The following is an interview I conducted recently with John O’Neill, the author behind the excellent Treason Felony blog which covers the history of the Belfast IRA in its ‘lean years’ from the end of the War of Independence (1921) to the eruption of the Troubles in the summer of 1969.
John’s original research has uncovered a number of fascinating insights into overlooked topics in republican history including 19th century Fenianism in North Belfast; James Connolly’s time with the British Army in Ireland; the role of Belfast IRA volunteers in 1916 and on the pro-Treaty side the Civil War; and the connections between the Belfast IRA and the Communist Party in the ‘20s and ‘30s.
From a historiographical perspective, John’s fastidious and unbiased attention to the sources also illuminates the Belfast IRA’s complex political evolution over this period, running counter to certain simplistic myths about the genesis of the Provisional IRA (a topic covered in-depth in the interview) and the onset of the Troubles in the late 1960s.
Beyond the scholarly appeal the blog is a treasure trove of fascinating anecdotes including tales of arms raids, gun battles, and daring jailbreaks, cultural arcana like the Belfast IRA’s representation in the Hollywood film The Odd Man Out, and surprising historical details like the existence of a 1940s Belfast IRA unit made up almost exclusively of Protestants (one of whom went on to be a professional golfer).
So for anyone with a familial connection to, or general political interest in Belfast republicanism, John’s blog is a must-read both for its educational insights and entertainment value.
Can you tell me a little bit about your personal and academic background and what inspired you to begin the research featured on Treason Felony?
I’m from the Antrim Road in North Belfast originally and currently I live in Wexford where I’m head of the life-long learning programme at IT Tallaght.
The inspiration for the blog came about due to my own family history: one of my great-uncles was Jimmy Steele, and several other relatives of the same generation were also republican activists. In recent years as some of those people have passed away I became worried that their history was being lost as so little of it has been recorded.
My idea originally was to write a biography of Jimmy, but I quickly realised that there is no workable history of the Belfast IRA for the relevant period (from 1920 to 1970), and thus the blog expanded naturally to tease out this wider story.
In terms of my academic background, I’m an archaeologist, which lent itself surprisingly well to this project as the Belfast IRA is what might be termed an ‘ahistorical formation’, in that you are dealing with a clandestine organisation with minimal official record keeping.
Often in archaeology you are working blind, and building a chronology bit-by-bit through the use of sources is part of that process. Tackling the shadowy records like court and police reports that make up republican documentation is a bit like that.
What do you think differentiates your research from some of the previous histories of the Belfast IRA?
Previous contributions had more of a pure emphasis on oral history whereas I tried a data-focused approach, using digital resources like newspaper archives, mining through them and other secondary sources to create a bigger picture.
I feel that you need to that full chronology of events, and not just the dramatic stuff that got stuck in peoples’ heads and became significant in retrospect for various reasons – often maybe because of who was involved or whatever connotations that it took on in terms of later political divisions.
For example, people will say, “oh, nothing happened in Belfast in the 1950s” – and then you go and look at the actual record of events and there were bombs going off regularly in Belfast, there were shootings.
Belfast has never really been completely peaceful; in that whole period from the ‘20s through until the start of the Troubles, there is always a low level of activity occurring and practically every year some type of incidents took place.
Have you had much feedback from the people you cover on the blog, or their families?
I’m lucky to have had loads of help with the project from Belfast republican families and some of the elderly volunteers who are still about: I’ve been provided with recollections, documents, old newspapers or memorials kept in the back of the cupboards.
All of this contributes to pulling together a picture.
Are you still aiming to publish a book based on your research?
My goal is to eventually publish a book: I’ve thrown it out to a few publishers but I’ve not had one bite yet. That’s the next milestone I’m aiming for.
Your blog is filled with a number of fascinating stories and anecdotes with a real cinematic quality to them. One of the stories that stood out to me was the shooting of Dan Turley as a supposed informer in 1936, which has a sort of cloak-and-dagger intrigue to it. Can you talk a bit about that incident?
Well this story really is like a screenplay, or maybe a Le Carré novel. A brief summary is that Turley is a veteran Belfast IRA volunteer, stretching back to the IRB era and the War of Independence. He is then head of the Belfast IRA in the ‘20s before stepping down or being removed from that position following growing tensions between a leftwards moving Dublin GHQ staff and the core of the Belfast IRA.
