Tyneside’s forgotten fight for Irish freedom
The IRA in Tyneside was almost 500 strong and played a useful role in the War of Independence
The aftrermath of an attack on Jarrow paper mills
During the Irish War of Independence (1919-1922), and the subsequent Civil War (1922-1923), many Tyneside men and women of Irish birth, or Irish descent, gave support to the Irish republican cause. They did so via organisations such as the Irish Self Determination League (ISDL), or played a more active role by joining the Irish Volunteers, (better known as the IRA).
Their motivation was the conviction that the nation of Ireland had been cruelly treated by England over the centuries, either by deliberate acts of subjugation, or by a failure to attend properly to the needs of the Irish people, for example during the Great Famine of 1845-1850. In their minds, it was time for the Irish people to right these wrongs by exercising self-determination in an independent Irish Republic. Readers must decide for themselves whether these activities were justified – the following account simply seeks to relate historical events to the extent that I have been able to establish them.
The general election of December 1918 was the first to be held in England after the Great War. In Ireland, then still part of the United Kingdom, it was also the first to be held after the abortive Easter Rising of 1916. The outcome in the two countries could hardly have been more different. Although traumatised by a war which had left hardly a family untouched by death, the electorate in England responded to calls for patriotism, and voted in a coalition of Liberals and Conservatives. It would take a worldwide depression, another world war, and 27 more years before voters in England would finally realise that the “Great and Good” who ruled them were neither great, nor good.
In Ireland, there was an altogether different political climate. Here, rulers and ruled were separated not only by class, but also by religion, culture and to a certain extent language. The harshness with which the leaders of 1916 had been treated, and an attempt to introduce conscription towards the end of the war, had radicalised the population, and led to a massive growth in support for Sinn Féin, a nationalist organisation formed in 1905 by Arthur Griffith.
Sinn Féin had won a number of byelections since the end of the war, and in the general election it overwhelmingly defeated the Irish Parliamentary Party, formerly led by John Redmond, which had been negotiating for Home Rule pre-1914. Sinn Féin won 73 of the seats contested against only six for the IPP (and 26 for the Unionists). Redmond himself did not live to see this eclipse of his party, having died in March 1918.
In accordance with their republican manifesto Sinn Féin MPs refused to take their seats in the Commons, and established instead a new assembly, Dáil Eireann, which met for the first time on 21st January 1919 at the Mansion House in Dublin. The items of business on that first day included the adoption of a Declaration of Independence, and the announcement of a Democratic Programme. On the very same day two members of the Royal Irish Constabulary were killed in an ambush by Irish Volunteers at Soloheadbeag in County Tipperary. The War of Independence had begun.
The War of Independence
From the start of the conflict the positions of the two sides were as entrenched as the armies had been in the Great War. The British Government would not concede full independence and a republic; Sinn Féin would settle for nothing less. Attacks continued and intensified, and towards the end of 1919 Lloyd George made the first of a number of errors that effectively ruled out the possibility of a peaceful settlement. He introduced into the Commons a Bill carrying the ill-fated name of the Better Government of Ireland Bill. This envisaged the partitioning of Ireland into two countries, each with their own Parliament, and with limited Dominion status within the British Commonwealth. This was unacceptable to Sinn Féin on three grounds – no Republic, only partial independence, and partition.
In January 1920 this major blunder was compounded by the raising of a volunteer force in England to serve in Ireland. The first units of this force, officially the Royal Irish Constabulary Reserve Force, landed at Dublin in March 1920, and it was quickly christened the Black and Tans, on account of the strange mixture of uniforms that were worn owing to a shortage of regular RIC uniforms. A second force, the Auxiliary Division RIC (often confused with the Black and Tans), was raised later in the year, its first 500 members landing in Dublin in July. The Auxiliary Division was specifically recruited from ex-officers with good war records, and it acquired a fearsome reputation as a fighting force. Regrettably, in terms of discipline, it did not distinguish itself any better than the Black and Tans, and the “Auxies” were to be responsible for some of the worst excesses of the conflict.
The struggle was vicious and bloody. The IRA operated a guerilla campaign, with attacks upon individuals and small groups of RIC and Black and Tans, and the murder of “informers”. Raids upon economic targets such as banks provided much needed funds. In response, the RIC, aided by the Black and Tans, hit back in the only manner then known for dealing with guerilla activities - intelligence-based arrests backed up by general reprisals against the civilian population. “Official” reprisals, (those approved in writing by senior commanders) included arrests and the blowing-up of houses suspected to be connected to IRA activities. (Observers of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict might conclude that anti-guerilla tactics have not progressed much further since then).
