The IRA ‘Big Gun’ and the Death of Matt Furlong, 1920

IRA 'Big Gun', October 1920 (NMI Collection, EWT.401)

Arming the Irish Republican Army during the War of Independence was not an easy task; weapons, particularly modern ones, were not readily available. In the countryside shotguns were common, as most farmers owned one. The IRA also gathered firearms such as rifles, even Lewis machine guns, and ammunition from the many raids conducted on Royal Irish Constabulary barracks around the country. Arms were also smuggled into Ireland. In 1921 Harry Boland ordered over 650 Thompson machine guns (made iconic by the US Mafia during the 1920s and 1930s) from America, and though most were intercepted on the docks in New York, some did make it to Ireland via Liverpool in England.

IRA 'Big Gun', October 1920 (NMI Collection, EWT.401)

Such weapons made little impact on the armoured vehicles of the British Forces however, or the strong walls of barracks buildings, and heavier guns were necessary. Unable to acquire them, the IRA turned to improvising weapons to serve their needs. This home made ‘big gun’, or mortar, designed to fire mortar bombs at short-range targets, was described as the only piece of such artillery used by the Irish during the War of Independence when it was donated to the museum in 1937.

The story of this mortar is an interesting insight into the making of improvised munitions during the War of Independence, but it is also a tragedy which led to the death of Matthew Furlong.

Matthew Furlong (from irishmedals.org)The Furlongs of 19 South Main Street, Wexford town, had a Fenian family tradition. Matt and his brother Joseph were members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) from 1908. He apprenticed as an engineer in the Wexford Engineering Company, but due to the labour wars and lockouts in Wexford in 1911 he and Joseph moved to London where they transferred to the London I.R.B., joining the same centre as Michael Collins. When the Irish Volunteers were formed in Ireland in November 1913, companies were also formed in the Irish centres in England. The Furlongs joined, and just after Christmas 1915, received word from Collins to quit their jobs in London and relocate to Dublin to prepare for the Rising. Matt and Joseph fought with G Coy, 2nd Battalion at Jacob’s Factory during the 1916 Rising, and were interned in Frongoch Camp in Wales until December 1916. They returned to Ireland and their home at 70 Seville Place, Dublin, took employment (with Matt working for a time at the National Shell Factory on Parkgate Street during the war years) and resumed their activities in the I.R.A.  Matt’s trade would prove useful, his engineering knowledge led to his involvement with the setting up of an underground munitions factory in 1918 by Michael Lynch of the Fingal Brigade, who had been charged with the task by Dick McKee.

The munitions factory was established in the basement of 198 Parnell Street, underneath the bicycle shop of Heron & Lawless; Archie Heron was Lynch’s Vice-Commandant and Joseph Lawless an Engineer Officer, both of the Fingal Brigade.

A munitions factory making hand grenades at Bailieboro, Co. Cavan

The munitions factory was fully equipped, including a forge and a lathe. It was here that they made the iron exterior bodies of hand grenades, based on the pattern of German egg grenades, and the brass fittings for the fuses, which were transported to another location to be filled with explosive and finished.

Joseph Lawless at Rath Internment Camp, 1921 (NMI Collection)Lawless was arrested in a raid on the bicycle shop by British Forces in May 1919, and afterwards felt that because of his connection with the premises it would be more closely watched. In order to keep the profile of the building low and protect the factory, he sold his interests to Lynch. Archie Heron had already left the business some time before. By June Lawless had set up a separate business renting cars, which was also used to provide car transport to Volunteer raid parties, and munitions became the sole business of 198 Parnell Street. (The story of Joseph Lawless’ later internment in the Rath Camp in 1921 can be found in a previous blog post here).

During mid 1920 it had been decided that there was a need for a portable heavy gun to aid in Barracks attacks, and work began on an experimental mortar. G.H.Q. Munitions branch decided to attempt to replicate the British Stokes, or Trench, mortar which had been produced during the latter part of WWI.

