless, and Christle's right hand man Pat Murphy.[vi]

    The new modus operandi was to fill suitcases with timed explosives, and, posing as ordinary gentlemen, hand them over to the Customs officials for safe keeping, supposedly to be picked up the next day. The explosives would then go off in the early hours when the hut was unattended. [vii]

    At Clontivern- near Monaghan- they handed over a briefcase, asking the guard to hold it in a safe until they could pick it up later. The customs man was more friendly than cautious, and when he retired that night he briefly considered leaving the suitcase in the safety of a friend’s house, just in the event the hut should be destroyed. He had it in hand, on his way to the house, when he changed his mind and left it at the post. In the wee hours the briefcase exploded through the safe, leveling the hut. [viii] It was the most powerful of all the explosions that night. The safe, embedded in several layers of concrete, “was rent in pieces, giving some idea of the powerful explosives used. The concrete foundations were also ripped up.” Residents living nearby were lifted out of their beds by the explosion, but there was, incredibly, no injury to their homes. Thanks to a “first rate”[ix] but unknown demolitions expert in the Christle group, “the contrivance was so manipulated as to send . . .most of its force away from the homes.”[x]

    That same night the IRA’s Charlie Murphy and Noel Kavanagh were driving past a hut they planned on burning down themselves in the near future. They had a routine in which they would drop a gas cap out the window, stop, and walk around looking for it as a ruse to spy on the site. They were in the middle of doing this when the hut exploded before their eyes. [xi]

    Near Newtownbutler two RUC men on their nightly patrol took refuge from a downpour under the eaves of the customs hut. They finally decided to resume their beat, and were only a couple minutes' walk away when the explosion happened.[xii] The near-misses are an example of the fine line that separates a successful operation from tragedy.

    The total roster of customs posts destroyed were Mullan and Clontivern in Fermanagh; Moybridge and Aghnacloy in Tyrone, and Middletown, Carnagh and Tullyodonnell in Armagh. These formed a ring comprising the approved roads connecting County Monaghan and the 6 counties. Of them, 5 were destroyed with explosives and one burnt down.[xiii]

    The next day was spent cleaning up, and there was much to clean. “The smell of explosives was still strong on Sunday evening” at Mullan. A ring of shattered wood, papers, tables, and tiles lay strewn for a hundred yards around making it "impossible to walk without trampling on some of the shattered hut.” Remarkably, whether by chance or another feat of engineering the direction of the blast, a cattle owner’s van parked a couple yards away was unscathed.[xiv]  At Agnacloy, district inspectors scrambled about the fields to salvage records among the ring of glass and wreckage, while locals assembled to gawk and collect souvenirs[xv].  At Clontivern “all day long, hundreds of sightseers from Clones . . .visited the scene to view the destruction. . .Official documents and records were clinging to the tops of trees and bushes along the road for over 200 yards.”

    But by the end of the day it was “business as usual.” The roads remained open and the police took time out of their cleaning efforts to process vehicles. Mullan, Carnagh, and Clontivern were handily replaced by using nearby huts normally used to process cattle across the border. Caravans were rented for Aughnacloy and Tullydonnel, and in Middletown they simply rented a room in a private house near the road. The chief of customs declared that the only actual result achieved “was the inconvenience caused to officials.”[xvi]

       The attacks garnered some headlines, but the spotlight was stolen by events in Hungary, where the Soviets launched a final offensive to crush the Hungarian revolution that very morning. The local events were raised at the House of Commons, where Northern politicians tried to explain the situation:

 "Christopher Armstrong (representing County Armagh), asked the Chancellor of the Exchequer if he will make a statement on the blowing up and burning of Customs stations on the Irish border on Remembrance Day.

Mr Henry Brooke: Customs land boundary posts were destroyed as a result of explosion and fire. There was no loss of life or injury. Arrangements have been made for the Customs to operate from temporary accommodation, and investigations by the Royal Ulster Constabulary are continuing into these outrages.

Christopher Armstrong (Co Armagh): As it seems unlikely that it will be possible to take effective steps to stop the periodic explosions on the Irish border, can my right hon. Friend say whether it is proposed to rebuild these Customs huts in the cheapest possible material, as they have been built before, and, if so, whether arrangements will be made for important papers to be removed at night?

 Henry Brooke: I would not like to make any forecast about the steps that we shall take when we have done all we can to clear up what happened on these occasions. I fully appreciate the importance of looking after papers, and that is always done.

 Patrick Gordon Walker: Can the right hon. Gentleman say why these stations were not guarded?

 Henry Brooke: They were unmanned that night—

 Patrick Gordon Walker: Why?

