The Smashing of the van
I strolled down Castle Street in Glasgow’s east end this week and got to thinking about the history which had been played out in this, the oldest part of the city. As I passed the Royal Infirmary, once the site of the Castle which gave the street its name, I recalled the tales of William Wallace capturing that same castle during the Scottish Wars of Independence in 1297. Further down the street stands Glasgow cathedral. It was here the stone masons confronted the Reformers in the sixteenth century who were determined to destroy the building as they had destroyed so many other great church buildings in Scotland. Thankfully a compromise was agreed and they destroyed instead any interior signs of ‘Popery’ such as art works, statues and rood screens but left the building standing. Across the road is the oldest surviving house in Glasgow built in 1472 and diagonally opposite that is a statue of William of Orange in Roman garb on his horse with its tail held on by a ball and socket joint after repeated vandalism in the late nineteenth century.
Go a little further and you’ll see the remains of the walls of the old Duke Street prison. The Ladywell flats complex is inside the much reduced walls of what was one of Scotland’s major jails. It was here almost a century ago that an incident occurred which is surprisingly little known today. Let me take you back though to a very different Glasgow from the one we know today…
It seemed like a normal Wednesday afternoon in Glasgow as people went about their business on a warm spring day in 1921. The east end of Glasgow was enjoying some bright May weather and the area around Castle Street, which led to the Cathedral and Royal Infirmary, was busy but all seemed normal. That was about to change as the lumbering Black Maria Police van made its way from the Central Police Court in St Andrew’s Square to Duke Street Prison. It contained just two prisoners and one of them was of such importance that four armed officers formed an escort. The back of the van was divided into compartments known as dog boxes; one contained a petty criminal and the only other occupied dog box contained Frank Carty.
Carty was a highly dangerous man in the eyes of the British authorities. A battle hardened Commander of the IRA who had fought the Black and Tans in his homeland for two long and bloody years. He had already escaped from Sligo and Derry prisons and the authorities were taking no chances. Glasgow then was a city with a large Irish population many of whom were sympathetic to the cause Carty fought for. Indeed, Eamon de Valera, the president the Irish Republic said of Scotland’s assistance to the struggle for Irish independence:
‘The financial contribution to the Irish struggle from among the Scottish communities was in excess of funds from any other country, including Ireland.’
Scotland was more than a source of money and sympathy for the Republican cause during the Irish war of independence; weapons, explosives and volunteers crossed the sea too. Most major population centres in Scotland had their clandestine companies of volunteers who robbed munition works, stole weapons and on one occasion held up the crew of a Royal Navy gunboat docked at Finnieston and stole their weapons. Chris Bambery in his book ‘A people’s history of Scotland’ states that…
‘Seamus Reader, the commander of the Scottish IRA was able to slip into the chemistry department of Glasgow University where he manufactured explosives which were then shipped to Ireland.’
In this atmosphere, it was plain to see why the Police thought Frank Carty needed some extra security as he journeyed to Duke Street Jail. As events were to prove, they were right to be concerned for as the Van slowed near the entrance of the Prison, a team of IRA Volunteers led by hardened Republican Sam Adair sprung their ambush. Witnesses spoke of ‘scores’ of armed men running from lanes and closes of the High Street to ambush the van. As people fled in terror, the IRA men fired into the van killing one of the escorting officers and wounding another. The other officers returned fire and a deadly gun fight took place on the public street. The attackers were unable to free Carty despite firing repeatedly into the lock on the metal door of the van. In the end the attackers gave up and melted away into the warren of closes and lanes which made up the area then.
Glasgow was shocked by what had occurred on that bright May day and police raids took place immediately in areas they thought sympathetic to the rebels in Ireland. The Glasgow Irish were still ghettoised in those times and life revolved around the local community, the Parish and for many Celtic Park. As doors were battered down in the east end of the city, people were becoming irate and a large crowd gathered in Abercrombie Street. The Police arrived by the van load to raid more homes and their heavy handed approach ensured that the anger in a community, which had long thought they were treated unfairly, was growing. When they arrested a local Priest, Father McCrory of St Mary’s, things got out of hand and serious rioting occurred. The Police were forced to withdraw but not before dozens had been taken into custody and scores of firearms recovered. As a mob reported as two thousand strong controlled the Gallowgate area that night, the army quietly readied itself in case it was required to assist the hard pressed Police.
Charges against a dozen men and women involved in the ‘smashing of the van’ went to trial in Edinburgh but the Jury found all involved not guilty or not proven. No one was ever convicted for the killing of Superintendent Robert Johnstone who died that day. Sam Adair the IRA man who led the attempt to free Frank Carty died in the civil war which followed the signing of the treaty which ended the ‘Tan War’ and led to the partition of Ireland. He was fighting for the anti-treaty IRA against Pro-Treaty forces when he was killed in an ambush set by his former comrades. It was said that Frank Carty, the man he had tried to rescue in Glasgow, had ordered the ambush.
Glasgow in those times was in many ways a divided city and this was expressed in many ways, not least in its sectarian geography and the street gangs of the era, some of whom were hundreds strong. The Billy Boys and Bridgeton Derry were often locking horns with their mainly catholic rivals the Norman Conks or the Shamrock. Their battles could be brutal and this era gave Glasgow its ‘No Mean City’ reputation. In Politics, the Glasgow Irish were often more interested in what was going on in Ireland than the local scene where virulently anti-Catholic political parties had sprung up. The Protestant Action Party and Protestant League could win a quarter of the vote at local elections in Edinburgh and Glasgow. With high unemployment, poverty and over-crowding, the conditions were rife for such extremist voices to be heard.
The year following the attempt to free Frank Carty Celtic travelled to Greenock for the finale of a very tight Championship race. They needed to avoid defeat to ensure they would be champions and Morton, who would win the cup that year, would prove formidable opponents. As thousands of Celtic supporters flooded into Greenock there was tension in the air. Police stopped Celtic fans entering the stadium with banners described in the press as ‘Sinn Fein’ flags (Irish tricolours) but they were simply passed over the wall to their comrades inside. Fighting broke out on the terraces as they game commenced and continued sporadically until the teams left the field at half-time. It was then the real trouble occurred, with hundreds involved clashes and fans racing from one end of the field to the other to join in the fray. Ship yard workers from Greenock had been seen carrying bags of metal rivets into the game and these caused many injuries when thrown. The Police were helpless to stop the mayhem and only the resumption of the game distracted the rioters from their activities. Celtic drew 1-1 thanks to a late goal from Andy McAtee and won the title by one point but as fans exited the stadium the violence resumed. Morton fans were seen to burn Celtic flags and both sets of supporters laid into each other again. There was trouble in and around the railway station and on the trains back to Glasgow where among other things Police had to overpower a man wielding a razor. Shop windows were smashed and looted, the cells were full and the hospital overcrowded by the end of a day in which Greenock had seen the worst rioting in its history.
It’s interesting comparing the Glasgow of the 1920’s to the modern city. We often see some faux outrage when someone sings a non PC song at a football match or displays a banner with political content but that pales into insignificance when we consider the political and social divisions at play a century ago. The Irish-Scots have come a long way in the past hundred years and are now a fully integrated and prominent part of the Scottish nation. Through inter-marriage and the passing of time, each succeeding generation becomes more Scottish, proud of their ancestry of course, but now much more comfortable in their native land. Scotland’s largest migrant group, once virtually written out of any history of the country, are now being rightly recognised for their role in building its infra structure, for their contribution in sports, the arts, education, law, politics and much more.
Perhaps the most visible symbol of their presence in this old city is to be found in the east end of Glasgow at the top of what we used to call Kerrydale Street...