1916: Confusion, division and disarray in Ulster
As far as Ulster was concerned, 1916 was 'the Rising that never was'. Brian Feeney examines events in the north of Ireland, where the only casualty was IRB head Denis McCullough, who shot himself in the hand
THE leading figure in the Irish Republican Brotherhood in Ulster was Denis McCullough, a music shop owner and piano tuner from the Grosvenor Road in Belfast.
McCullough was not only the leading figure in Ulster but was president of the Supreme Council of the IRB. Despite his exalted title McCullough was deliberately kept out of the loop by the IRB’s Military Council dominated by Tom Clarke and Seán MacDiarmada.
Pearse and Connolly had given him directly in January their orders for the Belfast IRB in the national plan. Once the word of the Rising’s date was given, McCullough and the Belfast men were to join the Tyrone companies and "proceed with all possible haste to join [Liam] Mellows in Connacht and act under his command there".
The national plan was to hold the line of the Shannon as the Volunteers fell back from Dublin and Meath under the anticipated onslaught from the British army. McCullough didn’t think much of the plan. The Belfast IRB had few weapons and he reckoned marching west though unionist towns in Tyrone and Fermanagh was too risky. He thought they’d need to raid a couple of RIC barracks for more weapons.
Connolly angrily turned on him and McCullough says in his account to the Bureau of Military History, he "almost shouted, 'You’ll fire no shots in Ulster.'" Connolly then repeated Pearse’s orders and added, "If we win through we’ll then deal with Ulster." It was not to be.
Images courtesy of The Nerve Centre and The Linen Hall Library
McCullough only managed to ferret out the date of the Rising after he travelled to Dublin and managed to corner MacDiarmada in his office in D’Olier Street the Monday of Holy Week. It was to be Easter Sunday and the plan was the same.
He rushed back to Belfast and called a meeting of the Volunteer section commanders at their premises in Divis Street. After the split in September 1914 when the majority of Belfast Volunteers, about 3,000, followed Joe Devlin MP for West Belfast in his support for John Redmond and the war, the Irish Volunteers had been left with about 150 men.
McCullough told the officers they were going to Tyrone for manoeuvres and to bring two days' rations. The officers were to gather any arms and ammunition they had. That amounted to about 40 sundry rifles.
McCullough spent the rest of Holy week arranging travel and accommodation. Their rifles were deposited in two dumps, one at Hannahstown and one in Clonard monastery. James Tomney, the IRB leader in Tyrone, picked up the stuff from Clonard on Spy Wednesday night and Hugh Rodgers from Beragh took the rest from Hannahstown.
James Connolly’s daughter Ina, using IRB money, bought excursion train tickets in batches of six and 12 for the Volunteers to travel on Holy Saturday in three batches to Dungannon, then Coalisland. McCullough had arranged for one contingent to stay at Annaghmore outside Coalisland, the second in a barn at Derrytresk and the third about 75 men in St Patrick’s Hall Coalisland.
The Connolly sisters, Nora and Ina, and four Cumann na mBan women would stay in farmhouses at Derrytresk. It all worked a treat, with 132 men arriving as planned, their weapons already there.
Meanwhile McCullough had travelled to Carrickmore on Good Friday to Dr Pat McCartan, also a member of the IRB Supreme Council, only to find two meddling priests who had heard about the planned Rising trying to persuade McCartan to stop it. The priests believed it was a communist insurrection instigated by Connolly.
McCullough wasted a large part of Holy Saturday arguing with the priests that it was an IRB rebellion and trying to persuade McCartan to support the Rising.
McCullough went to Coalisland to check the men and weapons had arrived. While there he decided to swap his own large parabellum for a small Belgian automatic pistol. On his way back to McCartan’s house he stupidly pulled the trigger of the unfamiliar gun "to check if it was loaded", shot himself through the hand and passed out. Dr McCartan bandaged him up.
David Robinson from Belfast City Council explains how the council is marking events of 1916 including the Easter Rising and the Somme:
From then on, although he was in shock, he continued to try to persuade McCartan and the Tyrone men to join the march to Omagh and the west next day. To no avail. By late on Saturday night news of Eoin MacNeill’s countermand arrived to add to the confusion and disarray. In the end McCullough decided it would be madness for the Belfast men to try to march west through unfamiliar territory without the large Tyrone contingent.
He resolved to take his men back to Belfast on Easter Sunday.
The Belfast Volunteers mustered in Coalisland on Sunday and marched to 10am Mass, many of the officers disagreeing with McCullough’s decision particularly as they stood alongside hundreds of men from 11 Tyrone Volunteer companies, some from as far away as Sion Mills and Strabane.
Nevertheless McCullough prevailed and in the afternoon the Belfast Volunteers marched to Cookstown for the 7.30 train to Belfast, en route fending off a unionist attack in Stewartstown, "a hotbed of Orangeism" as McCullough described it. Joe O’Neill of Derrytresk hid their rifles in a bunker in the bog.
So ended ‘the Rising that never was’ in Ulster. The only casualty was its leader Denis McCullough. The Belfast Volunteers arrived safely back in the city. Some went to work as usual on Easter Monday. Many of their leaders, however, were arrested the following weekend, most, including McCullough, ending up interned in Frongoch.
Most people in Belfast had no idea what the 132 Volunteers had been up to over the Easter weekend and would have been astonished if they knew.
Ironically many of the nationalist Volunteers who had followed Joe Devlin and Redmond in 1914 died or were seriously injured six weeks later at the Somme.
Those of republican sentiments in Belfast remained a small minority, with Joe Devlin elected for Belfast Falls against the national swing to Sinn Féin in 1918, heavily defeating De Valera. It would be over 60 years before Belfast elected its first republican MP Gerry Adams.
- Brian Feeney is a historian, political commentator and Irish News columnist.