 Henry Brooke: —because it would be most helpful to smugglers if they knew that Customs officers throughout the night always sat in the same place."[xviii]

     Soviet papers for their part praised them as ‘a new stage in the struggle of the long suffering Irish people against hated English oppression.’[xvii]  Ironically, Kelly and Christle would not have welcomed the endorsement had they heard it. The two were back in Dublin a couple days later, as if nothing had happened, to address an “Anti Communist, Anti-Imperialist Rally.” It was organized by the Student Council, an organization heavily influenced by Christle Group members which “made Dublin, on occasion, a locus of student anti-colonial agitation.”[xix] Students from Hungary and Egypt (on the brink of war with England after nationalizing the Suez Canal) spoke on the situation in those countries, and there was much talk in solidarity with the Cypriot rebellion. Kelly had strong words, declaring “the acts by both Russia and Britain in recent weeks were acts of aggression and the time must come when they both would fail.” “The Hungarian people, he said, had asserted in arms the right to national freedom and sovereignty, and in that assertion there was a lesson which they might well learn in Ireland. . . the people down here should make up their minds that if they really wanted freedom they should adopt the means of the Cypriots, the Hungarians and Egyptians. . .”[xx] 


       The IRA denied involvement. The Garda confirmed as much to the RUC and the press, further confirmed the attacks were not connected to the large group of IRA men drilling in Meath that weekend, and were not called on by the RUC to help their investigation. The men drilling in Meath were part of a contingent preparing for the IRA’s own campaign, which began December 11th.  

    Did the attack force the IRA into Operation Harvest prematurely? Gardai intelligence, Sean Cronin, Ruari O'Bradaigh, Mick Ryan, and Joe Cahill in their respective writings all concur, as do T.P. Coogan and Bowyer Bell in their histories. But the decision to go ahead had more facets to it than that.  

   The three chiefs of staff – Magan, MacLogan and MacCurtain- as a group were tepid about having a campaign to begin with. They preferred to accumulate strength over time. “They wanted a successful military campaign” and not simply a go at the enemy.[xxi] They caved to those impatient for action in early 1956 and set about laying infrastructure for a campaign. It tentatively set for sometime in the winter of ’56 or spring of ’57. Volunteers spent the summer training intensively several days a week, with bootcamps held periodically in Wicklow and Meath. The question was not if, but when, but the leadership wanted “when” to still be further away. Mac Curtain thought the Nationalist population was unprepared and 1958- the next election year- would serve better. [xxii] But it was not to be.

   Cork volunteer Seamus Linehan was one of those training in Meath that weekend and he gives a picture in his memoir:  

    Billy Early came out of the house and got the entire Cork contingent together and said there had been a change of plans. It seems that the initial plan was to spend at least ten days in that place being    briefed on the areas we would be going to and what the likely targets in the areas would be and also that the Cork group would operate as a flying column in one specific area. However, due to unforeseen circumstances, that plan would have to be changed, and I had to go in with him to meet the brass. When we went in there were about fifteen others in the room and when the meeting convened it was headed up by five members of the Army Council including, Tony Magan, Chief of Staff, Sean Cronin, Director of Operations and architect of the plan of campaign called Operation Harvest, and three other senior officers.

   Tony Magan opened the meeting by explaining to us that at least three years of hard work and detailed planning had gone into the preparation of Operation Harvest and nothing was left to chance. Senior Officers and Volunteers had made many trips across the Border to size up targets, map out the terrain, gather intelligence, and record the movements of the R.U.C. and the British Army, procure the necessary weapons, arrange for billets and safe houses and prepare the units around the country for active service. They were very happy and satisfied with the preparations and every detail and source of information had been checked and rechecked over and over again. It was decided that the Campaign should start on the night of the eighteenth of December but an incident had occurred a few days previously that necessitated a change of plans.

    That incident was the disappearance of the O/c of Belfast Paddy Doyle, who was made privy to extensive plans just before being arrested. That knowledge jeopardized vital ingredients such as the organization of the columns and their targets. That precipitated a much-criticized mash-up of the brigades in which men who had trained together were split up amongst other units. While they were in the middle of debating the ramifications of the arrest, news came that SU had attacked.

Tony Magan then said that another incident had occurred that very morning which necessitated a change of plans. He explained that if Saor Uladh carried out any further attacks before the eighteenth the possibility was that the R.U.C. might seal off the border and it would totally up scuttle our plans. After some further discussion, sometimes heated, it was agreed that we would go ahead with the change in plans. After the meeting we went back out to the lads and informed them as to what was happening and in fairness to them they were all happy to go along with the leaders. [xxiii]

       Organizers began filtering across the border immediately and the IRA launched their operation on December 11th.

