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The re-interment of Peter Barnes and James McCormick

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» Mícheál Mac Donncha

“The noble idealism of Pearse, the social and economic philosophy and aims of Connolly, and the fighting and courageous heart of Cathal Brugha.” – Jimmy Steele

IRISH republicans Peter Barnes and James McCormick were hanged in Winson Green Prison in Birmingham on 7 February 1940. They were buried in the prison ground and plain crosses with only their initials marked the graves. It took nearly 30 years before relatives were allowed to reclaim their bodies.

Peter Barnes was born in Banagher, County Offaly, in 1907. At the age of 14 he joined Fianna Éireann and, three years later, the IRA. He was one of the first to volunteer for active service in England during the campaign of 1939 and was appointed Transport Officer, operating between Glasgow, Liverpool and London.
James McCormick was born in Mullingar, County Westmeath, in 1910. He joined the IRA in Tullamore. In early 1939, he volunteered for active service in England. He served for some time as Operations Officer in London and Birmingham before being posted to Coventry in May 1939. By August 1939, he was appointed O/C of Coventry.
On 25 August 1939, a bomb exploded outside a shop at the Broadgate Centre in Coventry, killing five people. The bomb was concealed in the carrier of a bicycle and prematurely exploded. It is believed it was intended for an electricity generating station outside the town. Neither Barnes nor McCormick was responsible for placing the bomb.
Within hours of the explosion, Peter Barnes, who was in London on the day of the explosion, was arrested at 176 Westbourne Terrace, where he was lodging. Three days later, McCormick (alias James Richards) was detained along with the other tenants of 25 Clara Street.

The trial commenced in December 1939. Peter Barnes and James McCormick were convicted and sentenced to death by hanging. Throughout the court case, McCormick remained silent until he told the court: “As a soldier of the Irish Republican Army, I am not afraid to die, for I am dying in a just cause.”
Barnes addressed the court, stating:
“I would like to say as I am going before my God, as I am condemned to death, I am innocent, and later I am sure it will all come out that I had neither hand, act or part in it. That is all I have to say.”
On the night before his execution, Peter Barnes wrote to his brother, protesting his innocence:
“If some news does not come in the next few hours all is over. The priest is not long gone out, so I am reconciled to what God knows best. There will be a Mass said for us in the morning before we go to our death. Thank God I have nothing to be afraid of. I am an innocent man and, as I have said before, it will be known yet that I am.”
On the same night, James McCormick wrote a letter to his sister, both his parents being deceased:
“This is my farewell letter, as I have been just told I have to die in the morning. As I know I am dying for a just cause, I shall walk out tomorrow smiling, as I shall be thinking of God and of the good men who went before me for the same cause.”
In Winson Green Prison, at 8:50am on 7 February 1940, Barnes and McCormick received a final blessing. Minutes later they walked together to the scaffold and were hanged by four executioners. Widespread protests by Irish people at home and abroad and pleas for clemency were ignored by the British Government. Public mourning was widely observed in Ireland on the day of the executions.

As early as 1949, a committee was formed in London to press for the return of the bodies. This was finally fulfilled in 1969. The bodies were removed from the prison yard and flown to Dublin. On arrival at Dublin Airport they were met by family members and an IRA guard of honour.
The re-interment in Mullingar was attended by an estimated 15,000 people. Mass was said in Irish in the Cathedral before the funeral to Ballyglass Cemetery. Among those attending were three brothers of Peter Barnes and a sister and brother of McCormick.
The funeral was also notable for the graveside oration by veteran Belfast republican Jimmy Steele. He denounced the political direction of the IRA leadership in remarks that were a prelude to the split in the IRA and Sinn Féin later that year. That speech has often been referred to in passing in histories of the Republican Movement but until recently a transcript or even substantial quotations were not available because what became the leadership of the ‘Official’ Republican Movement controlled the ‘United Irishman’ newspaper which did not report the speech. ‘An Phoblacht’, the ‘Provisional’ Movement paper, was not founded until 1970, so here we carry extracts from Steele’s speech for the first time. It is notable that the speech does not conform to the false stereotype propagated by some that the Provisionals were right-wing and anti-socialist.

Jimmy Steele Oration

Referring to those claiming to be socialists who claimed Partition was unimportant, Steele said:

“Of course the British socialists adopted the very same attitude to James Connolly, before 1916, when they told him that Irish freedom was not a cause with which he, as a worker, should concern himself. To which Connolly replied that Irish independence must be won before Irish workers could be masters in their own land. And that without political independence, the way to social and economic progress would never be clear. And away back in 1914 when Redmond and Devlin had agreed to partition, Connolly wrote that to it, Labour should give the bitterest opposition. Against it, Labour and Ulster should fight, even to the death if necessary, as our fathers fought before us. And just a few hours before his death he said to his daughter, Nora, ‘The socialists will never understand why I am here. They all forget that I am an Irishman.’ Others too, wearing the tag republican by advocating attendance at Stormont and Leinster House have come to accept the two-state situation, thus helping to perpetuate partition.

“Barnes and McCormick did not accept this position. They acted as Connolly would have acted and fought to the death against it. That was why they died. There are those who would decry their sacrifice and speak of the futility of martyrdom and cynically refer to glorious sacrifices. I will let Connolly answer those people as he answered the judges at his own court martial, ‘Believing that the British government has no right in Ireland, never had any right in Ireland and never can have any right in Ireland, the presence in every one generation of Irishmen of even a respectable minority read to die to affirm that truth, makes that government forever a usurpation and a crime against human progress.’

“Yes, my friends, just as Emmet and the Manchester Martyrs and Kevin Barry died, so did Barnes and McCormick, in the same cause, in the same way and by the order of the same hangman, the hangman of the western world, England.

“I’m sorry to say there has been a strange, if not deliberate silence, among republicans about that period when Barnes and McCormick were active. A period known as the Forties. Let there be no glossing over what is, in reality, a glorious page in Ireland’s struggle for freedom. For these republican soldiers kept the idea of a separatist Ireland to the forefront against tremendous odds. Fighting anti-Republican and enemy forces on three fronts, on English soil and in the six and twenty-six counties. These men were not concerned with a man’s creed, whether he was Protestant, Catholic or Dissenter. They knew of only two classes of people in Ireland. Those who wished to maintain the British connection, and those who were determined to break that connection. Those who gave their allegiance to the invader, England, and those who gave their undivided allegiance to the free republican nation proclaimed in........

© An Phoblacht