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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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.

IMG_1332

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 End of the Conflict of Centuries is at Hand’ – The Signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty, 1921

This note, hastily written by Arthur Griffith, was the statement which told the world of his belief that the war between Ireland and Britain was at an end. It was the first message to the public on the outcome of the negotiations which led to the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921. Written for issue to the World Press immediately after signing the Treaty on 6 December, it reads

I have signed a Treaty of peace between Ireland and Great Britain. I believe that treaty will lay foundations of peace and friendship between the two Nations. What I have signed I shall stand by in the belief that the end of the conflict of centuries is at hand”. 

 

Arthur Griffith, born in Dublin in 1871, was a journalist and politician. He had been involved in nationalist movements from an early stage; he was a member of the Gaelic League and the Irish Republican Brotherhood, co-founded Cumann na nGaedheal in 1900, and founded the political movement  Sinn Féin in 1905. Having worked as a printer, he established a series of nationalist newspapers, including United IrishmanSinn FéinÉire and Nationality.  He joined the Irish Volunteers in 1913, but did not take part in the 1916 Rising. Despite this his connection with Sinn Féin, whom the British authorities believed were responsible for the rising, led to his arrest and internment in Reading Jail until 1917. After his release he became Vice-President of Sinn Féin under Éamon de Valera, and was elected as MP for East Cavan. Instead of taking their seats in the House of Commons, the Sinn Féin MPs established Dáil Éireann as the government of the Irish Republic on 21 January 1919 with de Valera as President. Griffth became Acting President during the War of Independence, and was again imprisoned from December 1920 until July 1921.

 

The War of Independence is generally recognised as having started on 21 January 1919 in Soloheadbeg, Co Tipperary, when seven members of the IRA shot and killed two RIC constables. A series of actions in the form of raids and reprisals followed over the next year. In 1920 the RIC received reinforcements in the form of the British recruited Black and Tans and the Auxiliaries; a division made up of ex-British Army Officers, and the conflict intensified. In December that year, after the events of Bloody Sunday, Ireland was placed under Martial law. From this point the violence and death toll escalated, and when British Prime Minister Davd Lloyd George suggested a conference between the two governments Sinn Féin agreed, and a Truce was called in July 1921.

A series of meetings were held and in October an official delegation, headed by Arthur Griffith and including Michael Collins, was formed to carry out the negotiations with the British government. After two months an agreement was reached, officially known as The Articles of Agreement for a Treaty between Great Britain and Ireland. The Treaty would see the withdrawal of British troops from the majority of the country, but gave dominion status to Ireland rather than that of an independent Republic, retained the Oath of Allegiance to the British Crown, and provided for the establishment of a Boundary Commission to create a border between the Irish Free State and the Northern counties which opted to remain under British rule. The Irish negotiators; Griffith, Collins, Robert Barton, Eamonn Duggan and George Gavan Duffy, though not happy with the terms, were told by Lloyd George that non-acceptance would lead to a resumption of the war which, at the point the Truce was called, was being lost by the IRA. The delegation eventually recommended the Treaty to Dáil Éireann, and it was signed on the 6 December.

 

 The Treaty was rejected by de Valera and split Republican opinion. Though it was narrowly ratified in the Dáil, this split eventually led to civil war, which started with the occupation of the Four Courts by Anti-Treaty Republicans in April 1922 and its bombardment by Pro-Treaty Republicans, now the Free State Forces, on 28 June. 

  

 

By its close in May 1923 many leaders in the Irish Republican movement were dead, with 77 official executions of Anti-Treaty Republicans during the war. Arthur Griffith died of heart failure on 12 August 1922, and Michael Collins was killed in an ambush and gun battle at Béal na Bláth, Co. Cork, ten days later. While this conflict lasted only 10 months, it was to effect Irish politics for the next decade, and lived long in the memory of the Irish people. The Irish Free State of 26 counties officially became the Republic of Ireland in 1949.

 

A copy of the Articles of Agreement bearing the signatures of the Irish and British delegates, including Arthur Griffith, Michael Collins, Eamonn Duggan, George Gavan Duffy, Lord Birkenhead, David Lloyd George, and Austin Chamberlain, is on display in the Understanding 1916 exhibition at the National Museum of Ireland, Collins Barracks.

 

 The National Museum of Ireland is pleased to announce that it has received funding from the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht which is being used to digitise important documents in the NMI’s collections. Historically significant items, such as Griffith’s statement, the last letters of the 1916 Rising leaders, original political documents, and prison autograph books will be digitised and made available to the public online.   

  

Harry Boland’s Boots; smuggling seditious documents, 1919

A couple of previous posts have focused on the publishing of Republican material by Fergus O’Connor in Dublin, such as the Easter and St. Patrick’s Day greetings cards. While such cards saw no real obstacle to their movement, other publications by O’Connor were actively suppressed, making their distribution, particularly outside the country, much more difficult. These boots belonged to Harry Boland, envoy to the United States of America from 1919 to 1921, and were used to smuggle the document proclaiming Ireland’s Claim to Independence hidden in the soles. They were donated to the National Museum in 1935.

 The Boland family had a long history of involvement in nationalist organisations and activities. Their paternal grandfather, a Fenian, had been part of the attack on the prison van transporting Irish Republican Brotherhood members Thomas Kelly and Timothy Deasy in Manchester in 1867. Later their father, James Boland, and mother had fled to America after the Phoenix Park murders of Lord Frederick Cavandish and Thomas Henry Burke in 1882, due to his supposed connections with The Invincibles, who carried out the murders. James was also friendly with well-known figures such as O’Donovan Rossa and P.W. Nally.  After his death, the family continued to be brought up in the nationalist traditions.

