Working Class Movement Library

A blog from the Working Class Movement Library in Salford

Posts Tagged ‘Ireland’

The ephemeral can get to the heart of the matter – why we like donations of political leaflets and campaign flyers

Posted by wcmlibrary on May 14, 2013

We’re always interested in receiving material from radical political campaigns people are involved in.  We don’t have much capacity here to be pro-active in going out and getting it, so it’s great when people think of us.  Leaflets, flyers and correspondence may seem ephemeral, but they can tell future researchers such a lot about how it really felt to be part of an activist campaign, or about the political feel of the time.  That sort of thing is what our readers always get excited about when they find it here!

Programme of 2013 Chesterfield May Day galaLast week, for instance, volunteer Stuart brought us in the programme of the Chesterfield May Day gala he’d been to over the Bank Holiday – and a nice badge to go with it.  We’ve got a great collection of May Day programmes from 1920 onwards, and this is a welcome addition.  Cheers Stuart.

We’ve also been sifting through the papers and books of activist and WCML reader Keith Hodgson, which were kindly sent across to us from Liverpool by his partner Janice after the sadness of his death in February.

Keith packed a lot into his 50 years – he was part of the Liverpool Anarchist Groups of the 1980s and early 1990s, was a founder member of Liverpool Anti-Fascists, and was  involved in the Troops Out Movement and the Phoenix Support Group for Irish Republican prisoners amongst many other campaigns.

A couple of random snippets to show the flavour of the papers from Keith which we’re adding to our collection:

* an interesting exchange between Merseyside anarchists in a squatted building and a representative from the Labour council on the question of getting building insurance to legitimise their presence;

* an anarchist critique of the Provisional IRA, discussing historical associations with Franco and the Nazis;

* a range of Troops Out movement material,  including delegation papers and benefit concerts, correspondence and attempts to reach across the sectarian divide.

Thanks for thinking of us, Janice.

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Book review – ‘Special Category: the IRA in English Prisons’

Posted by wcmlibrary on January 4, 2013

Special Category: the IRA in English Prisons Vol.1: 1968-1978 by Ruan O’Donnell. Irish Academic Press, ISBN 978 0 7165 3141 8

It will come as a surprise to many people in this country that there have been political prisoners in English jails and in this book Ruan provides a comprehensive account of who they were, why they were there and what both the British  government  and the prisoners themselves felt about the situation.

We are,  of course,  talking about Irish prisoners who were in English jails because of Britain’s occupation of the Six Counties of Ireland (otherwise known as Northern Ireland) and the unresolved political situation which affected both sides of the Irish border and had an international dimension.

What is amazing about this book is the way in which Ruan has used an array of sources. He has interviewed many participants – including prisoners and  their families –  as well as using private collections of correspondence and papers, state archives, declassified documents, and  official records of parliamentary business. His attention to detail is incredible: in one chapter there are over 300 footnotes!

Cover of the bookThere have been Irish prisoners in British jails going back to the United Irishmen in the 1790s. In this book Ruan looks at a ten year period beginning with the new phase of the Troubles from 1968 onwards. After 1968 the numbers of Irish Republicans jailed increased and the tactics of the British Government towards these prisoners changed. And whilst the numbers of prisoners  increased,  it was more difficult for them to organise against a harsh prison regime:

“It was no coincidence that the first two fatal hunger strikes of the modern Troubles occurred in England and that events within the Dispersal System resonated, often powerfully, on Irish soil over three decades”.

In the 1970s I went to a predominantly Irish secondary school in the heart of the Irish community in Manchester and, whilst the main agenda for the hierarchy of this Catholic school was to deliver law-abiding British children, there were Irish teachers who were Republican minded.  I remember vividly one Irish nun telling us about interned Irish prisoners in the Six Counties and their harsh conditions.  She did not mention the growing number of Republican and innocent Irish prisoners in British jails  (including the Birmingham Six) who were now part of this harsh regime.

The Irish community in Britain has always played a significant role in opposing Britain’s occupation of Ireland but,  as the war intensified and the IRA brought its actions to England,  it was the community who took the backlash.  The British Government rushed through the Prevention of Terrorism Act in 1974 after the Birmingham pub bombings which, whilst not stopping IRA activity,  did severely curtail democratic debate in this country about the war going on in Northern Ireland. From 1974 to the early 1980s very few Irish people, and even fewer English people,  wanted to be seen taking part in any public opposition to the eroding of civil and human rights  of Irish people on both sides of the Irish Sea.

