The Republican Movement in St Helens (1919-1922)

The files of three individuals released last year by the Military Service Pensions Collection offer a glimpse into the activity of Cumann na mBan and the Irish Republican Army (IRA) in the town of St Helens in Merseyside, north-west England.

The town, which was a significant centre for coal mining in the 18th and 19th centuries, is situated 15 miles north of Liverpool and 26 miles south of Manchester.

These kinds of accounts show that the IRA had members and supporters in towns across Britain and not just in the cities of Birmingham, Glasgow, Liverpool, London, Manchester and Salford which had large Irish immigrant populations.

Charles McDonagh (MSP34REF4911) was originally from Ballaghadarreen, County Roscommon. He was Second Lieutenant of the Kilmovee Company, Ballaghadarreen Battalion, East Mayo Brigade, Irish Volunteers in the 1917 – 1919 period and was involved in intelligence-work; arms-raids; dispatch-work and police-work.

Following his involvement in a shooting incident in Carracastle in County Mayo/Roscommon, Charles McDonagh was ordered by the Intelligence Officer of his Battalion to go to England in July 1919 to avoid arrest and also try to procure arms and explosives.

Charles McDonagh settled in St Helens in October 1919 and started work in one of the town’s mines. He claims that he met members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) – Joe Graney, P. Shryane and Jack Hutchinson – at rooms belonging to the Irish Self-Determination League (ISDL) in Liverpool.

The applicant states that these three men helped him form an IRA Company in St Helens which by February 1920 had 20 active members of which nearly all were Irish miners.

The officers of the St Helens Company, Liverpool Battalion, IRA were listed as follows:

Captain – Charles McDonagh

1st Lieutenant – Michael Towey

2nd Lieutenant – Peter Drumm

Adjutant – James Gallagher

Quartermaster – Pat Heneghan

IMAGE 1 MSP34REF4911 Charles McDonagh
Charles McDonagh’s hand-written list of St Helens IRA officers

Charles McDonagh states that the Company’s main focus was to acquire detonators, batteries and all kinds of explosives for transport to Ireland. In all, the subject estimates that the IRA Company organised between 30-40 raids for explosives.

The subject’s activity from early 1920 until the summer 1922 highlights the smaller and large scale operations that an IRA unit were involved in a medium sized English town.

Charles McDonagh listed the following events: purchasing three revolvers in the towns of Widnes, Bryn and Derbyshire Hill; raiding Carr Mill colliery capturing 5,000 detonators; raiding Sutton military stores and taking 250 mill bombs; raiding St Helens Museum, Victoria Park and capturing a rifle, mills bombs, German hand-grenades and 150 rounds of .303 ammunition; procuring revolvers and pistols from Irish ex. British Army soldiers in Ashton; raiding magazines [arms stores] in Billinge, Earlstown and Lea Green; forming the St Helens No. 5 Circle of the IRB which was officiated by Sean McGarry (24SP5125) and Sean Ó Muirthile (John Hurley) (24SP1) from Dublin Headquarters and assisting IRA Volunteer Denis Fleming in organising IRA companies in Earlstown and Wigan.

He also mentions an operation in Rainford village to cut telegraph and telephone wire during which led to the shooting of a police officer:

IMAGE 2 MSP34REF4911 Charles McDonagh 2
Charles McDonagh discussing the shooting of the detective in Rainford, England in front of the Advisory Committee

Two members of Cumann na mBan based in St Helens in the period have added to the narrative by providing accounts of their activity in the town. Ellen McEntee (née Dillion) (MSP34REF39970) and Margaret Farrell (MSP34REF40176) were attached to the St Helens Branch, Cumann na mBan under the command of Margaret Heneghan (née Ledwith). They claim that they took part in the transportation of arms; collecting for the White Cross Fund and the Irish Distress Fund; accompanying IRA Volunteers in raids of collieries for explosives, detonators and fuses and keeping the stolen material in their homes. Margaret White (MSP34REF52672), whose file was released a number of years ago, claimed similar service for St Helens, Cumann na mBan.

IMAGE 3 - MSP34REF39970 Ellen McEntee
Cumann na mBan member Ellen McEntee states that she joined IRA members on raids for explosives in St Helens