My great, great, great, great grandfather, James McGivern was born in about 1790.

There is no record of his wife, but one of their children was my great, great, great grandfather James McGovern (note the change of spelling), who was born in Belfast on 16 January 1808. He married my great, great, great grandmother Mary Branaghan and they had four children - Margaret, Jane, John and James, my great great grandfather.

Of these offspring, no further trace is recorded of James and Mary's eldest daughter Margaret.

Their second child Jane married James Muff on 5 June 1843 at St Patrick's Church in Belfast.

John, their third child was born in 1829. He married Jane McIntyre on 26 October 1848 and they had nine children - James, John, Arthur, Owen, Bernard, Thomas, William, Jane and Patrick. A number of John and Jane's sons fled to America, apparently after having been involved in the death of a policeman. John himself died a pauper in the Belfast workhouse on 14 October 1879.

Their youngest child, James McGivern, my great, great grandfather was born in 1838. He was a dealer by trade. His wife, Mary Healey, was born in on 13 April 1843, daughter of Henry Healey and Mary McConville, my great, great, great grandparents, of whom nothing more is known.

Mary Healey was known as "Longford Mary". It was common in those days to differentiate between two members of an extended family with the same name by tagging their place of origin onto their forename. James and Mary were married on 10 June 1865 in St Malachy's church, Belfast and had ten children - James, Hannah, John, Michael, Jane, Mary, Patrick, my great grandfather Arthur, Anne and Margaret.

At one stage the family was living at 5 Burns Court, Belfast.

The eldest daughter, Hannah married Henry Mullaghan on 11 July 1880.

Michael and Mary both died shortly after birth and Patrick at the age of 12.

The fate of the other children, apart from my great grandfather is not clear. Their mother Mary died at the family home in Burns Court on 28 May 1900 at the age of 60. There is no record of James' death.

James and Mary's eighth child, my great grandfather Arthur McGivern was born on 1 February 1874 at the family home in Millfield Place, Belfast. Arthur became a baker and at the age of nineteen he married seventeen year old Lizzie Cronin. Despite the fact that she was the bride, and despite her youth, unusually Lizzie's occupation is recorded on the marriage certificate. There she is recorded as "dealer". The wedding took place at St Patrick's Church, Donegall Street Belfast, on 28 November 1892.

 

My great grandfather Arthur McGivern (left) with Sammy Cronin, Lizzie's younger brother who was killed in the First World War

It was a stormy marriage and Arthur and Lizzie frequently spent periods of time living apart. According to his grandson Brian McGivern, Arthur McGivern was a very heavy drinker, and Brian relates the following tale, "Arthur's cousins, who had to go to America to escape the law after being involved in some trouble in Belfast, possibly the murder of a policeman or soldier, one day wrote to Arthur and Lizzie saying what a great place America is and enclosing the fare for them to join them. Well, didn't Arthur spend the money on booze. Some time later Lizzie found the letter and there was hell to pay."

Arthur McGivern died in October 1935 after falling down the steps in the Bakers' Club in North Street Belfast. It is quite possible that he was drunk at the time. At the time of his death he was staying at the home of his niece in Alton Street, during one of several periods of separation from his wife.

Lizzie McGivern was a resourceful woman, and quite possibly as difficult to live with as her husband must have been. She operated as an independent trader, buying and selling various goods, mostly clothes, on market stalls all over Ireland. Lizzie regularly frequented Belfast Variety Market as well as Aughnacloy Market in County Tyrone and Portadown Market. She would hire a pony and trap driven by Jimmy Ward to take her to the railway station for such trips.

Arthur and Lizzie moved frequently and lived in a great many Belfast locations, including 8 Curries Court, Mill Street, 35 Hamill Street, 46 Smithfield, Stephen Street, Erin Cottage in Anderstown (which Lizzie regarded as an "unlucky house"), Divis Street, Hamill Street, Regent Street (at two separate addresses), 15 Francis Street (where surprisingly they managed to live for eighteen years and where my grandmother Lily was born), 37 Barrack Street, 74 Carlisle Street (where my uncle John Donaldson was born), Princes Street and finally on the newly built Glenard Estate in Ardoyne.

My mother Teresa remembers her grandmother as "a very Victorian woman, always dressed in long black clothes". It seems that Lily's mother was more successful as a businesswoman that she was as a mother. Teresa describes her as a "neglectful mother". My uncle John says she was "an early career woman with no real interest in kids".

My aunt Barbara remembers Lily recounting how, as a child, she would often wait at the railway station for her mother to come home from her many business trips, only to eventually realise that she was not returning home that night. On such occasions the children were cared for by their housekeeper, "Old Sarah".

