The Irish Revolutionary Tradition: taking the war to England

An aspect of the Long War of Independence

In April 1921, armed IRA men raided Lyons’ Cafe in Manchester, firing shots in the air to disperse customers and staff, and dousing the premises in paraffin. Before setting the building alight, one Volunteer explained their actions: “We are doing what you are doing in Ireland.”

The mainland campaign had historical precedents. In the early 1880s, Irish Republicans called Fenians bombed several targets across Britain, including the Houses of Parliament. The Manchester Martyrs— William Philip Allen, Michael Larkin, and Michael O’Brien—were three men executed for the murder of a police officer in Manchester, England, in 1867 and followed by the Fenian dynamite campaign 1881-1885 led by Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa.

In reporting on the IRA campaigns in England the BBC got it wrong, stating that the first IRA attacks on England came in 1939. [BBC News , 4 March, 2001] The early 1920s had seen action taken in IRA campaigns throughout England. As the war in Ireland escalated in autumn 1920, operations in England were authorised (though not in Scotland or Wales, as their people were “more or less Gaelic”, as Liam Lynch put it in 1923).

The consequences of war are not going to be kept solely in Ireland.

When the War of Independence began in 1919, the growing number of Volunteers in Britain became a vital source of arms for the emergent IRA. They did business with Jewish gunsmiths in London, German arms dealers in Glasgow, criminal gangs in Sheffield and Birmingham, anyone who would take their money: “we found the Englishman always willing to do business”, remembered Liverpool Volunteer Paddy Daly. Irish men were sources, too: a Sgt Roche helped smuggle guns from Chelsea barracks, while Irish miners in Lancashire and Lanarkshire set aside portions of their daily explosives allocation to send home. By 1921 there were more than 2,500 Volunteers in Britain (Noonan 2017).

Kevin Davies details the activities of the Tyneside Brigade of the IRA.

It comprised ten companies established in the North East between the start of 1920 and March 1921. Its membership, some of whom were demobilised soldiers from the First World War, according to Tyneside IRA Brigade Quartermaster Gilbert F. Barrington, had 480 men of English birth enlisted from the Irish diaspora in the north-east. (Davies 2010)

To counteract potential attacks, a wide range of security arrangements at sites, including Dunston Power Station, seen as potential I.R.A targets were in place. These arrangements were composed of watchmen at workplaces, employers providing their own fire prevention services, and twenty four hour police cover. Train stations in urban and rural areas were under police surveillance. Subsequently soldiers from the Ninth Battalion of the Durham Light Infantry were posted at Dunston.

Still there were on March 5th 1921 incendiary attacks on a bonded warehouse in Hanover Street, an oil refinery in Forth Bank both in Newcastle. A timber yard at Tyne Dock, South Shields was also attacked. In the months that followed: Gosforth aerodrome was attacked, incendiary attacks were carried out on around thirty attacks on farms on both sides of the River Tyne. There was also the destruction of telegraph lines by chain saws which disrupted communications between London and Scotland for a week. The assessment of one participants was “the papers played up our little acts considerably”.

Davies noted the Tyneside Brigade’s participation in the procurement of arms and ammunition. “For the whole of 1920 the Tyneside Brigade supplied arms for Ireland via Liverpool”.

After the brutal Black and Tan burnings of Balbriggan and Trim, the Liverpool IRA sought “an eye for an eye”. On November 27th they launched more than 40 arson attacks around Merseyside, causing more than £500,000 damage; a civilian was shot dead in gun battles with police.

There was the assassination in June 1922 of the Unionist member for North Down, former Field Marshall Henry Wilson in London.

Tynesides’ anti – treaty IRA reconstituted brigade had one hundred volunteers but only a small percentage of this figure were deemed reliable for potential operations.


Hart, P. Operations Abroad: The IRA in Britain, 1919-23

The English Historical Review, Volume 115, Issue 460, February 2000, Pages 71–102

There were forty shades of green

The signing of the Anglo Irish Treaty of December 6th, 1921 did not create an Irish Republic but a state within the British Empire with Dominion status which was divided by partition creating Northern Ireland. That decision unleashed a civil war amongst the republican forces.