So you have this ideological clash that runs all the way through the period and culminates in Turley’s eventual court martial in 1933, where he’s clearly targeted by this group around GHQ, which mainly includes people who leave with Republican Congress in 1934.
At his court-martial he is tortured, accused of being an informer and dismissed from the IRA. He is then sent into exile but returns to Belfast within months. Initially, he isn’t touched but then at the end of that period – in 1936 – he is shot dead in December of that year, possibly in an unsanctioned killing.
It’s my belief, and this is corroborated by letters he wrote after his court martial, that Turley was investigating an informer within the Belfast IRA following a number of arms finds. By implication, it’s possible that the RUC was aware of how close he was to their informer, and acted to manipulate events in order to take Turley out.
Further evidence for this theory is provided by Tarlach Ó hUid, who in his memoirs recalls that while being interned in the 1940s, during interrogation the RUC told him that Turley was shot even though he was innocent, and that Joe Hanna – another volunteer executed ‘in-house’ in this period – was indeed a genuine informer.
Of course these sorts of mind games are sometimes used against people in interrogation, but a further wrinkle is that the Turley family say that senior people involved at the time told them privately that they didn’t believe that Dan was an informer.
It’s ironic because people think republicans are obsessed with commemoration but the movement is continually slack in recording its own history properly. For example on the IRA memorial in Milltown there are several republican volunteers killed in ‘20-22 who aren’t recorded on it, including several people who die after prison, from TB or ill health.
Turley is another example that falls into that grey category, and if the republican movement were as obsessive or OCD about its history then you think someone would address or correct it.
Why did those tensions arise between the Belfast IRA and Dublin GHQ in the late ‘20s? Was it a product of politics or personality, or both?
Well there’s an interesting undercurrent in that a lot of the figures in Dublin with northern connections – George Gilmore, Geoffrey Coulter, George Plant – are from Protestant backgrounds and thus in my opinion don’t understand the dynamics of the labour movement in the North.
In particular, they can’t grasp the tensions between the artisan trade unions in the heavily unionised craft trades, that weren’t really open to Catholics, and the unskilled labourers that were mostly Catholic but who weren’t unionised.
There seems to be a failure to appreciate what’s going on there, and they can’t understand why the Belfast IRA doesn’t do things a particular way, and vice versa.
Mick Price, who is one of the figures who leads the breakaway to the Republican Congress (and later joins the Irish Labour Party), actually presides over the court martial of Turley, and was also central to the dispute in the mid ‘20s.
So there’s a history to it and I wonder if you trace it back are you looking at these divergent ideological strands, one emerging from the IRB and the other the ICA.
On the other hand are the tensions between left republicanism and a supposed ‘Defenderist’ tradition in the Belfast IRA – in both the ‘30s and ‘60s – sometimes exaggerated by historians?
Historians of the IRA for whatever reason often overplay the left versus right and secular versus Catholic angle.
For example, prisoners were regularly excommunicated from the Catholic Church but that doesn’t seem to have driven many away. On the other hand, Billy McMillen for example– who leads the Officials in Belfast after the split – was apparently a quite religious man.
As far as I can tell most of the Belfast IRA were conventional Catholics, fairly representative of the community they came from; they weren’t uber-Catholics, although it’s easy and convenient to portray them as such in retrospect.
The worst offender in this regard in my opinion is Peadar O’Donnell, who seems to be beyond reproach among modern republicans but whose analysis of the 1930s and the Troubles period contains serious flaws.
For example, take the famous anecdote about the James Connolly Republican Club from the Shankill coming to Bodenstown in 1934, where they bring their banners into the inner field (where banners are banned) and have them taken off them by the stewards from Tipperary.
This is conventionally portrayed as some sort of sectarian or conservative reaction but O’Donnell and Gilmore, who organised the demonstration, were well aware of the format that Bodenstown takes. And the same day conveniently they have a quite lengthy press statement to give to the Irish Press, which is printed the next day that is about the whole incident.
In retrospect when you go through the timeline, it seems entirely contrived, how could they not have informed them that this would happen, and instead allow it to transpire it as it does?