PSM_V92_D055_Stokes_mortar_for_trench_warfare_2 (Wikimedia)

IRA 'Big Gun', October 1920 (NMI Collection, EWT.401)

Artillery of this type is smooth bore rather than rifled, and used to propel explosive shells at a high angle towards targets with a much greater explosive capacity then a hand grenade. Matt and Joe Furlong undertook the task, although detailed drawings and instructions were not available.

When the mortar was complete in October 1920, testing began. Experiments with dummy shells were successful, a test site in Co. Meath was selected, and Matt Furlong, Peadar Clancy, Tom Young, Sean O’Sullivan and Patrick McHugh began the trial, with Matt as the operator. Difficulties arose with the firing of live shells, and adjustments were planned. Another trial at Kells took place where, after a number of tests, Matt decided to use a live shell which fired but landed unexploded. After further adjustment another shell was tested; this time it exploded inside the base of the mortar, blowing off the bottom half of the cylinder. Matt Furlong was very badly wounded, particularly along the left hand side of his body which had been closest to the mortar. He was brought to the Mater Hospital where his left leg was amputated, but he later died of his injuries at the age of 28.

IRA 'Big Gun', October 1920 (NMI Collection, EWT.401)

With the loss of the mortar, the munitions factory at 198 Parnell Street, still operating under the name of ‘Heron and Lawless’, concentrated on grenade manufacture. It was eventually shut down by the Auxiliaries in December 1920, when it was accidentally discovered during a raid next door. The building that housed the munitions factory is now the location of King’s Inn House, beside the Parnell Centre.

British soldiers, two Auxiliaries and a DMP constable at the Heron and Lawless premises at 198 Parnell Street after the raid. (http://www.standingwellback.com/home/2014/12/30/ira-improvised-munitions-1919-1922.html)

The ‘big gun’ itself was hidden in the River Tolka for some years before it was recovered by John Connell of Lustown, Co. Meath, after his release from Arbour Hill Prison. He and Padraig O Huigin later deposited it in the National Museum of Ireland in 1937 for display in its 20th Anniversary exhibition in Kildare Street. It remains the only known example of an IRA Big Gun.

View of "1916" exhibition sign, central court, Kildare Street, 1941. Shot from the balcony looking towards the first floor stairway (from glass plate negative DF5406, NMI Collection)

View of “1916” exhibition sign, central court, Kildare Street, 1941. Shot from the balcony looking towards the first floor stairway (from glass plate negative DF5406)

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Irish Citizen Army (and James Larkin) at Croydon Park, 1914

ICA at Croydon Park, James Larking to the left, April-October 1914

This famous photograph of a unit of the Irish Citizen Army drilling at Croydon House in Croydon Park, Clontarf is extremely well known.  However, this second view of the same scene, including an additional figue to the left – James Larkin – is less commonly seen. It came to me in 2014 through the NMI’s former Registrar, who received it from a former curator at the museum.

On this day – 21st January – in 1876, trade union leader James Larkin, was born to Irish parents in Liverpool.  Originally an organizer in the National Union of Dock Labourers, he had arrived in Belfast in 1907 to organize a strike there, and was later transferred to Dublin where he, James Connolly and William O’Brien established the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union in December 1908. Work was scarce, badly paid and inconsistant, and the union grew quickly, causing some of the main employers in the country to ban membership of a trade union as a condition of employment. They established the Employers’ Federation, headed by William Martin Murphy, owner of the Dublin Tramway Company, a number of newspapers and the Imperial Hotel in O’Connell Street. In August Murphy fired 300 tram workers, leading to sympathy strikes and the eventual locking out of over 20,000 workers, with violence breaking out on the streets between the striking workers, the blackleg labour and the Dublin Metropolitan Police who were brought in to protect them. The Dublin Lockout was to last until February 1914 when the workers were forced to return to their jobs with few rights won.