The Irish Free State under William Cosgrove began a ruthless campaign against the anti-treaty I.R.A which was in essence martial law enacted by a civilian government. While the new National Army co-operated with (illegal) mass arrests and deportation of anti-Treaty republicans in Britain. In March 1923 110 Irish republicans were deported to the Irish Free State by the British government. Within the United Kingdom, Irish Free State intelligence officers were operating within the Irish community. It was their intelligence reports that led to the deportation.

May 1923 Irish deportees boarding trains at London’s Waterloo
May 1923 Irish deportees boarding trains at London’s Waterloo


Nine months before the outbreak of the Second World War, and a month before the IRA’s own bombing campaign began in Britain, the unionist government had begun interning republicans in Belfast in 1938. Sporadic bomb attacks, mainly by unionists, on targets such as GAA club houses, had occurred almost every month in Belfast in 1937 and 1938. No unionists were arrested.

On 22nd December 1938, the RUC carried out a series of raids across Belfast, arresting 33 men (plus one in Ballymena). Among those arrested was the O/C of the Belfast IRA, Sean McArdle and many senior republicans, like Chris McLoughlin (the Belfast IRA delegate to the 1938 IRA Army Convention) and veterans like Jack McNally and Joe McGurk. The raids revealed the stark limitations of RUC intelligence. Most of the IRA staff, including the likes of Sean McCaughey and Albert Price, remained at large. Some republicans were to be held until 1945, without trial or charges.

In the 1930s a group of militant radicals gained control of the IRA Army Council. In January 1939 they issued a brief ultimatum to the British government, demanding the withdrawal of all British military personnel from Ireland. 15 January 1939, with no reply from the British Government, a proclamation was posted in public places throughout Ireland announcing the IRA’s declaration of war on Britain.

Their ultimatum was ignored and IRA leaders responded with a campaign in England. They initiated their S-Plan: an operation to sabotage English infrastructure with stolen and improvised explosives. Between January and December 1939, IRA cells planted a total of 290 bombs in England. The S-Plan sought to create disruption, panic and fear rather than deaths or casualties. The bombers targeted electricity stations, railway stations, communications infrastructure, roads, bridges and government buildings.

The campaign was wound back in August 1939 after an IRA bomb intended for an electricity station exploded in a Coventry shopping street, killing five civilians. This bombing caused widespread outrage and a growth in anti-Irish sentiment. A bomb, hidden on the handlebar basket of a bicycle, went off by accident outside Astley’s shop in the busy Broadgate area of Coventry. Two members  – Peter Barnes and James McCormack – also known as James Richards – would hang for the Broadgate blast, although neither planted the bomb.

Part of the S Plan campaign, attacking commercial premises in an effort to rid Ireland of British troops. The bomb was actually intended for an electricity generating plant on the outskirts of Coventry .On March 23, 1939, they struck four times, destroying underground telephone inspection chambers.

The S-Plan (sometimes referred to as the Sabotage Campaign) was a campaign against the civil, economic, and military infrastructure of the United Kingdom from 1939 to 1940, conducted by members of the Irish Republican Army (IRA). At various moments in the twentieth century the Irish Republican Army (IRA) in its various incarnations have used the tactic of infrastructural bombing, notably in their 1939 attacks in England on electricity pylons and in the summer of 1971 in Northern Ireland on its electrical distribution network. In 1996 the British Security Service (MI5) foiled an attack by the IRA aimed at causing a total electrical blackout of the greater London area, a plan that would have seen major disruption in the capital for many weeks or months. The months of 1939 were punctuated with a variety of attacks and targets : electricity pylons, power stations, London underground, two bombs exploded at Kings Cross railway station, and at the aqueduct for the Grand Union Canal and Hammersmith Bridge. In June 1939 bombs exploded in thirty post offices and postboxes.

