The ambush in which IRA Volunteers Paddy Mulvenna and Jim Bryson were assassinated by the British Army took place 49 years ago this week. An account of their lives cut short, based on a report by Relatives for Justice.
At around 6.35pm on Friday, August 31, 1973 a shooting occurred in the centre of Ballymurphy, West Belfast. Nineteen-year-old Patrick Mulvenna (pictured, right) died of gunshot wounds at the scene. Twenty-five-year-old James Bryson (pictured, left) was mortally wounded and died three weeks later, on 22 September 1973. A third man, James O’Rawe, was injured in the incident; he fled the scene but was found, wounded, in a house nearby and arrested. Frank Duffy, the fourth man in the car, was also arrested.
The circumstances of the shooting were unclear in the immediate aftermath. A confrontation between Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) and Official IRA members was initially blamed. By the time Jim died, the British army had claimed the shooting, but death notices still appeared in the Irish News blaming “enemies of Ireland”. Family members also claimed at the inquest nearly two years later that Officials were responsible.
However, it eventually became clear that the fatal shots were fired by a British soldier, a Lance Corporal in the Royal Green Jackets (RGJ) regiment, who was hiding in a covert two-man observation post in the roof space of a vacant flat over-looking the Bullring at No 6 Glenalina Road.
Over the years, various accounts have emerged from the British military personnel involved and their commanders which suggest that, far from being a gun battle as initially claimed, the soldiers may have taken the opportunity to target - and assassinate – enemy personnel seen as a major threat to their objective: the defeat of their republican opponents.
Patrick Mulvenna (known as Paddy), James Bryson (known as Jim), Jim “Bimbo” O’Rawe and Frank Duffy were taking part in a Provisional IRA operation at the time of the shooting and with the exception of Jim Bryson (who was the driver) were visibly armed when they were shot at.
Many questions have been and are still being raised by the families as to the veracity of the account provided by British military and governmental sources. The family are also challenging the wider official narrative that contributed to the deaths of their loved ones.
Suspicions about that narrative are bolstered by the fact that there had been previous attempts on Jim’s life by irregular units of the British army, now known to have been called the Military Reaction Force (MRF).
Patrick’s father also asserted that family members were warned by members of the British Army that Patrick was to be shot on sight. Indeed, other fatal shootings by British army personnel are known to have occurred because the soldiers involved thought they were shooting at Jim Bryson.
Paddy Mulvenna, was the eldest of a family of six. He was born in Ladbrook Drive, Ardoyne on the 5th February 1954. The family moved from north Belfast to Ballymurphy in June 1956 and Paddy attended St Kevin’s Primary School. He was an altar boy at St John’s church on the Falls Road and attended secondary school at St Thomas’ on the Whiterock Road. Thereafter, Patrick then got a job as an apprentice joiner with his uncle in the Irish Bonding Company in the Short Strand. A big fan of Manchester United, he seems to have had particular admiration of George Best because of his Belfast roots and his remarkable footballing skills.
The war caught up to Patrick in 1969, when he joined Na Fianna Éireann and helped form the first Ballymurphy slua (company) for the republican movement. When the split happened in the IRA in 1970, he with some of his comrades formed the Provisional Fianna Slua in the area, leaving the Official IRA behind. At age 17 Patrick graduated from Na Fianna to the IRA. According to informed republican accounts, once internment without trial was introduced, Paddy was to spend the rest of his life on the run.
The Mulvennas were a republican family with his father, sister and brothers all serving prison time. Paddy’s father - also called Patrick - was arrested in June 1973 for possession of explosives. He had previously been interned without trial and was still on remand when his son was killed; he was refused bail to attend his son’s funeral as he refused to recognize the court. In contrast, Patrick’s sister, Collette, was allowed out of Armagh goal to attend Patrick’s funeral.
Patrick and Frances were married in Sacred Heart Chapel on the Oldpark Road on the 11th November 1972. Such was his profile by that time that the British army surrounded the Holy Cross Chapel, on the Crumlin Road, in an attempt to capture him on his wedding day. The actual venue had been kept a closely guarded secret. They had the reception in the Volunteer Saunders Club in Ardoyne before making their way over the border for their honeymoon. The couple had one child - for the third generation there would be a Patrick in the family. He was born on the first anniversary of their wedding, nine weeks after his father had been wedding cake shot dead.
Patrick was aged 19 when he died. He was OC of the Provisional IRA in Ballymurphy at the time of his death. A British army publication described Patrick as beginning, “to acquire the same sort of charisma as Bryson by escaping the clutches of the army on two occasions and shooting several soldiers”.
The report of his funeral in the Irish Independent described him as Captain Patrick Mulvenna. Two thousand people attended his funeral, which took place alongside that of 19-year-old IRA volunteer, Anne Marie Petticrew, who died the day after Paddy was shot dead, after suffering 90% burns in an explosion at a house in the Stranmillis area a fortnight earlier. The graveside oration was given by Maire Drumm who called for the people of Ireland “to pick up their guns and carry on the struggle”.