ICA at Croydon Park, 1914. Photograph by Keogh Brothers of Dublin. (NMI Collection)

The Irish Citizen Army was formed as a workers’ militia to protect people in the aftermath of the August 31st Bloody Sunday riots, when the Dublin Metropolitan baton charged  the crowd listening to Larkin giving a speech in O’Connell Street.  Labourers James Nolan and John Byrne both died of injuries received by police batons on the Saturday, and contemporary reporting stated that 433 people, and possibly up to 600 people were injured in the violent disturbances over the course of that weekend.

The Irish Citizen Army was established by James Larkin, James Connolly and  Jack White. White, a former British Army captain, led the training of the ICA at Croydon Park.  White was arrested at a demonstration in March 1914, and soon afterwards the ICA started re-organising. Apart from a constitution being written (by playwright Sean O’Casey), a uniform was decided upon and ordered to be made by Arnott’s; a dark green serge wool tunic and trousers, and a hat with one side of the brim pinned up with the ICA badge.

The uniforms arrived sometime in March or April 1914, and it was probably at that time that the famous photograph of the Irish Citizen Army was taken at Croydon House. It was taken by Keogh Brothers Photographers of Dublin, and shows a unit of the ICA proudly showing their uniforms, with the Plough and the Stars flag on a pole held by the man on the far left. The first appearance of the flag, made by the Dun Emer Guild, was stated to be at a meeting on the 5th April 1914, so this photograph was taken on or after that date. The presence of James Larkin in the second version of the ICA at Croydon Park  photograph also means it was taken before his departure on a fundraising trip to the United States on 24th October of that year.

It’s always fascinating to see a little extra of something we already know so well.

James Larkin, far left

Covert Photography in Rath Internment Camp, Joseph Lawless, 1921

Joseph Lawless at Rath Internment Camp (NMI Collection)

Joseph Lawless at Rath Internment Camp (NMI Collection)

In December 1920, at the height of the War of Independence, the British authorities established the first internment camp on Irish soil at Ballykinlar, Co. Down. The British policy of interning any man in any way suspected of being involved in the republican movement led to many hundreds of men being detained without trial, and soon a series of internment camps were built around the country, though Ballykinlar remained the largest and probably the most famous. One such centre was the Rath Camp at the Curragh, Co. Kildare, where I.R.A. member and internee Joseph Lawless took this series of unique photographs illustrating life in the camp. He donated them to the National Museum of Ireland in 1950.

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Joseph Lawless at Rath Internment Camp (NMI Collection)

Joseph was involved in the movement for Irish independence from an early stage, along with his father Frank and brother James Lawless . He joined the Irish Volunteers as a member of the Swords Company in about 1914, and was involved in the Howth gun-running of that year. In his witness statement to the Bureau of Military History he gives a full and detailed account of the Battle of Ashbourne in Co. Meath during the 1916 Rising, describing the military engagements and the gun battle that led to the deaths of 12 people. Joseph was a keen amateur photographer and was in the habit of carrying a camera, and states that he took photographs of this day with his Vest Pocket Kodak camera. Though the Battle of Ashbourne was a successful engagement for the Volunteers, they gave themselves up to the military when the word came from Dublin of Pearse’s general surrender. Joseph was interned in Frongoch until the general release at Christmas 1916. On his return to Dublin he went to retrieve his camera, rifle and binoculars which he had hidden in a stone wall near Ashbourne – he found the rifle and binoculars, but sadly the camera, and the only photographs of the events at Ashbourne, was missing.

Row of prisoners' huts at Rath Internment Camp (NMI Collection)

Row of prisoners’ huts at Rath Internment Camp (NMI Collection)

He later set up a business in Parnell Street which was to become a bomb factory, and later established a private car hire business which was used by IRA parties, including Joseph, to carry out raids on RIC barracks. He was arrested in December 1920 and interned first at Collinstown Aerodrome (now Dublin Airport) and Arbour Hill, and was transferred to Rath Camp at the end of February 1921. He agreed to be elected as the prisoners’ vice-commandant under Peadar McMahon.