     The IRA’s fears were reinforced as SU conducted scattered follow-up raids on more huts in the coming weeks. Results were less spectacular. In Clogher, an SU volunteer forced his way into the newly constructed hut at night, placed a biscuit tin with gelignite, and lit the fuse. The fuse burned out before reaching the explosives. A farmer passing by next morning noticed the door to the hut flapping open and shut, and upon investigating found the biscuit tin.[xxiv]  

        A Fourth International memo analyzing Saor Uladh insightfully points out that none of the IRA's campaigns were started by the organization itself, but rather by individuals who pushed it into action. Even the hallowed War of Independence was begun by the unauthorized shootout at Soloheadbeg. However, time proved correct the “Three Mac’s” reservations about a premature campaign. “It is impossible to estimate,” one commentator writes, “what might have been the result if the IRA leaders had been allowed to prepare and consolidate, as they had wished, for another two years” [xxv]


    The road between the attacks of 1953 and those of 56 was not a direct one. In between Kelly embraced politics. He was a prominent figure in local organizations around Tyrone, and in 1953 the Anti-Partition League nominated him as their candidate. He won, and afterwards he and his supporters used his election platform as a template for a new party, Fianna Uladh, which combined northern-focused republicanism with support of the Free State and its institutions. His ability to speak to people’s concerns and play the authorities when needed worked wonders. Between the launch of Fianna Uladh in late 1953, and when he went to the Seanad in 1954, the party accumulated 3000 members with 18 chapters across the north, with more in Dublin, Cork, and London, and an overwhelming number of Old IRA men among its vocal supporters. 

     This was a promising foundation, but it came to naught with a two-punch blow. 

     The first came from the Seanad. In 1954 Kelly was elected to the 26 county government on the Labour ticket (thanks to a legal technicality that allowed a party the right to nominate anyone) as part of a plan to allow northern senators, both Nationalist and Unionist, to be represented in the Southern Government. He gave a lengthy address touching on the benefits of the idea and how further tension in the north could be diffused by adopting the motion. "It would be the first step towards the extension of the Constitution to the whole of Ireland," he told the senators. "It would restore the confidence of the people not only in the Six Counties but of the whole of Ireland and in her national institutions." A couple of senators spoke in support. "There is no use in deploring physical force," Senator Frank O'Donnell said, "if we do not do something ourselves. Let us at least make this gesture; let us show in so far as we can that, whether they be of practical value or otherwise, we will open this House and the Dáil to the people of Northern Ireland who want to come down here to voice whatever grievances they may have." The response was disheartening; only 12 voted aye to the proposal, and 36 against it.[xxvi] His reference at the rally to "people down here" "making up their minds" betrays some of his frustration with the indifference.

    The second, and most devastating, came when Sinn Fein participated in the 1955 elections. Kelly's own election was fraught with infighting, and a divided nationalist vote empowered Unionist parties for decades. He determined Fianna Uladh would not be responsible for reenacting that scenario. Fianna Uladh stepped aside, and had its voters support Sinn Fein’s candidates with their votes and manpower. The stand was principled and secured Mid Ulster for Sinn Fein's Tom Mitchell, but consigned Fianna Uladh to history books.

    Although he remained visible and vocal in the political sphere, after the election his energies turned to building up Saor Uladh. And stated with the IRA above, it is impossible to tell what strengths Fianna Uladh could have gone on to had Kelly not stepped aside for Sinn Fein, or directed his energies to military action. 



      Once the IRA’s campaign was launched, border posts were attacked frequently. The crossing at Killeen alone (the primary road for traffic between Belfast and Dublin) was burned down about half a dozen times between 1956 and 1962. As per the IRA’s General Order 8, forbidding hostilities against the southern government, the posts were no longer attacked on both sides as they were in Behan’s day. As the campaign progressed authorities responded with a variety of measures against the unapproved roads to force traffic onto the easily monitored approved ones. Some were spiked, a phrase often used but little known to outsiders, referring to iron contraptions akin to anti-tank defenses from World War Two. Others were blocked with barriers. Many had craters blown in them, usually several yards deep, or had key bridges blown up. This not only disrupted the roads, it often interfered with water supply lines and electricity, and locals had short walks turned into many miles of detours. Locals, republicans, and smugglers responded by filling in the craters. Some livestock owners even invented makeshift bridges over the spikes. Despite the armed campaign, unionist appeals, and drastic security measures, the border was never sealed off as the IRA had feared.


      In the end, the hard border was brought down not by explosions but by trade. "The IRA did its best to blow away border posts but it was the 1986 Single European Act, the Single Market, and the Belfast Agreement that ultimately have given us our soft Border" one commentator writes.[xxvii] Or as Tim Pat Coogan writes a little less optimistically, "The nationalist slogan of “Hands across the border” has been translated into reality as – hands across the counter."[xxviii] Gone are the "frontier posts" and crossing now entails no effort at all, though in the shadow of complications entailed by Brexit many look back in fear to the days of the hard border, which in the 70's and 80's became far more bloody than the incidents described above. 

      When Liam Kelly died in 2011, he was carried home to Tyrone over an unapproved border road.

