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An IRA Raid For Weapons At Campbell College, 1935

A couple of years back I was asked to lead some historical tours of Campbell College school in Belfast. The school, situated on the Belmont estate near Stormont was primarily a boarding school and a firm favourite of prominent families in Belfast such as Davidson of Sirocco Works, Jaffe of Strandtown, Sharman Neil the jeweller, and also of clergymen who received a discount on their fees. C.S. Lewis who grew up nearby attended the school for a short period. Indeed, the gas lamppost on the school driveway is claimed to have been the inspiration for the one represented in The Lion The Witch and the Wardrobe though this has also been disputed. Also worth mentioning is Fred Crawford, the UVF gunrunner in 1914 who was on the school’s board of governors.

While carrying out the research for these tours I came across a lesser-known story of an IRA raid on the armoury of the Campbell College Officer Training Corps on Friday 27th December 1935.

The plan was to seize the school’s gate lodge, tie up the occupants, and disable all communications. Once this had been achieved it was hoped that two cars could be used to strip out c.200 rifles from the armory. What the raiders had not bargained for, however, was the fact that the rifles and ammunition had been transferred to Victoria Barracks for safe keeping during the Christmas holidays.

Nonetheless, the IRA unit, travelled by tram to the Belmont Road from High Street at approximately 8.10pm before proceeding on foot along Hawthornden Road. They approached the gate lodge and gave a loud knock on the door at around 8.30pm. Inside was William Hope, his wife, his daughter, and two grandchildren who at the time were engrossed in a game of Ludo. William Hope was known for being a keen piper, indeed he was a piping instructor at Campbell College. It was through his piping that he became acquainted with the nationalist antiquarian Francis Joseph Biggar (indeed, William named a son after him). Not only that, ‘Billy’ expressed pride in the fact that he was a direct descendant of the United Irishman Jimmy Hope.

Hope’s daughter responded to the loud knock and opened the door where she was confronted by a masked man who pushed a revolver into her face causing her to scream. At this point, 3 masked men carrying revolvers pushed their way into the house and lined the occupants up against the fireplace. The raiders were not aware, however, that a special Royal Ulster Constabulary guard had been assigned to the site ten days previously which, of course, subsequently led to concerns from the IRA of an informer in their midst. One of the RUC Constables, Ian Hay from Mountpottinger Barracks, upon hearing a disturbance made his way towards the gate lodge. William Hope recalled: “my married daughter opened the door, she screamed and ran back into the kitchen. Three men with masks over their faces and revolvers in their hands came after her… They lined us up against the fireplace… the leader of the gang asked one of the others if he had shut the door into the house.” Hay made his way into the house and a fire fight ensued during which Hay was hit five times. William Hope continued his description of the event: “The room was in uproar, the children screaming with fright and the bullets were flying about like hailstones. A bullet passed through the back of a chair in which one of my daughters was sitting. Another one chipped a piece out of the table, and one went within inches of my head.” The Belfast Evening Telegraph described the incident as a ‘Wild West Scene’ at Campbell College. In all there were eleven rounds fired in the house, and the walls, chairs and table bore the scars of a chaotic night.

Realising that it was necessary to abort the operation the would-be IRA raiders managed to flee the scene during the confusion, while Constable Hay awaited medical assistance. He was eventually taken to the Royal Victoria Hospital to have two bullets removed from him and his condition was initially described as grave. One bullet had struck him on the right leg, the other which struck his arm had passed into his body, grazed his lung, and lodged in his back. Hay did, however, make a recovery and was promoted to the rank of Sergeant for his trouble.

The gatekeeper and his family had suffered a frightening ordeal, but miraculously none of them were hit. Additional police officers were rushed to Campbell College to help deal with the situation, the majority of which had been enjoying a police dance function at the Plaza Ballroom near police headquarters. The RUC gave chase to the IRA unit as they made their escape towards the Belmont Road and they managed to apprehend one of the IRA gang, his name was Edward McCartney of Oranmore Street off the Springfield Road, he had made a costly wrong turn which led to his capture where was found to have had a loaded Smith and Wesson revolver in his pocket. McCartney, who was described as a breadserver, appeared in the police court the very next day where charges were put to him of illegal possession of a firearm and ammunition. When asked to respond he replied, “I refuse to recognize the court” at which point he was remanded in custody. McCartney clicked his heels, turned around, and marched from the dock between two policemen.