Sentry tower at Rath Internment Camp (NMI Collection)

Sentry tower at Rath Internment Camp (NMI Collection)

The camp was built to hold between 1200 and 1400 men, and was comprised of four series of huts (A, B, C and D), a canteen, cookhouses, baths, latrines, wash houses, stores, a hospital, a chapel and an excerise yard, all surrounded by fencing of barbed wire and sentry towers, lit at night by flood lights.

Washing clothes at Rath Internment Camp (NMI Collection)

Washing clothes at Rath Internment Camp (NMI Collection)

Taking exercise at Rath Internment Camp (NMI Collection)

Taking exercise at Rath Internment Camp (NMI Collection)

Although cameras were prohibited in internment camps and prisons, Joseph had managed to smuggle one in and photographically recorded the details of the prisoners’ lives. They cover everyday activities such as taking exercise, washing clothes, attending mass, cooking meals and tuberculosis patients being treated in the camp hospital. These activities contrast with the background in the photographs which depict watch towers and barbed wire, reminding the viewer that the people in the photographs are under constant armed guard and threat to their lives.

Prisoners in the hospital hut at Rath Internment Camp (NMI Collection)

Prisoners in the hospital hut at Rath Internment Camp (NMI Collection)

Prisoners attending Mass at Rath Internment Camp (NMI Collection)

Prisoners attending Mass at Rath Internment Camp (NMI Collection)

Sergeant Roper and Ed McEvoy at Hut 1, Rath Internment Camp (NMI Collection)

Sergeant Roper and Ed McEvoy at Hut 1, Rath Internment Camp (NMI Collection)

One image in particular also makes us consider the conditions of the British soldiers guarding the camp. The soldier photographed is Sergeant Roper of the Black Watch, to the left in the foreground is Ed McEvoy, another I.R.A. prisoner. The camera is hidden on Joseph’s person, most likely under his jacket at around hip level, as he stands inside prisoners’ hut No. 1.   In the information accompanying the collection, Joseph stated that Roper heard the click of the photograph being taken but did not know who had the camera. He became very alarmed when McEvoy told him that the photograph would be used to identify him to the prisoners’ friends on the outside. The threat of retribution from the friends of the internees must have been a real fear for the soldiers.

Trenches being dug after after tunnel escape, September 1921, Rath Internment Camp (NMI Collection)

Trenches being dug after after tunnel escape, September 1921, Rath Internment Camp (NMI Collection)

Any chance of escape from Rath was slim, but opportunities were taken when they were found. From the early stages of the camp escape tunnels were being dug by the prisoners, and a plan was put in place that would enable the escape of most of the prisoners in the camp. In September 1921 the tunnellers digging out from a hut in D section decided to break through to the surface earlier than was expected by the camp leaders, and a number of men escaped. However, the plan to communicate the escape route failed and the first many knew of it was the next morning when the British soldiers rounded up all the prisoners to be counted. Later that day they were paraded on the field for a more detailed check, and the grounds searched for more escape tunnels. Within a couple of days a deep trench had been dug around the fences to cut off any further routes of escape.

Prisoners being counted after after tunnel escape, September 1921, Rath Internment Camp (NMI Collection)

Prisoners being counted after after tunnel escape, September 1921, Rath Internment Camp (NMI Collection)

Mail being taken to be censored, Rath Internment Camp (NMI Collection)

Mail being taken to be censored, Rath Internment Camp (NMI Collection)

Joseph and a Northern Irish man called Tom Glennon came up with a new plan of escape in October. The refuse from the cookhouse was sold to a local merchant as pig swill, and collected in a donkey cart which Tom thought could conceal two men. They formed a plan, gained 10 pounds from another prisoner, the camp chaplain Father Paddy Smith from Tullamore, and Tom arranged the bribe with the soldier who took charge of the cart from its young drivers once inside the camp. They raided the camp censor’s hut for two large mail sacks and waited for the cart to arrive on Sunday evening. With the help of their commrades at the cookhouse the bribe was arranged and Joseph and Tom hid themselves in the mail sacks, covered with swill. The cart was driven out the gates and returned to the young boys to be delivered to the merchant, who got quite a shock down the road when they realised what their cart contained. They left the boys’ cart at the edge of the Curragh and made their way back to Dublin, at one point meeting two British officers from the Rath Camp, who were fortunately too drunk from their activities on their day’s leave to recognise them. Joseph continued his activities in the Republican movement on his return to Dublin. He later became a Colonel in the Irish Army in the Free State. Two months after his escape, on the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty in December 1921, Rath Camp was closed and its remaining prisoners released. The Rath Camp came into being as a centre of internment again a year later during the Irish Civil War, when it housed around 1200 Republican prisoners being held by the Irish Free State.

