Category Archives: History

From Tartan to Terror in the 1970’s

This event seeks to examine the origins and rise of the Tartan gangs in Belfast and their transformation into loyalist Paramilitaries in the violent maelstrom of the early 1970s. Gareth Mulvenna will talk about the research he carried out for his acclaimed book ‘Tartan Gangs and Paramilitaries – The Loyalist Backlash’ while playwright Robert Beano Niblock will read new poems he has written from the perspective of a young man who went from being a member of the Woodstock Tartan to a member of the Red Hand Commando in July 1972. The event will also feature guest speakers and there will be a discussion afterwards.

No tickets are required and entry is free.

Tea and coffee will be provided.

All welcome.


Why I wrote UVF: Behind the Mask:Part Two-Aaron Edwards


Without doubt this has been the most difficult book I have ever written.

My other books are on a variety of different subjects, ranging from a history of the labour movement in Northern Ireland to insurgency in South Yemen.


Although challenging to write in their own way, they did not pose the same unique problems as UVF: Behind the Mask.

Professional historians are used to scrutinising the past by way of documents and interviews with eyewitnesses.

They are supposed to triangulate these kinds of sources with what is already known about the past.

Sometimes this means challenging their own preconceptions and beliefs.

In the case of the UVF, this meant adjusting my own previous analysis on the group because some of the facts had changed as new evidence came to light.

Interestingly, as I neared the end of my project, these new facts augmented most of my previous analysis on the UVF, which was completed well over a decade ago.

More seriously, however, was the changing context within which I now had to conduct my research.

Read more »


Why I wrote UVF: Behind The Mask…Part 1–Aaron Edwards

Aaron Edwards explaining motivations and purpose for writing his eagerly awaited book.




Next week my book UVF: Behind the Mask will be published by Merrion Press.

The book has taken me three years to write but has a much longer gestation, stretching back nearly twenty years.

I first began researching the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) in 2000, prior to the outbreak of the bloody feud between the UVF and their rivals in the Ulster Defence Association/Ulster Freedom Fighters.

My focus then was to interrogate the critique by the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) and Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) that the UVF’s political associates in the Progressive Unionist Party (PUP) were merely ‘mouthpieces for gunmen and bombers’.

I discovered that the PUP’s politics were a lot more complex than what these critiques were suggesting.

Indeed, many of the critiques were disingenuous, especially given the close ties between individual members of the UUP and DUP and loyalist paramilitaries since the mid-1960s.

Digging deeper I found that the PUP was actually trying to offer a political alternative to mainstream unionist parties like the UUP and DUP.

Read more »


De-Bunking the Myth of the “Battle” of St. Matthews

De-Bunking the Myth of the Battle of St. Matthews.


Saturday 27th and Sunday 28th of June 1970 will live long in the memory of those who were witness to the horrific events that unfolded that weekend.  Of the two people and many others who were injured by the indiscriminate gunfire their families pain has been exacerbated in the intervening years as they have had to endure the ignominy of the perpetuated untruth that somehow this incident was some sort of glorious battle honour by the Short Strand IRA, and that their sectarian murderous attacks were in actual fact heroic defending of a ghetto under siege.  So much so that an erroneous moniker of “The Battle of Saint Matthews” was bestowed upon it.  However all right thinking citizens are well aware of the FACTS surrounding that day’s events and can quite easily debunk this theoretical falsehood.
Almost one year after the onset of “The Troubles” the Republican movement and the Belfast IRA in particular were in disarray.  In July and August of 1969 they, as a grouping had done little—in the eyes of the Catholic population in working class areas—to defend those communities from the “Loyalist hordes “.  The acronym now read I Ran Away.  Behind the scenes an idealistic shift was also taking place—a shift that would eventually –and inevitably lead to fractions within the movement, culminating in feuds and counter feuds.  The new hardliners—although many were seasoned veterans of the organisation–were making their presence felt.  Individuals like Francis Card—BillyMcKee—Joe Cahill-Seamus Twomey and Leo Martin.  McKee, as the Belfast Brigade commander knew that 
in order to make a statement and win back the affections of the disillusioned Catholic inhabitants he needed a victory—something that would announce the arrival of the new Provisional movement.