Coventry 1939

The five deaths during the Coventry bombing on 25 August effectively ended the campaign. By late 1940 the introduction of the Treason Act 1939 and the Offences Against the State Act in Éire, and the Prevention of Violence (Temporary Provisions) Act in Britain had seen many IRA members interned in Éire, arrested in Britain, or deported from Britain. The granting of extra powers to the Irish Justice Minister under the Emergency Powers Act in January 1940 led to 600 IRA volunteers being imprisoned and 500 interned during the course of World War II alone. (S-Plan from Wikipedia)

In the contemporary era any chronology of Provisional Irish Republican Army actions contain intervals when cease-fires were declared to facilitate political progress; the ceasefires of 1972 Cheyne Walk talks and 1974, 1975, the hopeful ceasefire of 1994–96 celebrated in Republican heartlands with Sinn Fein claiming the IRA was ‘undefeated’ but the word ‘victory’ was notably absent, and the final ceasefire of 19 July 1997. However as the war continued, the military campaign was employed in England, often to public revulsion, but regarded as an effective tactic to advance the political goals.

The PIRA modern-day maxim: “One bomb in London is worth 20 in Belfast.”

From 1970 to 2005, 19,000 IEDs – Improvised Explosive Devices – were exploded on British territory: that’s one every 17 hours. Not all were of Irish origin. In the parlance of the time, ‘spectaculars’ were milestones in the struggle. Irish republicans had been using training grounds in Counties Donegal and Armagh, to develop an unprecedented level of adapted technical IED expertise, evident in an attempt to blow up Margaret Thatcher and her Cabinet at the 1984 Conservative Party conference at The Grand Hotel, Brighton. Targeting the Government again, on 7 February 1991, involved a multiple mortar attack on 10 Downing Street. Three bombs were launched from a firing position in a stationary van. They hit a tree and exploded 13 m short of target, forming a crater several metres wide and shattering the blast windows of the Cabinet room. Prime Minister John Major and his Cabinet dived under a table. As well as extensive damage to 11 and 12 Downing Street, two civil servants and two policemen were injured.

The first significant attack on English soil during, what was referred to as, ‘the Troubles’ was carried out by the Official IRA, acting in retaliation for Bloody Sunday. On February 22nd 1972, three weeks after the shootings in Derry, Official IRA volunteers drove an explosives-laden car into an army base in Aldershot.

In early 1973, the Provisional IRA sent 11 volunteers to operate undercover in London; there were attacks on the symbols of British state like the Old Bailey and Whitehall, Other attacks included the 1974 Woolwich, Guildford and Birmingham Pub bombings (November 1974), the M62 Coach Bombing, Westminster Hall in the Houses of Parliament and a bomb exploded at the Tower of London in an exhibition room.

In 1975, bombing Oxford Street (August 28th, seven injured), the London Hilton (September 5th, two killed and 63 injured) and Connaught Square (November 3rd, three injured).

Individual targets Ross McWhirter, Airey Neave, a Conservative MP and adviser to Margaret Thatcher, Lord Louis Mountbatten. On the same day Mountbatten was assassinated, the South Armagh division of the Provisional IRA ambushed a British Army platoon near Warrenpoint, County Down and killed 18.

Each decade saw a mainland campaign and varied targets.

October 1981 a bomb packed with six-inch nails exploded outside Chelsea Barracks; Wimpy’s, fastfood hamburger bar on Oxford Street was attacked.

July 20th 1982 when IRA targeted military parades in Hyde Park and Regent’s Park.

December 17th 1983, detonating a car bomb outside the iconic department store Harrod’s in west London.


October 12th 1984 the Provisional IRA detonated a bomb at the Grand Hotel in Brighton. The hotel was hosting a Conservative Party conference. Provisional IRA statement was succinct “Today we were unlucky, but remember, we only have to be lucky once; you will have to be lucky always. Give Ireland peace and there will be no war.”

1989 the Provisional IRA revived the mainland campaign by bombing a Royal Marines music school in Deal, Kent. During the 1990s, there were attacks on military personnel in Wembley (May 1990) and Litchfield (June 1990) that killed two men. In July 1990 IRA volunteers assassinated Ian Gow, a Conservative MP who embraced a hard line on Northern Ireland, routinely attacking the Provisional IRA in parliament and the media. In February 1991 volunteers launched three mortars at 10 Downing Street.

Conservative leader, John Major won the British General Election of 9th April 1992.The Conservatives’ fourth election victory in a row.

April 10th 1992 at 9:20 pm, a huge bomb of homemade explosive inside a white Ford Transit van, detonated in front of the Baltic Exchange building at 24–28 St Mary Axe.   Three people died and 91 injured.

