Updated: Oct 7, 2019
While preparing for a recent tour of Campbell College I came across a fascinating story of an IRA raid on the armory of the Campbell College Officer Training Corps on Friday 27 December 1935.
The idea for a raid came from the IRA’s GHQ in Dublin where Moss Twomey was the Chief of Staff and distinguished republicans such as Sean McBride and Tom Barry were active. The plan was to seize the 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 the 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.
The IRA unit, led by Jimmy Steele, travelled by tram to the Belmont Road from High Street before proceeding on foot along Hawthornden Road. They approached the gate lodge and knocked on the door at around 8.30pm. Inside was William Hope, his wife, his daughter, and two grandchildren who 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 cultural nationalist Francis Joseph Biggar (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 Jemmy Hope.
The raid did not go to plan. A special RUC guard had been assigned to the site (which subsequently led to concerns of an IRA informant), one of the 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 the six of us up against the fireplace… the leader of the gang asked one of the others if he had shut the door into the house.” While moving towards the scene Hay was fired upon by a second IRA unit who were positioned at the college gates, he was wounded on the arm. Constable Hay continued to run towards the gate lodge and in doing so ran straight into the three IRA raiders that were inside. Both parties opened fire and Hay was wounded a further four times. Hope continued: “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 Belfast’s Campbell College.
The would-be IRA raiders fled the scene while Constable Hay awaited medical assistance. The gatekeeper and his family had a terrible ordeal while the shooting ensued, but luckily none of them were hit. The RUC gave chase to the IRA unit as they made their escape towards the Belmont Road. They managed to apprehend Edward McCartney of Oranmore Street, Springfield Road, he had made a costly wrong turn. McCartney was found to have had a loaded Smith and Wesson revolver in his pocket. The rest of the IRA gang managed to escape although the RUC began raids almost immediately and several arrests quickly followed. One of those subsequently arrested was Bernard Rooney, an IRA Second Lieutenant from Thompson Street, East Belfast. Rooney had previously been arrested for participation in suspected IRA drilling in the Castlereagh Hills.
The IRA became nervous about what had unfolded on that December night at Campbell College. They questioned how and why the RUC could be on the scene that night. However, an internal IRA investigation aimed at locating an informant proved inconclusive.
Bernard Rooney along with three others were acquitted in court after taking the unusual step for republicans of permitting a defence. Edward McCartney was found guilty as originally charged after refusing to recognise the court. 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.” McCartney was given 10 years for the attempted murder of a police officer.
Following the trial the IRA convened a court-martial in which Anthony Lavery (Belfast O/C) was to be tried for disregarding an IRA order by allowing three of the four detainees to recognise the court. It was during this court-martial in April 1936 in the centre of Belfast that the RUC raided the premises in Crown Entry and arrested thirteen men including the raid leader Jimmy Steele, the entire Belfast battalion Staff and most of its Northern leaders. Steele was sentenced to five years penal servitude in Crumlin Road Gaol. In 1943 Steele and three others escaped from the roof of the jail and left via the main gate, within 15mins they were in prearranged safe house. While he was on-the-run Jimmy Steele organised and assisted in the escape of 22 IRA prisoners from Derry Jail.