Read more »


Who Fears To Speak Of Easter Week: Dr. John Coulter

Who Fears to Speak of Easter Week


Dr John Coulter blog

By Dr John Coulter

Political Commentator


easter week

Many republicans need to ‘wise up’ and actually read the 1916 Proclamation.

Just as the increasingly secular and pluralist society has changed the true meaning of both Easter and Christmas by editing Christ out and converting it into a commercial festival, Irish republicans are guilty of editing God out of the Proclamation of Poblacht na hEireann, issued during the failed Rising. Read more »


From the Archives-A Poem by Finbarr O’Farrell

This poem by Finbarr O’Farrell first appeared in a Workers Party publication in the late 1980’s.  Christy Moore, along with many other celebrities,from Ireland and further afield pledged their allegiance to the Irish cause at the time.  Moore in particular was vociferous in his support of the “Republican Struggle”-without perhaps pausing to ponder what the human cost was.  It may have interfered with his celebruty status.

Pulp: Finbarr O’Farrell


Let Big Ian Rest in Peace: Unionist Elite Must Shoulder Blame: Dr. John Coulter

Let Big Ian Rest in Peace


It’s a bit rich Messrs Trimble and Galway sticking the boot in old Paisley over the causes of the Troubles when it was the backstabbing Hard Right of the Unionist Party which stoked the fires in the first place!

I grew up in Bannside, the heartland of the Paisley fiefdom of North Antrim. Unionism in the late Sixties was dominated by the ‘Big House, Fur Coat Brigade’.

These aristocratic Unionists basked in the luxury of flushing toilets, while many working class Protestants still had to rely on the slop bucket.

Membership of the middle class dominated Unionist Party was by invitation only. Many working class loyalists were no better off than third class African natives from the colonies.

The crisis facing these down-trodden Prods was brutally expressed by an original Paisley supporter who later became heavily involved with the vigilante Ulster Third Force.

I interviewed this loyalist for a book, The Orange Card’, which the late Independent Orange boss and DUP MLA George Dawson got banned two weeks before publication.

To this loyalist, the Fur Coat Brigade posed as serious a threat to working class Protestants as republicans.

He said: “The problem for ordinary people like myself was that Henry Clark (the Unionist MP for North Antrim in the late 1960s) and people like him were unapproachable.

“I personally went to the late Terence O’Neill because of my eviction by the Fur Coat Brigade and he didn’t want to know me.

“All he did was try to pass the buck. The sitting Unionists were not interested in us folk, unless you had a family of eight to 10!

“In the early days, I listened to Paisley. I thought this was the right sort of system because he confronted the Fur Coat Brigade.”

But this Paisley activist – a Church of Ireland member – would disrupt invitation-only Unionist Party meetings by infiltrating them and shouting down the speakers, such as Chichester-Clark.

“I had contacts in the Right-wing of the Unionist Party who were opposed to O’Neill and Chichester-Clark’s reforms and they got me the passes to get into the Unionist Party meetings,” he said.

“An Orangeman in Clough tipped me off about a meeting in Cloughmills at which Chichester-Clark was to speak.

“About a dozen of us were in the meeting. Some were singing ‘Paisley, Paisley’. Others were more threatening. It got that rough that Chichester-Clark could not get started.”

The impact of these disruptive tactics was to force the Unionist Party to abandon public meetings, especially those in Orange halls.

Many Fur Coat Brigade activists could not cope with the constant heckling and left both politics and the Orange Order as Unionist Party branches shut.

But it should not be forgotten that these working class Protestant hecklers got their tip-offs and passes from Right-wing Unionist Party members – not Ian Paisley.

Don’t start slabbering again about the alleged role of the late Paisley simply because he’s dead and an easy target.