 Further reading on the border:

Unapproved Routes by Peter Leary is an excellent history of the border roads and the culture around them. Another good resource is the Border Road Memories Project, which is assembling an oral history archive, viewable on their website:



[iii] "Brendan Behan Sings Irish Rebel Songs" retrieved from

[iv] Sean McConville, Irish Political Prisoners 1920-1962 Pilgrimage of Desolation 

[v] Irish Examiner, Saturday, April 04, 1953; Page 7  

[vi] TP Coogan, The IRA

[vii]Monaghan Argus, 17.11.1956, page 5

[viii] Ibid

[ix] Bowyer Bell’s word’s describing a “first rate demolitions expert” who was recruited in the latter half of 56. The Secret Army

[x] Donegal News 17.11.1956, page 5

[xi] TP Coogan, The IRA

[xii] Monaghan Argus, 17.11.1956, page 1

[xiii] ibid

[xiv] Donegal News, 24.11.1956, page 5

[xv] Monaghan Argus, 17.11.1956, page 5

[xvi] Evening Echo 1896-current, 12.11.1956, page 1

[xvii] USSR paper "Trud", quoted in Cork Evening Echo, quoted in Matt Treacy, Rethinking the Republic


[xix] Ireland and the End of the British Empire : The Republic and Its Role in the Cyprus Emergency Helen O’Shea, 2015

[xx] Irish Press, Thursday, November 15, 1956; Page: 5

[xxi] Robert W White, Ruairí Ó Brádaigh: The Life and Politics of an Irish Revolutionary

[xxii] ibid

[xxiii] Seamus Linnehan, A Rebel Spirit, published online.

[xxiv] Donegal News, 24.11.1956, page 3

[xxv] McConnville, Pilgrimage of Desolation









Tuesday, January 5, 2021

The Newry Curfew- Making War on Rebellion


Men of the North - Part 4: Making War on Rebellion



    "Pour les Irish" TE Lawrence wrote to a bedraggled English general during the Irish War of Independence, "Only one horrid word: you cannot make war upon rebellion."[i] General Brian Kimmins assumed charge of British troops in the north in 1955 and, a veteran of both World Wars with experience in directing raids, he appreciated Lawrence's view. So did the Prime Minister, Lord Brookborough, "What we cannot stop are these sporadic raids," Brookeborough told the press. "You can disperse the military all over the country but you would lose your striking force."[ii] Meaning: the army would cease to be effective combating the threat and become targets themselves. By summer of 1957 it was not hard to figure out that although fond of land mines, ambushes, and timed explosions, the IRA was no longer capable of organized assaults. Instead of confronting a ghost, Kimmins kept the army in a highly subdued role in which they withdrew into their barracks like a turtle into its shell and refused the IRA's enticements to come out. The better informed, locally-run RUC and B-Specials took up the dirty day to day business. This deprived the IRA of the targets it sought - needed- for its war to gain momentum, and forced them to settle for inglorious "incidents." "Though the people might be irritated by the pin-pricks," Brookeborough reminded Unionist leaders, "the important was that the IRA were not accomplishing their objective."[iii]

      Despite the latter's efforts to soothe feelings, Unionist politicians continued to hold the view that the stricter the measure the better. In early July the Home Minister, W.B. Topping assured them the question of "curfew, armored vehicles and allied matters were continually under consideration and review."[iv]

  "The situation in Newry seemed touch and go for a while," Bowyer Bell writes, "to the delight of the IRA GHQ."[v] Jim Rowntree and his unit were depleted by arrests but still present, as sporadic attacks over the summer months showed. On the night of July 14, they planted a bomb, consisting of 22 sticks of gelignite inside a tin, at the base of the War Memorial- a granite pillar- and timed it to go off in the early hours. A second bomb of the same make was planted at an electric terminal just outside the town. An Orange march was to go through the area the next day as part of the "Marching Season" and since the memorial commemorated the British army it was a non-sectarian way for the IRA to voice its position. The memorial bomb was discovered the next morning, burned out during the last 3 inches of fuse, and the terminal bomb was similarly found. The nuances of timing and intent were lost on the 1,000 or so Orangemen.[vi] Towards the end of the month an army lorry was hijacked and set alight in an unclaimed and unexplained incident.  


   In August the IRA wrote up a notice addressing the people. Copies were posted up simultaneously across the north, as well as to embassies, and Republicans in New York distributed it to UN Delegates.

"The manifesto said the Resistance campaign 'is now more firmly based among our people and grows stronger by the day'. It said that attempts to portray the struggle as sectarian had failed and it was clearly a fight for national unity and independence. It regretted that the members of the RUC and B-Specials had ignored the IRA’s statement at the start of its campaign that they would not be attacked if they did not co-operate with the British Army. Now the RUC and B-Specials 'have been put on a war footing and are used in conjunction with British forces'.[vii]  (The full text can be found in the endnotes below.)