Unfortunately for the British Government, and the largely innocent Irish population, most reprisals were of an unofficial nature, and involved gangs of drunken and out of control Tans or Auxiliaries going on an orgy of looting and arson. The destruction of a large part of Cork city centre on December 11th, 1920 was a typical example. (Following a hasty secret inquiry the Auxiliaries responsible for this incident were withdrawn to Dublin, but in a show of bravado took to wearing burned corks in their Glengarry bonnets).
As now, such reprisals were widely reported in the press, and led to condemnation at home and abroad. The Archbishop of Canterbury, speaking in the House of Lords, called for the Government to provide detailed information about incidents in Ireland, as he could not “acquiesce in the policy of calling in devils to cast out devils”.
One particularly vehement critic was Daniel Mannix, the Irish-born Archbishop of Melbourne. In an ill-conceived attempt to prevent him from addressing meetings in Ireland the British Government sent a destroyer to intercept the ferry Baltic in the Irish Sea. The Archbishop was removed from the ferry and dumped in Penzance. This did not prevent him from addressing meetings in England, (including one at St James’s Hall in Newcastle on December 1st, 1920), where his propaganda value was actually much greater.
The war spreads to England
There was much criticism of Black and Tan activities in Britain too, especially from organisations such as the Irish Self-Determination League. The League had been founded in London in 1919, and its purpose was, as its name suggested, to further the cause of self-determination for the Irish people. Its activities were ostensibly confined to fundraising and the distribution of Sinn Féin propaganda. However, many of its members sought to take more direct action through other organisations such as the IRA.
Although initially hesitant, towards the end of 1920 IRA headquarters in Dublin decided to extend the war to Britain. Rory O’Connor, the so-called “Director of Engineering” of the IRA became, in effect, Director of Operations in Great Britain. One of the first targets to be hit was Liverpool docks, where 20 large warehouses were attacked by arsonists on November 20th, 1920. Nine days later there was a large explosion and fire near London Bridge. Other activities included seizing the passports and tickets of Irish emigrants newly-arrived in Liverpool on their way to America, so that they would be forced to return to Ireland. A similar campaign of intimidating potential emigres was also carried out in Ireland.
One factor in the decision to commence activities in England may have been the extent of the British troop build-up in Ireland. On November 30th, 1920 Winston Churchill, in response to a parliamentary question, disclosed that there were 50,000 British troops in Ireland – compared to only 15,000 on the Rhine. There was no way that the IRA could hope to achieve a military victory in England, but by staging attacks there some troops might have been recalled from Ireland. As the war got nastier, attacks were staged upon the homes of Black and Tans in direct reprisal for the burning of homes in Ireland.
Activities on Tyneside
With its large Irish population Tyneside was a natural recruiting ground for the ISDL. A branch was formed there early in 1920 with Richard Purcell as president and Gilbert Barrington as secretary. On August 8th, 1920 a demonstration and gala, presided over by Councillor Terry O’Connor of Jarrow, was held in Durham City. Thousands of members from 25 ISDL branches throughout Northumberland and Durham marched from the Market Square to Wharton Park, led by the Hebburn Brass Band, where they were addressed by two members of Dáil Eireann – Sean Hayes and S Mahoney, and Sean Milroy, Director of Organisation for the Irish Republic, as well as local speakers.
Jarrow, which had long been a centre for Irish politics, and during the 1880s possessed the most active Tyneside branch of the Irish National League (Charles Parnell’s party), seems to have had one of the most important ISDL branches, with more than 50 members. Regular meetings were held in Lockharts Cocoa Rooms or the Cooperative Guild Hall, at which political and fundraising activities such as demonstrations and ceilidhs were planned.
Some members of the ISDL on Tyneside sought more direct action, and formed themselves into an unofficial IRA brigade. This became an official brigade in November 1920 when Liam McMahon administered the oath. Richard Purcell became the Officer Commanding, Gilbert Barrington the Quartermaster, and Joseph Connolly the Adjutant. An inner circle also held membership in the highly-secretive Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), including Purcell and Barrington. Women were not admitted to the IRA itself, but had their own organisation – Cumann na mBan (League of Women). There was a branch in Jarrow, under the leadership of Cissie Brennan.
Richard Purcell was a former miner at Coxlodge, living at Ashfield Road in Gosforth. He became a full-time officer of the ISDL and received a salary from the organisation.