Such moralising gobshites should turn their attention to the militant agenda of the Hard Right in the Fur Coat Brigade-run Unionist Party who used Paisley supporters as political cannon fodder to undermine O’Neill, Chichester-Clark and Faulkner’s liberal agenda.

If the Hard Right had had the balls to implement a power-sharing Executive, such as the one we now have at Stormont, there would have been no Sinn Fein in government, no IRA, and Paisley senior would have joined the ranks of Hell-fire evangelists and never followed his wife into politics.

Paisley may have been guilty of throwing snowballs at Sean Lemass’s car as the then Taoiseach visited Stormont.

But what sunk O’Neill and company was not Paisley, but the Hard Right Fur Coat Brigade within the Unionist Party who wanted their aristocratic heels kept on the necks of the North’s working class – both Catholic and Protestant.

John Coulter


Tom Vallance: First Rangers Captain

Tom Vallance

Tom Vallance was very much a man for his time. It is inconceivable the many and varied talents this man was blessed with would have been allowed to flourish if he had been a footballer of the modern era. He was accomplished in so many fields. Arguably the most outstanding Scottish footballer of his era, he also held the Scottish long jump record for many years and was a keen rower.

Tom was a hugely impressive physical specimen, standing six feet two inches at a time when the average Scottish male was about five feet seven inches in height. He was, though, a gentle giant. He was an accomplished artist, exhibits being accepted on two occasions by the Royal Scottish Academy. He was also a prize-winner for the breeding of birds and dogs.

Tom Vallance was born at Succoth Farm, near Renton in 1856.  In his early years, the family Vallance moved to Shandon, north of Rhu and a short distance from the home of the McNeil family.  It was probably here that the future captain and president of the Rangers met the pioneer brothers Peter and Moses.

The census of 1871 tells us Tom was a “civil engineer’s apprentice”.  Soon, though, he moved to Glasgow in search of work.  He succeeded, employment coming as a mechanical engineer in a shipyard.  Shortly after arriving in Glasgow, he joined the Clyde Amateur Rowing Club.

The road from the Gareloch to the big city had already been taken by the Campbells and the McNeils.  The schoolboy friends met up again and Tom joined the football club recently started by his friends.  Vallance soon made his mark in the popular new sport.  A natural athlete, he settled into the full back role, reaching prominence, with his teammates, in the matches of the 1877 Scottish Cup Final against Vale of Leven.  He was also a born leader, the first of the line of the great Rangers’ captains.  By the end of the decade, he was the finest footballer in Scotland and England.  In 1879, he had his brother Alick beside him in the first Rangers’ side to win a trophy, the Glasgow Merchants’ Charity Cup.

Tom made his first appearance for Scotland in 1877, in a 3-1 victory over England at the Kennington Oval.  He would face the “Auld Enemy” on three further occasions, including victories of 7-2 in 1878 and 6-1, in 1881.  Rangers’ colleagues George Gillespie and David Hill played in that match, the latter scoring Scotland’s second goal.  Tom also had three victories over the Welsh to think back on in his twilight years.  The only blot on an otherwise perfect international career was the 4-5 defeat at the Oval in 1879.  The men in dark blue had led by 4-1 at half-time!

In February, 1882, Tom Vallance made the bold decision to seek out a new career in the tea plantations of the northeastern Indian state of Assam.  It was a move that nearly cost Tom his life.  Within a few months of arriving in India, the great athlete was struck down by a form of malaria. He made the decision to return to Scotland.

He played three times for Rangers in 1883/84 season but it was clear the illness had taken its toll of Tom’s health.  His final game in his beloved light blue was in a 9-2 victory over Abercorn at Kinning Park.  (He did, though, appear for the “Ancients” for a number of years.)

In retrospect, it can be argued that Tom Vallance’s contribution to the fortunes of the Rangers was greater, more important, off the field of play rather than on it.  During Vallance’s time in India, John Wallace Mackay had come to power in the role of honorary match secretary; power he would wield to the great detriment of the Club.  Tom was appointed club president in 1883, the first of six seasons in the role.  His commitment to the role achieved great support for him in his battle to control the excesses of the greatly unpopular Mackay.

