Brookeborough raid of 1957 – a humiliating defeat for IRA

Brookeborough village. The targeted police station is on the right, with the bay window
Brookeborough village. The targeted police station is on the right, with the bay window

In the first of a two-part article, COLIN ARMSTRONG recalls how just over 60 years ago a republican gang attacked an isolated RUC station in rural Co Fermanagh as part of its little-remembered border campaign lasting from 1956 to 1962

The IRA’s border campaign lasted for just over five years from December 1956 to February 1962 but it is now little remembered.

Lisnaskea Police Station which was attacked in IRA Border campaign

Lisnaskea Police Station which was attacked in IRA Border campaign

Among the events of the period only one retains any prominence in public memory, the Brookeborough raid of January 1 1957; this attack on the village’s RUC station – or rather perhaps the deaths of two of the raiders – has kept a place in republican folklore and propaganda.

The IRA’s border campaign – known sometimes as Operation Harvest – began in December 1956. In the years since the end of the Irish Civil War in 1923 IRA activity had been sporadic. The organisation had engaged in acts of violence in Northern Ireland, England and Eire (as the now Republic was then known) in the period just before World War Two and during the early years of the conflict.

However, Eamon de Valera’s draconian policies against armed republicanism – including military courts and executions – brought the IRA to a low point in its fortunes. Early in the 1950s the IRA made a number of arms raids on barracks both in England and Northern Ireland. In the Westminster election of 1955 two Sinn Fein candidates were elected but both were unseated as serving prisoners. In the meantime a republican splinter group, Saor Uladh, made a number of attacks on the RUC.

The IRA’s decision to resume active operations in 1956 seems to have been motivated at least in part because of worries that the dissident group would outflank its parent organisation.

Colin Armstrong, historian and author of this account of the 1957 Brookeborough raid. 
Picture By: Arthur Allison.

Colin Armstrong, historian and author of this account of the 1957 Brookeborough raid. Picture By: Arthur Allison.

Activities started in mid-December 1956 with attacks on RUC stations in Derrylin and Lisnaskea; in the latter town the local parish priest, who lived close to the barracks, was severely traumatised by the violence.

The IRA’s tactics throughout the campaign marked a reversion to those employed successfully in the early 1920s against the RIC. Columns of up to 25 men – a tribute to the flying columns of the earlier Troubles – were used to attack police stations. The first assaults caused damage but took no lives. Lord Brookeborough, the prime minister of Northern Ireland, visited the frail Father Donnelly in Lisnaskea after the incident in that town as well as going to the barracks there.

In Derrylin (as he wrote later in his diary) he observed that the station was in a poor condition and that none of the alarms were working even though it was over a week after the attack. He was critical of the sergeant in command. Some days later he informed the Minister of Home Affairs, W.W.B. Topping, of his worries regarding the station in Derrylin.

Brookeborough had reason to be worried. On Sunday, December 30 the IRA struck again at Derrylin. The unit involved was the Teeling column of 25 men, among them Ruari O’Bradaigh later to be Gerry Adams’s predecessor as president of Sinn Fein.

After 10 o’clock on the night of December 30 some of the officers of the Derrylin station were gathered in the day room. One young constable, John Scally, a Catholic from Ballycastle, was sitting close to the fire. Two shots were fired through the letter box by one of the IRA raiders and Constable Scally slumped forward. He died that night after receiving the last rites.

The station was hit by a hail of bullets from the IRA and hand grenades were thrown at the first floor windows. The RUC returned fire – one using a Sten gun – and the raiders retreated across the border.

In the Republic seven of them, O’Bradaigh included, were arrested. The initial case against them collapsed on a technicality but on January 14 1957 a fresh court convicted them and imposed sentences of six months on each of the men.

The next IRA raid, to be the work of the Pearse column, was planned for the station in Brookeborough on New Year’s Day 1957. The choice of this Fermanagh village as a target can hardly have been accidental. It takes its name from the Brookes who became landowners in the area in the second half of the 17th century.

The family had a long and distinguished military tradition. Brookes had fallen at Waterloo and in the Second Afghan and Great Wars. Others had risen to eminence in the Royal Navy and the Army; Field Marshal Lord Alanbrooke, Chief of the Imperial General Staff for the last four years of the Second World War, was Lord Brookeborough’s uncle.

The reputation of Sir Basil Stanlake Brooke, first Viscount Brookeborough, remains controversial. To many he is remembered for two things: his speech on July 12, 1933 in which he urged Orangemen not to employ Catholics, and the dismissive comments about his alleged laziness made by his successor, Terence O’Neill.

Those historians who have studied Brookeborough’s career most closely – Dr Brian Barton and Professor Henry Patterson – have depicted him in more nuanced terms. Brookeborough was no ecumenist but his sectarian outburst of 1933 was not quite characteristic of the man.

