It is hardly surprising that the revolutionary period witnessed a heightening of sectarian tensions in the north east of Ireland. Sectarianism had become a sad part of life in Ulster, not least in its industrial centres, long before the partition of Ireland. Writing in 1922, G.B Kenna lamented the fact that at one point there had been signs of working class unity in Belfast, but by 1922 it seemed distant history:
Relations between the workers of various creeds had become quite friendly. The shipyard strike of 1919 revealed a wonderful thing in the political history of the city. There had been growing up steadily and unobtrusively a feeling of the solidarity of Labour and a tendency to forget the differences of Orange and Green in attempts to achieve objects of common interest to the workers in Belfast irrespective of creed or politics.
Pearse Lawlor, writing in the pages of History Ireland, has detailed the spiral of sectarian violence in Belfast from July 1920, noting that “From the expulsion of Catholic workers from the Belfast shipyards and engineering works in July 1920, when men had their shirts ripped open to see whether they were wearing scapulars, so identifying them as Catholics, there was a litany of attacks on the Catholic population in Belfast.” Places of work and worship were attacked, and there were outbreaks of arson against the homes and businesses of Catholics. The situation escalated, with republican units in Belfast attacking tramcars loaded with shipyard workers, who tended to be drawn from the Protestant working class. While the vast majority of sectarian outrages committed in the city were against its Catholic populace, innocent Protestants endured suffering too, with rogue ‘Hibernian’ elements as willing to engage in squalid retaliation. By 1922, Belfast was a tinderbox.
The mistreatment of the Catholic minority in Belfast was enough to lead the Daily Herald newspaper to state in the summer of 1921 that what was being witnessed amounted to the “the bloody harvest of Carsonism”, highlighting the great irony that “the gangs who have organised the reign of terror are the very people who protest they are afraid that they would, under even partial Home Rule, be persecuted and denied religious liberty.” By February 1922,the Freeman’s Journal proclaimed Belfast “a city of death”, and it was reported that in the previous three weeks forty people had been killed and at least 100 wounded. Kieran Glennon, in his study From Pogrom to Civil: Tom Glennon and the Belfast IRA, does a great job of chronicling the rising tensions of the northern city. One key event was the murder of the McMahon family. Owen McMahon was a publican who lived at Kinnaird Terrace in north Belfast; with McMahon recognised as a prominent Catholic businessman, the eight men living in his home were lined up and shot on 23 March 1922. As Glennon has noted “the viciousness with which the attack was carried out caused widespread shock in both Ireland and Britain. That it was an act of naked sectarian frenzy was demonstrated by the fact that religious pictures in the house were torn and shot at.” Those who murdered members of the McMahon family were not part of a disorganised mob – they wore the uniforms of policemen.
In the House of Commons in Westminster, the ridiculous point was made that “in a great number of cases these so-called refugees are not refugees at all, but men sent out by the Republicans in the North at the point of the pistol for propaganda purposes.” The fire-damaged houses of Catholic Belfast told a different story however. As these Catholics flooded into the south in the early months of 1922, there was an initial outpouring of sympathy from the press and the general public, as the Dublin media reported in detail on what was happening across the new border. Yet, as Padraig Yeates has demonstrated in his history of Civil War Dublin, there was some hostility towards the new arrivals, sometimes from surprising quarters. Yeates has noted that “many workers resisted efforts to find jobs for the 7,500 refugees from the pogroms”, and that the IEIU trade union refused outright to give cards to Northeners, “or to allow its members to work alongside any craftsmen not already in the IEIU.” Belfast was the great industrial city of early twentieth century Ireland – Dublin was anything but, and competition for work was fierce.