By now, Tom was a travelling salesman in the wine and spirit trade.  This was the first rung on the ladder to a successful career in the hospitality industry.  It would eventually lead to Tom becoming a highly-respected restaurateur, the owner of three city restaurants.

He also settled into married life.  His bride on 18 August, 1887 was Marion, sister of Tom’s team-mate, Willie Dunlop.  Brother Alick was Tom’s best man.

Tom and Marion had two sons.  Harold, born in 1889 and James two years later.  In between the births of the boys, Tom took ownership of his first restaurant, The Club at 22 Paisley Road West which is now The Viceroy Bar He would later take into his portfolio, “The Metropolitan” in Hutcheson Street and “The Lansdowne” in Hope Street.

Like so many of their generation, the Vallances suffered the loss of a son in the Great War.  Second Lieutenant Harold Vallance died only six weeks before the end of hostilities, in September, 1918.  Tom had also had to bear the loss of his much-loved sibling, Alick.  He died, aged only thirty-eight, in 1898.

Tom Vallance succumbed to a stroke at his home at 189 Pitt Street on 16 February, 1935. Appropriately, Rangers won that day, a victory by three goals to one over Airdrieonians at Ibrox.


The Great War-Ulster Greets Her Brave and Faithful Sons.

The Great War. Ulster Greets Her Brave and Faithful Sons. 1919.

( Printed by WG Baird,  Royal Avenue.)

I was given this book and an Ulster Covenant recently by a friend. Both are a bit like myself – old battered and but still hanging together. I’m pretty sure they are genuine.  The Covenant appears to be covered in Linseed oil and over the years it has become brittle. The writing on both book and Covenant concerns a William Curry Junior who signed the Covenant on that day in 1912. I checked the Covenant roll on the PRONI site and found that 8 William Curry’s had signed at the City hall. Is it possible that William Curry Jnr went to war and got back safely or was he too young to go? It is difficult to precisely identify who this person was.

There are a number of interesting points in terms of the context of 1919. Ireland was still one country. The Easter uprising and subsequent executions had taken place 3 years previously and N.Ireland was still 2 years off.  In Belfast, events were starting to shape another round of killings in the small back streets.  The first RIC officer was killed by republicans and Dail Eireann was outlawed by the British government.

The book appears to be written by the ‘Citizens Committee to the Ulster Service Men’  which was headed by the Lord Mayor,  J.C. White. It is classed as a souvenir of the Peace Day Saturday 9th August 1919.   The book starts by looking at the financial contributions to the war effort.  References are made to the ‘North of Ireland’. Belfast had contributed over 46,000 men to the army. The Ulster woman’s gift fund raised 120,000 for POWs which was a considerable amount in the early 20th century. Hospitals are mentioned which were involved in treating men who returned. The UVF hospital in Botanic Avenue,  Galwally, Craigavon,  Gilford and the ‘Mental Hospital on the Grosvenor Road’.

The first chapter concerns the  36th (Ulster)  Division which is a brief rundown of the  structure and  the events of 1st July 1916.  After the Somme, mention is made of the 36th at Cambrai and St Quentin. Quite a few changes had taken place in the Division after the slaughter at Thiepval.  Moving on quickly the chapter covers Messines and Bailleul in 1918 when the suffering began again. The final period of the war showed that the Ulster Division was fighting alongside  their Belgian compatriots in the Courtrai (now Kortrijk  ) area.  The war ended on November  1918. Many Ulster men would have been based in Mouscron.  The Division did not begin to return to Ulster until the next year but they had a special visitor in January 1919 in the shape of the Prince of Wales.  He who would become  Edward VIII but would  abdicate in 1936. There are then brief official histories of some of  the battalions of the division.  On page 47 there is a list of decorations won by the division which includes 9 Victoria Crosses, 71 Distinguished Service Orders, 459 Military Crosses and 1294 Military Medals.