Ruan puts this into context and weaves together some of the campaigning work done by outstanding people such as Sister Sarah Clarke on behalf of prisoners and their families.  She had been active from the 70s  but,  after 1973,  was barred from visiting prisoners.  She only found out in 1985 that she had been stopped from being an approved visitor on the grounds of security. You would have to meet Sister Sarah to realise how ridiculous this was.

Whilst IRA prisoners in English jails asserted their Republican political views,  for those individuals such as the Birmingham Six, Guildford Four, Maguire Seven and others who were victims of miscarriages of justice, in effect convicted of being Irish in the wrong place at the wrong time,  it is heartbreaking to read the accounts of their unjust treatment by all  levels of the police, courts and prison system. As Ruan says about the Maguire family, “Their case was arguably the single worst incidence of judicial abuse perpetrated under the Prevention of Terrorism Act and indicated that any Irish person, regardless of age, gender or political orientation, was liable to face imprisonment if elements of the British Establishment so desired.”

As republican prisoners increased in number they took part in a variety of strategies to seek their freedom. These included escapes, riots and  legal challenges. They became important in Republican strategy for resolving the political situation in the Six Counties and,  as we saw in the negotiations in the 1990s leading to the Good Friday Agreement,  the prisoners had a major influence in the settlement. Ruan’s book covers just part one of this story, up to 1978.  It is a fascinating and important history of the Irish struggle, and makes one look forward to the next volume.

Bernadette Hyland

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From the Manchester Martyrs to the Birmingham Six – one book, two reviews!

Posted by wcmlibrary on July 31, 2012

Two reviews by Library volunteers of The Manchester Martyrs by Joseph O’Neill  (Mercier Press, 2012,  ISBN 978-1-85635-951-1)


Kevin McPhillips:

The Manchester Martyrs by Joseph O’Neill not only relates a milestone development in Irish nationalism, it also deals with a controversial event in Manchester’s history in the 19th century, one which is still alive in the minds of many Mancunians, ranging from those having concern about the judgements handed down to the Fenians to those who regard the killing of Sergeant Brett, in September 1867, as unjustifiable homicide. The arguments have flowed, ebbed, and flowed again from the 19th century to the 21st century and seem set to continue. The book deals with the origins and growth of Fenianism, the events surrounding the attack on the police Black Maria, and subsequent developments.

Many have heard of the Revolutionary Irish group, inspired by James Stephens a survivor from the Young Ireland uprising of 1848, that developed in the 1860s, but few appreciate the extent of its activities. They invaded Canada, plotted to assassinate Queen Victoria and attempted a rising in Ireland.  Nowadays it would be defined as international terrorism.  Yet the undertaking that has stood out above all the other exploits was an attempt to free prisoners on trial in Manchester in 1867.

In early September,1867, two leading Fenians were captured by police in Manchester. Soon others were taken into custody and also detained as suspects who had been involved in events in Ireland. It was while the prisoners were being taken from the courtroom to the prison at Belle Vue that the rescue was attempted. It did not go as planned. Shorts were fired and, disastrously, Sergeant Brett inside the van was mortally wounded.

A murder trial followed and initially all five accused were found guilty and condemned to death. Subsequently two sentences were rescinded but Allan, Larkin, and O’Brien were hanged on Saturday November 23rd 1867, in Manchester.

Intermingled are glances at the social history of the time. Most of this, naturally, concentrates on the condition of the Irish in Manchester where the population had been swollen in recent years by immigrants fleeing from the devastating effects of the potato blight that arrived in Europe in the mid-1840s and which took a particular toll in Ireland. Living conditions for working people in the 1860s were deplorable and at the bottom of the pile were the Irish.  Yet execrable as those circumstances were they did at least provide people with shelter and a means of subsistence.

These conditions were not particular to the Irish or to Manchester. In every country experiencing great influxes of immigrants there has been the same pattern of development; ghettoization, relative poverty, scapegoating, etc., and eventually assimilation with the host nation.

There is occasional leaning towards literary licence here, especially towards the end of the book. However the content does invite that sort of treatment even though it is gruesome enough on its own. Elsewhere proof reading could have been better but publishers are not as fussy about this as they used to be.

O’Neill says in his introduction that he did not set out to write an academic tome.

What he has done is help to fill the great gulf that exists between academic writings and those self-styled history books, badly researched, badly written, full of bias, which are interesting only as curios. Persistence of this grey area is borne out by the continuing popularity of TV programmes hosted by highly qualified historians. Viewers are not deterred by their professional styles but when it comes to their written works the average reader can be overwhelmed by footnotes, etc.  For the majority of those who are avid readers of history these are not prerequisites and so have been avoided here. This is a work based on extensive research about an event that has particular interest not only for readers in the Manchester area, but also for a much wider audience. For anyone interested in Fenianism, and Mancunian history, this is a stimulating tome and a good read.

