Monday, May 3, 2021

The Reality of Partition

The Reality of Partition

100 years ago today the Government of Ireland Act 1920 became law and Ireland was partitioned. What did partition mean for nationalist families trapped at that time in a state that didn’t want them?

Recently I published the latest of my series of Léargas books. It tells the story of Kathleen Thompson (born Kathleen McCready) who was born in 1943. Kathleen was a fine singer and musician. Her rendition of Four Green Fields and its symbolism of one of them's in bondage” continues to resonate today 50 years after the LP was released.

When I came Kathleen’s story I was very mindful that she and her siblings were part of a generation that was born into the Northern State in the years after partition.

They were hard times, especially for Catholic families living in Belfast and in a Unionist dominated state. Upper Library Street, where she was born, was part of a Catholic enclave called Carrick Hill which is situated at the bottom of the Shankill Road. It was bordered by Peter’s Hill, the Old Lodge Road and the Shankill on one side and was separated from the Catholic North Queen Street and New Lodge area by Clifton Street and Donegall Street.

This is an extract from the book which recounts the events leading to 1921 and after.


“At the start of the 19th century Belfast was a small town with a population of about 20,000 citizens. Upper Library Street was then part of its northern boundary. The basis of Belfast’s early growth was the linen industry, which did not threaten English commercial interests. The mills required machinery, which led to an increase in engineering. The 1850s also saw Belfast become one of the biggest centres for ship building in the world.

By the middle of the 19th century the population of Belfast had increased tenfold and by the end of the century the population had reached 350,000. The shipyards, rope works, tobacco works, the mills and engineering factories had expanded significantly and by the start of the twentieth century Belfast had a bigger population than Dublin.

The number of Catholics living in the city also increased from 4,000 in 1800 to just under 100,000 in 1900.

Living and working conditions were appalling. Overcrowding in slum housing with no sanitation was the norm for working people. Hours were long and child labour was prevalent. Conditions for women in the Linen mills were notoriously difficult and dangerous.

A structured system of discrimination, encouraged by an alliance of the unionist political elite, the Orange Order and employers meant that all of the well paid, skilled work, and trades were predominantly protestant, especially in the shipyards and engineering firms.

The exploitation of sectarian divisions among workers was to the advantage of the owners as it prevented the development of effective labour organisations able to fight for better wages and conditions. Playing on these sectarian divisions also ensured that political unionism was able to retain the loyalty of working class Protestants with whom they otherwise had little in common.

It is no accident that the worst years of riots and violence in Belfast, including expulsions of Catholics from the shipyards and other engineering factories, coincide with the introduction of the three Home Rule Bills for Ireland – 1886, 1893 and 1912 – and the Government of Ireland Act in 1920. Carrick Hill was frequently the target of sectarian violence. For example, on 21 April 1893 following the news that the British Parliament had passed the second Home Rule Bill Catholic premises in Peter’s Hill, adjacent to Carrick Hill, and Catholic homes in Carrick Hill were stoned by loyalists.

The next morning the shipyard workers employed by Harland and Wolff held a meeting where they decided that the 600 Catholics employed in the yard would “be dealt with.” Catholic workers were then warned by notices posted up around the yard that they would return to work on Monday “at their peril.” Many did not and those who did were attacked.

In July 1912 up to 8,000 catholic workers were expelled from the shipyards and other factories in the city and eight years later the pattern was repeated with up to 10,000 men Catholic men expelled from the shipyards and four major engineering works and 1,000 women from the linen mills.

One British Labour leader summed it up well in 1912, the same year Titanic was launched in Belfast, when he said: “In Belfast you get Labour conditions the like of which you get in no other town, no other city of equal commercial prosperity from John O’Groats to Land’s End or from the Atlantic to the North Sea. It is maintained by an exceedingly simple device ...Whenever there is an attempt to root out sweating in Belfast the Orange big drum is beaten ...”

In 1911 as the Titanic was being built the census recorded that there were 6809 shipbuilders in Belfast. Of these 518 or 7.6% was Catholic.