Following the attack on the world’s leading international shipping market, reports in the media that insurance claims from this single attack amounted to £800 million pounds more than the total damage caused by the 10,000 explosions that had occurred during the Troubles in Northern Ireland up to that point. [Some truth perhaps to the PIRA modern-day maxim: “One bomb in London is worth 20 in Belfast.”]

A few hours later another similarly large bomb went off in Staples Corner in north London, also causing major damage. The site, together with that of the Chamber of Shipping at 30–32 St Mary Axe, was eventually redeveloped, now home to the skyscraper commonly referred to as The Gherkin.

Feb 18th 1996 eleven people were hurt after a bomb in transit explodes on a double decker bus in the heart of London’s West End.  A few days earlier on  February 9th 1996 the IRA detonated a 3,000 pound bomb in London’s Docklands in South Quay. The blast devastated a wide area and caused an estimated £150 million worth of damage and wrecked the Midland Bank HQ. Although the IRA had sent warnings 90 minutes beforehand, the area was not fully evacuated. Two people were killed and more than 100 were injured, some permanently

The explosion marked the end of a seventeen month ceasefire, forcing the British government to re-table talks for peace in Northern Ireland. Did extensive damage caused to City of London office blocks by IRA bomb attack concentrate the minds? In the mainstream media this event has been read as the IRA successfully ‘bombing its way to the conference table’.

Thwarted attack on infrastructure

Over 30 mass-produced devices seized by Gardai from the IRA’s Clonaslee bomb factory in the Irish Republic in the mid-1990s were intended to take out 22 electrical substations – specifically, the transformer units – which channel almost all the electricity used in the London area. IRA researched their intended targets and reconnoitered at least five substations. The 100,000-V environment meant the power would have to be shut down before bombs could be found and rendered safe. Had up to five transformers been disrupted, large parts of London would have been without power for days or weeks.

The attacks in the north-west saw the IRA attempted to blow up the Navy and RAF recruitment office in Preston city centre, two separate bomb attacks took place during early 1993 in Warrington. The first attack happened on 26 February, when a bomb exploded at a gas storage facility. This caused extensive damage, but no injuries. The second attack on 20 March, when two smaller bombs exploded in litter bins outside shops and businesses on Bridge Street, killed two children and dozens of people were injured. Blackpool was targeted just six months later when the IRA planted a large number of incendiary devices in various shops and businesses. Manchester city centre modern developments were down to the IRA bomb of June 1996. A huge explosion near Arndale shopping centre rocks central Manchester injuring more than 200 people. The largest IRA bomb detonated in Great Britain and the largest bomb to explode in Great Britain since the Second World War, it causes more than £400m worth of damage.

A statement from the IRA leadership on 19 July 1997 confirmed the “unequivocal restoration of the ceasefire of August 1994”: peace talks were now being shaped without IRA arms decommissioning as a precondition; that formal declaration appeared in July 2005: “All IRA units have been ordered to dump arms. All volunteers have been instructed to assist the development of purely political and democratic programmes through exclusively peaceful means.”

After the Belfast Agreement came into effect in December 1999, dissident republicans opposed to the Agreement, including the Real IRA and the Continuity IRA, continued to carry out sporadic armed activities, both in the six counties and England.


 Dr Darragh Gannon | ‘Irish Republicanism in Great Britain, 1917-21’ Doctoral thesis 2011

Gary McGladdery | The Provisional IRA in England: The Bombing Campaign 1973-1997. Irish Academic Press 2006

Gerard Noonan | The IRA in Britain, 1919-1923: “In The Heart of Enemy Lines” Liverpool University Press 2017

Joseph Mckenna | The IRA Bombing Campaign Against Britain 1939-1940. McFarland & Company 2016

Kevin Davies | The IRA Campaign in the North East and the State Response 1920-1923. north east history Volume 41 2010 78-100pp

Patrick Brennan | The IRA in Jarrow – 1920-1923

Peter Hart | “Operations abroad”: the IRA in Britain, 1919-23 (English Historical Review, 2000 115 (460), pp. 71-102,

Tony Craig | Sabotage! The Origins, Development and Impact of the IRA’s Infrastructural Bombing Campaigns 1939–1997 | 2010 Pages 309-326




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