My aunt Bernadette remembers that her grandmother Lizzie had a habit of sucking raw eggs. She would also refer to Bernadette unkindly as "Monday morning's bad luck". May O'Toole, Lizzie's granddaughter says, "I never remember her visiting us in Ardoyne. I really don't think that my father and she got on well. When we lived in Bangor she visited us once but that was because she was there to buy stuff from a house. On that occasion she gave us a three penny piece and she said "too much is bad for you". I never remember getting anything else of her in my life".

Lizzie McGivern died in 1952 whilst living at the home of her youngest daughter Bernie in Ladbroke Drive, Ardoyne, Belfast.

My uncle Kevin Donaldson recalls, "I remember when she died, mom went away for several days to attend her funeral. My sister Bernadette had a hard time looking after the rest of us while she was away... I think the time most probably coincided with John being away in Cyprus with the RAF. Mom returned with a few knick-knacks: a triple vase in yellow crock and a few glass tulips."

Despite their stormy marriage Arthur and Lizzie managed to have a total of ten children - Anne, Mary, Patrick, Teresa, Elizabeth, Hannah, Arthur, Elizabeth (Lily), James and Bernadette . Only the last four survived into adulthood. The deaths of the first six children make very sad reading. As May O'Toole observed in correspondence to me, many of the deaths would have been medically preventable in the modern age. Their oldest child Anne died from pneumonia in 1900 aged 5 years. Mary died on her first birthday from laryngitis. Patrick was born prematurely and lived for just eleven days. Teresa died from tuberculosis at the age of twelve. Elizabeth died from meningitis at the age of two. Hannah was just three years old when she died from tuberculosis enteritis.

Perhaps it was the pain from the tragic deaths of their first six children that drove Arthur to his excessive fondness for the bottle and Lizzie to concentrate so exclusively on her business ventures. Perhaps they had both begun to believe that none of their children would survive.

The four McGivern children who did manage to survive their childhoods lived through stormy times. After the partitioning of Ireland into the Republic (initially called the Irish Free State) and Northern Ireland, Belfast became the capital of Northern Ireland, and its catholic population became a persecuted minority.

The period immediately after partition was marked by vicious sectarian disturbances in the city. About 450 people died in sectarian violence in Belfast between 1920 and 1922 - a period known as the "Belfast Pogroms". Many thousands of Catholics fled the city after this sustained campaign of violence and intimidation.

In July 1922, a cousin of the McGiven children, Patrick McGivern, was brutally attacked by a group of protestants whilst out on his routine delivery round to shops. According to Patrick's own recollection of what happened (faithfully recorded by Jimmy McGivern who wrote down contemporaneously Patrick's verbal account), he was delivering a box of fruit to a shop in Glentilt Street whereupon he was suddenly set upon by several men who swore at him, calling him a "fenian cunt", before shooting him, once in the hand, once in the forearm and finally in the head. The bullet entered his temple and blew out his left eye. He was then stripped naked, beaten severely and dragged out into the street by his feet, where a crowd had gathered. Patrick recalled hearing one woman calling out "is the fenian finished yet?". His life was saved - in almost Biblical fashion - by the intervention of a passing woman, a prostitute from Foreman Street, who cried out to the crowd, "in the name of Christ, is there not a mother among you?" before she covered Patrick's naked body with an apron or something similar.

Patrick was taken to Belfast's Mater Hospital where, against the odds, he survived. He had, however, lost his sight and was always known thereafter as "Blind Patrick".

The city of Belfast suffered badly as a result of the Great Depression, and during the thirties Catholics, already the subject of discrimination in respect of the allocation of jobs, were systematically targeted by Protestant militants, who began forcing them out of their homes, particularly in areas such as the docks and the mills where some Catholics still had jobs. My grandparents Lily and John Donaldson were later forced out of two different houses during this period of intensified sectarian violence. It was in this violent political maelstrom of 1920s and 30s Belfast that the young Arthur, Lily, Jimmy and Bernie and their children grew up.

From left to right: Jimmy, Lily, Bernie and Arthur McGivern. This photograph was taken in 1960 at Bernie's house

Lily's eldest brother Arthur McGivern was born in 1908 and became a metal polisher by trade, and later a labourer. He also played accordion in a dance band. Arthur married Mary MacDonald and they had four children - John, Hugh, Arthur and Mary.

Arthur spent several years in prison during the late 1930s and early 1940s. My grandmother Lily had told her children that Arthur had spent time in prison after being wrongly convicted for carrying a firearm. According to Lily's story, Arthur's band had been playing at a dance hall when some IRA gunmen burst in, closely pursued by the police. In the confusion one of the IRA men hid his revolver in Arthur's accordian case and Arthur was subsequently arrested, charged and convicted.