 On the night of August 8th two young volunteers drove out with a stack of these to tack up around Newry. One was Dan Moore, an 18 year old with a day job at a saw mill. He had recently graduated to the army from the Fianna. As they went up Drumolane they were accosted by an RUC constable; the police duly found Dan's car, complete with a stack of announcements. Dan was sentenced to the Crum, where he was placed in the juvenile wing. [viii] (Police throughout the north spent the day removing the posters).

    Dan later recalled for the Newry Journal:

  "The authorities were convinced that a bit of military discipline was enough to correct the misguided views and attitudes of the miscreant youths in their care. Joe Leslie, Moody and the other screws in charge of us were ex-marines.  In good old-fashioned British war-film tradition they interpreted this as the need for regular ‘square-bashing’. It was supposed to frighten us and turn us into ‘good citizens’.

    “I really enjoyed this square-bashing and threw myself enthusiastically into these exercises. I felt I was learning something every morning. As a young volunteer of just eighteen years who hadn’t yet had any drill training on the outside I was convinced I was doing something useful! Arms training we had had, but not drill. Priorities, I suppose!

    “After about two months Joe Leslie approached me and asked why I was so patently enjoying the drill exercises. I was young and lacking in subtlety. I answered immediately and with transparent honesty that if we were to do this on the outside, it would be sufficient reason – if one were needed – to imprison us. Sadly, that was the end of my square-bashing!"

    As a punishment he was tasked with chopping wood but the sawmill worker naturally enjoyed this as well. Dan was interned when his sentence ended, and remained in prison for the duration of the campaign although it would not be his last term. [ix]



   The posters were preliminary to a renewed offensive. On August 10th and 11th units in South Derry, Tyrone, and Fermanagh launched attacks on a variety of targets, from customs posts to police barracks at Swartagh and Cranagh. South Down's contribution was a blitz on infrastructure on the night of the 11th.

     That night a "very heavy bomb" which "must have been centrally planted" destroyed the Northern Ireland Electricity Board's offices. It "completely wrecked the interior of the building and blew off the roof," and people returning home late had a “first hand view of the explosion, which littered the street with debris, account bills, and other items of office furniture.”[x] Nearby windows were shattered and debris rained down for 50 yards around. A simultaneous attack on the GPO's garage destroyed 12 heavy vehicles. "The fire was so intense that the gates of the garage glowed white in the flames, which licked the walls of the nearby Town Hall."[xi] The firemen abandoned attempts to put out the GPO fire and focused on preventing the conflagration from spreading to the Hall.[xii] 

    Within hours Topping made good on his promise of “curfew, armored vehicles and allied matters.” He announced that a curfew was placed on Newry from 11pm to 5:30 am, effective that night. The curfew was applied to 9 areas that stretched for 20 miles around the town. The order enumerated that those who needed to be out after hours could obtain a pass from the police. The penalty for breaking curfew was 3 years imprisonment and/or 500 pounds.

     Designating curfew was within the legal rights assigned to Topping, but an explanation as to why Newry and why then wasn’t given in his order. Newry's bombings paled in comparison to East Tyrone and Fermanagh, where full scale attacks on the police happened almost nightly. It was unclear to people, one commentator calling it “a mystery buried in the mind of the Six County Minister of Home Affairs."[xiii] Bowyer Bell analyzed that Topping "felt it advisable to impose a curfew rather than risk the Nationalist population being converted to open defiance of the government."[xiv] Topping himself was unclear, giving a variety of explanations after the fact. In one of his statements after the curfew he explained it “was necessary because the large number of outrages there could not have been carried out without the connivance of sympathisers in the area."[xv] In another he ascribed it to the region's uncooperative response to police investigations.  In still another he said it was “owing to the number of incidents involving loss of property,”[xvi] an aspect that indeed distinguished Newry from the rest of the north. In this latter point one can read a certain level concession to those unionist objectors who had been hounding him for some sort of reaction.

      Aside from Topping, the RUC Inspector General Sir Richard Pike Pim is sometimes credited with the idea. If true, then to understand the Curfew it helps to consider the man behind it. Pim was a soldier like General Kimmins, and unlike the homegrown bigots (a la Brookeborough) that dominated the Unionist political scene. During World War Two he headed Churchill's map room, a veritable google earth that collected information on every allied plane, ship, and unit, and translated the data to maps. Its effectiveness was such that it earned the envy of President Roosevelt, who subsequently designed one for himself. After the war he returned home to Belfast and became the RUC's inspector General, in which position he combated rising crime rates by plotting out areas as he had in the war. As a professional rather than a loyalist, Pim sympathized with the plight of Catholics in their relation to the police. He went so far as to oppose the Emblems act which caused so many altercations around the flying of the Tricolor throughout the 50's. What that background, one can safely assume that Pim's suggestion of a curfew in Newry, if indeed his suggestion, was a strategically educated one rather than a knee-jerk response to the bombing. South Down, via the Newry Brigade, was the primary facilitator in smuggling arms and men across the border, and many of the attacks on communications and electricity were to provide cover for units going through the area (explained by Mick Ryan in his 2018 memoir My Life in the IRA.)

