The Scottish Brigade
The Scottish Brigade



An extract from of the contribution by historian Stephen Coyle at The Year of Revolution: 1920, seminar held by Sinn Féin Poblachtach in Wynn’s Hotel on February 15, 2020. (From Saoirse)


With the opening of hostilities in Ireland the Scottish Brigade was very keen to assist the Republican war effort with a plentiful supply of arms and munitions. The key role of the Scottish Brigade was in the collecting, procuring and purchasing of arms and munitions.

It was responsible for their transport, some of which arrived at the port of Leith from Germany, to different centres in Scotland, and thence through various channels to Ireland. In numerous districts like Lanarkshire, Stirlingshire and Fife the local IRA company was often composed entirely of miners, or as in the case of Motherwell, steelworkers, as the local steelworks were also a source of employment. At the beginning of each day’s work, miners were usually given a quantity of explosives to blast the rock and coal. Each miner setting aside a small amount of his allocation and smuggling it out of themine at the end of the day meant that large quantities of explosives were acquired for little or no cost and without raising the suspicions of the mine owners. The IRA even employed a mining contractor named William Corbett from County Clare.

The Scottish Brigade allowed Séan Healy and Henry Coyle, representing brigades in Cork, Mayo and Sligo to procure munitions in Scotland, on the understanding that they would avoid encroaching on GHQ sources and would coordinate their prices with the Scottish Brigade’s purchasing committee, so as to avoid inflating the market. Coyle later became a member of the committee.

The Volunteers were also responsible for the safeguarding of dumps, and the transport of material to and from the clearing-houses. The IRA had to exercise vigilance in themidst of hostile surroundings, including the presence of members of the Royal Irish Constabulary who were sent Scotland to monitor their activities.

Every battalion had purchasing staff, medical orderlies and a chaplain, and each Company had an OC, Quartermaster and a First and Second Lieutenant. The Volunteers paid weekly dues and attended drill. The Brigade had its own ordnance unit based in Glasgow, which carried out repairs, as they were anxious that no defective weapons should be sent to Ireland.

The Scottish Brigade, which was two-and-a-half times larger than the IRA in England, largely avoided taking part in offensive action. Attacks were to be confined to England, based on an understanding that the Scots and theWelsh were fellow Celtic victims of English oppression. (In the event, a small number of attacks were mounted in Scotland.) This understanding dated back to the 1790s when the United Irishmen which had two lodges in Glasgow, worked in close co-operation with the Society of United Scotsmen who stood for an independent Scottish Republic. The young Scots advocate Thomas Muir was a member of both organisations. The Fenians in Scotland adopted the same position, and strongly opposed the bombing campaign carried out by Rossa’s American Skirmishers (or Dynamitards) in Glasgow in March 1882, which was viewed as an act of aggression against a fellow Celtic nation.

Membership of the Scottish Brigade expanded greatly during the 1919-1921 period. When John Carney, a native of Leitrim, and ex member of the United States Army, became Officer in Command of the Scottish Brigade in the autumn of 1920, the organisation consisted of three battalions, totalling 21 companies, with an average strength of 30 men in each of them. His organizing efforts over the course of the following year saw the number of companies in the 1st Battalion increase from seven to ten. The 2nd and 3rd Battalions expanded too, from six to 14, and eight to 16 companies respectively. He had also established a 4th Battalion, consisting of eight companies, and a 5th Battalion with one company. The average strength of each company now stood at 50. Carney was greatly assisted by the efforts of Joe Vize to expand the IRA to the East Coast, and consequently a second Brigade was formed, so that by the time of the Truce in July 1921, a Scottish Division was established with a total membership of approximately 2,500 members.

On May 10, 1919, Joseph Vize (pictured), chief IRB gunrunner in Scotland, wrote optimistically to Michael Collins, ”There is now passing into our hands 500 Revolvers and 200,000 rounds of .303 [ammunition], don’t think I’ve made a mistake in the figures, it is right.”

Vize’s first raid on Hamilton army barracks, took place in August 1919. For this raid six men were selected from the Lanarkshire companies. One of the IRA’s main contact men within the barracks was a shoemaker who repaired boots and saddlery for the military. He supplied full particulars of where the rifles were stored and succeeded in procuring a key that would give the raiding party access to the stores concerned. On the night of the raid the six Volunteers succeeded in getting over the wall of the military barracks and entered the stores, with the key in their possession.

