The above image has become one of the most iconic images of the conflict in the north-east of Ireland, not only for what the photo itself captures, but also the story behind it. A guerilla fighter crouched beneath the Starry Plough in the midst of burning barricades and rubble. This lone gunman was “Big Joe” McCann, Staff Captain, 2nd Battalion, Belfast Brigade, Official IRA, and the setting was Inglis’s Bakery in the Market area of Belfast as Joe led a group of six combatants in a heroic defence of the area against a much larger contingent of 600 British troops that were on an internment round-up. As Wednesday gone, 15th of April, was the anniversary of his death, we publish this brief dedication in memory of this “soldier of the people”.
Joe was born on the 2nd of November, 1947, into a working-class family in the Lower Falls area of Belfast. It was in the streets of Belfast, particularly the Market area, where Joe would spend most of his days, and tragically his last. From a young age Joe developed a keen interest in the Irish language and culture and at the age of 14 he joined Na Fíanna Éireann, a decision which no doubt helped him to develop his political outlook. As Joe matured politically he became drawn to the teachings of James Connolly, and took inspiration from his struggle and that of other great socialist revolutionaries such as Liam Mellows and Ernesto Ché Guevara. This instilled a genuine belief in Joe that the establishment of a Socialist Republic was the remedy to Ireland’s centuries of suffering, one where “Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter” would share equally in the prosperity of the nation. To this end Joe dedicated his life to working to overcome long-standing and carefully fostered sectarian divisions and to uniting the working-class of Belfast through organising tenants associations and trade-unions.
In September 1964 the hate-mongering, loud-mouthed bigot Ian Paisley threatened to march on Divis Street to remove a tri-clour which was flying outside of the election offices of Billy McMillen, prompting a heavily armed gang of RUC men to forcefully remove the flag. The following day riots broke out as the flag was replaced, and Joe was involved in the ensuing street battles. A year later Joe and five of his comrades were caught in possession of bayonets and were sentanced to three years in prison, of which nine months they served. Such was their character, they refused to answer any questions from the RUC or to speak in court. Joe had acquired a great reputation through his political and military activity and quickly moved up the ranks of the Belfast Brigade of the IRA. As the sectarian tensions in Belfast began to boil over in 1969, preluding the split in the Republican Movement, Joe was involved in the armed defence of Nationalist areas against the Loyalist pogroms. After the IRA split in 1969, Joe remained with the Official Movement as their left-wing tendencies were more in line with his own political views.
During the infamous Falls Curfew operation between the 3rd and 5th of July, 1970, as up to 3,000 British troops attempted to raid homes in the Nationalist Falls district a fierce gun battle broke out between the British army and the Republican guerillas defending the area. Joe was active in this fight and what became known as the Battle of the Falls. It was through such heroic actions that Joe built a reputation as a fearless fighter and defender of the people. A year later in August of 1971 due to these very same attributes, and timely photography, Joe would gain legendary status in the fight against British imperialism and enshrine his memory as a folk hero. As British troops swept into the Market district of Belfast with the intention of rounding up “suspected militants”, Joe led a group of six Volunteers in a gun battle against a much larger contingent of 600 British troops. Under Joe’s command the Volunteers took up defensive positions in Inglis’s Bakery and pinned down the Crown forces. It is said that these actions allowed a large number of Volunteers to flea from the area and avoid being picked up.
On the 15th of April, 1972, Joe was gunned down ruthlessly on Joy Street in the Markets area of Belfast by members of the Parachute Regiment. At the time Joe was one of the most wanted men in Ireland and as he was approached by members of the RUC Special Branch and the Paras he turned and ran. He was 24 years old and was unarmed when shot down and riddled with machine gun fire from close range. The words of Eamon O’Doherty’s ballad immortalise Joe’s killing;
“He carried no gun so he started to run,
To escape them as many’s the time before,
One bullet brought him down and as he lay on the ground,
They shot him ten times more…”
The reaction to Joe’s death was almost immediate and violent, as five days of rioting ensued. Three British soldiers were killed the following day in actions carried out by the Official IRA. The Turf Lodge area where Joe lived became a no-go area for the RUC and British Army as Official IRA vehicles openly patrolled the area. Such was his esteem among his comrades and the communities he defended that the tributes which followed were immense and up to 20,000 people attended his funeral at Miltown Cemetary. Even his foes expressed tributes to Joe, with Loyalist leader Gusty Spence sending a letter of condolence to Joe’s wife stating, “He was a soldier of the Republic and I a Volunteer of Ulster and we made no apology for being what we were or are…Joe once did me a good turn indirectly and I never forgot him for his humanity”. This was supposedly in reference to an incident where three UVF men were captured by Joe’s unit after a UVF raid on an OIRA arms dump. With the prisoners to be executed, Joe protested that they were also “working class men” and had them released unharmed.
For what it’s worth, the Historic Enquiries Team have recently described Joe’s killing as “unlawful”. Joe’s legacy as a committed Socialist and fearless combatant remains an inspiration to many today and his memory will live on as the struggle for a Socialist Republic continues. Fuair sé bás ar son Phoblacht na nOibrithe.