The republican movement took the initiative of housing the Belfast refugees, but the choice of buildings that were synonymous with Loyalism and Protestantism attracted criticism. Patrick Kelly, a veteran of the Easter Rising and an IRA activist, remembered that “during the period when Belfast refugees were pouring into Dublin the Dublin Brigade HQ quartered the homeless in the Fowler Hall, Parnell Square, and supplied them with food.” The Fowler Hall was the home of the Orange Order in Dublin, and its occupation sat badly with some members of the new Free State administration. Maud Gonne later recounted a discussion with Arthur Griffith, who was bitterly opposed to the IRA’s occupation of the Fowler Hall fearing it would “cause trouble.” Gonne allegedly replied by asking “what more suitable place than the house belonging to the Orangemen could be found to house the victims of the Orange terror.”
In addition to the Fowler Hall, refugees were housed in the Kildare Street Club and the Freemason’s Hall, both of which were synonymous in the public mind with Loyalist Dublin. The Freemason’s had wisely taken the precaution of removing important historical records and materials from their premises early in 1922. In May 1922, the IRA left the Masonic Hall, adamant that the building had been seized “by an entirely unauthorised body on behalf of a crowd of refugees from Belfast who were brought into the building”, but that “in the course of about three days the refugees were cleared out, and the IRA Executive forces have since been in possession. Since then we have taken the most scrupulous care to preserve the property uninjured.” The tricolour was removed from the building on 29 May 1922, and the returning Masons stated publicly that they wished to keep it as a memento! A departing IRA man refused their request, on the basis he wished to do the very same thing. While some in the republican movement clearly equated the Freemasons with loyalism, the history of The Grand Lodge in Ireland is a complex one; the Catholic political reformist Daniel O’Connell had once been a member, resigning only after intense pressure was put on him by Archbishop Troy.
The IRA’s approach towards Belfast during this period was multi-pronged; not alone was the army attempting to house those fleeing from the city in Dublin and elsewhere, it was also enforcing a strict ‘Belfast Boycott’. Gallacher’s Tobacco, Bushmills whiskey and other products originating in the north were routinely confiscated, and one one occasion “fourteen bales of blankets were seized at Kingsbridge for use by Belfast refugees.”
There are some humorous anecdotes about the Belfast refugees in Dublin, many of whom were children. One IRA volunteer remembered that his men “quartered the homeless in the Fowler Hall, Parnell Square, and supplied them with good. Some of them objected to eating porrodge for breakfast.” Young refugees took it upon themselves to raid local shops and seize food they deemed more fitting. In this, they were perhaps following in the footsteps of Dublin children, who six years earlier had seized upon the Easter Rising as the ideal opportunity to empty Noblett’s sweetshop.
By June 1922, the media were reporting that the refugees were leaving the Kildare Street Club to take up temporary residence in Marlborough Hall, Glasnevin. This hall had been occupied by Free State forces, but their evacuation of it created the opportunity to house many of the refugees in more fitting accommodation. The ‘Celtic Red Cross Branch of St. Nicholas’ cared for the refugees at Glasnevin, and it was reported in the newspapers of 13 July 1922 that the Belfast children enjoyed “a happy Twelfth”, in reference to the 12th of July, a day of sectarian tension in Belfast. The children enjoyed “an atmosphere very different form that associated with the day in Belfast”, with “various kinds of juvenile sports”, parties and sightseeing tours. The Freeman’s Journal reported that by then “5450 refugees, mostly women and children, are in Marlborough Hall. Another 350 are accommodated elsewhere in the city.” One visitor was moved to write that:
There is great need of clothes for young and old – children’s toys and books would greatly help to occupy and interest the little ones, and surplus of gardens, such as rhubarb, would be gratefully received by the Matron. The tram company deliver to the door. A visit to the Hall would be welcomed, and would help to impress the splendid work going on there on anyone interested.
The refugees who flooded south of the border in 1922 are an often overlooked aspect of the period. These people, often women and children, were entangled in something that cost many of them loved ones and their homes. In some places they were vilified, derided in Westminster as pawns being used for “propaganda purposes”. In spite of the great difficulties Dublin itself was facing, and the hostility of some towards these new arrivals, many people openly welcomed these needy people, and assisted them in whatever way they could. The world today could certainly learn from that example.