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Guerrillas in our midst

In the opening pages of his autobiography,the former Catholic Primate of All–Ireland, Cardinal Cahal Daly, describes his earliest memory. He tells how his family home in County Antrim was burned to the ground when the IRA targeted the RIC barracks next-door. The Attack on Loughguile Barracks was one of the few operations in north Antrim during the War of Independence and it took place on 7 February 1921 – 100 years ago today.

Cardinal Daly goes on to describe how, “half a century later”1, he met a man who claimed a hand in that guerrilla operation. The man knew specific, factual details about the event and insisted that he had been the one to lift the young Cahal out of his cot and carry him from the burning house. That man was named Walter Burke and he was my grandfather.

I’ve known since I was a kid that my grandfather was in the IRA. My mother would sometimes mention that her father had “left home at a very young age and joined the IRA”. She would usually clarify that he joined the real IRA, meaning the Irish Republican Army that fought in the Irish War of Independence, the ‘Old IRA’, and not the Provisional IRA that featured so regularly and so negatively on the news programmes of my youth. You can imagine her response when a splinter group of the Provos chose to call themselves “The Real IRA”. Her father had been in the real army, fighting the good fight – and he even had the medals to prove it.

He had two. In about 1950, all recognised veterans of the War of Independence were issued with the Medal of Service, nicknamed the Black and Tan medal, and in 1971, on the fiftieth anniversary of the Truce, any surviving veterans received a second medal. My grandfather received both, proving that Grandpa was in the ‘RA!

My Grandpa, Walter Burke, was born in 1902 in Athenry, County Galway. He grew up in a region that had been ravaged during the Famine, radicalised during the Land Wars and rebellious during Easter 1916.2 His family were dirt poor and opportunities were limited so he was – as my mother’s story goes – “sold to a farmer” when only a teenager. Before he turned 20, he was somehow fighting for the IRA. I never got to hear his version of how this happened – he died when I was very young – but I have been piecing together his story. 

My Guerrilla Grandpa

The magnificent Military Archives of Ireland is the obvious source for further details and it was there that I found all the background information on the medals that Grandpa had received. In 2019, it released the Brigades Activity Reports, compiled in the 1930s as part of the establishment of the Military Services Pensions Board. These archives give an overview of the activities of the various brigades of the IRA during this time and contain Nominal Rolls, listing active membership by brigade and division. As you can see in the archive extract below, Walter Burke from Co. Galway served with the ‘C’ Company of the 4th battalion in the 2 Brigade of the 3rd Northern Division, “as on 11th July 1921”. 

The 3rd Northern Division developed from what had been the Belfast, Antrim and East Down Brigades of the Irish Volunteers, who had raised in response to the formation of the pro–Union Ulster Volunteers. By 1913, Irish Home Rule looked very likely and Ulster Unionists armed themselves in concern. However, the outbreak of World War I put any Home Rule plans on hold, spurring the impatient Irish Volunteers into action. It was they who staged the Easter Rising in 1916 and thousands of them were imprisoned or interned in the aftermath. On their release, the organisation regrouped and, following the election of 1918 and the establishment of the first Dáil Eireann, it began a campaign of action to destabilise the institutions of British rule in Ireland. Michael Collins was the de facto commander–in–chief3 but the activities of individual units was difficult to monitor as they operated in secrecy and under guerrilla war conditions.

The 4th Battalion of 2 Antrim Brigade was more isolated than most as it operated in north County Antrim. The area was a loyalist stronghold but that didn’t stop local IRA units from taking part in campaigns, such as the nationwide burning of income tax offices at Easter 1920. Attacks on barracks and raids to steal guns followed, but when a ‘pogrom’ was initiated against Catholics in nearby Belfast in July 1920, the IRA was forced to adopt a more defensive position as it tried to protect nationalist areas from further loyalist attacks. Operating in the area was risky. According to the 2 Brigade’s reports, “even the simplest Military movement in County Antrim was attended by extreme danger and difficulty owing to the overwhelming hostility of the Imperial population, which embraced over 80% of the inhabitants of [the] area”. The brigade also had to contend with “an armed yeomanry who had been organised from 1913 in Carson’s Ulster Volunteer Force” and “the B Special Constabulary were established which gave these people official powers”. Despite these difficulties, the writer of these reports went on to claim that Michael Collins informed a pre–Truce IRA convention in Dublin that their operations compared “favourably with any Brigade in Ireland”4.

The ‘C’ Company operated from the town of Loughguile, sometimes written as ‘Loughgiel’, and at 11 July 1921 had 19 active men, including my grandfather. He had just 19 years old. According to the report on operations returned to the Military Services Pensions Board, the company’s most “important operation of the period” was the attack on Loughguile Barracks in February 1921. This is the operation that Cardinal Daly describes in his book.

