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The life, death — and burial — of IRA man Tom Williams

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Anne Cadwallader

BELFAST — The funeral of the last republican to be hanged in Northern Ireland will take place today, Jan. 19, 57 years after British executioner Albert Pierrepoint pulled the trapdoor that ended his life.

Fellow republicans say Tom Williams’s dying wish was to be buried in the republican plot at Milltown Cemetery, although his family says he wanted to be buried with his grandmother.

The family’s wishes are to be respected, although a grave lies empty in the republican plot at Milltown cemetery, where a written legend announces it is awaiting his return.

Legal action was begun more than 10 years ago by the National Graves Association, which cares for all republican graves. It resulted in the British government commuting part of Williams’s sentence, which stipulated that his bones remained inside Crumlin Road jail.

This Sunday, however, there will be a full republican commemoration with thousands expected to travel to Belfast for what could be the last full IRA funeral in the city.

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Among those attending will be two men who were also sentenced to hang but were reprieved at the last minute, John Oliver and veteran republican Joe Cahill.

Williams was hanged because of his role in a fatal shooting close to Clonard Monastery in the lower Falls on Sept. 2, 1942. It was never forensically established, however, that he fired the fatal shot.

The victim was Patrick Murphy, a Catholic RUC officer who also lived on Falls Road. Republicans involved in the operation say they never intended that anyone should die in the operation.

At that time, any gathering of more than two people during Easter week was deemed "an unlawful assembly" (Stormont’s attempt to prevent Rising commemorations). The gates of Milltown cemetery were closed and surrounded by the RUC each year.

The IRA hatched a plan that, if successful, would defy the ban. Three of the city’s five IRA units would mount operations to divert RUC attention from Milltown.

Six IRA men set out to create one diversion in the lower Falls. Joe Cahill takes up the story.

"We were to shoot over the heads of an RUC patrol," he said. "There was no intention of taking life.

"We shot over their heads and we headed for the rendezvous point to dispose of our weapons. That was when our plans went wrong. The guns were to be dumped. But nobody arrived to meet us.

"We knew the house where they were supposed to be heading and went on there."

But they were followed and the house was surrounded. "A policeman approached and a warning shot was fired at him, but he kept advancing, shooting as he came," Cahill said.

There was an exchange of gunfire and the policeman fell onto the floor of the scullery. Tom Williams was wounded in the leg and arm.

"We took Tom upstairs and came to a quick decision that we would shoot it out with the police, we weren’t going to surrender," Cahill said.

"The police grabbed the man of the house and his grand-daughter, who was about 6 or 7 years old. They put guns to their heads and began climbing the stairs. We realized if we opened fire, they would have been killed, so we decided to surrender."

Williams was, by then, stretched out on a bed, semi-conscious.

"One detective in plain clothes lost his head completely and said to shoot Tom there and then because no one would know that he hadn’t been killed in the earlier gun battle," Cahill said. "I threw myself across Tom on the bed and was dragged off."

A senior officer arrived who restored order and the five men were handcuffed and thrown downstairs into a Crossley tender outside the house. Williams was taken to hospital. Cahill and the four others were taken to Crumlin Road jail. They didn’t see each other again for six weeks. By then, however, the die had been cast.

Taking the blame

Williams, believing himself to be mortally wounded, admitted responsibility to try to save the other five.

All six were convicted of murder, however, sentenced to death and began preparing themselves for execution. Three days before the hanging, their lawyer came into the prison.

When the six men saw him they immediately knew something was up.

"There was an eerie silence for a few seconds," Cahill recalled, before the lawyer told them, "I have good news for everybody except for poor Tom."

Williams said, "I’m happy, boys, don’t cry for me. This is how I wanted it from the start."

Few got any sleep the night before they execution. They could hear loyalists outside singing "The Sash." The hanging was due at 8 a.m. Although none of the prisoners had watches, they knew roughly when it would have taken place.

According to Tony Currie of the National Graves Association, who has researched exactly what happened in the prison that morning, Williams got a good night’s sleep and had to be woken by priests. Mass was celebrated.

"A few minutes before 8 o’clock, the hangman entered his cell and asked Tom to forgive him," Currie said. "He stood straight and upright while his arms were pinioned by his side. He walked steadily toward the scaffold.

"Fr. Alexis held a crucifix to his lips which he kissed. He mounted the steps of the scaffold slowly, repeating in an audible voice, ‘Sacred Heart of Jesus.’ These were the last words heard by the priests as he dropped to his death."

Another prisoner, Alfie Hannaway, remembers being at Mass that morning and the priest telling the congregation he had timed the execution, so that when he raised the host at the altar, "We would know Tom was making his sacrifice."

"That was tough," Hannaway said. "Unashamed, I wept as did all the men, even hard men from the country. We had two days of complete silence and fasting."

Cahill’s account of Mass that morning is similar. "Fr. Alexis told us that we should always be proud of Tom, he was a very brave man. There wasn’t a quiver in his body that morning," he said. "He had never seen such courage in his life."

The execution marked the end of a frantic reprieve campaign, lead by Pope Pius XII, Eamon de Valera, Sean McBride and the U.S. secretary of state. A quarter of a million people signed a petition for clemency.

Cahill remembers Williams’s favorite song:

"Lay him away in the hillside, along with the brave and the bold.

"Inscribe his name in the hall of fame, in letters of purest gold.

" ‘My conscience will never convict me’, he said with his last dying breath.

" ‘May God bless the true cause of freedom, for which I am sentenced to death.’ "

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