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Captain Joseph Thompson: A Belfast Man Executed In The Rebel County

Updated: Nov 21, 2020

This weekend marks the centenary of Dublin’s ‘Bloody Sunday’ or as the British referred to it as ‘Black Sunday’ during the Anglo-Irish War. The day began when 15 men were shot dead, many of them intelligence agents who were systematically targeted for their effectiveness at disrupting the IRA’s war. Given the pattern of the conflict it was highly likely that a reprisal would follow. As it transpired, one did arrive in brutal fashion at Croke Park during a Dublin versus Tipperary GAA football game. Security forces turned up at the ground and engaged the crowd (and some players) with gunfire resulting in the deaths of 14 civilians. By the end of the day 32 people had been killed in Dublin in what has become one of the most notorious episodes in Irish history. The events of ‘Bloody Sunday’ are well documented if less well agreed upon, and they will no doubt receive substantial coverage in the coming days. However, I want to use the centenary to share the story of another event from that day, one that has been understandably overshadowed by the events in Dublin.

To the sound of church bells at 9am on Sunday morning of 21st November 1920, as the IRA’s ‘Bloody Sunday’ hit squads moved towards their 15 victims, a desperate search for an East Belfast military man was underway in a remote area of County Cork.

Born in Middletown County Armagh, Captain Joseph Thompson was the son of Mr Joseph Thompson who lived at ‘Ardnagrena’, Knock Road in East Belfast. Captain Thompson had served as a commissioned officer in the First World War with the Manchester Regiment and, despite being hospitalised with wounds in 1917, he survived the war.

Thompson had been a student at Queen’s University Belfast before he took up teaching as a profession. Then, for three years, he was a senior science master at Methodist College before moving to Winchester where he took up a similar role. When the First World War broke out in August 1914, he immediately volunteered and subsequently received a commission in the Manchester Regiment. During the war he served for a year in Salonika from November 1915 before being posted to France with his battalion in May 1917 where he served out the remainder of the war. His time in France saw him promoted to temporary Major but also twice wounded, including on one occasion which was reported by the Belfast News Letter in November 1917. Joseph's younger brother Ernest had also served in the war, though he did so with the 14th Royal Irish Rifles in the 36th (Ulster) Division. Both Ernest and Joseph Thompson are commemorated today on a memorial at Newtownbreda Presbyterian Church for their war service.

In the months that followed the Great War, those which led to partition in Ireland, the political situation had descended into a guerrilla-style IRA campaign in the south (as well as in areas of Ulster) and a sectarian firefight in the north, particularly in Belfast but also in Londonderry. Captain Thompson had chosen to remain in the military as a career and, as such, was transferred to the Regular Army. His battalion returned to England and were stationed in Aldershot until March 1920 when they were redeployed to the south of Ireland. The 1st Battalion Manchester Regiment were stationed in Kilworth Camp near Fermoy before moving to Ballincollig County Cork in July 1920 where the IRA’s violence was, at times, particularly intense. The battalion’s role at Ballincollig was to guard an ordnance store which had been receiving some undesirable attention from the IRA in the area. The IRA had been engaged in ambushes and raids on security forces up and the down the country in their quest for weaponry to fuel the armed campaign against the British.

The IRA brigades in the ‘Rebel County’ were, in many ways, the cutting edge of the entire military campaign. It is no surprise then that from 1919-1921 County Cork was the most violent county in Ireland. And incidentally, Belfast was the most violent city.

During the autumn of 1920, security forces attempted to curtail increased IRA violence in Cork city by raiding homes, setting up pedestrian and vehicle checkpoints, and conducting door to door searches within cordoned areas. To try and discourage support for the IRA they also engaged in reprisals intended to damage the local economy. Such attacks escalated in the latter part of November 1920.

Then, on Saturday 20th November 1920, Captain Joseph Thompson, who was the battalion’s Acting Intelligence Officer at this time, left the military barracks in Ballincollig on his military-issue motorcycle apparently to visit a house in the Macroom area. Later that evening it was noted that Thompson had not returned to the barracks at Ballincollig, though due to his role as Intelligence Officer it did not cause much alarm. The next morning, Sunday 21st November, Thompson had still not returned and a search party was sent out to the house at Macroom, however it quickly transpired that Thompson had never been there. This was now a cause for concern for the army, even more so when they received information that on the evening of 20th November a boy who had been returning from Cork to Ballincollig was warned not to proceed along the road as an officer had been kidnapped in the vicinity. Another search party was quickly despatched but without any success, except, that is, for the acquisition of information suggesting that a cart had been used to block the road and facilitate the kidnapping. The owner of the cart was subsequently arrested but he insisted that he knew nothing of the incident.

