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16 November 2000 Edition

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Remembering the Past: The Edentubber Martyrs

The 1950s marked the most serious physical force campaign against the artificial Six-County statelet since 1922. However it remained mostly a rural campaign. The early 1950s saw an increase in organising and training IRA Volunteers in preparation for another campaign. On 25 July 1953, Seán Mac Stiofáin, Cathal Goulding and Manus Canning were arrested in London having just raided a British Army barracks. In June 1954, the IRA raided Gough Army barracks, taking away over 250 rifles, 37 sten guns, 9 bren guns and 40 training rifles. Shortly afterwards at Bodenstown that year, a statement read by Gearóid O'Bróin said: ``Let there be no doubt in the mind of any man or woman in Ireland on this matter. These arms were captured by republican forces for use against the British occupation forces still in Ireland and they will be used against them, please God, in due course.''

Proof of public support came on 26 May 1955, when two republican prisoners were elected to parliament, Tom Mitchell for mid-Ulster and Phil Clarke for Fermanagh South Tyrone. As would be the case with Bobby Sands in 1981, this small example of democracy was denied to the nationalist population, as both candidates were ousted from holding their positions as MPs because they were convicted felons. This public level of support, however, gave impetus to preparations for the 1956 campaign.
On 11 December 1956, the campaign started in earnest. Attacks were mounted in a wide area throughout the Six Counties. In Derry, the BBC low-powered transmitting station at Park Avenue, Rosemount was blown up.

In Enniskillen the TA building was badly damaged by a bomb. In Newry the TA building was burned down. Similar incidents occurred all over the countryside. The following day December 12th the IRA issued a statement part of which stated:- ``Out of this national liberation struggle a new Ireland will emerge upright and free. In that new Ireland we shall build a country fit for all our people to live in. That then is our aim: an independent, united, democratic, Irish Republic. For this we shall fight until the invader is driven from

our soil and victory is ours''.

The following day, RUC barracks in Derrylin and Lisnaskea were attacked. A diversionary attack was mounted on Rosslea RUC barracks, with roads blocked and bridges blow up. On New Year's Eve, an attack on Brookeborough RUC barrack resulted in the deaths of Seán South and Fergal O'Hanlon. No tradition runs deeper in Irish politics than to turn physical defeat into spiritual victory. During the funerals, huge crowds of people came onto the streets to pay their last respects. Town councils and county corporations passed votes of sympathy, in some cases not only for South and O'Hanlon, but also for their cause.

In February a booby trap bomb was found in a vacant house in Chapel Hill. A bomb disposal expert said it was one of the most cunning traps with which he had ever dealt. Previously, the RUC had raided the house several times, believing that ``wanted men'' had been staying there. Also in February, a bomb was placed in the Francis Street offices of the Six-County Electricity Board.

Due to this upsurge of activity, thousands of people attended the 1916 Easter Commemoration Parade, despite a government ban. Bob Savage, a veteran IRA Volunteer from the 1920s, proudly led the parade carrying the National flag. He was later arrested and sentenced to one month after refusing to pay a £10 fine.

On 13 May the Victoria lock gates on the Newry canal were blown up with a double explosion. In June, a Belfast woman was seriously wounded by ``B Specials'' who opened fire on her car at Killeen Bridge. The RUC later claimed that she had driven through a checkpoint!!! On 4 July, armed Volunteers hijacked a Territorial Army lorry, which was later found burned out at Barley Lane. In August, the Six-County Electricity Board office in Francis Street was blown up and wrecked. Extensive house searches and raids were carried out by the RUC.

So intense was the scale of the campaign locally that on 12 August 1957 the minister of Home Affairs, W.W. Topping, imposed a curfew in Newry and district. The hours of curfew were between 11pm and 5.30am. Cross-border traffic was detoured round the town. W.J. Keogh called the curfew ``mass imprisonment of innocent people''. On the first evening of the curfew huge crowds gathered and marched to Margaret Square, where they sang the National Anthem at 11pm, curfew hour. The RUC baton charged the crowd and five young men and a woman were arrested. During the second night of the curfew, a crowd estimated at 2,000 people again gathered in the town centre at Margaret Square. Hill Street was blocked off by rows of steel-helmeted RUC personnel, backed up by Land Rovers and a caged van with two sten gunners positioned on the roof. The protesters sang and jeered at the RUC but at 11pm they dispersed peacefully. The curfew lasted for four weeks, until Monday 9 September.

On the night of 11 November, just off the main Dublin to Belfast road, an active service unit of four men were preparing a bomb for an operation. They were in a cottage belonging to Michael Watters, who was also present. All five men died in a blast caused by a premature explosion. The four Volunteers were: Oliver Craven, Dominic Street, Newry; Paul Smith, The Gardens, Bessbrook, County Armagh; George Keegan, Enniscorthy, County Wexford; and Patrick Parle, also from Wexford. The cottage was literally blown apart and scattered about. In the debris, the Gardaí found three Thompson sub-machine guns and magazines.

That Wednesday, Dundalk was brought to a standstill as the cortege made its way to St. Patrick's cathedral. The five coffins, each draped in a Tricolour, were carried together on the back of a lorry. After requiem mass on Thursday morning, the coffins of George Keegan and Patrick Parle were taken on their journey southwards. All that day a constant stream of people filed past the remaing coffins, attended by a Fianna Éireann Guard of Honour.

The funeral procession consisted of Na Fianna Éireann, Cumann na mBan, and Sinn Féin. The Dundalk Emmett brass and reed band then led the large crowds that followed behind. Businesses and factories closed or allowed their employees time off to attend the funeral. They were buried in the Republican Plot in St. Patrick's cemetery. Part of the oration read by John Joe McGirl, Sinn Fein TD for Sligo/Leitrim, said: ``The tragedy which brought to an end the lives of five great Irishmen is a tragedy of the Irish Nation. The tragedy of an Ireland that is unfree and divided. These men came from the north and south to join together to end the tragedy of our nation and her people.

``Michael Watters was symbolic of the mass of the Irish people who have borne the brunt of the struggle for Irish freedom. The road they travelled was the hard road but its signposts were unmistakable''.

``For 35 years the nationalists in the north looked to their brother Irishmen in the south for a direct lead against British occupation. They were sadly disillusioned by the inept approach to the problem of occupation by their follow Irishmen in the south. Having examined and employed all peaceful approaches to ending the unnatural division of our country, they had once again asserted their God-given right to freedom and had fought side by side with gallant men from the south''.

The Edentubber martyrs died 43 years ago this week.

An Phoblacht
44 Parnell Sq.
Dublin 1

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