Workers had no rights. They were hired and fired at the whim of employers. Children often worked from a very young age. In Belfast in the 19th and early 20th centuries the linen mill-workers lived under the shadow of the mills where they worked. Female and child labour predominated. Children, mostly girls, worked the same hours as ‘half-timers’. They worked three days one week (Monday, Wednesday and Friday) and went to school on Tuesday and Thursday. The following week it was the reverse and they did this until they were 14.

They worked in appalling conditions. The spinning and weaving of linen required the atmosphere to be very hot and humid. This was worse in the cotton mills. In the spinning rooms the floors were always wet and the workers, adults and children, worked barefoot. The spray from the spindles ensured that their clothes were always soaking. These working conditions allied to the absence of a health service, no antibiotics, and cramped and unsanitary living conditions meant that the greater number of these workers died before the age of 45. Children generally were badly developed and small.

One mill worker in 1911 described the conditions: “When you were eight you were old enough to work... If you got married you kept on working. Your man didn’t get enough for a family. You worked till your baby came and went back as soon as you could ... and then counted the years till your child could be a halftimer”.

Other citizens lived and worked in appalling conditions in the docks, the shipyards and in casual labour.

In 1911 James Connolly was appointed Belfast organiser of the Irish Transport and General Workers Union. Connolly organised the workers of Belfast, and especially the linen slaves.

He described their conditions: “Many Belfast Mills are slaughterhouses for the women and penitentiaries for the children...” where “with clothes drenched with water, and hands torn and lacerated as a consequence of the speeding up of the machinery, a qualified spinner in Belfast receives a wage less than some of our pious millowners would spend weekly upon a dog.”

In 1920, just two decades before Kathleen was born, the British passed the Government of Ireland Act. This legislation partitioned Ireland into two states. The ‘Free State’ in the southern 26 counties, and ‘Northern Ireland’ in the six north east counties. The border between the two snaked its way for 300 miles across the landscape from Derry in the North West to Dundalk in the East.

Partition separated farmers from their land, businesses from their customers, and children from their schools. Streams and rivers, bóithre, country roads, fields became the boundary for this new border. The front door of a home was suddenly in a different state. Towns were cut off from their natural economic and social hinterlands. Communities were divided and separated. Partition was imposed at gunpoint by the British Government.

The northern state was born in a maelstrom of sectarian violence as thousands of Catholic workers in Belfast were forcibly and violently expelled from their jobs. In addition 40% of the workforce was out of work.

The Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) was unable and unwilling to police the worsening situation. The Unionist political leadership lobbied the British government to recruit loyalists into the state forces. While waiting on the British to respond Unionist leaders began to reorganise and drill the UVF.

On 21 July 1920 nearly five thousand Catholics who were working in the two Belfast shipyards were expelled from their jobs. “Hundreds were surrounded and kicked. Several were thrown into the water, 25 feet deep and pelted with bolts and others missiles as they struggled for life.” Many were seriously hurt. Over the following days more Catholic workers were expelled from the engineering and many of the textile mills across the city.

Around 93,000 Catholics lived in Belfast at that time, most living in poverty and in overcrowded unsanitary conditions. The financial and human impact on families and communities of so many Catholic workers suddenly losing their jobs was devastating. There was no welfare safety net to support destitute families.

In the following days Catholic areas of Belfast, including Carrick Hill, North Queen Street, Clonard and Ballymacarrett were attacked by loyalist mobs, the UVF and the British military. According to ‘The Belfast Pogroms 1920-22’ July 22 was “marked by unprecedented looting and burning of Catholic property, especially in Ballymacarrett. The Orange mobs, many of them drunk with looted whiskey, began early and worked late. When all the Catholic shops in the Newtownards Road area were cleaned out, they even looted a few belonging to their own co-religionists.” These attacks continued for weeks afterward.