Prisoners at Rath Internment Camp (NMI Collection)

Prisoners at Rath Internment Camp (NMI Collection)

The Hollywood Star and Pearse’s Missing Cap Badge, 1916

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In the late 1940s the Irish Volunteer hat and Browning 7.65mm automatic pistol used by Patrick Pearse during Easter Week 1916 were donated to the National Museum of Ireland. The distinctive Australian style hat was missing something vital – its cap badge, with no information on its loss and no indication of its whereabouts. The mystery was solved in 1977 with the publication of Hollywood Hussar by actor John Loder, famous for his roles in The Doctor’s Secret – one of the first ‘talkies’, and King Solomon’s Mines.

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Loder was born John Lowe, the son of Brigadier General Arthur Lowe, the commander of the British troops in Ireland from the beginning of the rising, and the officer who took Pearse’s surrender on Saturday 29th April. Loder had followed his father into the army in the early months of World War I, and had seen service in Gallipoli and Egypt. He arrived in Ireland on the Friday before the outbreak of the rebellion to take up his new appointment as Aid-de-Camp to his father. On the outbreak of the rising, he went with Lowe to set up his headquarters in Dublin Castle.

 

 

His account of the rebellion is brief, but he describes the fighting in the city centre, the destruction of the GPO and the death of civilians. At the end of the week Elizabeth O’Farrell came to Dublin Castle with a message from Pearse proposing the negotiation of a surrender. Loder wrote the message back to Pearse with the instructions to meet at Britain Street and surrender unconditionally, dictated and signed by Lowe. Loder was with his father at 4pm when Pearse and O’Farrell arrived. The famous surrender photograph shows Loder to the fore, his tall frame slouched slightly, cigarette in mouth.

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An example of an Irish Volunteer’s cap badge of the period. There were a number of different designs of badge, but this is likely to have been the type on Pearse’s hat.

 

 

He describes taking Pearse into detention in a staff car, accompanied by a priest, though his memory of Pearse giving the priest his watch and ring to give to his wife must be a mis-interpretation of the events; Pearse was likely passing his possessions on to his mother or sister. Loder had asked the driver of the car to continue driving past the jail’s gates in order to allow Pearse to finish giving his last messages. In gratitude, Pearse took his hat off, removing what Loder described as the Sinn Fein badge and gave it to him. He ends this recollection saying that he would have liked to have given this memento to the National Museum to join the other items belonging to Pearse, but it was destroyed in his parent’s home during the London Blitz in 1940 to 1941.

 

 

 

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After the Dublin rebellion, he was posted to France, fighting at the Battle of the Somme, and was eventually taken prisoner by the German Army in March 1918. After the war he continued his army career at the British Military Mission in Berlin, and on his demobilisation he returned to civilian life, setting up a pickle business in Potsdam, Germany. He turned to acting and moved to America in the 1920s, winning parts in Hollywood and later Broadway, radio and television. Described in his IMDb entry as ‘A tall, debonair, immaculately-groomed British leading man best known for his pipe-smoking chaps’, he lived the Hollywood lifestyle, complete with five marriages, until 1958 when he became a rancher in South America. He returned to London after his last divorce, and died there in 1988.

 

Many thanks to Michael Lee for telling me Loder’s story and providing me with a copy of his book.

