The Irish collection here at the John J. Burns Library is not just old and dusty books about Ireland and the Irish. Working directly with the books and other printed material that make up the Irish collection, I am amazed by how easy it is to feel connected to some of the documents. The collection itself is a chronicle, and every once in a while something comes along that speaks. It deserves having its story told.
One particular item, recently acquired from Northern Ireland, stuck out as different. This was not a book or a little pamphlet. It was a broadside: printed on only one side of a single piece of paper. Before reading a single word on the page, I recognized the items as a blank petition: a grid of blank spaces for people to fill in their name, address, and occupation. I was intrigued because a blank petition is not something that anyone would usually keep, so this one must have been important to somebody.
I started to read the brief missive at the top.
Addressed to the governor of Northern Ireland, it reads “In the matter of the King against
Henry Cordner, William James Perry, John T. Oliver, Patrick Simpson, Joseph Cahill and Thomas Williams sentence of death on all of them pronounced on 30th July, 1942, to be executed on 18th August, 1942.” It begs clemency for these men because they “are of extreme youth and all of them have expressed their deep regret for the tragedy which resulted in the death of Constable Patrick Murphy…”
Though fewer than four inches of text, it evokes a larger drama – one of six men’s mortality. Who were these men? What actions lead to six people being sentenced to death? How did this petition for a reprieve come to be?
It was Easter Weekend, 1942. The Irish Republican Army [IRA] in the North wanted to hold parades commemorating the 1916 Easter Rising and Irish independence from Britain. For 20 years, however, the government of Northern Ireland forbade any gathering under the Special Powers Act of 1922. The IRA had a solution: create diversions.
The 18-year-old Tom Williams and his men were instructed to fire shots over a Royal Ulster Constabulary [RUC] patrol car, ditch the guns, and scatter themselves to avoid capture. Based on the petition, however, we know things didn’t go as planned. The RUC patrolmen got out of their vehicle and chased Tom Williams’ unit; shots were fired, and Tom was injured. He was not, however, the only victim. Constable Patrick Murphy, a Catholic father of nine, was mortally wounded in the action. After a standoff, the six IRA men surrendered and were sent to the Crumlin Road Prison in Belfast. They were tried and all six sentenced to death.
The petition stemmed from reprieve committees formed immediately following the sentence. According to Jim McVeigh, in his book Executed: Tom Williams and the IRA, the first act of the reprieve campaign was the gathering of a petition calling for clemency.
Petition forms were sent to every parish priest in the North and placed at the gates of every Catholic church for signing following Sunday masses. Across the Irish Sea in cities like Liverpool, Manchester and Glasgow, petitions were gathered and sent to local MPs. When the petition was handed to the Minister of Home Affairs at Stormont on 21st August, it contained almost a quarter million signatures. (p. 63).
Support came from a broad, global political spectrum. Neither politicians in the Republic of Ireland, grappling with the IRA inside its own borders, nor Unionist politicians in Northern Ireland wanted to encourage a violent retaliation by supporters of the IRA. Religious figures, Protestant and Catholic, British and Irish also contributed to the reprieve effort. Ultimately, Henry Cordner, William James Perry, John T. Oliver, Patrick Simpson and Joseph Cahill were all spared execution.
The government still needed someone to pay the ultimate price. Shortly after 8:00 am on September 2, 1942 the unit’s leader Tom Williams was executed by hanging in the Crumlin Road Prison.
This petition, so full of drama, has echoes in many other documents and is part of a larger story. When investigating the circumstances of such a story, it can incite a variety of research potential – much of which can be found on the shelves here at the Burns Library.
A folk ballad, for instance, was written in Tom Williams’ memory. Sung among Republican circles, it has appeared in popular culture references, and it was printed — including in one of our pamphlets “Songs from the Barricades“.
Tom Williams was buried in unconsecrated ground in the Crumlin Road Prison cemetery. The National Graves Association spearheaded an effort, among other activities, to move his grave to a reserved plot in the Milltown Cemetery. They nearly achieved the goal in January of 2000, when Joe Cahill assisted in carrying Tom’s coffin to be buried in Milltown, but not in the special Republican plot. 50 years following the writing of our petition, the event was captured in contemporary newspaper reports in An Phoblacht.
Tom Williams’ death was not the only execution of an Irish Republican: we also have the collection of Thomas J. Clarke, shot by firing squad in 1916 after the Easter Rising.
The petition demonstrates the drama of political prisoners inside of Northern Ireland jails and the actions of their supporters on the outside campaigning for their freedom. The prison experience is a trope that can be found across the Irish collection. It has implications that stretched back into the 19th century and forward into the 1980s during the famed hunger strikes at Long Kesh prison.
This call for clemency touched off an extraordinary trajectory for another of its protagonists. Joe Cahill went on to a career that resulted in: being a founding member of the Provisional IRA; being the unofficial (and illegal) spokesperson for the IRA to the Irish in the United States and the Irish Northern Aid organization; being a leading figure in the illegal arms trade (including with the Libyan regime of Muammar al-Gaddafi); being a Sinn Fein party officer, and acting as a supporter of Sinn Fein’s cease fire as part of the Peace Process in 1994.
The collections of the John J. Burns Library have many stories, and this single piece of paper is just one. Being able to connect these documents and stories is just one of the pleasures of having such intimate contact with the collection.
- Meaghan Madden, Senior Special Collections Cataloging Assistant, Burns Library