The truth behind Arthur's conviction and imprisonment is somewhat different.

Like his younger brother Jimmy, Arthur became involved with the Irish Republican Army from an early age. No doubt the terrible injustices, violence and intimidation against Catholics in Belfast helped shape Arthur's personal politics. The IRA had evolved from the Easter Rising of 1916 in Dublin, whose leaders had called for an independent Irish republic with "equal rights and equal opportunities" for all the Irish people. The Easter Rising was brutally put down by the British army and sixteen of its leaders were executed. Three years later, after an independent Irish parliament was declared by Sinn Fein, the British army responded in similarly ruthless fashion, declaring marshall law in Ireland, burning down houses, shops and factories, and executing and torturing suspected republicans. The IRA responded by developing a successful campaign of guerrilla warfare against the British army, which ultimately led to Ireland being split into two - the independent republic in the south and the "six counties" of Northern Ireland, which were to remain subject to home rule. The Irish civil war ensued, waged between the Irish Free State's army and the IRA, who were vehemently opposed to the partitioning and wanted the whole of Ireland to be free from British rule. The civil war ended in May 1923 but the IRA continued to agitate on both political and military fronts for a free and complete Ireland. These aspirations of the IRA would have been shared by Arthur and Jimmy McGivern.

The real story behind Arthur's years in prison is revealed in a report in the Belfast Weekly Telegraph dated 13 February 1939. According to this account, Arthur McGivern and a friend, Michael Walsh, were arrested in possession of explosives.

According to the Weekly Telegraph report, the arresting officer was Sergeant Lappin of the Royal Ulster Constabulary. Sergeant Lappin's suspicions had been aroused when he saw the two men heading towards the school where he was helping children cross the road. The men were each carrying a brown paper parcel. When Sergeant Lappin challenged them, Michael Walsh at first claimed the parcels were meant for Dr William, a teacher at the school. However, when Sergeant Lappin marched the young men round to the school, Dr William refuted their story. When they were made to open the parcels, Michael Walsh's was found to contain 160 rounds of British Service rifle ammunition and Arthur's contained 13lbs of potassium chlorate. A later search of Arthur's home found three disassembled rifles, carefully wrapped in newspaper and hidden under a child's cot.

The two men were tried by Lord Justice Babington at Belfast City Commission, and found guilty of carrying explosive materials. The Belfast Weekly Telegraph of Saturday 8 April 1939 recorded Arthur's demeanour in court as follows: "The accused, two under-sized youths, respectably dressed, made no answer when indicted, and the judge ordered a plea of "Not Guilty" to be entered in each case. The accused made demonstrative use of white handkerchiefs during the swearing in of the jury. They were each sentenced to ten years penal servitude. Both left the dock quietly, McGivern waving to an acquaintance in court."

It is interesting to note Arthur being described as an "under-sized youth". Although he was indeed a slight man and stood just five feet seven inches in height, he was in fact by now thirty one years of age. In the end, Arthur served only five years of his ten year sentence and was released on licence in from Crumlin Road prison on Wednesday, 18 October 1944.

 

 

part of Arthur McGivern's prison record, including photographs taken upon conviction and release five years later, showing how much he had aged inside prison 

The "before" and "after" photographs above from Arthur's five years incarceration show the heavy physical toll those five years took on him. In prison he had suffered from bronchitis and stomach problems. For years after his release he continued to suffer from stomach ulcers and he died in 1961.

Lizzie and Arthur's eldest surviving daughter was my grandmother, Elizabeth McGivern who was born at the family home, 15 Francis Street, Belfast on 12 March 1910. Although christened Elizabeth, my grandmother was always known as Lily. Before her marriage to John Donaldson , Lily worked as a tailoress, making men's and boys' suits. Her mother used to take her week's wages from her and give her back a small allowance. My mother, Lily's daughter Teresa recalls that, ironically, Lily was once scolded by the foreman where she worked, who told her that she should be giving her wages to her mother every week instead of frittering it away on hats! It is true that Lily was fond of hats, but the "hats" in question were in fact one single hat base which Lily stripped and re-covered whenever she wanted a change! Lily's eldest son John Donaldson's first wife Christine also recalls Lily's skills as a tailoress, "I used to dance flamenco and Latin American in a semi-professional group of dancers with genuine flamenco guitarists and singers. The wonderful costumes I wore were all made by Lily."

