50 Years Ago

BODENSTOWN, PRISONERS AND THE BERLIN AIRLIFT

BODENSTOWN Sunday in 1948 was on June 20, the exact date of Wolfe Tone’s birthday. The crowd in the assembly field along side the Dublin-Corkrailway line at Sallins was large and cheerful. There was a feeling in the air that the Republican Movement had survived the dark years of the 1940s – but at great cost in suffering and sacrifice.

BODENSTOWN Sunday in 1948 was on June 20, the exact date of Wolfe Tone’s birthday. The crowd in the assembly field along side the Dublin-Corkrailway line at Sallins was large and cheerful. There was a feeling in the air that the Republican Movement had survived the dark years of the 1940s – but at great cost in suffering and sacrifice.

Tomás Mac Curtáin of Cork, just three months out of the hell-hole that was Portlaoise prison in the ‘40s, delivered the oration at Wolfe Tone’s graveside. The Movement was on the march once more and reorganisation was picking up throughout the country.

On the international scene within a week of Bodenstown, tensions grew which appeared to foreshadow a Third World War. The event known as the Berlin Airlift began.

In the years following the end of WWII in 1945 Berlin had gradually become two separate cities. |To the east was the Soviet(administered) zone of about 1,000,000 people. The western zone was administered jointly by the US, Britain and France and comprised 2,000,000 citizens.

Friction between the Western Powers and the USSR led the Soviets to leave the Kommandatura – the four-power military administration – in June 1948.

A few days later the Berlin blockade began with the imposition by the Soviet authorities of a complete traffic ban on the roads, railways and waterways leading from West Germany.

Berlin was situated in the heart of the Soviet-occupied zone of East Germany and the object was to force the economic integration of West Berlin with the East. Food, fuel and raw materials were prevented from reaching the enclave.

BERLIN AIRLIFT

The Western response was the Berlin Airlift. For eleven months all supplies for the two million people of West Berlin were flown in from West Germany.

Planes left Frankfurt-am-Main in the US zone every three minutes for the 87-minute flight to Tempelhof airport in West Berlin. Coal and food were unloaded in twenty minutes and the cargo plane returned to Frankfurt, sometimes to be “buzzed” en route by Russian fighters.

Eventually the Soviets gave up on May 12, 1949 and press correspondents who had been writing articles by candlelight in West Berlin reported an end to the big post-war story.

The political implications were that a German State including West Berlin could be declared in the West while East Germany remained for a long time (40 years) in the Soviet sphere of influence.

On May 23, 1949 the Basic Law (Constitution) of the new Federal Republic of Germany was promulgated, having been adopted by the parliamentary Council on May 8 and ratified by more than two-thirds of the participating constituent states in the week May 16 to 22.

The Preamble to this Basic Law stated that the German People enacted the new constitution and “have also acted on behalf of those Germans to whom participation was denied”, ie those in east Germany.

It concluded, “The entire German people are called upon to achieve in free self-determination the unity and freedom of Germany”. There was no mention of peaceful means only or of the consent of a majority in East Germany.

West Germany was twice as large as East Germany and contained about four times as many people. In the 1970s the West comprised 60 million and the East 16 million.

Irish people will be interested to know that the Basic Law of the Federal Republic of Germany contained from the outset in 1949 and up to re-unification 41 years later a most interesting Article 23. This article claimed a national territory unlike the greater partitioned area of Ireland in 1998.

It reads: “Article 23 (Jurisdiction of the Basic Law) – For the time being, this Basic Law shall apply in the territory of the Laender (provinces or states) of Baden, Bavaria, Bremen, Greater Berlin, Hamburg, Hesse, Lower Saxony, North Rhine-Westphalia, Rhineland-Palatinate, Schleswig, Holstein, Wuerttemberg-Baden and Wuerttemberg-Hohenzollern. In other parts of Germany it shall be put into force on their accession.”

It is important to note that the Basic Law now applies to all of Germany since about 1990. At no time did the Basic Law recognise the Soviet-controlled East German State called the German Democratic Republic.

This was the self-respecting way in which another people dealt with partition and foreign occupation for much of the second half of the twentieth century.

Back home in Ireland in June 1948 there were still more than 20 republican prisoners in A-Wing of Crumlin Road Jail, Belfast. They were serving sentences ranging from ten years to 21 years and five of them had 12 strokes of the Cat inflicted on them.

In England more than a dozen Irish Republicans were behind bars in Parkhurst Prison on the Isle of Wight. Sentences ranged from ten years in the case of Leo Duignan of Leitrim to 20 years for three Cork men, a Cavan man and one from Liverpool.

