Ireland’s Wars: The 1950’s Arms Raids

The IRA was back on the up, even if it was only in a relative sense. New leadership was taking pro-active steps to increase membership, morale and the organisations relevance, both in terms of military matters and in the political arena. But the IRA could make as many plans as it liked about initiating new operations in Northern Ireland: in the years following the Second World War, it remained as short of arms as it had ever been, and nothing could be done in the North until this situation was reversed. After a few years of recruitment and re-organisation, elements of the IRA were now ready to take the steps needed to get the arms they required.

For all that the Three Macs had done for the IRA in the previous few years, it remained a weak organisation. Its efforts were focused entirely on recruitment, rudimentary training and staying ahead of the authorities north and south, and on whatever fundraising it could credibly accomplish within the same space. The IRA was yet to really flash up once again on the radar of the Irish state, though the very fact that it was organising again was enough for the Dublin Special Branch to make a few arrests. But it was not Dublin or the south that was going to be the focus now. It had been decided that the reticules would instead be facing Northern Ireland, where the IRA and its various following entities would be spending the bulk of their time and resources from then all the way to the present day.

Northern Ireland remained as it had essentially always been since its foundation: a state dominated by an in-built Protestant majority in all of the arms of its government, law enforcement and essentially everything else. Despite the unhappiness with elements of the leadership during the Second World War, and the same with those leading Northern Ireland into serious economic problems that would become apparent in the latter half of the 1950s, the Ulster Unionist Party remained firmly entrenched in power, with Basil Brooke leading administrations to facile electoral victories in 1945 and 1949, T. J Campbell and James McSparren’s Nationalists left to form a powerless rump opposition. The nationalist movement, whether it was constitutionally focused or more militant, was largely in disarray in Northern Ireland, gerrymandered into obsolescence when it came to electoral politics, and suppressed to the point of mostly non-existence by the internal security apparatus of Stormont: the Royal Ulster Constabulary, and its more brutal reserve unit the Ulster Special Constabulary – known best for their infamous “B” section – were dangerous foes, and of course the British military also had a substantial presence in Northern Ireland. But such things could also be viewed as opportunities, as it meant that there were plenty of targets within Northern Ireland where stockpiles of guns and ammunition were kept, guarded by men who had become used to having little in their way of challenge.

The first such operation took place in June of 1951, as the recently re-constituted Derry IRA – which constituted of maybe two dozen men at most – received permission to undertake a raid on the British military barracks at Ebrington, Co Derry. The barracks, which housed elements of the Royal Navy, RAF and Territorial Army, contained a substantial armoury. On the night of the 3rd June a unit of the Derry IRA, along with several members of the GHQ staff (among them Tony Mangan), broke into the barracks, allegedly with the assistance of civilian workman who had been employed there. The British occupants of the barracks were not alerted, and the IRA made-off with several rifles, submachine guns and machine guns, along with ammunition. There was no immediate RUC response either. The incident, when it came to light, was a welcome coup for the IRA , who trumpeted their achievement as much as they could. It was still s small cache of weapons relative to the overall size of the IRA and their stated aims, but obtaining them without any loss was a success, and an embarrassment to Northern Ireland authorities. The Ebrington raid came at a time when the IRA was also trying to rein in and absorb some smaller militant republican groups active at the time, a story for another entry, and its success helped with this effort.

It would take a while for the next raid to occur all the same. Not until July of 1953 would another unit of the IRA have the confidence to undertake such an operation, and when they did it was three men sent to England to break into the British Army’s Officer Training School in Felsted, Essex. Magan was again the coordinator, with Cathal Goulding joining Manus Canning, who had participated in the Ebrington raid, and Sean Stephenson (known later as Seán Mac Stíofáin), an RAF veteran based in London, who will shall meet again in his guise as one of the early leading lights of the Provisional IRA. The Felsted raid seemed to be going as well as that in Ebrington as the men were able to gain access to the building, break into an armoury, and load up a van with hundreds of weapons, all without being detected. But shortly after the trio made their getaway they were stopped by police, suspicions raised by how slow the old weighed down van was moving on busy roads. The three were arrested and given eight-year prison sentences. It was a grievous blow for Mangan and the IRA in terms of the quality of men lost, and much misdirected time and energy would be put into fanciful schemes of prison breaks that would never come to fruition.

If Felsted was a setback, what came next was anything but. Just under a year after that disaster the IRA carried off its biggest coup in decades, targeting Gough Barracks in Armagh, then the home of the Royal Irish Fusiliers. The impetus for the raid allegedly came from Leo McCormick, a training officer for the Dublin Brigade, who on a visit Armagh noticed that the guard on duty at the gate of the barracks appeared to be doing so with a gun lacking ammunition. The IRA carefully reconnoitred their target, using the cover of a Volunteer who temporarily enlisted in the British Army and attendance at a social dance within the barracks walls. On the night of the 19th June that year, 19 Volunteers of the Dublin Brigade – which could have constituted half the total number of such a unit at the time – were able to penetrate the barracks, hold up over a dozen Fusiliers and make off with an enormous haul of guns and ammunition: 250 rifles, over two dozen Sten guns, a cache of Bren guns and more. No shots were fired in the effort. A successful escape with the goods was prosecuted, with Northern police several steps behind the IRA at every turn: by the time the general alarm was made and local B Special units mobilised, the raiding party had already slipped back over the border. Aside from the guns, the Gough Barracks raid provided a huge propaganda victory, proving definitively that the IRA remained in being and dangerous, and helped with ongoing fundraising initiatives in the United States: at one such event the keys to the Gough Barracks armoury were among the items auctioned off. But of course there was a downside. Northern Ireland’s security apparatus were given more leeway and resources to prosecute their own counter-efforts, so something like that which had happened at Gough Barracks would not happen again so easily.

Four months later, in October, the IRA was confident enough to try again, but this time the Northern Irish police would not be so easily evaded. On the 16th October 30 men attempted to infiltrate another armoury of the Royal Irish Fusiliers, this time in Omagh, County Tyrone. Scaling the walls in the dead of the night, the raiders were unable to stop a sentry, despite wounding him with a knife, from raising the alarm. The result was a brief exchange of gunfire, where men on either side were wounded. A disorganised retreat followed as members of the raiding party leaped into waiting cars and sped off, with eight men left behind to be arrested. Clearly the IRA still had plenty of lessons to learn. Efforts to arrange another effort on this barracks were called off early the next year, on account of an increased security presence around such buildings.

Clearly, it was a period where things ebbed and flowed for the IRA. The successes were matched by failures, and this period of re-arming ended with the Northern Ireland state more alerted for future IRA activity than the IRA could possibly be happy with. But in many ways this was besides the point. The key victory for the IRA from these raids for arms were not just the guns and ammunition that were stolen, not just the experience that it granted to certain Volunteers. It was the manner in which they made clear that the IRA had not been totally eradicated, was on the up again and once again posed a clear and present danger to their opponents. Such things were invaluable in terms of recruitment and fundraising, and all of this would coalesce in the IRA’s much more ambitious plans that would be put into effect in the latter half of the 1950s.

But before we get to that period of the IRA’s history, we must briefly move sideways. During this period, the IRA was, as noted above, not the only militant republican group active in Ireland, and certainly not the only one actually undertaking operations against their enemies. On the military and political front various independent and IRA splinter groups were also coming into being, and while their lifespan and success rate was not especially great this time around, they are still worthy of some further consideration. We shall do this in the next entry.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

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6 Responses to Ireland’s Wars: The 1950’s Arms Raids

  1. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: Index | Never Felt Better

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