John O’Neill (‘the Treason Felony blog’) recounts an incident seen as a key event in the re-organisation of the IRA in Belfast shortly after the end of the Irish Civil War.
On October 29th 1924 the Free State government handed back the remains of 18 men for burial. These 18 were some of the 83 or 84 ‘official’ executions by pro-Treaty forces during 1922 and 1923. One of those whose remains were handed back was Joe McKelvey (pictured), former O/C 3rd Northern Division and briefly Chief of Staff of the IRA. McKelvey had been executed on 8th December 1922, along with Liam Mellows, Dick Barrett and Rory O’Connor. All four had been captured in June 1922. They were suddenly charged and convicted by a military tribunal at 3.30 am on 8th December and then shot five hours later. Their execution was an open reprisal for the murder of a TD, Sean Hales, on the day before their execution (while all four were imprisoned) and rapidly intensified the bitterness of the Civil War.
After release, McKelvey’s remains were to be brought to Belfast for burial. They were released the same day as an election to Westminster which saw Patrick Nash stand in West Belfast and Hugh Corvin stand in North Belfast. In an election taking place in the cold shadows of the 500+ killed in the city during 1920-22, the repression of the triumphalist northern government, and, the Civil War, both candidates did poorly. The IRA in the city had also effectively lost operational contact with GHQ in Dublin in late 1922.
The Free State authorities handed over the remains at Hardwicke Street Hall on October 29th, where they briefly lay in state draped in tricolours emblazoned with an IR (for Irish Republic). From there McKelvey’s coffin was brought in a procession to Amiens Street (now Connolly) Station accompanied by Joe McKelvey’s mother and Sean MacBride. According to Leo Wilson, McKelvey’s body was guarded on the way to Belfast by both former and current volunteers. The Belfast Brigade immediately dispatched a guard of honour to join the party as it travelled up to Belfast. The Irish News reported that the remains were formally handed over to the guard of honour from Belfast at Amiens Street Station. The guard of honour were dressed in trench coats and soft black hats.
At Drogheda, Dunleer and Dundalk the train was held up as crowds came to place wreaths and a tricolour on the coffin in the mortuary car. By the time MacBride and McKelvey’s body arrived in Belfast, a large crowd had gathered at the station with the Craobh Ruadh Pipe Band. Brigade and Battalion officers from Belfast had also assembled at the station. The RUC were also present in force to try and intercept the train.
At 2.30 pm the train arrived at the Great Northern Railway Station in the centre of the city. While the train slowed to a halt at the platform, a large force of armed RUC men stepped forward and surrounded and searched the mortuary car as soon as the train stopped. Determined to prevent any public display of republican sentiment, they insisted that they remove the tricolour from McKelvey’s coffin and, so, refused to allow it to even leave the train with the flag in place. Sean MacBride, himself the son of an executed republican icon and already a senior IRA figure, tackled District Inspector Stevens who was in charge of the RUC force asking if he, Stevens, had authority from the Home Office of the northern government for the removal of the flag. Stevens confirmed that he had and proceeded to remove the flag.
With the flag removed from the coffin, the RUC permitted it to leave the station. The bearer party carried the coffin on their shoulders out of the station and into Glengall Street. There it was placed on the hearse. A funeral procession then formed up behind the Craobh Ruadh Pipe Band in Glengall Street. The pipe band included many IRA volunteers and it appears that the coffin was then covered with a tricolour again. The hearse was followed by members of the IRA, Sinn Fein, Na Fianna, Cumann na mBan, members of the clergy and the public. The cortege moved along Great Victoria Street, College Square East, King Street and Mill Street, then on into St Mary’s in Chapel Lane. As if in mitigation for the RUC permitting this display, this is apologetically described as the shortest route by the RUC Inspector General in his report to the Ministry of Home Affairs.
At St Mary’s, McKelvey’s remains were received by Fr Murray, the Administrator. The coffin was carried in by the bearer party then placed on a catafalque before the high altar where it lay in state, with the bearer party forming a guard of honour. Fr Murray and Fr O’Neill (from St Peters) conducted a short service. Afterwards member of the public came to pay their respects and a Fianna guard of honour was relieved and replaced every half hour.