The crowds listening to the bearded giant Mac Curtáin at Bodenstown fifty years ago were not unmindful of the plight of these Republicans as their ordeal continued. Also in their minds was the situation of a lone Republican still held in Mountjoy Prison, Dublin.

SOLE OCCUPANT

He was the sole occupant of D-Wing where political prisoners were usually confined and his name was Pat Shannon of Moylough near Mountbellew, Co Galway.

It will be remembered that when Harry White arrived in the condemned cell in D-Wing in December 1946 Pat, “the only other Republican in the jail, hammered his door until they relaxed the rules and let him in to see me. He is dead now but I shall always remember him.” (Harry 1985).

The prison warders developed a relationship with Pat Shannon on his lonely vigil. They would make tea after lock-up in the evenings and bring some down to him in D-Wing. To avoid opening up the cell door (the keys were held overnight in a locked safe), they used to pour the tea through the old-fashioned spyhole into Pat’s mug, the spout of the teapot reaching through the opening sufficiently to deliver the beverage.

Following his release from the Curragh Concentration Camp in May 1945 Pat was pestered on the streets by a Special Branch man. Always a man with a “short fuse”, Pat eventually took individual action without any authorisation from the Army.

He procured an ancient revolver and fired shots at the Harrier without wounding him. No one was hurt but Pat was sentenced to five years and was not released in the amnesty of March 1948.

He spent over three years on his own in Mountjoy until the end of that year. It is not clear why he was not included in the amnesty. Was it because the action he was sentenced for was unofficial?

Born in 1899 Pat had an interesting career. He joined Fianna Éireann in 1913 and met Liam Mellows, Pádraic Ó O Máille of Connemara (later Cumann na nGael, Frank Fahey (South Galway and later Fianna Fiál), James Haverty of Mountbellew and the other local activists of the time.

Jailed in Galway in 1919, in Limerick in 1920 and interned in Tuam in 1922-23, Pat remained with the Republican Movement. He refused a military pension from Fianna Fiál in the 1930s. “I was always a physical force man; I see no way to free Ireland only by fighting for her,” he said.

The youthful Seán Kenny of Gurteen, Ballymacward in East Galway – later a life-long Republican activist – overheard Pat making a scene at a fair in Mountbellew and realised for the first time that there was a third element in political life in the 26 Counties.

The Blueshirts and Fianna Fáil were not just the only components and Fianna Fáil was not the continuation of the Republicans in the Civil War as they claimed.

In later life Pat Shannon drew up many typewritten documents which he used to distribute at Bodenstown and other commemorations. These told the story of his life in the Movement and the events that unfolded around him.

He was a familiar figure on these occasions, low-sized, florid of face, wearing a black beret and rain-gear and always having in his lapel a red-and-green (Mayo colours) circular metal badge issued at the erection of the memorial over the graves of hunger-striker Seán Mac Neela at Ballycroy, Co Mayo in 1952.

Pat “swore by Seán Russell” and when the IRA Chief-of-Staff came to Galway in 1938 looking for volunteers for the English campaign pat offered his services. He was trained in Killiney Castle and Silver Springs, Delgany under Micksie Conway and Joe Bray. Following some weeks there Paddy McGrath took the trainees to the Dublin mountains to set off explosions.

Pat was sent to Liverpool and was active until his arrest and detention in Walton Jail for ten days after which he was deported to Ireland. “I never got placing any explosives or incendiaries anywhere,” he complained in his broadsheet.

He was one of the first interned in February 1940 and his comrades remember that when fired on during the protest burning of huts in the Camp in December of that year he jeered at the Free State forces: “You are only firing blanks”. Soon afterwards Máirtín Standún was grazed on the temple by a bullet and others were more grievously wounded. Barney Casey was killed.

In his scripts Pat tells how the English police tried to get a return railway ticket out of his mouth before he swallowed it. “They pulled me into the room, whipped the key from the door and tried to open my mouth with it.”

ARREST AND DETENTION

“ ‘Are you willing to poison yourself rather than give the game away?’ they asked. “But I got the fecking thing down; it was cardboard.”

“ ‘Are you willing to poison yourself rather than give the game away?’ they asked. “But I got the fecking thing down; it was cardboard.”

Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam cróga, dílis.

(More next month. Refs. Harry by Harry White and An tÉireannach Aontaithe, Oct-Nov, 1948.)
Contents

Starry Plough


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