The rest of the IRA gang managed to escape, however the RUC conducted a series of house raids and several arrests quickly followed. One of those subsequently arrested was Bernard Rooney, an IRA Second Lieutenant from 71 Thompson Street, Short Strand. When Rooney appeared in the Police Court some new details emerged from a police witness Constable Hopper who claimed to have seen 10-12 IRA men approach Campbell College and break up into different directions. Hopper suggested that the IRA squad outside the gatelodge were also engaged in the firefight and had fired on Constable Hay before he reached the door of the property. Bernard Rooney contended that it was all lies and when asked if he had any questions replied, “It’s useless asking anything”. He too was remanded in custody and was due to appear in court with McCartney the following Friday. Those who are regular listeners to the podcast may have already noted that Bernard Rooney is the second ‘Rooney’ from the Short Strand area to be mentioned – in the episode on the riot between Belfast Celtic and Linfield we heard about how a Thomas Rooney was involved in the trouble that day. One wonders if they were part of the same family? It’s quite possible…

The City Commissioner of Police issued a statement in connection with the Campbell College incident: “At 8.30pm Constable Ian Hay heard a scream at the Hawthornden Road Gate Lodge of Campbell College. He ran to the door, opened it, and was immediately rushed by three or four armed men who fired at him and wounded him severely. He returned the fire. Other police in the vicinity heard the shooting, converged on the locality, and captured one man armed with a loaded revolver.”

The court hearing was put back on four occasions for a week at a time while the police gathered more evidence as, to date, not a shred had been produced against Bernard Rooney. Meanwhile, the IRA were gathering evidence of their own. They became nervous about what had unfolded on that December night at Campbell College and they questioned how and why the RUC could be on the scene that night. However, an internal IRA investigation aimed at locating an informer came to the conclusion that despite press reports to the contrary, rifles were still in situ at the Campbell College armory and that such reports were designed to sow the seeds of suspicion within their ranks.

Finally, on Friday 31st January the court heard detailed evidence against Rooney and McCartney, including from Constable Hay himself who had since been released from hospital. In doing so, Rooney was further charged with the attempted murder of Hay while McCartney was further charged with being in possession of IRA documents. Both men were committed to trial. On the basis of Hay’s evidence alone, Rooney was identified as one of the gunmen who had fired at him in the gate lodge.

In the meantime, two more men had been arrested and charged. They were John Monaghan of Colligan Street and Hugh Keenan from the Short Strand.

The trial of the four men eventually got underway on 20th February. After some initial concerns that there were no women on the jury the trial continued with an all-male panel. Rooney, Monaghan and Keenan all pled not-guilty, while Edward McCartney made his plea by saying, “As a soldier of the Irish Republican Army I refuse to recognize this British court”. To which Lord Justice Best replied, “Very well. For the purposes of this trial the court will recognize you”.

Addressing the jury for the defence it was said that in September 1931, when Rooney and Keenan were aged 16 and 18 respectively, their names found their way onto police records under suspicion of illegal drilling when 8 or 9 young men had been tackled in the Castlereagh Hills. The defence stated that, these zealous police officers immediately assumed rebellion, treason, and civil war, and as such the boys’ names were taken. Since then, the names Keenan and Rooney were in the black book, with the result that when anything untoward happened in the city their homes were visited by the police.

In the end, and to a chorus of some applause in the courtroom which was much to the displeasure of the judge, Rooney, Keenan and Monaghan were found not guilty. The fourth prisoner, Edward McCartney, who had been captured at the scene with a loaded revolver, was found guilty of the attempted murder of a police officer. Lord Justice Best told him: “That you were guilty I have not the slightest doubt. Personally, I think you must have tried to fire shots, because when you were arrested, a full-loaded revolver was found in your possession. One of the cartridges bore the mark of the hammer, which shows that an attempt had been made to fire it, but fortunately for you and for someone else the revolver jammed and the cartridge was unexploded”. In the course of his summing up, Lord Justice Best said that McCartney had come into the court with his posture about being a soldier of the Irish Republic. “A soldier is an honorable term”, said Best, “and it is not a term to be applied, nor should it be applied to assassins or would-be assassins.” McCartney was sentenced to ten years penal servitude, narrowly escaping corporal punishment on top of it.

Following the trial, the IRA Belfast commandant Anthony Lavery was suspended pending a court-martial at which he was to be tried for permitting Bernard Rooney to be defended in an enemy court and also of gross indiscipline in his failure to carry out the order of the IRA Army Council. It was during this court-martial on Saturday 25th April 1936 at a social club at 10 Crown Entry in the centre of Belfast, that the RUC raided the premises and discovered the IRA court-martial in full progress, complete with prosecutor, accused, witnesses and a large quantity of documents. All thirteen in attendance were arrested including many prominent IRA leaders from Dublin, Donegal, Londonderry, Armagh and Belfast, and they were quickly taken into custody. They were charged with treason and felony, to deprive the King of his title and levying war on the King. None of the thirteen were professionally represented in court.

The treason felony trial, as it was known, took place on 22nd July 1936 before the Lord Chief Justice. The accused never spoke once, refusing to recognize the court. Subsequently, all thirteen were found guilty and received a total of 47 years imprisonment, which no doubt was a major blow to the IRA and their operations in the 1930s.

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