Bernadette Hyland:

The Manchester Martyrs are part of the history of the Irish Community in Manchester and, in his introduction, the author Joseph O’Neill explains why they are significant to him. “Throughout the 1950s when I was growing up in Manchester, the minute’s silence at the spot where the martyrs dies was part of our annual commemoration…it did more than forge a bond between the Irish community and the men who, there in our adopted city, died for Irish freedom.”

O’Neill has chosen to tell the story of the Martyrs as “a history book written for the general reader”. Unfortunately, this means that it is difficult to find out what sources he has used to write “ a narrative which captures the drama inherent in the events.” In the prologue he writes a melodramatic account of the execution of the Martyrs and, without knowing where he got  the information from, it is  hard to reconcile the drama with the real events.

The Martyrs were three members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (also known as the Fenians), who were wrongfully executed for the death of a policeman during  the successful rescue attempt of two of their comrades in Manchester in September  1867. The Fenians were  part of an Irish tradition of rebellion against the occupation of the British in Ireland since the 12th century. James Stephens  played a  major  role in the creation of the Fenian movement.  As O’Neill says: “Unlike any previous Irish nationalist organisation, the one Stephens sought to create would combine the power of the Irish diaspora…with that of the most virulent elements at home (Ireland)”.  Most of the support for the Fenians came from America, building on the bitterness felt by the Irish who had been forced to leave Ireland after the famine in 1846,and the movement was full of  men who had gained military experience in the American Civil War.

The story of the  Martyrs is the story of the Irish experience in Britain. And, although there are differences in the way in which the three men were unjustly tried and hanged  for a crime they did not commit, there are also  parallels with contemporary events, and in particular the case of the Birmingham Six. As the escaped Fenians were feted in America,  O’Neill explains that the response of the Chief Constable of Manchester was: “The Fenian leaders had escaped but those who had rescued them would not. It was to these men that the police now turned their attention.”  And the same thing happened with the Birmingham Six. The police and the government knew they were not guilty of bombing pubs in Birmingham, but framed them anyway. Someone had to be seen to be paying.

There are many aspects of this book I find objectionable. In particular it’s the way in which the author’s own politics pervade  the whole narrative that is most unacceptable.  He has chosen to locate  the Martyrs within  a separate part of the history of the Irish in Manchester;  a pure, Catholic, Irish tradition. He fails to highlight the progressive nature of the Fenians; they were very much part of a progressive political tradition mirroring that of Thomas Paine. In their manifesto (which O’Neil puts in the index)  it is clear that they were  for universal suffrage, a free mind and,  most importantly,  the separation of church and state. They were part of the progressive tradition within the Irish community of republicans and socialists.

Like ONeill’s father, my father also took part in the Manchester Martyrs commemoration, but unlike him,  he saw this  as part of a republican socialist tradition,  and one which he passed onto his children.  O’Neill  is scathing in his attack on 2nd  and 3rd generation Irish: “Their children, with that chameleon plasticity that marks the Irish wherever they settle, assimilated the next generation even more.” He fails to mention the numerous Irish such as myself who have been involved in Irish politics in Britain,  in groups  such as the Irish in Britain Representation Group, the Labour Committee on Ireland, Troops Out etc.  For someone who was a history teacher – presumably in the Roman Catholic  sector – one must ask the question: why he wasn’t active in promoting Irish studies?

Whilst O’Neill  is  happy to expand on the reasons why the Irish supported the Fenians in the 1860s,  he cannot  extend  the same analysis to  the Irish of his own generation. He does not want to talk about the way in which the British government used legislation such as the Prevention of Terrorism Act  to stop a debate in the Irish community in Britain about human rights abuses in Northern Ireland. He does not  want to talk about the widespread and unacceptable anti-Irish racism faced by children such as me growing up in 1970s Britain.

O’Neill  says that the story of the Manchester Martyrs  “speaks of the transformative power of suffering.”  He doesn’t explain what this means. I would argue that  the history of the Irish community in Manchester (like many other communities) does show that our community has suffered, but that our life has improved through people getting together and challenging inequality and injustice. I suspect  O’Neill  is calling for some kind of Catholic revival with the poor Martyrs  as “saints”.  If they were in a grave,  I am sure that they would be turning in it,  when  faced with such a usurpation of their lives and politics.