Waiting for Execution, Playing Cards, Thomas MacDonagh, May 1916

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In the previous blog post I looked at a letter written by Eamon de Valera in May 1916 in Kilmainham after he was sentenced to death for his part in the 1916 Rising. Like the majority of the 93 prisoners who received the death sentence in that month, de Valera’s sentence was commuted to penal servitude for life. In total, 16 men were executed; 14 in Kilmainham in Dublin, Thomas Kent in Cork Military Detention Barracks and Sir Roger Casement in Pentonville Prison in London.

One of the leaders whose sentence was enacted was Thomas MacDonagh. On 2nd May, MacDonagh, Patrick Pearse and Tom Clarke were court martialled and transferred to Kilmainham Gaol, where they were shot on the morning of the 3rd May.   This deck of playing cards is said to have been used by MacDonagh in his cell in the hours before his execution, and were given to the uncle of the donor by MacDonagh’s sister, a nun, who visited him in Kilmainham the night before his death. They were gifted to the National Museum in 1947.

 

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Thomas MacDonagh, born in Tipperary, started his career as a teacher, poet and playwright. He met Pearse on the Aran Islands while there to improve his Irish language skills, and in 1908 helped him found St. Enda’s School in Ranelagh, Dublin, becoming a teacher of English and French. Through his membership of the Gaelic League he met Joseph Plunkett, with whom he edited The Irish Review.

He joined the Irish Volunteers at its inception in late 1913, and was permitted to join the Irish Republican Brotherhood in 1915. By the time of the rising, he was the commander of the Irish Volunteers Dublin Brigade, a member of the military council and was one of the seven signatories of the Proclamation.

MacDonagh was first in command of the garrison at Jacob’s Biscuit Factory on Bishop’s Street during Easter Week. The area saw relatively little in the way of action, serving mostly to try to cut off British Army troops moving into the city centre from Portobello Barracks, and later supplying provisions and men to support other rebel outposts. The news of the surrender reached them on Sunday, and MacDonagh immediately went to Pearse, who at that point was detained, to confirm the order. On his return, he gave the news to his men; the surrender was official. He also gave them a choice – to surrender with him or make their escape, in the hopes of carrying on the fight for an Irish nation. You can read more about the surrender of the Jacob’s garrison in a previous blog post here.

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This deck of playing cards is not quite complete – there are 51 cards of the same set, branded ‘Gallaher’s Gold Bond Mixture’ tobacco, a Joker and Ace of Spades from a second deck, and another Joker from a third, replacing missing cards from the Gallaher’s deck. Two of these have their numbers and suits written on them, both in a different hand. They are well worn, to the extent that the Ace of Clubs symbol has been re-drawn on the card face. While it’s possible that they may have belonged to MacDonagh, it is more probable that they were given to him in the prison, perhaps by a warden, to occupy him in his final hours.

Father Augustine of the Capuchin Order, in his published personal recollections, stated that on the night of the 2nd MacDonagh had wished for his ministrations. He heard the confessions and gave Holy Communion to both he and Pearse, leaving them in prayer between 2 and 3am. He was ordered to leave the prison, and, unable to attend the executions, he returned to the gaol the next morning to retrieve the rosary beads given to MacDonagh the previous night by his sister, the nun Sister M. Francesca. There is no mention of the playing cards, which is perhaps not surprising given that card playing was disapproved of as gambling by the Church, and perhaps seen at the time as unfitting to MacDonagh’s memory.

 

MacDonagh’s last address to the court martial at his sentencing showed him to be proud to die for the cause of Irish freedom, and his friend James Stephens wrote that a British Officer who was witness to his execution said of him ‘They all died well, but MacDonagh died like a prince’.

In whatever way he spent his last hours, the playing cards bring to mind how it must feel to sit alone and wait for death in such a situation. MacDonagh had married Muriel Gifford in 1912, and together they had a young son, Donagh, and baby daughter, Barbara. Though he was accepting of his death, he must have felt the pain of knowing he was leaving his family without a husband and father.

Like Liam Mellow’s chessman, the cards may have provided some small distraction for him in those hours.

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