By Jack Holland
One day some 28 years ago in a pub on Merrion Row, near St. Stephen’s Green, Dublin, I was introduced to a white-haired, ruddy-faced man of military bearing who spoke with something of a Belfast accent. That was why the introduction was made. My friend thought that coming from Belfast myself, and not long settled in Dublin, where I was a student at Trinity College, I might like to meet Bob Bradshaw.
Bob was then about 58, having left Belfast at 21. He was what the police call an OTR, On the Run. My friend hinted darkly about the Belfast IRA and a shooting involving the Royal Ulster Constabulary. At first, Bob himself never spoke to me about the incident in any detail, though through the years what he divulged allowed me to gradually piece together what had happened down the Grosvenor Road on the night of Feb. 28, 1933. I knew the scene well. Indeed, I could imagine it without any effort, having grown up a few streets from where it occurred. The area had not changed much in the 1950s from the way it was 20 years earlier.
Imagine my delight, then, when I opened "The IRA in the Twilight Years: 1923-48" by Uinseann MacEoin (published by Argenta Publications, 19 Mountjoy Square, Dublin 1) to find a full account of the incident as told to the author by Bob himself.
It was late 1932, and the railway workers were on strike after the bosses, The Great Northern Railway Company, attempted to cut their pay by 15 percent. They were nearly all Protestant but that did not stop them from going to the IRA. According to Bob: "Davey Matthews, our O/C, was approached one night, sitting by his kitchen fire when two Protestant men knocked. ‘Our men are hard pressed,’ they complained. ‘The Great Northern are still running trains and they are also managing to deliver goods by lorry. Now if the IRA would stop them, they might be prepared to settle. ‘ "
"The only way we could stop them," said Matthews, "would be by blowing up the railway."
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"We thought of that," the Protestant workers told him, "but we had no one that could do it."
Bob noted that "the reason that Matthews could entertain such a harebrained scheme was that he though it might bring Protestant and Catholic together. The pity was that he selected me for the action."
It was not the first harebrained plan from the Belfast O/C. Bob’s first mission had been to ambush singlehandedly a platoon of soldiers in Clondara Street, near the Falls Road, with "a big service revolver." "You are to let fly at them," was Matthews’s instructions to the youthful volunteer. "It was a suicidal mission," thought Bob. Fortunately for him, "there was to be no slaughter because no platoon of the British army went to Clondara Street that night." However, the railway operation turned out differently.
Bob was given 100 sticks of gelignite, detonators, and a battery by one Mary Laverty, whom the author describes as a "long-time Belfast republican, doughty fighter and later school teacher" and told to blow up the platform at Gt. Victoria Street Station, on the present site of the Europa Hotel. There were too many police patrols around, so Bob headed for Lisburn station, where he found a concrete culvert under the track.
In the middle of a downpour, he crawled into the culvert, pushing the gelignite, the detonators, the battery and a coil of wire in front of him. "I already knew how to use explosives; in fact I had developed quite a proficiency letting them off in an old quarry under the Black Mountain," Bob said. The culvert was full of water and he risked drowning in the dark. Having set the bomb to go off in one hour, he managed to extricate himself, crawling backward out of the tunnel.
Another IRA man drove him back to Beechmount, where he heard the thud of the explosion. It did not force the company to surrender, so another action was planned. The idea was to stop blacklegs’ trucks. Matthews told Bob: "There are 25 RUC guarding the G.N. lorry exit from Gt. Victoria Street. . . . You are to ambush the lorries as they come in. Fire into the cab but try not to kill the driver. Get yourself a Mauser pistol and enough ammo." He ordered Joe Pimley, an IRA man, to "give covering fire during the operation."
"It had all the marks of being another suicidal mission," thought Bob as took up his position on that dark winter’s night on the Grosvenor Road. He "let fly" as ordered, hitting the first three lorries. But Pimley’s gun was not working, having been left too long in the arms dump.
"An RUC sergeant saw where I was and ran toward me," recalled Bob, "firing as he came, six aimed shots. I counted them to see when his gun would be empty, then I turned tail and ran hard for Durham Street, one of those small streets of wee houses where I knew I could burst in and find safety." Durham Street gave access to the Falls area, a safe Catholic neighborhood. Suddenly, two RUC men appeared up ahead of them. One pulled a gun and aimed at Bob, who fired first. The officer fell and his colleague panicked, firing wildly as the two IRA men made good their escape.
The dead RUC officer was later named as John Ryan, from Tipperary. He was the first RUC man in the force’s history to be killed on duty. (All of those officers who died in the 1920s had been "C" or "B" Specials, not regular police.)
Bob ended up in Dublin, where he eventually became a training officer for the IRA, traveling in Mayo (where he met George Harrison, in the 1970s the Provisional IRA’s main gunrunner) and Kerry. He left the IRA in the 1940s. He spent most of his life as a house painter in Dublin, but in the evenings he could be found usually in McDaid’s or later Grogan’s, where he was known as one of the city’s great conversationalists.
Bob died in September 1993, aged 81, never having set foot in his native Belfast again.