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Well done, Clarion cyclists

Posted by wcmlibrary on October 4, 2011

Cheers to WCML volunteer Stuart and all the other cyclists who have just completed a tour of Britain and Ireland to remember the volunteers from the British Isles who joined the International Brigades to fight Franco’s fascist-backed revolt against the Spanish Republic 75 years ago.  The tour, organised by the National Clarion Cycling Club and supported by the International Brigade Memorial Trust, covered 645 miles, calling at International Brigade memorials along the way to pay homage to the 527 men and women from Britain and Ireland who were killed in Spain.  The cyclists arrived in London in time for the commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Cable Street – see previous blog entry.

And an anecdote we couldn’t resist.  Stuart has brought us in – alongside some very welcome money for WCML badges and books he sold along the route! – a book compiled by Lynda Walker recollecting Madge Davison, policital activist and campaigner.   Having gone to work in a tobacco factoy in her native Belfast after leaving school she became active in the civil rights movement and later returned to study, eventually becoming a barrister.  The book describes Madge being respected in the profession for her ability to combine hard work and a down to earth approach. Her colleagues say that she could be heard in court saying ‘Well the craic is this M’lord’…


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Irish collection (2)

Posted by wcmlibrary on December 8, 2010

Way back in March I blogged about our Irish Collection and mentioned that we would be adding more detail to the catalogue records for the Royal Commission report on the arrest of Francis Sheehy-Skeffingtonpamphlet collection.

Well, I’ve finally finished fully cataloguing the Irish pamphlet collection and what a job it was.

The collection now runs to 42 boxes and includes information on a variety of subjects, including 2 boxes on the Easter Rising and 6 boxes on the Northern Ireland Troubles, covering the period 1968-1998.

There is also a collection of periodicals from, or about Ireland and information about the Irish Labour Party, the Irish Trade Union Congress and its successor the Irish Congress of Trade Unions.

To find any of the Irish collection books or pamphlets search our online catalogue at

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Irish collection

Posted by wcmlibrary on March 17, 2010

The library holds an extensive collection of just over 1000 pamphlets about Ireland, both North and South and a basic records of Easter Rising in song and balladthem are now available in the library catalogue.  Each record contains details of the author, title, publisher and number of pages.  We will be adding further details, such as subject and person keywords at a later date, so keep an eye on this blog for more updates.

The collection is made up of pamphlets collected by Ruth and Eddie Frow and also the pamphlet collection of the late C Desmond Greaves whose library was donated to us by his executor, Anthony Coughlan.  It also contains pamphlets about Ireland that have been donated to the library over the years.  They cover a wide variety of subjects, including the Easter Rising and the troubles in Northern Ireland.

The pamphlets compliments the selection of books we have in our Irish collection, which is made up of the books of Tommy Jackson as well as those of C Desmond Greaves and Ruth and Eddie.  To help library users identify items in the book collection using the online catalogue they have now all been given the  geographic keyword Ireland.

To find any of the books or pamphlets search our online catalogue at

Happy hunting!

Project Librarian

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“The typist with a Webley”

Posted by wcmlibrary on January 22, 2010

I met a remarkable woman when I was working at the Working Class Movement Library last Tuesday and she came to me in the pages of a biography by Helga Woggon called Silent Radical.

The woman was Winifred Carney, 1887-1943.

She was an active participant in labour, feminist, suffrage and republican movements in Belfast. Helga Woggon tells us that she became the personal secretary and highly trusted comrade of James Connolly before and during the Easter Rising of 1916. On the 14th April 1916 James Connolly sent Winifred a telegram and asked her to travel to Dublin immediately and throughout that week she helped in the preparations for the Rising, typing Connolly’s plans of action and orders.  She joined the insurgents in the General Post Office, equipped with typewriter and gun.  She was one of the few women in the GPO and one of the last to leave, as she refused to leave with the other women insisting on staying with the wounded Connolly.

An obituary in ‘The Torch’ by Cathal O’ Shannon describes her as ‘quiet, studious type more built for the role of good comrade, loyal follower and silent good worker than for leadership …. Beneath her placid almost timid exterior burned fires that could scorch when anybody provoked her … Above all she was deep and loyal in her friendships and allegiances, political as well as personal … a great and trusted custodian of confidences’.  Helga Woggon tells us that ‘ she did not share in the vanity or jealous greed for fame …. and she never ceased refusing to dramatise events connected with the Easter Rising’.

I had never heard of Winifred Carney and was fascinated by this story. Other more flamboyant characters of the time such as Countess Constance Markievicz are well known. You can read more about Winifred at the library: Silent radical – Winifred Carney, 1887 – 1943: a reconstruction of her biography by Helga Woggon.


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