    There has been little or no scholarly examination of the curfew through government documents, and only cursory reference in the major histories of the period. As more files are declassified we may be able to draw a more complete picture.



    The demographic most affected by the measure were the youth and workers. Irish night life does typically not commence until around 10 pm and ends long after midnight. Workers typically worked late and the late evening and early hours after that were their time to wind down at pubs, clubs, cinemas, and sporting events- all of which now closed at 11, and taking into account the time needed for people to conclude business and get home, the effective end of social time was fairly earlier than that. Newry also was and remains the primary passage for traffic between north and south on the east coast. Travelers and commuters found themselves diverted from the highways to rural, winding back roads. It took up to an hour to navigate through what used to be a brief drive.   

   On the first night of the curfew, youths gathered around Margaret square to defy the curfew. Others, movie-goers and , who came out to stand in line for films (now cancelled) and other events swelled the numbers until about a thousand people had assembled in an impromptu protest. The atmosphere was like a fleadh as music started and a sympathetic bottle plant owner allowed cases of beer to be passed around. When the bell struck 11 the lights went out on cue, and the crowd took to the forbidden streets, marching in the direction of the town hall. [xvii]

   As they did they started singing The anthem of the Republic, "The Soldiers Song," which vividly expressed spirits that night:

We'll sing a song, a soldier's song,

With cheering rousing chorus,

As round our blazing fires we throng,

The starry heavens o'er us;

Impatient for the coming fight,

And as we wait the morning's light,

Here in the silence of the night,

We'll chant a soldier's song.[xviii]

    Among those who were marching that night was Dickie Rodgers, a laborer in between stints working abroad in England. Breaking curfew was the least exciting thing he had done: "I joined the British Army when I was just fourteen (and) fought through the Second World War. I was a paratrooper. I was injured three times; shot twice, once in the shin and once in the groin."[xix] He stayed on with the Paras after the war and served in Jerusalem, where one of his regiment's duties was to enforce a curfew on Zionist guerillas. Rather than reducing their activity it stoked tensions. He had the correct march and brusque manner of a Para, but when it came to his hometown his sympathies were increasingly on the side of the insurgents.    

    A convoy of police tenders raced ahead of the crowd, and a line of 50 policemen in riot gear formed across the road. A voice echoed over a loudspeaker entreating the crowd to turn back. They pressed on; the police charged, batons flew, and the protester reversed their course. The lucky ones, including Dickie Rodgers, were able to reach a series of side roads which provided cover. "I can vividly recall the feeling of real fear, fleeing along with the crowd," a journalist wrote later. "I could hear the heavy thud of boots from the pursuing, baton-wielding “Specials,” a few yards behind. Nipping down O’Hagan Street I escaped, as the chase continued up Mill Street."[xx]

 A handful were injured –from 3 to twelve depending on the source- and 12 arrested. A republican, Barney Larkin, was alone charged with "breach of the order" and fined one pound. His defense pointed out the curfew was enforced only 6 hours after being announced. 

    Although it was commonly described in the papers as a "riot" there was little or no actual disturbance that night, and no attacks on people or property. It was however the opening salvo of a month of unrest. The next night the crowd grew to over 1500, overseen by several hundred policemen. Protests continued nightly, following the pattern of the first with communal gathering and good-natured "great craic."[xxi] The objective was to break the measure symbolically. When the baton charges became tiresome to both police and protestors, they took to using police cars to force the people back. Wee Joe Campbell, no doubt miffed to not be involved himself, recalled anxiously awaiting news in his cell.[xxii]

    The town took on the appearance of one at war. A visitor from the James Connolly Society described "sandbagged strongpoints with ominous machine-gun slits, yards-deep barbed wire entanglements up the walls and all around the roof, the armoured car of the 'border patrol,'...tenders for carrying loads of abuse-shouting B-Specials careening around the streets after dark..."[xxiii] The B-Specials tasked with enforcing the curfew were unruly, made their authority known with violence, and were hostile to Catholics regardless of politics. Although no one was killed during the curfew a number of people had died in recent years through B-Special carelessness with arms and the possibility was very real to the people of Newry. 

    Some youths commandeered an abandoned linen factory known as Linenhall to make a stand. In a different life it served as a police barracks and its layout, a square with a courtyard with two entrances, was ideally designed for the task of repelling invaders. 