This was an easy matter and in about twenty minutes about 75 Lee Enfield rifles and bayonets were handed out over the wall to the remainder of the raiding party who were ready to take the rifles away. A lorry was standing by and the rifles were loaded onto it. The lorry travelled to Liverpool and it was actually back in Hamilton before the military authorities discovered their loss.

On a subsequent raid on Hamilton barracks, having made arrangements with two soldiers, one of whom was an Easter week veteran, the IRA seized forty German rifles and bayonets from the armoury and loaded them into a waiting taxi. In early March 1920, the Glasgow gunrunners started to send their munitions to Liverpool for consignment to Ireland. In the ten months previous to this, the available correspondence reveals that the Glasgowmen dispatched directly to Ireland twelve rifles, fiftyseven handguns, 161 sticks of gelignite, another 109.35 kg of gelignite, 2,702 detonators, 203 fuses, and 270 rounds of ammunition.

In July 1920 Vize issued orders to all IRB centres in Scotland to “report without delay, any rifle ranges, drill halls, or army stores in their district.”

On 26 July 1919 three carts of gelignite and one hundred detonators were seized from Greenfoot quarry in Glenboig, Lanarkshire. On April 24, the following year in an IRA operation for which 110 Volunteers were mobilised, 101.25 kg of gelignite, 4.05 kg of gunpowder, 550 detonators and 13.5 kg of fuse were taken from Robroyston Colliery in the outskirts of Glasgow. Police returns recorded twenty-nine such thefts in Scotland in the period July 1919 to the signing of the Anglo-Irish treaty. Christine Keeley of Glasgow Cumann na mBan recalled that women also went with raiding parties to collieries for explosives and helped to carry the stuff away. Joe Vize sought to organise Volunteer companies in Scotland around Sinn Féin clubs. By the end of 1921, there were sixtyfive Sinn Fein clubs in Scotland affiliated with Dublin. Membership subscriptions for the year amounted to £4,045. According to Cork man Séan O’Sheehan who was sent to Scotland to re-organise Sinn Féin in 1918, the organisation could boast a membership of 30,000 by the high-water mark in 1921. In October 1920 Volunteers of B Coy 1st Battalion, Glasgow, while acting as stewards at a Sinn Féin protest meeting concerning the treatment of TerenceMacSwiney, LordMayor of Cork, were involved in a handfight after a baton charge by the Glasgow Police, in an attempt to break up the meeting in George Square. Following MacSwiney’s death on hunger strike 15,000 people attended requiem mass in St Andrew’s Cathedral in Glasgow.

On 5 November 1920, the Orange hall in Cowcaddens, which was used for drilling and storing weapons by the Ulster Volunteer Force, was raided. Five rifles and one thousand rounds of ammunition were seized, along with an amount of money and some regalia. The message “Commandeered for the Irish Republican Army” was chalked on the wall. A few weeks later, a raid took place on the explosives hut at Hamilton Hill TA Barracks, which netted a large supply of gelignite and detonators. Fort Matilda naval base near Gourock was raided by ‘B’ Company of the 4th Battalion in the same year, and 50 to 60 rifles were captured.

The most spectacular action carried out by the Scottish Brigade was the attempted rescue of Brigadier Frank Carty of the Sligo Brigade from a prison van, outside Duke Street Prison, on May 4, 1921. The operation was unsuccessful and in the melee a police inspector was killed and a detective sergeant was wounded. 33 Volunteers were mobilised for the operation, and it resulted in the arrest of most of those involved, and weapons were captured in subsequent raids. The action was not sanctioned by GHQ in Dublin, and had a damaging effect on the IRA’s ability to procure and transport guns and explosives. The Volunteers of the Scottish Brigade constantly faced risk of capture, indeed over 150 members were arrested and sentenced. In his speech from the Dock of Edinburgh High Court in 1920, Commandant Henry Coyle who was sentenced for the procurement of arms and explosives, outlined his motives, which would apply equally to his comrades.