The next chapter concerns the Tenth Division at Gallipoli. It notes that the North of Ireland provided 5 battalions into the division. This division was sent to Gallipoli in August 1915. Another debacle. After the clear defeat by the Turkish forces the Division was sent to Servia in September 1915. They would stay in the Balkans for 2 years before going to Egypt via Palestine. The division was so weakened it did not serve as a whole in the latter stages of the war in France. The 5/ 6/ th Royal Irish Fusiliers were gassed at Anchy before fighting their way across the La Bassee Haute canal.  At one point they were transferred into the 16th Irish Division.

The next chapter is devoted to the Ulster presence in the 16th Irish Division. This was in the form of the Inniskilling and Royal Irish fusiliers.  This division is cited as a ‘great division’ and nobly  upholding ‘the fame of Irishmen as fighters’.   Mention is explicitly made of the 6th Battalion,  Connaught Rangers which had 600 men from Belfast, “.. chiefly from the Falls road..”  Mention is made of the attacks by the Division on Guinchy and Gullemont before the great attack on Messines-Wytschate in June 1917. This is where the Irish and Ulster Divisions would fight, suffer, and die,  side by side.

Further chapters cover various battalions e.g.  1st and 2nd Regular Battalions of the Irish Rifles. Mention is made of the Territorials and the Woman’s Army.  In terms of the women’s contribution mention is made of the Queens Marys Army Corp as well as Queen Alexandria’s nursing service.  Women are recognised as nursing here in the north and in many places in France. Ulster women are praised  for  doing important work here and in  Coventry where they  worked  in munitions factories. There is a list of the V.C. winners and a brief account of their actions.  Reference is made to Ulster’s contribution to the Navy which has been understated in many other accounts of the Great War.

It would appear that Saturday August 9th 1919 in Belfast was a big day. Special trains laid on, much ado in the local press exhorting people to come out. The march would go down the Antrim road, Clifton Street, Donegal street, Royal Avenue and finish in the Ormeau Park where food had been laid on for the men and women.    Reading this piece of history raise so many questions.  It has certainly glossed over the horrendous aspects of the war.  It may not have bene intended as spin but it could be seen as glamorising to some extent the war.

Another topic of the book is the money donated to the war effort but what monies were donated to the aftercare of the returning rifleman or private?  Note the headline Urgent appeal to get another £13,000, a huge amount in those days, for what end? Admittedly both ordinary citizens and the Government would be short of cash but it’s the old, old story; if a conflict is involved there always seems to be money for that.  So accepting a day out, a march, a meal and a booklet what else was given to the returning soldiers?  I do not know nor will this booklet tell us. I suspect that fact would not be announced from the roof tops.  It also seems somewhat ironic that some of the Ulster soldiers would return to Belfast, leaving the horrors of the trenches behind.  A Belfast where in a short period of time they would hear the echoes of war on the streets with rifle fire and massed riots.

The booklet and Covenant are genuine pieces of our history.  Fascinating to think they lasted this long. Fascinating to think of the changes and events since that day,  over 95 years ago.



The War Behind The Wire: A Book Review by Primo

The War behind the Wire’

John Lewis Stempel.

Phoenix 2014.

    I have read many excellent accounts of the first World War and the role of the Ulster men (and Irish men ) in that conflict.  I have walked the ground that the Ulster men fell on, and disappeared into, on that fateful 1st July morn 1916. I have walked past the many hundreds of uniform grey headstones in the Somme valley. One of them belongs to a family member. I had the pleasure and privilege to speak face to face with a veteran of the trenches.  However it was only recently that I learned of a large group of men who did not have the banner and victory parade treatment unlike other wars and conflicts. They are not immortalised in song and popular culture.  After 1919 these stories were not taken up by the press because there was a feeling of not upsetting the Germans and everything would be OK.  It only took 20 years for that particular idea to be proved so terribly wrong.   This book is about the British (and other nationalities) who were prisoners of war under the Germans in WW1.