Gilbert Barrington was an elementary school teacher in St Bede’s Catholic School, South Shields, living at 90 Mowbray Street. He was born in Blackburn in 1889. His parents were both Irish, but were not poor; his father was a master cabinet-maker and his maternal grandfather owned a stud farm near Limerick.
Their first task was to recruit more volunteers among local Irish sympathisers and organise them into companies. Most recruits were skilled/semi-skilled or professional men. Many, such as Hexham-born Liam Ferris, had served their country in the armed forces. (Gilbert Barrington himself had served in the Royal Army Medical Corps with the rank of corporal).
The largest company was in Jarrow, with more than 90 members. By the end of November six companies had been established, in Jarrow (A Company), Hebburn (B Company), Newcastle (C Company), Wallsend (D Company), Bedlington (E Company), and Consett (F Company), with a total strength of around 160 men. Recruitment continued, and a further four companies were set up during the first quarter of 1921, in Stockton, Chester-le-Street, Thornley and Sunderland. This brought the total strength to around 480 men. Procurement of arms and other war materials (explosives / inflammable liquids) was also high on the list of priorities. Guns were mostly obtained from foreign sailors, or stolen from drill halls.
On March 5th, 1921 the unit went into action for the first time with incendiary attacks on a bonded warehouse and oil refinery in Newcastle, and a timber yard in Tyne Dock. The operation was unsuccessful; small fires were started at the oil refinery and the timber yard but were quickly put out, and the attempt to break in to the bonded warehouse was interrupted by the police, resulting in the arrest of one of the volunteers, Owen Salmon. Among those who made their escape was Michael Mackin of Jarrow.
In fact, two separate attacks were planned on the oil refinery – one on the oil store, and one on the works itself. In the latter case Gilbert Barrington and Tommy Durham, a Jarrow man, gained entry to the premises, but the volunteers who were assigned to start the fire did not turn up. These were Joseph and John Connolly, the Adjutant and O/C of Jarrow Company. Following an investigation they were replaced by David Fitzgerald and John Philbin respectively. They must have given an adequate explanation as they continued in membership of the Jarrow ISDL and were regular attenders at subsequent meetings of the branch. Only one volunteer was convicted in the courts – Owen Salmon, who received a sentence of seven years for his part in the operation. Another member of the unit, Anthony Dunleavy, was arrested on April 6th, but was able to provide an alibi in court and was acquitted.
A second and more ambitious series of attacks was carried out on March 26th. The targets were farms, spread out over a wide area of Northumberland, Durham and north Yorkshire. The press had sought to minimise the importance of the previous attacks, ascribing them to outsiders. By staging widespread and co-ordinated attacks it was intended to demonstrate the extent of the IRA organisation in the region: 38 fires were started at 20 different sites, all timed to commence at 8pm. The worst-hit farms were those belonging to colliery companies. At the time the local miners were on strike, and there is a suspicion that Irish politics was not the only factor which played a part in the selection of these targets. The fires were covered in detail in the Evening Chronicle of March 28th, 1921.
On this occasion seven arrests were made – all of Jarrow men. Patrick Coyne and Michael Wynn subsequently received 21 months’ hard labour, James Connolly and Patrick Gorham were released without charge on April 4th, 1921, and Patrick Canavan, Patrick Joyce and Patrick Kerrigan were acquitted.
The next major operation proved to be a spectacular one – at least for the citizens of Gosforth. On April 8th, 1921 a large building which had formerly been used for the assembly of aeroplanes was set ablaze and entirely gutted. The flames could be seen for miles, and spectators flocked to the Town Moor and Grandstand Road to witness the blaze. The volunteers taking part in this operation included John King, Ed Kerrigan, E. Costelloe and Liam Ferris.
The final series of major operations took place on May 21st, 1921. In Jarrow a number of farm fires were started, and a garage at the Springwell Paper Mills was set alight leading to the destruction of four lorries. John Philbin and Michael Mackin, the Captain and Quartermaster respectively of the Jarrow Brigade, made an unsuccessful attempt to fire the Empire Cinema. By far the most daring attack, however, was the blowing up of a gas main on the old Don Bridge. This was carried out by John Ward and Martin Flaherty. The site of the explosion can still be seen today, and from an examination of the damage it is fairly clear that it was the gas main rather than the bridge itself which was the intended target. Attacks were also made upon station buildings on the Derwent Valley line, on a boatyard in Wallsend, and on farms throughout Co Durham, and a watermain on Teeside was blown up.