Daly’s account contains details not found elsewhere and it was there that I learned that my grandfather had been “hired by a Protestant farmer from Mallaboy”5 at a ‘hiring fair’ in Ballinasloe6 when he was about fifteen. He had subsequently joined the IRA and the attack on Loughguile Barracks was “his first ‘operation’”. Daly goes on to say that Walter had “left Loughguile after the Anglo–Irish Treaty and never returned” and his name doesn’t appear on the Nominal Rolls for Loughguile Company for 1st July 1922 (see archive extract above).

I have no idea whether this was by choice or by necessity. There were certainly good reasons to get out of there. The Anglo–Irish Truce was not being upheld in the area and the 3rd Northern Division had a bad time of it afterwards7. It eventually disintegrated and many8 held Michael Collins responsible for abandoning them. Much of the membership ended up ‘on the run’, with some emigrating to the United States, Australia and New Zealand.

What I do have is a photograph of Grandpa in the uniform of the National Army, who weren’t the same as the IRA – at least not anymore. After the Anglo-Irish Treaty was signed in December 1921, the IRA split between supporters and opponents of the Treaty in a disagreement that was to become the Civil War. The anti–Treatyites continued to use the name Irish Republican Army (IRA), while the army of the Free State styled itself as the National Army9.

Grandpa apparently supported Michael Collins and the Treaty — and he found himself a job with a uniform. He also found himself a workplace that was a bit nearer to home. The Military Archives have also digitised an army census10 from November 1922 and this shows Walter was posted at Craughwell11 barracks, close to his home town of Athenry, where he was back living with his family.

This Free State ‘National Army’ was established in 1922 and lasted through the Civil War years. It was then restructured into the Irish Defence Forces. I believe that my grandfather was part of a mass demobilisation that took place around 1924 and within a few years he was wearing a different uniform, working with the newly–formed Great Southern Railways, the predecessor of CIE, where he would work in various locations (Galway, Longford, Clonmel) until his retirement.

My Grandpa died on 9 February 1973.

To commemorate the War of Independence, the Military Archives is curating an informative Twitter feed using documentation from the Military Service Pensions Collection. Check that out here. Alternatively, you can browse all of the sources yourself at their brilliant website.


1 From Steps on My Pilgrim Journey: Memories and Reflections, Cardinal Cahal B. Daly, Veritas 1998. pp 13–14.

2 His older sister Sarah Burke had acted as a courier for Liam Mellowes’ operations around Athenry and Moyode in 1916 and perhaps her bravery inspired him.

3 An official connection to Dáil Eireann was not acknowledged until April 1921, however Dáil leadership were aware of its actions and involved in planning operations.

4 From an undated, typed and signed letter from Brigade Committee members to the Military Services Pensions Board. MSPC/A49 (p. 3, p. 4)

5 Cahal Daly states that Mallaboy is in the parish of Loughguile, however the only Mallaboy I could find in the area is south west of Dunloy. From Steps on My Pilgrim Journey: Memories and Reflections, Cardinal Cahal B. Daly, Veritas 1998. pp 14–15.

6 This must be the Ballinasloe Horse Fair, which was one of the largest events held in Ireland at that time. It drew people from all over Ireland to trade in livestock and, it seems, farm boys!

7 For more see Michael Collins, Northern Ireland and the Northern Offensive, May 1922 (blog)

8 Collin’s military choices left the 3rd N. Div. feeling abandoned. (Irish Times report from 2019)

9 To make things confusing, both sides were officially called Óglaigh na hÉireann (and that remains the official legal title of the Irish Defence Forces today). While the IRA organisation that were in the 6 counties that make up Northern Ireland obviously didn’t support the Treaty, they did (originally) support the pro–Treaty side. To confuse matters even more, they too continued to refer to themselves as the IRA.

10 The physical census documents were notoriously unwieldy to use. Without specific information, such as the name, age, location and position of the person you were hunting, you were looking for a needle in a haystack. Now it has been digitised, it is obviously easier to search. You can also browse through the returns on a location basis, which is what I did, starting with his home town of Athenry. Craughwell was my second guess. It turns out that Grandpa was recorded as Walter Bourke, with an ‘o’.

11 My assumption is that the Army took over the old Craughwell RIC Barracks.


One Reply to “Guerrillas in our midst”

  1. Hi Declan,

    I stumbled onto your blog via a link on TheIrishStory website.

    My granda, Tom Glennon, originally from Belfast, was O/C of the Antrim Brigade at the time of the attack on Loughguile Barracks. I’ve written about his time in Antrim in my book “From Pogrom to Civil War” but I never heard about the Cardinal Daly connection before!

    I don’t expect you to buy the book for just a section of one chapter, so get in touch and I can email an extract to you if you’re interested.

    Liked by 1 person

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