This is an amazing book which must have taken years of research.  The stories are rich and unbelievable.  The book is a roller coaster of colliding feelings and emotions. From the virtual torture of captured prisoners including executions (war crimes) to the humane and lifesaving  treatment of British, Irish, French and Russian prisoners by ordinary German soldiers.  The book covers the class system that ran throughout both British and German society and armies, the ignoring of the rules regarding captured enemy soldiers during hostilities and making captured prisoners do manual work not related to the war effort.

The author tries to get away from the shallow and blasé notion of the second world war films around Colditz that it was a jolly good idea to have a go and escape. Getting home to the UK was a ‘home run’ and all that. The reality for many was terrible. Left to freeze without adequate food or medical assistance. Worked to death in mines.  Locked in railway carriages without food or toilet.   Reminiscent of what was awaiting the Jews (and others) in the Second World War.  The Germans had a particular dislike for the captured Canadians.  They thought them interfering and over paid. Despite the real risk of execution some  prisoners made escape attempts, some successful, some quite bizarre and for some it was their death knell.

This book is not a novel nor is it easy reading. The pages are full of real people, ordinary people, in unreal circumstances. There is heroism and there is comradeship.  There are things that are just wrong. Like Germans convicted after the war, of letting prisoners,  caged and weak from malnutrition, die without help. These Germans would be tried in a German court  and be given a soft 6 months in open prison conditions.

One story of a British POW stands out for its grossness.  The Germans realised that the Irish prisoners had issues with the British at home. The Irish would be released if they left the British army. To their credit only 54 out of 2500 jumped ship to the Germans. One of the Irishman, Corporal R Dempsey , refused to jump ship. He was tied to a post in the snow as used as spitting practice as Germans walked past. (P.102) Imagine the humiliation,  and then, when he returned home he would be regarded as a traitor.

And what of the Ulster men who endured these conditions?  There is very little written about the returning soldiers. Remember that the Ulster Division (and many other divisions) were decimated and worse. It is now over  100 years (9th May) since the 36th Ulster Division, the pride of Ulster, marched past the City Hall to go and train in England before making their way to Thiepval and immortality. However the price of that sacrifice was huge. The depleted Ulster Division would be supplemented by the English, Scottish and Welsh.   It is difficult to say who got home first, the volunteers or the released prisoners.  Some prisoners died on their way home having tasted freedom but not deliverance. They left Ulster with pride but on arriving home in 1919 or 1920 they came home to political upheaval, changes in social attitudes,  huge changes in Ireland, an uncertain future and now with the prospect of deep  civil conflict at home.  And what of the injured – both physical and mental? How where they treated?  How do you live in a society with no social security?  Who supported them?

Who were these unfortunates? Henry Atkin from the Shankill, wounded and taken prisoner;  J Anderson rifleman from the East Belfast, H Bailie,  a private from Frome street,  who died while a prisoner of the Germans and S. Lyttle , a private with the Munster Fusiliers from the Donegall Pass. These four names of over 700 men listed as PoWs. But Ulstermen from all parts of Ulster would end up at the Kaisers ‘pleasure’.  The book dispels the notion of the stigma of being captured, or even worse surrendering,  in order to get away from the atrocious trench conditions. In one German camp there was a higher death rate among soldiers than at the front line of the Somme.

The names of the prison camps are strange, lost to history and certainly not in the public consciousness.   Doberitz, Limberg, Zossen, Holzminden, and many more. (See for a handy list)  Some were hellish places were the worst aspects of the human nature were  expressed. Lamsdorf was one of the largest camps with  90,000 men including British, Russian and Italian. Over 7000 men would perish there.  So why are these names not remembered  the same way as Colditz and Auschwitz ? At the end of World war 1 a  British public, weakened by war and sickened by the grim reality of the eyeless and legless shells that masqueraded for men on their return,  meant they had no appetite and no cause for jingoistic language afterwards.  If you read this book you will learn of a hidden,  forgotten world. But these men, all of them, deserve to be remembered every bit as much as the men who suffered in the trenches. This book is thought provoking, humbling and disturbing in places.  It is a book I will be keeping on my shelf for a long time.

Remember them also.