The Wallsend boatyard attack led to the arrest of two more volunteers – James Conroy, a schoolteacher from Dee Street in Jarrow, and John McAlinden of Wallsend. Both men were found to be armed. Conroy received a sentence of 7 years, and McAlinden 5 years, but they did not serve their full sentences, and were released early in February 1922. On their release they were given a heroes’ reception by the Jarrow ISDL, at which Councillor Terence O’Connor proposed the toast “Our heroes of the IRA on Tyneside”.
On July 9th, 1921 a truce was agreed between the British government and the IRA. An t-Oglach, the official organ of the IRA, carried details of the truce terms in its issue of July 16th. This included an order by Richard Mulcahy, Chief of Staff, to cease military operations, but to continue planning further operations in the event that the truce might break down. Had this occurred, the High Level Bridge was an intended target.
The procurement of arms for shipment to Ireland was also to continue, and in Jarrow, babies’ prams were routinely used to transport weapons to and from an arms dump in St Paul’s Road. This work was not without its own peculiar dangers. On one occasion an ISDL member accidentally shot himself in the hand while cleaning a revolver. Unable to seek medical attention via normal channels, a young medical student, Hubert Laydon (who later became a local GP) was persuaded to treat the injury in confidence. It was not only hand guns that were being procured; divisional records show that on December 14th, 1921 a shipment taken to Liverpool by car included four Lewis guns with spare magazines and accessories and two German machine guns “in very good condition”. These latter may have been those formerly on display in Saltwell Park. They had been captured by the Durham Light Infantry from the Germans, and bore an inscription to that effect.
The IRA organisation on Tyneside suffered a major setback in October 1921 when both Richard Purcell and Gilbert Barrington were arrested in connection with the theft of explosives from Bebside Colliery, near Blyth. A total of 305 lbs of gelignite and 80lbs of ammonite was taken. Neither appear to have taken part in the raid itself, but were arrested as the result of arrangements they had made for the explosives to be temporarily stored at 87 Hawes Street, Newcastle, at the home of Arnold and Agnes Margetts. Their trial was reported in great detail in the local press. Documents were produced to the court which had been seized at an office in Clayton Street, Newcastle, which had been rented for the ISDL by Barrington. These included a letter from Barrington to Joseph Connolly, who was being held in Cardiff on arms smuggling charges, and a drawing of a bomb with instructions for its use. At the conclusion of the trial both Purcell and Barrington were sentenced to three years’ penal servitude, but were released on April 3rd, 1922 as part of the Truce arrangements.
The signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty on December 5th, 1921 effectively ended the prospect of a resumption of military operations in Great Britain. In Ireland it split the Republican movement down the middle. Those who opposed it, led by Eamon de Valera, believed that its compromise of accepting Dominion status and partition of the island betrayed the ideal of 1916 – an independent Republic for the whole of Ireland.
The pro-Treaty side was led by Michael Collins, the man who had been, more than anyone else, the driving force behind the War on the Irish side. After much acrimonious debate the Treaty was ratified by Dáil Eireann by only seven votes on January 7th, 1922. The IRA remained opposed to it however, and occupied the Four Courts building in Dublin. An uneasy stand-off continued for some time between the Provisional Government, led by Collins, and IRA commanders, notably Rory O’Connor, who considered the IRA to be the legitimate army of the Irish State – but not a partitioned state.
A general election on June 16th, 1922 resulted in a majority for Treaty supporters, but 6 days later the IRA assassinated Sir Henry Wilson, security adviser for the new Northern Ireland State. The British Government demanded action from the Provisional Government, bringing a somewhat rash response from Michael Collins to “do their own dirty work”. Accordingly Gen Nevil Macready, British commander in Ireland, was ordered to storm the Four Courts on June 26th. He failed to act, for whatever reason, and on June 28th Provisional Government troops went in, beginning a Civil War which lasted until April 24th, 1923 when the anti-Treaty forces, known collectively as “Irregulars” were finally defeated.
The Treaty also resulted in a split among supporters of Ireland in Britain, but the relative proportions of pros and antis were considerably different to Ireland. In Jarrow approximately 90 per cent of ISDL members were anti-Treaty. Other areas, particularly Mid-Durham were much less Republican in their outlook. This led to infighting at district level, and Jarrow and a number of other branches boycotted an Irish Demonstration & Gala organised by the Mid-Durham ISDL on August 7th, 1922 in Wharton Park, Durham.