Sir Ernest Clark, the English official who helped to found the Northern Ireland Civil Service, regarded him (as the historian Bryan Follis has noted) as level headed and moderate. As a young cabinet minister in the 30s his reputation was for activity rather than laziness; and it was that reputation which helped him to succeed John Miller Andrews as prime minister in 1943. He was to remain in office for the next 20 years.

Brookeborough was educated at Winchester and Sandhurst. The former school – one of the most intensely academic in England – gave him an ability to write Latin prose which he retained until late in life. When he was invited back to Winchester in the early 1960s he was able (as the late Bill Barbour of Portora Royal once told this author) to write his own speech in the classical language with only a few grammatical errors.

He inherited his father’s baronetcy – his peerage came to him as prime minister – and served with distinction in World War One; he was awarded the Military Cross and the Belgian Croix de Guerre. Two of his three sons died in action in the Second World War.

Brookeborough’s unpublished diaries (now in the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland) testify to his fondness for shooting and fishing as well as to a perhaps more surprising interest in art and architecture, ballet and music. They also give an impression of a (sometimes) shrewd political brain.

The prime minister’s ancestral home Colebrooke – still in the possession of his older grandson – was just three miles from Brookeborough, the village from which he took the title of the viscountcy granted him in 1953. The IRA’s intended target for the first day of 1957 therefore had a name of resonance and significance. An attack on the village would be in effect one on the head of Northern Ireland’s devolved government.

The Pearse column had 14 men. Its leader was Sean Garland, a sometime private in the British Army; his second-in-command, Daithi O’Connell, was later prominent in the Provisional IRA. The unit was well armed. Their equipment included two Bren guns and two Thompson sub-machine guns, the republican weapon of choice for 50 years from the 1920s onwards.

The men also had two gelignite bombs and rifles. The column assembled in Monaghan on December 27 and crossed the border, moving from safe house to safe house. A lorry belonging to a local quarry was stolen in Lisnaskea from outside the home of its driver, Leo Morton. Morton was forced to drive part of the way to Brookeborough and was then bound and gagged and thrown out onto the roadside.

Brookeborough is still a small village with only one principal street. The station, an early Victorian building in neo-Tudor style, was situated at the Lisnaskea end of the village. The barracks consisted of a section of two stories and another of one storey only. It was situated on the street and, in common with most RUC stations then, its defences were rudimentary at best.

After the raid The Irish News reported that the windows had sandbags but The Fermanagh Herald claimed those were installed after the event. Without fortifications to protect them the sergeant and four officers at the station had only their weapons to defend themselves. The raiders seem to have plans of the building.

The column reached Brookeborough at about seven o’clock on the evening of January 1. The lorry stopped once it reached a point close to the station. Villagers on the street were ordered indoors. A shot was fired over the heads of those who delayed.

Sergeant Cordner, the station’s commander, was crossing the street as the raiders arrived. He was fired upon but got back to the barracks uninjured; once inside he soon took control. The gelignite bombs were planted at the station door. A republican account claims that the plan was to request surrender once the door had been blown in; but at Derrylin two days before no such request had been made before Constable Scally was killed.

The bombs failed to explode. This failure was crucial to the outcome of the raid as it allowed Sergeant Cordner to start firing at the lorry with a Bren gun, possession of which he had taken only that day. The other officers used their weapons and at least one local ‘B’ Special fired at the raiders from the street. The gun battle lasted between five and 10 minutes and was intense.

One local shopkeeper, E.C. Armstrong – this writer’s father – later told journalists that the village shook. Three miles away at Colebrooke Lord Brookeborough was able to hear the shooting. Ernest Carruthers, on his farm 300 yards from the village, was almost hit by bullets. Ammunition ricocheted up and down the street which was eventually littered with cartridges.

The sides of the lorry were shattered and its fuel tank punctured. One raider, Sean South, had tried to fire one of the Bren guns but the lorry’s position prevented his doing so with any effect. He died at the spot. Another, Fergal O’Hanlon, was mortally wounded and Garland was injured. The column retreated.

In the wake of the raid RUC officers moved into the village as did troops of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment. Army engineers rendered harmless the unexploded bombs.

Lord and Lady Brookeborough, along with their son and daughter-in-law, Captain the Honourable and Mrs John Brooke, arrived in the village. Brookeborough wrote in his diary that Cordner had done great damage with his Bren gun.

The IRA’s defeat stemmed from two principal circumstances: the failure of the bombs and Cordner’s quick response. The raiders were 14 strong; the station had only five men; had the explosives blown the door in policemen, not raiders, would have died that evening.

• Part Two in January 4 print edition of the News Letter, and is now published here – ‘How the IRA abandoned its dead and dying in a cow byre ... and how draconian action in the Republic helped curtail the violence’

Colin Armstrong grew up in Brookeborough and studied at Portora Royal, Trinity College, Cambridge, where he read history, and is a visiting research associate in history at Queen’s, Belfast. In 2012 he wrote a short history of the News Letter for our 275th anniversary supplement.