1922

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Clones, Weaver Street and the forgotten violence of 1922

On Saturday February 11, 1922, a gun battle that was to have dire consequences took place at Clones train station in county Monaghan. This was nearly two months after the signing of the Treaty and the IRA were in control of the border town of Clones. The truce between Crown Forces, agreed in July 1921, was still in place but tensions were high along the newly established border. Clones was home to the 5th Northern Division of the IRA and the entire area was pretty solidly Pro Treaty (subsequent references here to the ‘IRA’ refer to the Pro Treaty faction). On February 8, IRA forces from Monaghan attached to Clones command raided into Northern Ireland kidnapping sixty prominent unionists/Protestants. A number of local IRA prisoners were being held in Derry Jail, some of whom faced death sentences for offences that took place after the Truce. The unionist hostages were to be used as a bargaining chip by the Monaghan republicans to secure their comrades’ release.

The 5.30 to Enniskillen

Into the already excited atmosphere of Clones came 18 Ulster Special Constabulary (USC) members on the 5.15 pm passenger train from Belfast on February 11. The USC was an almost exclusively Protestant and loyalist force that operated in support of the Royal Irish Constabulary (and later the RUC) in the six counties. For the IRA in Monaghan, the USC was a familiar and formidable foe. The ‘Specials’ were obviously outside Northern Ireland and their arrival in Clones prompted a frenzy of activity by the local IRA. The USC men were waiting on a connecting train to Enniskillen. Months previously, there would have been nothing controversial about this journey, but with the Irish Free State now being established, the breach of jurisdictional boundary was a significant transgression. It is still disputed as to what exactly happened in the train station and how the shooting started–effectively both sides blamed each other. However, when the gunfire ended, local IRA Commander Matt Fitzpatrick lay dead as did four USC members. The concern here is more with the aftermath and legacy rather than the particulars of the incident. Unionist Premier James Craig immediately called for the British government to invade Monaghan.  The dramatic events were reported widely nationally and internationally (see Irish Times report below). Locally, Clones was then a hub for rail travellers throughout Ulster. Many in Belfast, where the USC contingent departed from, would have been familiar with the busy station. It was in Belfast that the Clones incident had the greatest repercussions.

Weaver Street

Historian Eamon Phoenix describes the Clones attack as ‘a match to a powder keg’ in terms of its impact on Belfast. In the three days between February 13-15, Phoenix records that 31 died violently in the city. Most notoriously a loyalist bomb was thrown into the tiny Catholic enclave of Weaver Street. A large number of children were playing on the street at the time. Four of the children, Mary Johnstone (11), Catherine Kennedy (15), Elizabeth O’Hanlon (11) and Rose-Anne McNeill (13), were killed. Two women, Margaret Smyth (53) and Mary Owen (40), later died from their wounds. Twenty more, mostly children, were wounded. Winston Churchill described the Weaver Street bomb as ‘the worst thing that happened in Ireland in the last three years.’

A forgotten legacy

Writing a detailed piece on the ‘Clones Affray’ in History Ireland, historian Robert Lynch concluded,

‘Despite its evident importance at the time, the Clones affray has been almost forgotten. This is bound up with the broader attitudes to the establishment of Northern Ireland. The ambiguities and brutality of the conflict in the North resulted in almost a conspiracy of silence, both sides having a vested interest in leaving such events where they lay.’

More people died from political violence in Northern Ireland in the first six months of 1922 than died in the first three years of the more recent Troubles combined (1969-1971). It would be disingenuous to claim that there has been no research on this earlier period. There has been superb very recent scholarship from people like Tim Wilson, Kieran Glennon, John Dorney at the Irish Story, John Ó Néill, Robert Lynch, Donnacha Ó Beacháin, Cormac Moore, Peter Leary and others. However, this work has not seeped sufficiently into popular consciousness. Consider RIC-gate in 2020, how many discussions even referenced the USC or the RIC’s role in Northern Ireland? Virtually none that I followed. Events that happened at places like Kilmichael, Soloheadbeg, Ballyseedy and Béal na Bláth are so well known that they barely require explanation, but how many are aware of Weaver Street? I venture few, particularly south of the border.

At times I question myself (a regular feature of my life) and wonder whether the idea that partition is overlooked is something personal. Perhaps, every researcher feels that their own area of interest is in some way under-explored? Put simply, maybe people like Robert Lynch and I have a bias based on our own research agenda. Inevitably, something comes along to dispel doubts in this regard. The most recent ‘something’ was a schools’ essay competition launched by the Department of Education. This is an official and quite significant Decade of Centenaries commemorative event. Students are asked to write a paper under one of the following headings: Revolution in Ireland, Ireland and the First World War, Women during the revolutionary period in Ireland, the War of Independence and the Civil War. I find the omission of partition as a title unusual, to say the least. To emphasise the peculiarity of this, the stated objective of this phase of the  ‘state commemorative programme for the years from 2019—2023 is to ensure that this complex period in our history, including the struggle for independence, the civil war, the foundation of the state and partition, is remembered.’  

