The IRA on Tyneside during the War of Independence

I’m currently engaged in a bit of hobbyist research around the IRA on Tyneside during the War of Independence.

There’s already a good amount of research on this subject from both amateur and academic historians, with a decent archive of local and regional press available to cross reference dates and some details of actions carried out by the IRA on Tyneside between 1920-1923. Further to this, the Military Service Pensions Collection section of the Defence Forces Ireland Military Archives offer up even more thorough timelines of events and activist testimony.

There was a total of six companies in the region. Jarrow (which had the highest number of volunteers, reflecting it’s reputation as the “Little Ireland” of the north east) Hebburn, Newcastle, Wallsend, Bedlington, and Consett. After extending the remit of the area of command through to other parts of the north east, and with the establishment of units in Stockton, Chester-le-Street, Thornley and Sunderland, the number of active service volunteers has been cited as high as 480 men.

This is without factoring in the significant contributions of women, in particular the Jarrow branch of Cumann na mBan, headed by a Cissie Brennan, who would go on to become the headteacher of St Bede’s Infant School and the leadership of Theresa Mason, ISDL organiser who took on more responsibility for military matters after the arrest of two key figures in the Tyneside IRA command in late 1921. In 1923 she shared a platform at Newcastle Town Hall with Constance Markievicz. She would go on to become a prominent anti-treatyite voice in the area.

One of those key figures was Gilbert Barrington, a photo of whom you can see below alongside his comrade Richard Purcell. Barrington, like Brennan and Mason, was an educator, working alongside Mason at St Bede’s. I was excited to learn yesterday that his home at Mowbray Street, South Shields (see photo), is a short walk from my own parents house. Barrington and Purcell, who were respectively the OC and quartermaster of the Tyneside area as a whole, were representative of a cross class coalition that has always provided one of the key tensions and contradictions in Irish nationalism. Barrington came from a comfortably petit-bourgeois stock of artisans and land owning farmers, while Purcell, like the majority of men under his command, was a mineworker and active in the Northumberland Miners Association. Both were also active IRB men.

Richard Purcell (l) and Gilbert Barrington (r): OC and Quartermaster of Newcastle Upon Tyne IRA (including Tyneside Divison IRA)
Mowbray Street, South Shields. Gilbert Barrington lived here during his active service as IRA Quartermaster

Interestingly, it was Barrington who would later go on to organise with the Irish Labour Party, focusing on broadly reformist but sometimes comparatively radical issues around working class conditions and representation. Like Mason, he was an anti-treatyite who was interned in the Curragh on his return to Ireland for the duration of the Civil War. My interpretation of Purcell’s trajectory after this period is that he became a paid up advocate for the Free State and essentially a part time community diplomat, although I’d be interested to find out about how enthusiastically he performed those duties.

Operations were directed mainly towards property destruction, arson of industrial buildings and, most importantly, the procurement of arms and explosives. As many of the volunteers were miners with access to gelignite sticks, this aspect of the campaign outstripped the more symbolic acts of property destruction and economically targeted bombings, none of which, by design, caused any deaths. There is a particularly priceless story recounted in testimony in the military archives of a volunteer moving gelignite sticks from Newcastle to Manchester by train, possibly to be moved on again to Liverpool to be smuggled across the water. Having strapped the sticks in a suitcase, the bottom of one case came loose and the sticks tumbled out onto the floor right in front of a police officer. The policeman simply joked with the volunteer that he must be very sad to have dropped them, thinking them to be sticks of candy. The sticks were eventually delivered to their destination!

Testimony from Michael McEvoy, taken in 1939 and archived at the Military Service Pensions Collection section of the Defence Forces Ireland Military Archives. McEvoy was sent by Rory O’Connor to organise the Newcastle Upon Tyne IRA in December 1920

The likes of Barrington and Purcell are perhaps slightly better known after they were briefly featured in David Olusoga’s “A House Through Time”, with the house in question having been used as an IRA safe house in the region at one point. But what I’m really intrigued to find out more about is the lives and stories of the volunteers under their command, the miners, shipyard workers, unemployed, teachers, labourers etc who made up the main body of the unit.

None of the information I’ve written up here is unique research, other than perhaps the slapstick detail of the smuggling mission which I came across in the archives. I’m just synthesising already existing stuff, but there’s hardly any detail on the lives of those who were rank and file volunteers.

I’ll be beginning original research proper in this area over the coming months.

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