Of course if you criticise Peadar O’Donnell you are going to get looked at like you have two heads, even though examples like this feed into his persistent and simplistic line of the Belfast IRA as a bunch of uber-Catholics.
Another example of how retrospective narratives are shaped is that a left wing dynamic did in fact exist among Belfast republicans in the 1930s and ’40s – for example with the ‘Republican Club’ which is created at the time, that involves Betty Sinclair among others, and unites republicans and official communists at the time on a loose ‘anti-imperialist’ basis.
Now, this group eventually fell apart with the German invasion of Russia and the official communist movement internationally swinging behind the Allied war effort, but it is an example of one of the political initiatives undertaken by the Belfast IRA in the period.
In fact Charle McGlade, a figure who is often viewed as a revanchist right-winger in the histories, is among those involved in setting the initiative up and it’s documented quite well in sources like the Communist newspaper ‘The Red Hand’ at the time.
Several of those involved in this group are even imprisoned for their activity, and as literate figures go on to write memoirs and such. However a lot of these individuals, when they wrote about their own political histories, leave this period out.
As you go into the data blind and just tackle the sources as they exist rather than relying purely on recollection, you begin to find all these little bits and pieces and you wonder, ‘why did they omit this?’ In other words, what seems like quite a significant episode is glossed over.
Following that, the Belfast IRA is largely run down as a military organisation in the ‘50s and ‘60s: it puts its efforts into election campaigns, producing various newspapers, and across the North there are Sinn Fein representatives elected – and all of this is then forgotten by figures like Peadar O’Donnell.
Jimmy Steele for example was intimately involved in the organisation of the Republican Clubs and, although he’s kicked out in July of 1969 over the Mullingar speech, had been involved (even on a symbolic basis) on the political side.
Simply put, politics wasn’t alien to the Belfast IRA before the ’69 split.
In that context, what was the Belfast IRA’s engagement like with the Border Campaign?
In ‘56 and ’57, before Operation Harvest, all the Belfast IRA arms were dumped and stored near the border, and I think that’s part of this broader politicisation that you get in Belfast that you don’t get in other areas.
In fact, Belfast almost defaults from the border campaign, and when you speak to some of the people who were around at the time, they huffed about the border campaign and were extremely critical of its strategic goals in the way it was described to them.
I asked Billy McKee directly about the strategic thinking behind the Border Campaign, thinking that I would get some insight into the Belfast perspective on the Goulding/Cronin plan hatched by the Army Council, and he basically replied, “Anyone can write something on a bit of paper and call it a plan”.
So, most of the people who are swooped up and interned in Crumlin Road at the beginning of the campaign in Belfast didn’t even believe it should take place. They are going crazy for three or four years while locked down, interned over a campaign they didn’t support (although of course you have people being interned in the South in the same period as well).
They are cursing GHQ, and people like Jimmy Drumm by this point have spent the guts of ten years interned through the ‘40s, ‘50s and early ‘60s, without ever being sentenced. You can imagine how disenchanted many of them are with the Dublin leadership by the late ‘60s.
And since a lot of these figures were around in the ‘40s and ‘50s, later on in the ‘70s with the Officials and Goulding pushing a narrative of ‘politicising’ the republican movement, they’re a bit like hipsters, upset and saying, “Hey, we were trying that from the ‘40s”.
That’s a flippant way of putting it, but those feeling of cynicism were very real.
To me it’s just ironic how much of the narrative gets flipped: Dessie O’Hagan and McMillen for example had actually left the Belfast IRA because it wasn’t militant enough in the ‘50s, while Joe McCann leads a breakaway group called the ‘Irish Freedom Fighters’ in 1965/66. All of these people then end up on the Officials side, whereas the Provisionals are the ones usually portrayed as the militarists.
How how does your research colour your perception of the 1969 split?
This is another topic I spoke to Billy McKee about, and he told me that while the split in retrospect is portrayed as being very dramatic, it wasn’t perceived that way at the time.
Let’s look at the chronology: Billy McMillen and a lot of the Belfast IRA staff were arrested before the infamous Bombay Street pogrom took place in August 1969, and are then held under internment for a month under the Special Powers Act, so they’re on this detention order until late September.