Then, on Monday 22nd November the dead body of an officer was found lying in a turnip field near Bishopstown. It was identified as Captain Joseph Thompson, who had been murdered.

On his journey, Thompson had ridden into an IRA ambush where he was captured and executed at Model Farm Road between Ballincollig and Cork City. Two Auxiliary Intelligence Officers had gone missing in the same area two weeks previously and this may have been the reason why Thompson was in this location. News reports suggesting that he had been ‘riddled’ with bullets and that the IRA had ‘poured’ bullets into his body were misleading and actually missed the point of what had taken place that evening. Thompson had been blindfolded and shot twice in the head at close range. This was an execution, but why?

It seems that Thompson had become something of a hate figure among members of the 3rd Battalion Cork No. 1 Brigade. According to the Bureau of Military History Witness Statement of Timothy Herlihy and seven other members of this IRA unit, Thompson ‘used to go into shops and houses in Ballincollig village, brandishing a revolver and saying that if anything happened to him, the village would go up, but he was caught at Carrigrohane on his motorbike and shot dead, his arms and bike being taken. Captain Thompson was shot dead by Leo Murphy and two other Volunteers on the Model Farm Road. [He] had previously raided Leo Murphy’s mother’s house. He was drunk at the time and boasted that he was out to get all IRA leaders as he had got the leaders in Egypt. He treated Rose Murphy very roughly and this helped to cause her early death. When captured, he tried to save himself by informing his captors that a ceasefire was coming and that Ireland was getting Dominion Home Rule. He said he had this from Dublin Castle. This special pleading didn’t work, however, and he was shot out of hand’. Indeed, the Cork IRA were particularly audacious when it came to targeting the security forces. Quoting historian John Borgonovo: ‘In 1920 and 1921 Cork Volunteers riddled Major General Strickland’s automobile with bullets, shot dead Brigadier General Cumming during a convoy ambush, kidnapped Brigadier General Lucas while he fished, assassinated RIC Divisional Commander Smyth as he sipped brandy in the Cork Country Club and killed his successor Divisional Commander Holmes in another roadside ambush’.

Thompson’s funeral took place on 26th November 1920. It began with a service in the family home at Ardnagrena, Knock Road which was conducted by the Rev Dr MacDermott of Belmont Presbyterian Church. MacDermott himself had lost a son during the Great War. Following the service, in which MacDermott offered his sympathies to the bereaved family, the military cortege made its way to Belfast City Cemetery on the Falls Road led by bands from the Norfolk Regiment and the Royal Irish Constabulary. As it proceeded along the Newtownards Road, staff from the Belfast Ropeworks at Connswater were given permission to take a break from their work in order that they could witness the procession and pay their respects. In Belfast City Centre, prominent buildings including Belfast City Hall dipped the Union Flag to half-mast while clusters of sympathisers lined the city streets. Among the mourners at the graveside were the Lord Mayor of Belfast William Frederick Coates, along with representatives of the RIC and the Ulster Unionist Council. At the close of the service a firing party discharged three volleys of shots over the grave followed by the sounding of ‘The Last Post’ by military buglers. On their return journey from the City Cemetery it was reported that the army became involved in a disturbance with local youths on the Falls Road. The Belfast News Letter suggested that insults and stones were exchanged as well as some reports of revolver fire.

Following the killing of Captain Thompson there were successive nights of violence in Cork from 23rd November (the day after Thompson’s body was found) until 2nd December, when alleged members of the security forces set fire to 7 Sinn Fein meeting halls and 13 other premises in the city of Cork. The arson campaign culminated in the infamous ‘burning of Cork’ on 11th December 1920. Thompson’s story does not end there though, as the IRA’s Leo Murphy was later killed on 27th June 1921 during a military raid at a pub in Waterfall after being accurately identified as having played a leading role in the capture and execution of Captain Thompson. The Manchester Regiment, it would seem, eventually got their revenge.

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