“I do not want to deny my membership of the Irish Republican Army. I am a soldier of the Irish Republic, and pride myself on it. It has been said that the Irish Republican Army is illegal. In my opinion it is not. Ireland is as much entitled to an army as any other country. I don’t believe in the taking of life at all. The learned Lord Advocate said that the citizens of any country were quite at liberty to choose any form of government they wished by constitutional means. The General Election of 1918 was nothing more than constitutional means. What was the result? The parliament set up by these constitutional means was proclaimed. The Irish people were provoked, and but for that there would be no trouble.”

A high point for Sinn Féin in Scotland came in 1920 with the visit of the Republican supporter Archbishop Daniel Mannix of Australia, after he was banned from entry to Ireland, and from speaking in Manchester and Liverpool. The archbishop spoke to large crowds of enthusiastic supporters in Edinburgh, Greenock (where the Sinn Féin club had 1,000 members), Dalmuir, Kilmarnock, Dumbarton, Cowdenbeath, and Dundee. The Glasgow demonstration was blocked and Mannix spoke to a defiant crowd of 50,000 to 60,000 supporters atWhifflet instead. He remarked to the throng ‘the British government prevented me from going to Glasgow; obviously it was unable to prevent Glasgow from coming to me’.

As previously stated, this was the period of “Red Clydeside” and the labour movement was generally supportive of the Irish cause.

The Scottish Trades Union Congress at its annual conference in Aberdeen in 1921, unanimously passed a resolution calling on the British Government at once to summon a constituent assembly of the Irish people to “get a peaceful settlement, and meanwhile to withdraw the army of occupation”. John MacLean was highly respected among the Irish as a tireless campaigner for Irish freedom amongst the Scottish working class. MacLean argued that, “the withdrawal of Scottish lads from the cold-blooded murder of the Irish… is the greatest question confronting Scotland today, for if speedy action is not taken, a horrible tragedy will be enacted, and Scotland will be disgraced forever”. In support of these sentiments, he organised a Hands of Ireland Campaign and issued a pamphlet, The Irish Tragedy: Scotland’s Disgrace, which sold 20,000 copies. Strong links existed between Sinn Féin and the Scots National League which campaigned for the complete political independence of Scotland and was inspired by the Irish cause.

Michael Collins viewed Liam Mac Giolla Íosa (William Gillies), who was a prominent member of the League , as a “very genuine man”. The League’s journal Liberty contained pro-Irish articles and, ironically, the editor John McArthur, who was a Rangers fan, sold it outside Ibrox Stadium. The League later became one of the groups that combined to found the National Party of Scotland in 1928, the forerunner of today’s Scottish National Party. The IRB also had strong links with various militant Scottish nationalist bodies, including Fianna na hAlba which was inspired by Na Fianna Éireann, the Scottish Citizen Army founded by John Maclean and modelled on the ICA, and the Scottish Defence Force, which was influenced by the Irish Volunteers. All these groups gave practical aid to the Irish revolutionaries on Clydeside.

To conclude, the weapons, munitions and explosives supplied to Ireland by Republicans in Scotland and their supporters, were of great importance to the IRA units in the field. IRA units in Scotland were actually more active than the Volunteers were in some parts of Ireland. According to Joe Vize writing in 1925 to the Military Services Pension Department about his Purchasing Committee:

“They were working under far more difficult circumstances than some of our men at home. Every day they were watched, not only by the detectives and police, but by members of the civilian population also. During my time in Scotland they were always on the go, purchasing, transporting, supplying information, and carrying arms and explosives all over the country. Scotland was responsible for two-thirds of the war material received and used in this country. Many of their type were hard to find in those days whenmen counted, at least that was my experience across channel.” Séamus Reader also states that the Clyde area was the main base of munitions supplies to Ireland in 1920.

Many of the veterans, who served in the Scottish Brigade and later returned to Ireland, looked back on their time spent on active service in Scotland as glorious days. Michael O’Carroll summed up his opinion of the Glasgow Irish when he said, “The people of Glasgow and the west of Scotland – the first, second and third generations of the Irish - I will always remember them – their loyalty, their sincerity and the ideals which were in their minds. They were wonderful.”

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