A report in the Daily News at the end of August 1920 said: “All but a very few of the business premises of Belfast Catholics, except those in the very heart of the city or in the Catholic stronghold known as the Falls, have now been destroyed.” Over the next two years this pattern was repeated. There were attacks daily.

A few months later, in November, a letter in the Dublin Evening Telegraph from James Baird, a Town Councillor in Belfast and one of the Protestant workers who had been forcibly expelled from his work in July wrote: “On the 21st July and on succeeding dates, every Roman Catholic – whether ex-service man who had proved his loyalty to England during the Great War, or Sinn Féiner who claims to be loyal to Ireland and Ireland alone – was expelled from the shipyards and other works; a number were flung into the river and while struggling for life were pelted with rivets and washers; others were brutally beaten, but the majority, hearing the fate of their fellows, escaped injury by beating a hasty retreat, leaving behind costly tools and other personal belongings. Almost 10,000 workers are at present affected, and on several occasions men have attempted to resume work only to find ‘loyal’men still determined to keep them out...”

In October 1920 James Craig, the first Prime Minister of the Unionist regime, addressed a crowd of workers at the shipyards. Referring to the July and subsequent pogrom Craig said: “I think it only fair that I should be asked a question in return, and it is: “Do I approve of the action you boys have taken in the past?’ I say YES.”

That same month unionist paramilitary organisations were recruited almost to a man into the Ulster Special Constabulary (USC). The UVF joined en masse. The USC was divided into three groups: A Specials who were full time: B Specials who were armed and part time: C Specials part time. By June 1922 the Specials numbered around 50,000; that is one in every five adult male Protestants was a Special.

Michael Farrell, in his definitive ‘Arming the Protestants of Ulster’ concludes: “The USC was effectively a Protestant force from the very beginning and the British government made no effort to avert this …”

On 22 September 1921 the first session of the Northern Parliament took place. The British transferred ‘law and order’ powers to the new Unionist Parliament in November and the USC was issued with 26,000 rifles.

The violence against Catholics across the North escalated. In one incident, on 13 February a bomb was hurled into a group of Catholic children playing in Weaver Street in North Belfast. Four young girls were killed along with two women. In March 1922, one particularly notorious attack occurred when Specials burst into the McMahon home in north Belfast. They lined up all the male members of the house and shot them. The father, three sons and a barman were killed and two other sons wounded.

The following week Stanhope Street, Park Street, and Arnon Street all in Carrick Hill, the neighbourhood in which Kathleen was reared, were the scene of attacks by armed loyalists which saw four Catholic men shot dead and a fifth killed when his head was smashed with the sledgehammer used to break into his home.

This extended pogrom against Catholics, which had by now lasted three years, was only the beginning of decades of state institutionalised violence against nationalists/republicans and Catholics in the North.

In the first years of its existence the Unionist Parliament moved to consolidate its dominance. This was done through the systematic gerrymandering of electoral boundaries, the denial of the vote in local government elections, and the extensive use of structured discrimination in employment and housing. Catholics were less than second class citizens.

In the decades after 1921 the Unionist establishment solidified its control through the imposition of an apartheid regime in which nationalists and republicans were reduced to the status of non citizen.

Life was hard for working people including working class Protestants. Poverty was endemic. Over a quarter of houses in Belfast were overcrowded. Nine thousand couples had no homes. Eleven per cent of houses were deemed unfit. A housing survey carried out the year after Kathleen McCready was born concluded that the North needed two hundred thousand houses and half of these immediately. But within a couple of years of its foundation the Northern state had instituted discrimination policies in housing which ensured that few Catholics were allocated housing.

Another survey five years earlier concluded that 36% of the population was in absolute poverty. This means they had little food, clothing or fuel to sustain health. Belfast children from unemployed families were on average two to three inches shorter and ten pounds slighter than those in middle class areas. The death rate was 25% worse than that in Britain.

After the brutality of what the Irish News at the time described as a ‘carnival of terrorism,’ and the abandonment of nationalists by the political establishment and government in the South, there was a general sense of hopelessness among the besieged nationalists.”


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