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7 November 2002 Edition

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The Edentubber Martyrs

The 1950s witnessed the most serious physical force campaign against the Six-County statelet since 1922. However, it remained mostly a rural campaign. This was the historical background leading to the deaths of five republicans in a premature explosion at Edentubber.

The early part of the decade saw an increase in organising and training IRA Volunteers in preparation for another campaign. On 25 July 1953, Seán MacStiofáin, Cathal Goulding and Manus Canning were arrested in London having just raided a British Army Barracks. In June 1954, the IRA raided Gough Barracks in Armagh, taking away over 250 rifles, 37 sten guns, 9 bren guns and 40 training rifles.

Proof of public support for the republican struggle came on 26 May 1955, when two republican prisoners were elected as MPs. Tom Mitchel for mid-Ulster and Phil Clarke for Fermanagh South Tyrone polled 152,310 votes for Sinn Féin in that election. Just as in the case of Bobby Sands MP, this small example of democracy was denied to the nationalist population. Both candidates were ousted from holding their positions as MPs because they were convicted felons.

On 11 December 1956, the IRA campaign started in earnest, with attacks against British military installations carried out throughout the Six Counties. In the Mourne Mountains maps, detonators and a book entitled "Notes on Guerrilla Warfare" were captured in a farmhouse in Clontifleece. The RUC raiding party lined the men up against the wall and threatened to shoot them all. A further search revealed two weapons, a Colt revolver and a Luger pistol.

That same day, the IRA placed a large bomb in the B Specials' drill hall in Newry and wrecked the building. In February, a booby trap bomb was found in a vacant house in Chapel Hill, Newry. A bomb disposal expert said it was one of the most cunning traps he had ever dealt with. Previously the RUC had raided the house on several occasions 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. Defying a government ban, a local man 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's gaol after refusing to pay a £10 fine.

On 13 May the Victoria lock gates outside Newry 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, Newry. In August, once again, the 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 British Minister of Home Affairs, WW Topping, imposed a curfew in Newry and district. The hours of curfew were between 11pm and 5.3Oam. Cross border traffic was detoured round the town. WJ 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 women 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 Monday 11 November, just off the main Dublin-Belfast Road beside the border, an active service unit of four men was preparing a bomb for an operation. They were in a cottage belonging to Michael Watters, who was also present. The bomb exploded prematurely and all five were killed. The four IRA volunteers were Oliver Craven from Dominic Street, Newry; Paul Smith from The Gardens, Bessbrook; George Keegan from Enniscorthy and Patrick Parle from Wexford. The cottage was literally blown apart. 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 remaining coffins, which by now had a Fianna éireann Guard of Honour mounted round them.

The funeral procession consisted of Na Fianna éireann, Cumann na mBan and Sinn Féin. The Dundalk Emmett Brass and Reed Band 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, Dundalk.

The Edentubber Martyrs Commemoration takes place this Sunday, 10 November, assembling 2.30pm at Ravensdale House, County Louth

An Phoblacht
44 Parnell Sq.
Dublin 1

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