Cathleen Knowles McGuirk reviews High Noon on High Street, by Stephen Coyle, Clydeside Press, ISBN-13: 978-1873586440, £8.95/€10.95 pbk
THIS LONG-AWAITED book by Stephen Coyle centres on a sensational daylight attempt by IRA volunteers to rescue their comrade brigadier Frank Carty from a prison van on High Street, Glasgow on May 4, 1921.
The prisoner was being taken from the courthouse to Duke Street prison under armed escort. Officers of the crown accompanying the prisoner had been given orders prior to departure not to shoot unless under attack. To this day it remains unclear as to who fired the first shot but a gun-battle ensued and the citizens of Glasgow scattered for cover, unaware of what was happening.
Within minutes Inspector Robert Johnson lay dead and detective sergeant George Stirton had suffered an injury to his wrist, incapacitating him. In the event Johnson's killing was accidental when one of the volunteers shot into the lock because it would not be forced open. As revolver fire continued the volunteers were forced to disperse.
A wide net was cast in the search for those responsible and a wave of arrests followed shortly which included a Catholic priest Fr Patrick McRory. His arrest outraged the citizens of Glasgow and there was much rioting in the city. Two volunteers, Éamonn and Seaghan Mooney, eluded capture until much later when they were arrested in Edinburgh before the IRB could get them out of Scotland and into the United States.
The ambush of the prison van was a huge story at the time as to how an event such as this could happen on the main street of Glasgow in the middle of the day. The Glasgow Herald editorial the following day gives an insight into the thinking of 'Empire' when it reported at length that the IRA ambush was a 'Sinn Féin atrocity'.
There are parallels with the Manchester Martyrs and the Fenian attempt to carry out a similar rescue with unfortunate tragic consequences fifty-four years earlier. Three men, Allen, Larkin and O'Brien paid with their lives on very dubious evidence.
The May 1921 rescue attempt in Glasgow became known as the 'Smashing of the Van' and a song about the event is recorded in this book along with many other ballads. The book contains the transcript of the trial of those involved, or allegedly involved, in the ambush, the historic background, the arrests, trial and aftermath.
Many photographs, not seen before, newspaper articles and biographies of some of the volunteers are included in this extremely well-researched book. We catch a glimpse too of the political and social movements that were in vogue in Scotland (James Connolly's socialism had a huge following) and elsewhere in the early twentieth century. There are ties that have always bound Ireland and Scotland and this connectedness is obvious when reading High Noon on High Street.
While much has been written about Irish republicanism in Scotland it has been of a general, and sometimes academic, nature. This book is a page from the history of Ireland's war of independence, the IRB and IRA in Scotland before the Truce of July 1921.
It is the first true and compelling account of the dramatic attempt to affect a rescue in broad daylight by a selected group of volunteers. Undoubtedly it will appeal to a wide audience. Stephen Coyle has done history a service with the publication of this book about an event that occurred at the very apex of the war of independence.
Step by step he brings us through the planning and the event itself. He lifts the lid on an almost forgotten story and brings it to life again, allowing us to hear forgotten voices.
This is a balanced and sympathetic account of an episode which took place 87 years ago, three years after the end of the first world war and a mere five years after the Easter rising.
It deserves a central place among the array of books on Irish republicanism in Scotland and the Irish-Scots who answered the call to arms. It has been well worth the wait.
Connolly Association, c/o RMT, Unity House, 39 Chalton Street, London, NW1 1JD
Copyright © 2009 Cathleen Knowles