In the Officials-dominated narrative this period is portrayed as one in which a Provo rump – that had been waiting in the wings to stage a hostile takeover – emerges. However, when you look at it, in fact they don’t bother to stage a takeover.
Instead, there are meetings and efforts to locate arms – arms that had been dumped in the mid-sixties. So people like Jimmy Drumm, Joe Cahill and Liam Burke get together and send off search parties to find people they know in different counties and provinces to relocate and get as many weapons as possible to Belfast.
Meanwhile, the ones that stay in Belfast go around and reorganise each area. Thus far, there’s no concept of there being a split.
There’s then finally a battalion staff meeting when the internees are released in September, and, according to McKee, they went there with “proposals, not armed to shoot anybody”.
In McKee’s telling, despite some initial tensions, various proposals were agreed to; including that there would be a break from Dublin. However, apparently the next day McMillen made contact with Dublin and Goulding, and that’s when the relationships within the Belfast IRA start breaking down.
And all this happens slowly, not as a single dramatic event. In fact, some of the remaining volunteers from that period will tell you that they didn’t envision the split as a terminal thing, or that it was even overly problematic.
There was maybe a belief, perhaps naïve, that you could have a defensive and an offensive organisation, drawing on the experience of the Zionist armed organisations in the Palestinian mandate, which was a big inspiration for Irish republicans at the time (although of course sympathies have now flipped completely).
And in fact the Catholic Ex-Servicemen’s Association, which I’ve written about on my blog, does fill this defensive gap eventually, if a little bit later on.
So this understanding, of a Gotterdammerung of the republican movement, where it all splits really rapidly – in fact there’s not even violence in the split until 1971. And again I would bet a lot of this is personality driven – particularly if it happens in the Lower Falls or Leeson Street. So I’m still unsure if there is a true understanding or honest history of the split that is properly nuanced.
Have you looked at any of micro-history of the gun battles that take place in August 1969 and the efforts of both sides of the split to justify their roles in those retrospectively? I ask just because this topic has begun to be re-litigated in recent years, with the publication of ‘The Lost Revolution’, which is a sort of sympathetic history of the Official IRA.
To be fair, I haven’t gone into detail on the subject in terms of the specifics of who defended what areas in August ‘69. Ultimately, it’s a very complicated subject and I’m sure both groups did defend areas, and possibly there were opportunistic decisions made too, for example not to defend an area if you thought the other group might take the blame for that.
Eventually I think we will move towards an integrated understanding of what both sides of the IRA, along with the Catholic Ex-Servicemen’s Association, did or didn’t do to defend Catholic neighbourhoods in that period.
Ultimately, despite the hegemonic narratives put forward by individual groups, they’re all expressions of a wider self-defence impulse.
Incidentally, to tie things together, I believe that Dan Turley’s son was among a handful of IRA volunteers who defended the Falls on August 15th 1969, while neighbouring Broadway was being defended by Jimmy Steele and Joe Cullen, who were both in their sixties at the time and had been involved in the 1920s!
So I think anecdotes like that illustrate that to understand 1969 and the beginning of the Troubles you have to really understand the lived experience of those involved all the way through the earlier period.
Do you think your work challenges any of the mainstream historical perspectives on the role of the IRA genesis of the Troubles, particularly some of the simplistic narratives of a terrorist group emerging from the shadows to wreak havoc on a peaceful Ulster?
In terms of the typical media narratives, Kitson arrives early on in the conflict with his handbook on guerrilla warfare and from that point on information policy is definitely grabbed by the neck.
Ciarán MacAirt writes about this in his book on the McGurk’s bar bombing, how the British Government understood very quickly that as part of their security policy they had to control the media narrative, because they were aware they had failed to do that so far with regards to the Civil Rights movement.
That certainly conditioned a lot of writing about the conflict in that period, which in my opinion conforms to the parameters set out by security force information policy from 1970 onwards. All the way through, people like Martin Dillon and Chris Ryder or whoever, they never really stray outside these broad cartoonish caricatures that are painted out for them in an army press office somewhere in 1970.
On the other hand, immediately after the split Republican News gets restarted, so all sides are aware there is both a media war as well as a physical conflict.
On the blog you have a number of posts about the 1920-22 period, which saw a wave of vicious pogroms launched against Belfast Catholics, during the backdrop of the War of Independence and Civil War. How do you think that period will or should be commemorated as we approach its centenary?