The three brothers, Gerald, Harry and Edmund, joined the Irish Volunteers at its inception at the Rotunda in late 1913 and took part in the Rising; Gerald in Jacob’s Factory and Harry and Edmund in the GPO.  After the surrender, Harry was arrested and sentenced to death, but his sentence was commuted to five years penal servitude and he was sent first to Dartmoor and then to Lewes Prison.

On his release in 1917, he opened a tailoring and outfitting business at 64 Middle Abbey Street, which became an important centre for dispatching information around the country. He was elected for South Roscommon in the 1918 General Election, and took his seat in the First Dáil in January 1919, where he was assigned as special envoy to the United States by Eamon de Valera. He spent the next three years campaigning for recognition of the Irish State, and also raising finances to help the effort at home.

In her statement to the Bureau of Military History, Kathleen Boland described her brother Harry’s secret journey. In mid May Harry went to Manchester to make preparations to go to America. He managed to get a job as a stoker on a steam ship, and arrived in New York on the 8th June, where he was met and brought safely through Customs by Jim McGee and Jim Gleeson, who were regularly engaged in the smuggling of weapons from America to Ireland. He was carrying a document, ‘Ireland’s Address to the Free Nations of the World’, otherwise known as Ireland’s Claim to Independence, which had been proclaimed at the First Dáil and published by Fergus O’Connor.  Due to its nature it had been suppressed by the British Government, and so had to be well concealed on the journey.  

 

 

Harry had had a pair of stoker’s boot specially made with a hidden compartment in the soles in which he hid the document. When he reached New York he went directly to the home of Diarmuid (Dermot) Lynch, a member of Dáil Eireann for Cork South East, and National Secretary of The Friends of Irish Freedom, an organization dedicated to promoting Ireland’s cause in the United States. He ripped open the soles and delivered the document to Lynch, from where it was distributed to the Irish-American community. Lynch kept the boots and later donated them to the Museum. For more on Boland’s time in America, and the activities of Clan na Gael and The Friends of Irish Freedom, see the Further Reading section. 

Harry Boland returned to Ireland in 1921, and, despite his close friendship with Michael Collins (which had survived even through their rivalry over Kitty Kiernan), took the side of the Anti-Treaty forces.  On 31 July 1922, one month into the Civil War, he was shot during an attempt by Free State troops to arrest him, and died two days later in hospital. When Kathleen asked him who had fired the shot he refused to tell her, saying ‘The only thing I’ll say is that it was a friend of my own that was in prison with me, I’ll never tell the name and don’t try to find out. I forgive him and I want no reprisals’.  

An old museum exhibition label for these boots talks about how they illustrate the difficulties in getting communications out between Ireland and America during this time. This is certainly true, but, like so many objects in the collection, they also represent the personal belief individuals had in Ireland’s right to independence, the risks they faced and the personal sacrifices they made to play a part in achieving it. 

Bridie O’Mullane, Cumann na mBan, 1918

Cumann na mBan was famously founded in Wynn’s Hotel on Lower Abbey Street, Dublin, in 1914, just months after the formation of the Irish Volunteers.  Its members took part in the 1916 Rising alongside the Volunteers and the Irish Citizen Army, and continued its involvement in the nationalist cause throughout the War of Independence, the Civil War and beyond.

Many women dedicated their lives to the cause. One such woman is Bridie O’Mullane, pictured here at about age 25 or 26.

This photograph shows Bridie in full Cumann na mBan uniform, including a small brooch based on the Tara brooch. She was a member of the Executive Committee, an official organizer during the War of Independence and the Director of Publicity and Propaganda during the Civil War. The photograph was donated to the museum by Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington in 1937.

Sinead McCoole, in her book No Ordinary Women, gives a good account of Bridie’s activities during the period.  O’Mullane joined Cumann na mBan in 1918 after meeting Countess Plunkett, who persuaded her to establish a branch in her home town of Sligo. She was made Secretary, and was soon requested by the Cumann na mBan headquarters to set up more branches around the county.  By the end of the year she had been elected onto the Executive Committee, and made an official organizer.

Despite serving a prison sentence in 1919, she continued her recruitment activities and went on to establish branches throughout the country, often with her life in great danger.

She opposed the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921, and was appointed Director of Propaganda for Republican Sinn Fein in Dublin in early 1922.  She founded the Cumann na mBan journal, and probably came to know Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington in this context, as she regularly contributed to the paper. She acted as a courier during the Civil War, and in July she was charged with the role of setting up a publicity department.  Bridie, Maire McKee and Nellie Hoyne established an office in Clare Street, publishing a weekly paper called The War Bulletin. In November 1922 she was arrested by Free State Troops and imprisoned. In Kilmainham Jail she continued her political life, and became a member of the Prisoners’ Council and Commanding Officer of A Wing. She was released in late 1923, but arrested again in 1926 while campaigning against the treatment of prisoners in Maryborough Jail.  She resigned her place on the Cumann na mBan Executive in 1927, later dedicating herself to compiling the history of the organization, assisting others in their applications for military pensions, the Women’s Prisoner’s Defence League, and was a founding member of the Irish Red Cross.  She died at the age of 74, and is buried in the Republican Plot in Glasnevin Cemetery.

Bridie made two witness statements to the Bureau of Military History, which can be read here and here.

For more stories on the role women such as Bridie played in the fight for Irish independence, see the further reading section on this site for a few of the titles available.  There are also a number of biographies available which are well worth reading.