SUPPORT in Scotland for Irish independence was once so strong that explosives were illicitly manufactured in the chemistry department of Glasgow University while an armed gang tried to free an IRA commander from a police wagon, according to a new book.
During the early 1920s when Ireland was fighting for independence from Britain, towns across Scotland with a sizeable Irish population collected rifles, revolvers and dynamite, which were then smuggled across the Irish Sea.
Hard on the heels of the Queen’s historic visit to Northern Ireland marking the new era of peace, Chris Bambery’s A People’s History of Scotland by, to be published this week, casts a new light on the tense and violent troubles that took place in Glasgow during the early 1920s.
Irish immigrants set up clandestine IRA companies in their local towns and sourced gelignite and gunpowder from quarries, coal pits and shale mines. On eight separate occasions raiding parties broke in and robbed the Glasgow munitions works. On one occasion a gang even held up the crew of a Royal Navy gunboat which was being repaired at Finnieston dockyard and stole arms. An IRA volunteer is quoted in the book saying: “Our job was to raise money and obtain guns which were then smuggled to Ireland.”
The book also reveals that Seamus Reader, the commander of the Scottish IRA, was able to slip into the chemistry department of Glasgow University where he manufactured explosives which were then despatched to Dublin.
However, the most violent incident took place on 4 May 1921 when an armed gang of IRA volunteers tried to break free Frank Carty, an IRA commander, who had been arrested in Glasgow after previously breaking out of jail in Derry. Carty was being driven under armed guard in a police van from the Central Police Court to Duke Street Prison when the gang attacked, shooting dead a police inspector and seriously injuring a detective sergeant. The gang tried to shoot off the locks on the van but were unsuccessful and fled.
A dozen IRA members were later charged with conspiracy and murder but the jury in Edinburgh found the charges “Not Proven”. Eamon de Valera, the president the Irish Republic from 1919 to 1922, later said of Scotland’s assistance: “The financial contribution to the Irish struggle from among the Scottish communities was in excess of funds from any other country, including Ireland.”
Yesterday author Chris Bambery said: “We need to know our history good and bad… The Irish community, many second and third generation, were still quite ghettoised and had strong links to the old country. There was also a great deal of radicalisation, not only on account of the 1916 uprising in Ireland but as a consequence of the First World War. There was a young generation of much more militant Republicans emerging in Scotland among the Irish community. In Scotland it became much more about securing military supplies and smuggling them over to Ireland as well as providing rest and recuperation and safe house for Republicans who were fleeing.”
Historian Sir Tom Devine said: “The IRA had some support at the time in the west of Scotland. Indeed, senior commanders from Ireland were said to have conducted reviews on Fenwick Moor of their followers by moonlight. There were abundant supplies of gelignite from Scottish mines secured by Irish miners which were regularly ferried across the Irish Sea and also a fair amount of gun-running. Help was also given in the form of fundraising, with Coatbridge in particular later congratulated by De Valera.
“Most Irish immigrants to Scotland came from Donegal, Sligo and Cavan, ‘border’ counties where anti-partition feelings were very strong. Not to be forgotten either was the fact that many young men from the ‘Scoto-Irish’ communities were battle-hardened veterans of the Great War.”