Well, one example of horrific sectarian violence from this period that I address on the blog is the Weaver Street bombing. Weaver Street was an isolated Catholic enclave in North Belfast, a little cluster of 3 or 4 streets around North Queen Street that no longer exists following extensive redevelopment.
It was attacked when an assailant threw a bomb in the middle of a bunch of Catholic children who had been encouraged to “play on their own” (i.e. apart from Protestant children) by a Special Constable just before the attack. At least a dozen are killed or injured. There’s then no proper investigation carried out and witness statements are ignored.
So you can trace a line back, if you look at the work of Anne Cadwallader or Ciarán MacAirt, who are looking at events in the ‘70s – you can clearly see all the same elements of the familiar story in terms of implied collusion and cover-up.
Now, typically there is a narrative on this that the pogroms against Catholics in Belfast were intended as punishment for the actions of the rest of the country, but I kind of think that is a reversal of the chain of causation.
In fact it’s Loyalism that actually takes the lead in gunrunning throughout this period and I believe what happens in the early ‘20s is that they make a demonstration of how unruleable they intend to be in an independent Ireland.
The violence against Belfast Catholics by Loyalists is thus a case of ‘disencourager les autres’, in the sense of asking the South: “do you really want us on your books, with the level of mindless violence we’re capable of?”
And I think that it’s a lesson that was partly internalised in Dublin, and they were okay with Catholics being killed in Belfast so long as they weren’t being killed in Dublin.
So, while there is a caricature of ‘betrayal’ and the like, there is also a true element to that – which is often mentioned in the oral histories, a feeling of betrayal which heavily infused the cynicism of Belfast Catholics thereon towards the Free State and political movements in the South.
Interestingly, that period is going to be very difficult for the Southern establishment to get to grips with, considering they struggle with 1916 which is conventional warfare with uniforms, and you’re in battalions, and you hold territory, etcetera.
That idea of hit-and-run clandestine warfare where you shoot people in their beds, they’re going to struggle with that. Though that could be beneficial in that they might actually be forced to confront some of the convenient fictions they have tried to embrace over the last couple of decades.
Do you think your research has any relevance to the on-going ‘dissident’ republican armed campaigns in the North?
Well this sounds trite but unless you understand the past you will be doomed to repeat it.
If you look at what dissidents come out and say about republicanism and violence, it shows a deep lack of appreciation of the rhythms and pulses and how IRA campaigns occurred in a certain contexts, and how there are very low levels of violence in between.
It’s not this idea that you just carry out attacks on an on-going basis with no clear strategic or tactical background to it. So there’s an audience there that probably needs to hear those sorts of things.
Is there a broader social value to be learned from the history of Belfast republicanism in the period you cover?
The broader value I think should be self-explanatory, in terms of conflict resolution and everything else. If you want to understand what happened in the recent conflict surely you would want to have a good idea of where the Belfast IRA are coming from in 1970, which currently doesn’t really exist. It’s not being written by those involved obviously, because ‘silence is golden’.
If you’re looking at it from the point-of-view of victims, one of the things that is robbed – and this is a deliberate element of information policy – is that it takes events out of context as part of a policy of criminalisation. So this sort of history is an avenue to help victims at least understand where their loss occurred within that, and that’s on all sides.
I also think in terms of the republican movement it restores a lot context that has been lost. If this history isn’t recorded then you don’t understand the personalities and particular decisions that drive events and influence various outcomes.
For example, as I’ve outlined, if you want to understand the split in 1969, then you have to understand the personalities involved, because there is a long history to it and not just these macro-scale political tensions. Otherwise you don’t get that feeling of them being together and falling out at events in the ‘50s and ‘60s, and how all these little incidents colour things that happened later on.
The sad thing is we have really lost a lot, as the people involved have nearly all passed on.
I also think in a more general sense this history can infuses the people who live in republican neighbourhoods of Belfast today with a sense of meaning of who and where they are. Particularly in North Belfast there’s a belief that republicanism is a minority, ghettoised, phenomena of the inner city. But the people who now live on the Antrim Road, Glengormley – all the way out to Crumlin today – have all spread out of those really densely populated inner city neighbourhoods: from the Docks, North Queen Street, the ‘Bone, Ardoyne, Newington, and it’s their grandchildren that now live across most of North Belfast.
