When the IRA wreaked havoc in Jarrow - and bombed its historic bridge
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But that wasn’t the case when the Irish War of Independence was in full swing a century ago – and Jarrow was a hub of IRA activity.
It was, to put it very simplistically, a guerrilla war between the IRA and British forces over British rule on the island of Ireland, leading to the Partition of Ireland and the Creation of the Irish Free State.
The vicious struggle claimed the lives of 2,000 people, but when the war came to mainland Britain the targets were economic, but it was still a scary few months on South Tyneside.
Bridge on the River Don
Jarrow Bridge was built over the River Don in the 1800s. It’s a beautiful piece of work by skilled stonemasons of the day.
To its north is the historic St Paul’s Church and Monastery and Charlie’s Park. To its south is … a fence.
The bridge today serves no practical purpose, its historical and architectural importance notwithstanding. It doesn’t take you anywhere. But in 1921 it was considered important enough for the IRA to plant a bomb there.
The Irish Self-Determination League of Great Britain (ISDL) was established in 1919, linked to the IRA and with much of its support in the North East. By then Jarrow was a well-established hub of Irish politics, going back to the previous century.
On August 8, 1920 a demonstration was held in Durham City, presided over by Jarrow councillor Terry O’Connor, a magistrate and future Mayor of the town. Thousands of ISDL members attended, marching behind the Hebburn Brass Band. But matters would become more sinister in 1921.
By the end of 1920, six companies of the ISDL had been formed in the North East. Jarrow had ‘A’ Company, Hebburn ‘B’ Company, with others dotted around the region. Their targets were economic.
Bombing begins in the North East
The first action took place on Saturday, March 5. Incendiary attacks were made upon a South Shields timber yard and a Newcastle oil refinery.
The attacks were unsuccessful and Jarrow suspect Michael Mackin escaped from the scene. But it was almost a training exercise for more damaging actions.
On Saturday, March 26, 38 arson attacks were started at 20 different sites around the North East; all at 8pm. They included farms in South Shields, the Boldons and Hedworth. There was a miners’ strike at the time and some of the farms belonged to mining companies.
Seven men, aged between 22 and 31 and all from Jarrow, were arrested. Only two were convicted. Patrick Coyne and Michael Wynn were each sentenced to 21 months hard labour.
But the most audacious attack took place on Saturday, May 21 and Jarrow was once again at the centre of events.
More fires were started, two of which were at stackyards in Monkton. Both were destroyed. An unsuccessful attempt was made to burn down the Empire Picture Hall in Jarrow.
Two men were arrested after setting timber alight at a Wallsend boatyard. One of them was a 25 year-old teacher, James Conroy of Dee Street in Jarrow, who was subsequently jailed.
But most worrying was the attack at Jarrow Bridge, where John Ward and Martin Flaherty of Jarrow ISDL’s ‘A’ Company planted an explosive device.
The target was not so much the bridge itself, but the gas mains which crossed it. A hole measuring 18 inches in diameter was made. But it wasn’t as bad as it might have been, and the damage was soon repaired by men from the gas company.
The campaign winds down
The Anglo-Irish Treaty was ratified by the British parliament on December 16; and by the Irish parliament 22 days later. IRA activity in and around South Tynside was consequently ended.
Sadly the treaty precipitated the Irish Civil War, basically between those who either agreed or disagreed with it, which lasted almost a year.
The IRA campaign on the North East was more to make a point than anything else. It had propaganda value, without threatening human life. The coal companies whose farms they attacked were not popular with locals who didn’t much sympathise with the owners.
The protagonists were not reviled on the British mainland in the way that Provisional IRA members would be from 1969 onwards.
James Conroy, the Jarrow school teacher, was given seven years but was released in February 1922 as part of the treaty and given a hero’s welcome by Councillor O’Connor who toasted “Our heroes of the IRA on Tyneside”. This raised eyebrows, but was less controversial to the ears of a century ago.
Many of those involved went on to lead perfectly respectable lives. Michael Mackin later ran boys’ clubs in St Bede’s and later St Matthew’s parishes. Another ringleader, Liam Ferris, eventually became manager of the Newcastle Ambulance Service before retiring in 1965.
Both men were decorated by the Irish Government and received pensions in respect of their service.
Cissie Brennan, head of the Jarrow branch of Cumann na mBan or “the Women’s Council”, an Irish republican women’s paramilitary group (women weren’t allowed in the IRA), later became headteacher at a Jarrow infant school.
The events surrounding Jarrow and the IRA in the early 1920s seems almost quaint compared with the atrocities carried out later in the 20th century.
However, it certainly won’t have seemed quaint at the time and it must have been quite a terrifying time in Jarrow. We also have to wonder how matters might have escalated were it not for the Anglo-Irish Treaty.
The IRA was not heard of again in the North East until 1990s. Fire bombs were found in the MetroCentre in 1992. In 1993, two bombs were set off at an Esso terminal in North Shields, and there was another explosion at a gas storage tank in Gateshead.