   They "barricaded themselves into their own self-made citadel.  They would then light a bonfire and wait to repel assailants. Sometime after the appointed hour for the beginning of the curfew the Crown forces would make an appearance. . . The outcome was simple to predict. The B-Specials would drive their Commer armoured tender through the barricade at one of the gates, and the youths of Linenhall Square would try to prevent them from doing so by whatever means they deemed necessary. After a bit of a scuffle and stone throwing the youths would make a tactful withdrawal back to their homes. They had made their point and honour was upheld."[xxiv]

     Another barricade was thrown up on High Street, a steep, narrow lane that winds up "to where the first purpose built Protestant church in Ireland, St. Patrick's stands, (which may have inspired Sean Jonathan Swift's famous rhyme about the town 'High church, low steeple, dirty town proud people'), in the predominantly Protestant North Ward of Newry. The United Irishman Patrick Cochrane is buried in its cemetery. Some of Newry's oldest and best known families came from there, and it had a strong Republican tradition." A barricade like the one at Linenhall was erected, built and manned by "crowds of mainly young people, boys and girls." They defied the B Specials sent to quell the scene and sang songs atop the barricade. 

   There was, appropriately, "We Won't go home till the morning:"

We won't go home till the morning
We won't go home till the morning
We won't go home till the morning
Til daylight has appeared.

 Then there was "Step Together," now little known, but then a classic marching song from the Tan War:

Step together, boldly tread

 Firm each foot, erect each head
 Fixed in front be every glance
 Forward at the word advance
 Serried files that foes may dread
 Like the dear in mountain heather
 Steady boys! And step together.

    Despite or because of the threat of baton-charges, children across town snuck away to join the excitement. From his bedroom in nearby Drumolane 9 year old Brian could hear the singing on High Street and watched his friends run off to join the festivities. His father Frank, an Old IRA man, was watching too and chuckled to himself at seeing the old spirit of defiance rekindled. Brian had his own curfew of 9pm which Frank enforced. His day to protest would come later.[xxv]



    A series of notices from the Newry unit were posted up encouraging people to join in the resistance, but aside from these the IRA remained in the background.

   The curfew inspired a song in their honor sung to the tune of the "The Belfast Brigade" (based on the American "Battle Hymm of the Republic") 

W. B. Topping put the curfew on Newry Town
He thought that he could keep the Newry people down
But he got a rude awakening at eleven o' clock that night 
When all the people came out to shout, 

Glory, Glory, to old Ireland,
Glory, Glory to the Sireland
Glory to the memory of the men who fought and died, 
No surrender is the warcry of the Newry Brigade

Overnight, the IRA had turned from unknowns with a curious choice of targets into folk heroes. "We never had the full backing of the people up to that point," Oliver McCaul remembered, "after that, we did." Oliver arrived home from at midnight one night: "The streets were deserted, I was walking over Francis Street when a door opened, and the lady of the house called me and said 'Come in son, they are due any minute' meaning a patrol was due. I went into her house and sure enough, within minutes, a patrol passed. She then said to me, you can go now, they won't be back for another half hour. She never asked me who I was, or what I was doing out after curfew. This was the spirit of the people."[xxvi]



    The curfew was removed in early September as quickly as it was instated. The people celebrated with an 11 pm march down Main street, jubilantly singing and banging pans. "The order has now been in force for four weeks," Topping said, "During which there has not been any further incidents."[xxvii] The IRA punctuated its end with an attack in Newcastle, a resort town on the rocky coast, sleepier then than today, that destroyed a transformer and empty prefab buildings that comprised a camp for the Girl Guides (the RUC's female equivalent of the Scouts or Fianna.)  At the end of the month, Kimmins and Topping met along with a select few government officials and cryptically announced a new security policy would be put in place. 

     A question loomed: did the curfew affect the IRA's movement or did they only step back to let the civil resistance take its course? Both answers, locked in the memory of men unknown and not given to talking, are equally possible. Non-involvement in popular events had precedent going back to the Outdoor Relief Strike of 1931, when republican leaders feared IRA involvement would be used as a reason to crack down, while if the strikers were left to themselves, real unity might develop. This is the popularly accepted reason which the "dogs on the street" tell to this day. And republicans were confident the tactic worked. The ever-informed Sean Cronin wrote in a booklet published during the campaign that:

  Stormont grew afraid of what it saw happening in Newry. It had over-reached itself. The mood of the people was ugly. The people were being driven and their point of no return seemed not far away. One week later when in Coalisland, Co. Tyrone, an R.U.C. sergeant was killed after military and police surrounded a deserted house and a booby-trap exploded, Home Affairs Minister Topping was asked if he would apply the curfew to East Tyrone. His reply was “No.” The curfew weapon had failed.”[xxviii]

      But the curfew had no political sequel. It did not spark risings in other cities. The IRA tried to capitalize on it with yet more posters, for which Two Tan war veterans in Belfast were arrested (one died from lack of medical treatment.) But without the infrastructure to attack barracks, and political power to supplant the Northern State, the IRA receded once more into little more than a nuisance, just as Brookeborough had predicted.