Why so little attention?

So what are the causes of the historic silence on partition? I will offer three explanations, there are no doubt more. Firstly, the Troubles dissuaded many historians from looking at the topic.  As noted already, there has been some really quality research very recently. Nonetheless, Margaret O’Callaghan wrote a superb paper in 2006 examining how partition ‘has been marginalised in academic study.’ O’Callaghan points out that during the Troubles ‘addressing the fundamental issue of partition was seen as potentially justifying the Provisional IRA campaign, there was a moratorium on serious historical research on certain kinds of questions about the North.’ The Queen’s University Professor continues;

‘We have had little scholarly work on the foundations of the Northern Ireland state entity, on the Boundary Commission of 1925, on the scholarly and policy-driven ‘normalisation’ of partition, on northern nationalist politics, and on unionist political culture through the pre-1966 decades, because all of these topics are deemed to be ‘unhelpful’ (exceptions are Phoenix 1994; Kirkland 1996; McIntosh 1999; Burgess 2005). The only serious scholarly work on the Irish border and the stabilisation of partition in the 1920s was by Geoffrey Hand, published after considerable delay in 1973. It was politely ignored for the following 30 years. When working on the Boundary Commission of 1925 a few years ago, an eminent colleague asked me why I wanted to go ‘digging up all that old stuff’ – a difficult question for a historian to answer.’

The Long Fella versus The Big Fella

A second reason relates to the nature of civil wars. The actualities of partition are often obscured by the Irish Civil War. Such internal conflicts are often framed around standout dates (treaties, truces, etc) and with such an approach the narrative tends to focus on the ‘great (mostly) men.’  This is the ‘Mick’ v ‘Dev’ version of the Irish Civil War which many of us grew up with. As Stathis Kalyvas writes in his classic text The Logic of Violence in Civil War, ‘what causes a civil war is not the same as what causes violence within a civil war.’ The failure to disaggregate violence sees the nuances and complexities overlooked. The local actors become miniature versions of national actors. This can serve a purpose in sanitising events. Such a neat plot can indeed make for a good storyline, à la the Michael Collins film. Kalyvas writes that after conflict ends the ‘master narrative’ emerges that ‘provides a handy way ex post facto to simplify, streamline, and ultimately erase the war’s complexities, contradictions and ambiguities.’ Clones, Weaver Street and more generally partition are part of the ‘complexities, contradictions and ambiguities’ of the Irish Civil War.

North V South?

The final reason I will offer relates to the relationship between northern nationalists and the Irish state. Rhetorically the Irish state has always been sympathetic to northern nationalism but when it comes to policy, the reality has been different. Clare O’Halloran provides a superb analysis of this relationship exploring the early years of the Irish state. She writes; 

‘Southern nationalists expected the northern minority to be guided by their advice and wishes. Since in many cases the northern minority were not in a position to comply with these wishes, southern nationalists continued to regard them with the same mixture of resent and guilt which had characterised attitudes towards them since the founding of the state.’

The Troubles complicated this relationship further. Both Brian Hanley and I are among those who have explored the relationship between the Irish state and northern nationalists during the Troubles. There are clear echoes of O’Halloran’s findings in our research. Few things illustrate this more clearly than the official attitude to ‘refugees’ during the conflict. For example, a not untypical Garda report from 1975 states;

‘Refugees from Northern Ireland in the past, limited though their numbers were, showed that they were demanding, undisciplined and destructive, indicating that they felt entitled to the best treatment here while at the same time showing scant regard for the property placed at their disposal.’

The future of partition

The notion that the plight of the Catholics in Northern Ireland was written-out of history by nefarious Dublin regimes is an attractive proposition for some northern nationalists. But it should worry them too. The institutions of the Irish state are popular with its citizens- the majority still vote for those who ran the state during its 100 year history. If ‘partitionist’ mentalities effect the institutions of the state, they also effect at least some of the populace. For northern advocates of unity, this will make everything associated with Border Polls etc. more difficult.

So the combination of the Troubles, the complexity of historicising a civil war, and a difficult relationship between the Irish state and northern nationalists have contributed to a situation where Clones and Weaver Street have become largely forgotten. Of course, it could be argued that dwelling on these events will do nothing to aid the cause of reconciliation. Nonetheless, in the context of renewed discussion of a Shared Ireland, overlooking the significance of events associated with the initial division is not healthy.

Fig 1: Irish Times report on Clones Affray; See also Military Service Pension Collection file of Matt Fitzpatrick.

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