Recently I completed a DNA ancestry test which came back 88% Irish, a bigger percentage than I thought but not a surprise as in 2008 I had already researched my family tree using census’, birth, marriage, death records, and visiting the country a few times searching the family and local history archive. My Irish family came to Tyneside in the North East of England in the late 1880’s, and settled here – a long way from Galway and Derry.
Amongst old certificates, photo’s and letters, my Grandfather wrote down his memories describing where he used to live and play as a kid in Jarrow at the time of the First World War. He also talked about his mother and that the family were members of Sinn Fein and the IRA.
‘My mother’s family originated in Galway in the west of Ireland. She came from a big family, her brothers, uncles and cousins were all fishermen. I remember my mother as being a very hard working woman. She worked as a Stoker in the chemical works over the bridge in East Jarrow. She worked there all through the 1914-18 war.
She was a very kind woman, strict but fair, and was very religious. The family were also involved with the IRA and Sinn Fein’.
These last remarks were very interesting because when researching my family history I came across Donmouth, a North East local history website by Patrick Brennan (link at the bottom of the page). In one of the sections he covers the IRA in Jarrow which I have condensed here.
After being cruelly treated by England over the centuries – for example the Great Famine 1845-50 – Irish people were looking to create an Independent Irish Republic.
Politically there was a massive growth in support for Sinn Fein who established a new assembly in Dublin and on the first day proposed a Declaration of Independence. The British Government wouldn’t support this and Sinn Fein would settle for nothing less. Battle lines had been drawn.
A Volunteer force, known as ‘Black and Tans’ landed in Dublin. The IRA operated a guerrilla campaign attacking small groups of Black and Tans and murdering informers. Reprisals on an innocent Irish population, involved out of control Tans on an orgy of looting and arson.
(If you are interested in this time of history why not check out the 2006 film ‘The Wind That Shakes the Barley’ by Ken Loach, or ‘Michael Collins’ starring Liam Neeson released in 1996).
By 1919 the Irish Self Determination League (ISDL) was formed, the purpose was to raise funds for Sinn Fein but some members decided to take direct action. Mainland Britain had its first arson attack in Liverpool Docks, days later, a large explosion and fire near London Bridge.
On Tyneside, many men and women of Irish birth gave support to the Irish republican cause through membership of the ISDL or Irish Volunteers – better known as the IRA.
Since the 1880’s Jarrow had an active political organisation in the Irish National League, and held an important role in the ISDL. They held political meetings, fund raisers and ceilidhs in Lockharts Cocoa Rooms and the Co Op Guild Hall in Jarrow.
More direct action was called for resulting in more volunteers being recruited and by the end of 1920 six companies with a total of 160 men had been established:
A Company – Jarrow. B Company – Hebburn. C Company – Newcastle.
D Company – Wallsend. E Company – Bedlington. F – Company – Consett.
Within a few month a further four companies were set up: Stockton, Chester-le-Street, Thornley and Sunderland bringing the total to 480 men.
Arms, guns and explosives were either stolen from Army Drill Halls or obtained from foreign sailors. In Jarrow, babies prams were used as cover to transport weapons to and from an arms dump in St Pauls Road in East Jarrow.
March 1921 saw the first incendiary attack at a Newcastle warehouse and oil refinery, plus a timber yard at Tyne Dock. Largely unsuccessful, the second attack was more ambitious, 38 fires at 20 different farms were co-ordinated to be lit at 8pm throughout Durham and Northumberland. This demonstrated the extent of the I.R.A throughout the region. (Reports from the Evening Chronicle 1921).
A number of operations were planned and executed around Tyneside. Farm fires and attacks on oil works in Kenton, Wallsend, South Shields, and an aircraft shed in Gosforth was destroyed.
Also the daring attack in Jarrow – a gas main blown up on the old Don Bridge. This story was featured in my documentary ‘Little Ireland’ (link at the bottom of the page).
Report from the Evening Chronicle 23rd May 1921.
THE SINN FEIN OUTRAGES: GAS MAIN BLOWN UP
At 11.15pm on Saturday night there was a heavy explosion at the west end of the town, and it was discovered that a hole 18 inches by 18 had been made in the lower of two gas mains carried across the Don bridge at East Jarrow. The gas company’s workmen were soon on the spot, and the main was temporarily repaired.
‘They were just trying to make a point, that’s all they were trying to do. Not harm anybody, just trying to make a point that they wanted home rule for Ireland’.
(Con Sheils speaking in the film ‘Little Ireland’ 2009).
The IRA on Tyneside were severely damaged when two of their top men were arrested in connection with the theft of explosives from a colliery in Blyth on the Northumberland coast. They were sentenced to prison but released in 1922 as part of Truce arrangements made a year earlier.
But more trouble was on the horizon with pit strikes, extreme poverty and mass unemployment meant the Irish had another fight on their hands – by 1936 Jarrow was about to march onto London.
For further information:
Gary Alikivi May 2020