Patsy Dougan’s passport.
By Michael Jackson
The grave of a Belfast IRA man, who shares a burial plot with two of his fellow countrymen in New York, will finally be marked with a headstone this summer – 81 years after he was interred.
As a former member of the British Army, the IRA and, eventually, the Free State Army, Patrick “Patsy” Dougan’s life is as fascinating as the circumstances of his death, and subsequent burial, are tragic.
Having survived the slaughter of the First World War while fighting for the British Army, Patsy joined the IRA during the War of Independence and was once sentenced to death for his role in an ambush in County Cavan.
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However, he would not meet his end until 16 years later in New York.
On May 30, 1937, Patsy died of pneumonia and was buried in an unmarked grave at St. Raymond’s Cemetery in the Bronx – over 3,000 miles away from his family in Belfast.
The whereabouts of his grave and, indeed, many of the details of Patsy’s life were almost lost to history but for the research of his nephew, Tomás Ó Dubhagáin.
Speaking to the Irish Echo from his Belfast home, Tomás explained how, in 2006, an Irish News account of the 1921 ambush and capture of his uncle’s IRA unit on Lappinduff Mountain in County Cavan, encouraged him to uncover Patsy’s almost forgotten past.
“That Irish News clipping is how it all started for me,” he said referring to the Belfast-published daily.
“My father never really spoke about Patsy or the IRA – nobody spoke about it.
“None of these old IRA men spoke about anything at all, more out of fear than anything else.”
But after World War II, the Irish government solicited “witness statements from people who were involved in the War of Independence, and luckily people were happy enough to do it then.
“I went down to Cathal Brugha barracks and got my father’s witness statements. I have boxes full of stuff.”
Through his research, Tomás has discovered a number of crucial details that create a clearer picture of his uncle, but also of their shared family history.
In his own written account of Patsy’s story, Tomás traces his family’s involvement in the republican struggle back to his great granduncle, Patrick O’Donnell (The Invincible), who was executed in 1883 for killing the infamous informer James Carey that same year.
Tomás recounted: “Five members of a group known as the ‘National Irish Invincibles’ had been executed for the killing of Lord Cavendish, the newly appointed British Chief Secretary of Ireland, in Phoenix Park Dublin in May 1882. Carey himself was involved in the killing but turned Queen’s evidence, evidence that resulted in the trial and execution of the other five.
“As part of the deal with the British authorities Carey was given a new identity and safe passage to South Africa. Patrick O’Donnell was on the same ship and on discovering Carey’s true identity shot him.”
The account of O’Donnell’s furtive actions and subsequent execution are not only historically significant in national terms, but also in personal terms for the Dougan family as this turn of events led Patsy’s father (Tomás’s grandfather), John Dougan, to Belfast.
John was a member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood and an associate of his uncle, who was forced to flee his Donegal home for the city after the Carey killing.
It was in Belfast that John raised his family of seven children, of whom Patsy was the fourth.
Like many young men from the city during the First World War, Patsy joined the British Army. Interestingly, Tomás discovered that his uncle managed to join at the age of 15 by stealing the identity of unionist workmate, William J Cairns.
While Tomás’s account of his family background and Patsy’s early life reads like a novel in itself, the details of the ambush that sparked his research could be the most interesting part of the tale.
In 1921, a flying column from Belfast, including Patsy, travelled to east County Cavan at the request of Colonel Seán McGouran, a Belfast man charged with procuring arms for the local IRA.
The column was tasked with disarming a local RIC party near Cootehill, but was ambushed by enemy forces of around 100 men on May 7. During the ensuing gun battle Volunteer Sean McCartney was killed, while Patsy himself lost a finger going to the aid of a wounded comrade.
Thirteen of the party were subsequently arrested, tried, and sentenced to death. However, with the volunteers awaiting the hangman in Crumlin Road Gaol, the 3rd Northern Division of the IRA set a plan in motion to break them out.
A Webley revolver was smuggled into the prison by Patsy’s sister-in-law (Tomás’s mother), and a four-man rescue disguised as RIC men and army officers attempted to enter the prison.
Their plan was scuppered and the alarm raised as one of their party was recognized by a former neighbor. However, the thirteen that were sentenced escaped the hangman due to the IRA/British Truce that occurred on July 11, 1921.
Released in 1922, Patsy found it difficult to find employment, Tomás noted, “not only because he was a republican, but like most Catholics he was a victim of jobs discrimination by the newly established Unionist government.”
Having married his beloved Annie and fathered a daughter, Peggy, in the time that followed, Patsy decided to set off for America in 1930 to support his family.
Tómas said his uncle found life just as difficult in the USA where the effects of the Wall Street crash were still being acutely felt.
Tómas said: “Patsy’s grandson has letters that he sent from New York about trying to find a job, and trying to send money home for his wife and kids – it’s heartbreaking.”
Patsy’s struggle to support his family ended on the streets of the Bronx, where he died from pneumonia. “Belfast United,” an organization for ex-pats, buried him.
His grave faded virtually into the unknown until, in 2017, Carl McGlinchey, grandson of Patsy’s comrade Joseph McGlinchey, located it.
Carl, who was involved in a history project surrounding his family tree, uncovered the record of the grave.
Patsy is buried alongside a Donegal man named J Dougherty and Hugh Stranney, whose grandson, Joe McDonnell, died on hunger strike in 1981.
With the help of the National Graves’ Association and some friends in the USA, their grave will be marked with a headstone this summer.
Tómas said his family “will be forever in the debt” to those who helped them on their journey.
Patrick “Patsy” O’Donnell, was posthumously awarded the “Black and Tan” medal for his service to his country.