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)