In an interview given by Jim’s sister, Jean McComb, in 2008 she talked about how Jim went to St Kevin’s Primary School and then to St Thomas’s Secondary School on the Whiterock Road. She draws a picture of Jim as an ordinary man who grew up in extraordinary times. He was - first and foremost - “a son, brother, husband and father”. She remembers him as “always being happy, playing outdoors in the fields and then on the mountain. A joker and prankster, he loved his mum and was into bands and girlfriends ... and had a passion for life.”
Jean recalls: “We were a really close family. Jim and our Teasy would try and outdo each other with jokes all the time.
“When he was a teenager him and his mates bought a few guitars and set up a group. They’d practice in the shed until my Da could take the racket no more and threw them out.
“When he left school he went into bricklaying with my daddy and Bobby but he could turn his hand to anything. Him and Sheila had their home lovely and when young Jim was born you couldn’t have angered him.
“He hated the cold weather especially winter on the building sites. He had this really ugly big tweed coat that he wore to work to keep warm. We all hated it but he wouldn’t part with it.
“Jim idolized our mum and was very protective of us all. I think that was just the type of person he was. When Jim was killed it really tore us apart. I think the fact that we had to watch it has made it worse. I still relive it every day, still have terrible nightmares.”
Jim married Sheila and they lived in Excise Street off the Grosvenor Road. They had one child who they named after his father.
As happened with many young men of the time, the onset of the conflict was radically to change the direction of his life. The burnings and pogroms started the day after Jim and Sheila got married.
The young family were in their turn to become part of the major population movement of the early years of conflict, living as they were in a relatively mixed area between the Grosvenor Road and Village areas. An analysis of the time6 shows the way in which mixed housing in the Grosvenor area was almost completely segregated by 1972 through a combination of intimidation and the perennial fighting in the area. In Jim’s case, according to Maureen Tolan, the couple were burned out of their home; they subsequently moved to Ballymurphy.
The breakdown of the “honeymoon period” between republican/nationalist/Catholic residents and British army so often described in conflict-related literature was no more keenly felt than in Ballymurphy. Jim was to have a leading role in challenging the presence of the British army on the streets of Belfast. The situation escalated after the introduction of internment and Kate McGuinness formerly of “F” Company notes that in Ballymurphy alone there were a couple of operations a day and “Jim was involved in most of them”. In the same DVD, the well-known IRA volunteer from Ardoyne, Martin Meehan, recollected Jim saying to him, of his conflict with the British army: “It’s not the person, it’s the uniform”.
There is a great story of José “Chegüí” Torres former boxing world champion at light-heavyweight, meeting Jim Bryson in Ballymurphy. The story goes that Torres accompanied Muhammad Ali to Dublin for his fight against Al “Blue” Lewis in Croke Park in July 1972. One of the US journalists based in Belfast had brought Seamus Drumm to the fight where he met both Muhammad Ali and José. Seamus - introduced to the fighters as “a real revolutionary” from the north of Ireland – invited Torres to visit.
He spent two days in the north where, among other people, he met Jim Bryson and had his photograph taken with him. Torres became a noted journalist and political activist for his Puerto Rican people and went on to write biographies of Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson. However, when he learned of Jim Bryson’s death just over a year later, he described him as, “the toughest man he ever met”.
Jim joined the IRA following internment and the murder of 11 of his neighbours in what is known as the Ballymurphy Massacre. He was well known as an active member of the provisional republican movement and had a reputation as a fearless defender of his neighbourhood. He was particularly famous for having escaped on three occasions from arrest or custody. The first time was when he single- handedly fought free - without weapons – from a British army Saracen using only his fists. The second was in the celebrated escape from the prison ship, The Maidstone. This was a temporary detention facility berthed in Belfast docks. The incident came to be known as the “Magnificent Seven” escape when Jim and six others managed to get off the boat, swim 600 yards through freezing water and make it to safety. The escape took place in the middle of winter (January 1972) and represented a major propaganda coup for the republican movement in the face of internment without trial.
Jim was recaptured in September 1972 when a car he and his comrades were travelling in was rammed by a Saracen in the lower Falls area. A gunfight ensued - Joe Linton was shot and injured. Jim was arrested and charged with possession with a .45 revolver.
The third escape occurred in February 1973, just six months before his death, when he and his co- accussed, Malachy McCarey, produced a gun whilst being moved through the underground tunnel between the remand Crumlin Road gaol and the Courthouse across the street. They forced the prison guards to take off their uniform which Jim and his comrade then put on. They walked out of the court building and whilst Malachy was arrested after being recognized leaving by the front entrance, Jim escaped after scaling a wall at the rear of the courthouse.
Jim’s funeral on 25th September 1973, was described as one of the largest Republican funerals for a long time. His standing in the movement is made clear by the fact that the IRA Chief of Staff, Daithí O Connaill, made the effort to attend, despite the dangers that his arrest would have held for the organization. Like Patrick, Jim was a staff captain in the IRA.
The fact that Daithí O’Connaill was able with relative ease to attend the funeral and disappear again “caused considerable embarrassment to the [British] Army” according the News Letter, in their report on the funeral. The Rev Ian Paisley is reported as saying that: “the ability of Mr O’Connell to come and go from Northern Ireland shows just how poor the security is. Or is it a fact that the British Government does not really have the will to defeat the IRA?”.