This sort of history is giving them back a sense of their own place in the city that isn’t necessarily there in the street names, and statuary, and public monuments.
Benedict Anderson describes the nation as an imagined community and there’s a sense in which Belfast republicanism (and the GAA) creates its own imagined architecture in Belfast. So, there isn’t a statue of him but the name Joe McKelvey was commemorated through GAA clubs, and you have that today still with the GAA clubs like Pearses, Rossa, etcetera.
This is the way a ‘subaltern’ people graft their own landscape onto the city that can co-exist with the physical one that Unionism creates, and this is what you flesh out with the history, who were these people that pioneered these efforts. I see my research as a putting to rest of some of that, a history that hasn’t been properly written because it’s not the official story of the city.
Maybe there’s a balancing act here though, because there’s very little done on the equivalent side for Loyalism. If you look at 1920-22 for example, there has been several scholarly books written about the IRA in that period, but there’s nothing on Loyalism, which also conducts a bombing campaign in this period as well as throughout the ‘30s and ‘40s.
Nobody has studied that really, in order to give a sense of who those people were, by pulling this information that’s out there together. So in some sense I’m only really chipping away at a single huge task from one side, there’s a need for further work from ‘the other side’, so to speak.
 Jimmy Steele (1907-70). Senior Belfast IRA member and republican activist from 1920-1970. Sided with the Provisionals in the 1969 split, died the following year in 1970.
 E.G. Ray Quinn, A Rebel Voice: A History of Belfast Republicanism 1925-1972 (1999).
 Tarlach Ó hUid (1917-90). Republican activist and Gaeilgeoir, born in London to a Protestant family, converted to Catholicism in 1937. Interned in Belfast from 1940-45, the author of two Irish-language autobiographies.
 Charle McGlade (1909-82). Belfast IRA volunteer and republican activist. Shot by the Gardaí in Dublin in 1941 and interned until the end of WW2. Sided with the Provisionals in the split.
 Controversial speech delivered by Jimmy Steele at a graveside commemoration in Ballyglass Cemetery in Mullingar in 1969, widely viewed as a pivotal moment in the eruption of the political and strategic tensions within the IRA that would lead to the split the following month.
 Jimmy Drumm (1920-2001). Veteran Belfast republican who joined the IRA in the 1930s. At one point “the most jailed republican in the six counties”, following periods of imprisonment/internment in the ‘30s, ‘40s, ‘50s, and ‘70s. Sided with the Provisionals in the split, his wife Máire was Sinn Féin Vice-President when was assassinated by the UVF in 1976.
 Des O’Hagan (1934-2015) prominent republican activist that sided with the Officials in the split. Interned in ‘50s and in 1971, author of “Letter from Long Kesh”, an account of the abuses against those interned in ‘71.
 Joe McCann (1947-1972). Official IRA volunteer, involved in several gun battles with British troops at the beginning of the Troubles. Killed after being shot in the back by Paratroopers in April 1972. A Historical Enquiries Team investigation concluded in 2013 ruled that his killing was “unjustified”.
 Joe Cahill (1920-2004). Prominent Belfast IRA member and leading figure in the Provisionals following the split. Played key role in peace talks and the eventual permanent republican ceasefire.
 Catholic Ex-Servicemen’s Association (CEA). An organisation set up in 1971 following the introduction of Internment with the stated aim of ‘protecting’ Catholic areas. Its founding member was Phil Curran who, in common with other members, had previous military training. The CEA was paramilitary in nature but unarmed, and at its most active in 1972 it was claimed that the membership was 8,000.
 Frank Kitson (b.1926). Senior British Army Officer in Northern Ireland during the early Troubles. Developed controversial tactics of counter-insurgent warfare, criticised at the time and retrospectively as deepening tensions between Catholics and the British Army.
 The McGurk’s Bar Bombing (2012).
 Lethal Allies: British Collusion in Ireland (2013).
 Joe McKelvey (1898-1922). IRA officer and commander of the Belfast Brigade during the War of Independence. Among the Anti-Treaty republicans captured by Free State forces following the shelling of the Four Courts in 1922. Executed in December of that year.