   September and October were checkered with a few, but only a few, “pin-pricks”. Then a column from Wexford, the Vinegar Hill Column, arrived in Dundalk to recover after a frustrating stint in Armagh before venturing back out. Newry continued to be one of the few areas that could field columns of their own, and the Dundalk O/c assigned a handful of on-the-run Newry volunteers to supplement the Wexford men. Their enterprise resulted in a tragedy that reshaped the war.


[ii] Irish Independent 08.03.1957, page 6

[iii] Ibid

[iv] Irish times Friday, July 5, 1957

[v] Bell, The Secret Army

[vi] Irish News, July 15th 1957

[vii] 9 August 2007 Edition “The Resistance Campaign 50 years on” An Phoblacht


[ix] ibid

[x] Irish Examiner 1841-current, 12.08.1957, page 5


[xii] Irish Independent 1905-current, 12.08.1957, page 7

[xiii] Irish Democrat, October 1957, page 3;

[xiv] Bowyer Bell, The Secret Army

[xv] Northern Whig, Wednesday 21 August 1957

[xvi] Fermanagh Herald 1903-current, 14.09.1957, page 3


[xviii] Cork Examiner, Tuesday August 13th 1957



[xxi] ibid

[xxii] ibid

[xxiii] Irish Democrat, October 1957, page 3;


[xxv] Brian Patterson

[xxvi] Song and account from Oliver McCaul, to author.

[xxvii] Fermanagh Herald 1903-current, 14.09.1957, page 3

[xxviii] Sean Cronin, Resistance, retrieved from 


 The full text of the appeal from the IRA that was posted in early August (printed in Cronin's 'Resistance", see above)

 "To the people of Occupied Ireland

The campaign of Resistance in Occupied Ireland which opened on December 12, 1956, is now more firmly based among our people than ever before and grows stronger by the day. The fight is directed against British Occupation of the Six Counties only. Attempts by our enemies to misrepresent the struggle for national unity and independence, and, to further their own ends, channel it along sectarian lines, have failed and will continue to fail. No Irish man or woman is deceived any longer by this blatant British propaganda tactic. When events during the last nine months exposed the falseness of the ‘cross-border’ raiding cry, the new one of ‘Nationalist versus Unionist’ had to be adopted.

The struggle of the Resistance Movement is most certainly not against the Unionist population of the Six Counties. It is not directed against any section of the Irish people or against any Irish man or woman. Its only target is the British Occupation of our country and it will continue until that Occupation ends The Irish people know this well, as they know that British interference in Irish affairs is backed up by military, naval and air garrisons and bases. They know that Ireland will have no peace until this imperial garrison is withdrawn. When this has been done the Irish people themselves will resolve their differences and their nation’s future in friendship, mutual understanding and peace. False propaganda slogans, which are designed to divide us, serve 57 only to maintain British Imperial control over the affairs of the Irish nation. At this hour we appeal to all our people to rally around the banner of a free Ireland and to ignore the differences that have kept us divided in the past. We must end foreign exploitation of our country so that its resources will be handed back to their true owners, the Irish people, and used for the benefit of all. We want to build here a free nation and people with full control over their own political, social and economic life. If this nation is to survive beset as we are by emigration, unemployment and poverty—this is an imperative need.

In a proclamation issued to the people of Occupied Ireland on December 12. 1956, we warned members of the R.U.C. and BSpecial Constabulary that they had nothing to fear from the Resistance provided they did not allow themselves to become the tools of Britain’s armed forces We told them their place was on the side of the freedom fighters. We asked them to stand aside from the struggle altogether if they found such a step too big at this time. Since then these forces have been put on a war-footing and are used in conjunction with British forces to screen military installations, terrorise the civilian population, patrol and search the countryside, engage in punitive expeditions, and generally hound, harry, torture and imprison Irish freedom fighters. This is doing England’s bidding with a vengeance.

 The Resistance can hardly be expected to differentiate between men, trained, organised and equipped along military lines (although clad in police uniforms) and British troops. To members of the R.U.C. and B-Special Constabulary, we repeat our call of December 12, 1956. We ask them to remember that they are Irishmen. We ask them to stop being England’s dupes in Ireland. We regret to see the 26-County authorities embarking on a policy of coercion and repression. We ask them to look at Irish history and recall the ruinous effects for Ireland and her people in the past of political repression.

Such measures are no solution for the problems facing our people. Such policies can only result in giving aid and comfort to British Occupation. They do not have the consent of the Irish people to proceed against Republicans. Their actions will not stop the Resistance although they may make more difficult the lot of our people in Occupied Ireland. The people had hoped for, at least, the moral support of that part of Ireland styling itself free.

To all the Irish people, to our glorious dead, to our imprisoned comrades, we pledge this struggle will go on until British Occupation ends and our country is allowed settle its affairs in 58 peace. In the days ahead, the men and women of the Resistance will find courage in the knowledge that history is watching them and is on their side; that their cause is great and is unconquerable.”