BONFIRES ON THE BORDER:
Saor Uladh, the Hard Border, and the Road to Operation Harvest
THE HARD BORDER
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 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 REACTS
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 TO ARMISTICE DAY
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.
BORDER POSTS - AGAIN
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.
THE END OF THE BORDER
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: http://www.borderroadmemories.com/
[iii] "Brendan Behan Sings Irish Rebel Songs" retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?reload=9&v=MqgRylrsZRYe
[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
[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
[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
[xxiii] Seamus Linnehan, A Rebel Spirit, published online.
[xxiv] Donegal News, 24.11.1956, page 3
[xxv] McConnville, Pilgrimage of Desolation