According to newspaper reports, this Pro-Treaty event was opposed by “supporters of de Valera hailing chiefly from Tyneside, and with cries of ‘traitors’, a smoke bomb was thrown, flags destroyed and a fight began.” Bad feeling already existed because the Durham Branch of the ISDL had appointed their own man to oversee financial arrangements. This was seen as a slur upon the character of the existing treasurer. This may have been triggered by an article which had appeared in the Tyneside News earlier in the year accusing unnamed ISDL officials of mismanaging the League’s funds. Considerable outrage (and dismay) was expressed by members upon the discovery that Michael Collins had communicated with Mr Diamond, the editor of the Tyneside News, criticising “the influence which the League was wielding in England to subvert the loyalty of the Irish in England to the Free State”.
Some members volunteered for service in Ireland and took part in the subsequent Civil War, for example Liam Ferris who was transferred to the 5th Mullingar Brigade on September 14th, 1922. He took part in a number of operations before being captured at Glenidan on January 6th, 1923, and served the remainder of the Civil War in Dundalk Jail. Gilbert Barrington also moved to Ireland where he was soon arrested for anti-Treaty activities and interned at the Curragh Camp for the duration of the Civil War.
The last major incident in the saga came on March 10th, 1923 when there was a mass round-up of Irish men and women in England and Scotland. Those arrested in England, 72 in total, were taken to Liverpool Docks by special trains, put on the cruiser HMS Castor, and deported to Dublin, where they were detained in Mountjoy jail. In Scotland there were 38 arrestees, who suffered a similar fate, being transported to Dublin from the Clyde on two destroyers of the Royal Navy. The arrests had been made at the request of the Free State government, and were carried out with great efficiency as they were able to give the British Government precise details of names and addresses from IRA records in Dublin. A total of 110 people were deported in this manner, and on Tyneside there were four arrests:
JJ King, Clayton Street, Newcastle
Thomas Joyce, Jarrow, ex-soldier
Thomas Flynn, Lawson Street, South Shields
Anthony Mullarkey, Victoria Terrace, Bedlington
The circumstances of these deportations created a field day for the lawyers, as they had been carried out under the Restoration of Order in Ireland Regulations. However, these regulations were no longer in force in the Free State, so it was argued that the deportations had been illegal. This was in fact deemed to be the case, and the detainees were freed on May 18th, after the official end of the Civil War. Several of them made successful claims for compensation from the British Government – for example JJ King was awarded the sum of £575. Joyce, Flynn and Mullarkey were not so lucky. Following their return from Ireland they were charged with seditious conspiracy, in the company of Art O’ Brien, Sean McGrath and two others. Thomas Joyce was taken ill at the commencement of the trial, and his case was postponed, but Flynn and Mullarkey were convicted on July 4th, 1923, receiving 12-month sentences. O’Brien and McGrath each received two years. Thomas Joyce was still ill, and living in a sanatorium when his case was finally dropped in December 1923.
The pro- and anti-Treaty arguments continued to split the Irish community in England. In September 1923 the mid-Durham section of the ISDL publicly severed its links. These tensions, and the fact that working-class Northerners had problems of their own to worry about, eventually led to the break-up of the organisation.
After the conflict most ISDL members continued their normal lives within Tyneside society. Councillor Terence O’Connor, for example, went on to become Mayor of Jarrow in 1938. Cissie Brennan became Head Teacher of St Bede’s Infants School. Those IRA members who had managed to escape exposure were also able to resume a normal life. Michael Mackin became a well-known figure within the community, and ran boys’ clubs in St Bede’s, and later St Matthew’s parishes. Liam Ferris, who had managed to keep his true identity a secret throughout his time in an Irish jail, returned to England and found work as a bus driver. He later joined the Newcastle Ambulance Service, and progressed to become its manager before retiring in 1965. Both Mackin and Ferris were decorated by the Irish Government and received pensions in respect of their service.
Those whose identities had been exposed by capture found it more difficult to resume a life in England. Gilbert Barrington found it impossible to resume his career as a schoolteacher, and settled in Dublin. Owen Salmon and Ed Kerrigan joined the Garda. Thomas Joyce joined the Irish Army, and Anthony Mullarkey emigrated to the United States.
The IRA campaign on Tyneside was, in military terms, insignificant. Very little actual damage was caused by attacks on property, the procurement of arms and explosives being of more direct benefit to the cause. It had serious propaganda value, however. By striking against unpopular targets, such as farms owned by coal companies, and by eschewing the use of assassination as a weapon, the Tyneside IRA kept the Irish problem in the public eye whilst at the same time avoiding the alienation of public opinion.
This article was first published on the author’s website and is reproduced with his permission