The next morning, October 30th, a crowd began to gather outside St Mary’s for the funeral which was to take place at 1.30 pm. A guard of honour was again stationed around the catafalque as soon as the church was opened in the morning. Some of those who had arrived to pay their respects carried photographs and pictures of McKelvey. McKelvey’s coffin was once again draped with the ‘IR’ emblazoned tricolour.
At about 2.15 pm after a requiem mass at which there were twenty priests, the coffin, still covered in the tricolour, was carried by a bearer party of young men out to the awaiting Craobh Ruadh pipe band which was to accompany it along the route to Milltown cemetery. By now a large crowd had assembled outside St Mary’s in the narrow confines of Chapel Lane and the top of Bank Street. A large detachment of RUC men was also present and Stevens again attempted to halt the procession and remove the tricolour from McKelvey’s coffin.
The RUC men used batons and waved their guns to force their way through to the coffin and bearer party. Within the tight space of Chapel Lane, by now crowded with mourners and RUC men, an already emotional atmosphere almost reached boiling point. The funeral procession itself was halted at the doors of St Mary’s as the bearer party and mourners attempted to physically prevent the tricolour from being seized by Stevens and the RUC. The bearer party managed to pin down the tricolour onto the corners of the coffin and managed to move backwards into the church. The tricolour still shows repairs that were made where it was torn during the struggle to prevent it being seized by the RUC.
The RUC report was later to describe this incident as ‘protests of a trivial nature’. For a few minutes it appeared that the funeral was going to descend into chaos. The Belfast O/C, with the bearer party inside St Marys, ordered that they remove the tricolour to avoid any further dispute. An agreement was reached out in Chapel Lane that Fr Murray could take possession of the tricolour and deposit it in the church.
However, the reason why the Belfast O/C backed down soon became apparent. The funeral organisers had already anticipated that the RUC would intervene and prevent the funeral procession displaying a tricolour on McKelvey’s coffin. For, as the funeral procession formed up in Chapel Lane, led by the hearse bearing the coffin and the Craobh Ruadh Pipe Band, a number of girls then joined the cortege around the hearse, carrying wreaths and other emblems in green, white and orange. The funeral proceeded from St Mary’s, along Chapel Lane to Castle Street and from there along Divis Street to the Falls and then to Milltown Cemetery. Newspaper reports state that the whole route was lined with crowds.
At Milltown, the RUC had two Lancias, armoured cars each mounting a heavy machine gun, drawn up outside the gates. Inside the cemetery, a large RUC detachment armed with carbines were also on duty. At the graveside, the tricolour was once again placed on the coffin whilst the burial service took place. By the stage, the RUC kept their distance and didn’t try to remove the flag. The burial itself largely passed off without incident as the RUC appear to have been anticipating an attempt to hold a military funeral including a colour party and firing party, neither of which materialised. When the funeral procession reached the Harbinson plot, McKelvey’s remains were interred there. Sean MacBride then stood up and gave a short oration to those present. He said:
“We are gathered here to pay a solemn tribute to one who was a true soldier of Ireland. General McKelvey was a man who died for his principles, and he thought it was the noblest and truest thing a man could do. When he walked across the yard of Mountjoy Prison and stood before the firing squad, he did so confident in the thought that the people he left behind would carry on where he had left off. He was being buried among his friends and foes, not as a traitor to a foreign country, but as a hero and a true Irishman. It is up to all of us to carry on until our efforts are crowned with success, then, and not till then will we have a free undivided and prosperous Gaelic Ireland. “
The mourners then sang Faith of Our Fathers and, in defiance of the RUC presence, The Soldiers’ Song.
McKelvey’s burial marks a symbolic end to the War of Independence and Civil War in Belfast, coming just before the release of internees and intentional moves to give the IRA in the city new impetus. McBride, effectively acting as a nationwide organiser, re-established operational command between Belfast, and, GHQ and the IRA’s Army Council in Dublin. Notably this also coincided with a growing expectation that the boundary commission would be a non-event. It was also against the backdrop of the poor electoral performance of Nash and Corvin which was taken as a signal of the utter apathy nationalists and republicans held towards the northern state.
Almost every republican source that refers to it, cites McKelvey’s funeral as the key event in the re-organisation of the IRA in the city after the Civil War. The IRA even formed a new GAA club that it named after McKelvey, that survived until 1939. The tricolour placed on McKelvey’s coffin can still be seen today in the republican museum in Conway Mill, Belfast.