Lily's youngest brother, Jimmy McGivern, born on 28 February 1912, grew up to be a socialist firebrand, who joined the IRA at the age of nineteen. Lily always called him "Jamesie", but when I reminded Jimmy's daughter May O'Toole of this she said, "he used to hate being called Jamesie".

Jimmy married Kathleen Cummins on 11 July 1931 in St Paul's Church, Belfast. They had nine children - James, Brian, May, Lily, Joe, Gerry, Kate, Eileen and Brenda. It would seem that his mother Lizzie disapproved strongly of Jimmy's political activities. May O'Toole can remember occasions when they would visit her grandmother in Regent Street (where, she recalls, there would be "clothes knee deep everywhere" from Lizzie's market trading) only for the occasion to descend into a loud and frightening argument, with Lizzie more often than not denouncing Jimmy as "a communist".

During the 1930s a new housing development - the Glenard Estate was being constructed to the north of Belfast city centre. It was to this new estate that many of the Catholics evicted and persecuted by Protestant militants fled, often squatting in houses which were not yet completed. By 1935, Jimmy and Kathleen McGivern had moved their family into Ardglen Crescent on the Glenard Estate. Jimmy's parents, Lizzie and Arthur McGivern, my grandparents Lily and John Donaldson and Jimmy's other sister Bernie and her husband Joe Brown had all moved into houses on the adjoining Glenard Drive.

It had never been the constructors' intention for the Glenard Estate to house poor Catholic families, but the brutal anti-Catholic violence in Belfast made Glenard a place of relative sanctuary for desperate Catholic families. A few Protestants remained on the estate, but many more left when the Catholic families moved in. The houses on the estate were modern and offered facilities, such as an indoor toilet and a garden which must have seemed luxurious compared to those that most of the incoming Catholic families would have been used to.

The Glenard Estate Agents at first tried unsuccessfully to evict the squatting catholic families. When that failed they instead accepted that the families could stay and sold the houses on to a Trust fund administered in large part by the Catholic Church. Rents on the estate were high and for some families meeting the weekly rent bill meant going short of food. Furhermore, because many families had squatted in their homes before they had been completed, some still had no sanitation and in others water had not been connected. Besides the unfinished houses, the estate had no roads, alleyways or yards.

Glenard was not alone in being owned by greedy landlords and, gradually tenants across Belfast became more and more organised in resisting the high rents that their landlords charged. In Glenard, residents were particularly incensed at being charged full rent for houses which were habitable but incomplete and where the surrounding infrastructure was also incomplete. A series of rent strikes had arisen across Belfast during the mind 1930s and some had successfully forced landlords to reduce the rents they had been charging. A Glenard tenants committee was duly formed, of which Jimmy McGivern was a prominent member, and it began lobbying for the building work on the estate to be completed, for rents to be reduced, for the provision of children's play parks on the estate and for a dangerous sluice to be fenced off.

The Catholic Church, which by now was a landlord on the estate, responded to the demands by denouncing the tenants Committee as "communists" (the catholic church had a strong aversion to socialism after siding with Franco during the Spanish Civil war).

Eventually, after their attempts to persuade the landlords to make the necessary improvements had failed, the Tenants Committee organised a rent strike, which began on 11 January 1937. But the Glenard rent strike swiftly came up against the might of the authorities. Police used the Special Powers Act (Northern Ireland) to raid a house where the rent strike committee was meeting and later arrested several members of the committee as they distributed posters and leaflets around Ardoyne.

The landlords, with the assistance of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, then moved to have the organisers evicted from their homes. Sixteen families were named as the ones who would be the first to be evicted. Included in that list of sixteen families to be evicted was the Donaldsons - Lily and John and their young children. Evidently John Donaldson had been a strong supporter of the strike. Jamie McGivern's family was also named amongst the sixteen. The eviction notices were delivered to the sixteen families on 15 January 1937 and ordered them to leave their homes that very morning. The families served with eviction notices refused to leave and, undaunted, the striking tenants held a city centre rally on 17 January 1937, followed by a torchlight procession on the night of 18 January. My uncle John Donaldson remembers taking part in this procession, carrying an Ostermilk (baby food) carton with a lit candle inside on the end of a long pole.

Within a few days the landlords had obtained a warrant to evict Jimmy McGivern, whose home had been used as the tenants Committee Headquarters. When the two bailiffs, accompanied by six RUC officers and armed with a court order, came to carry out the eviction they found several hundred jeering and booing protestors blocking their path to the McGivern's home. Despite RUC reinforcements, the bailiffs were eventually forced to retreat.

Jimmy, meanwhile had barricaded himself and his family in his home. His son Brian is quoted in Michael Liggett's book "Glenard, Surviving Fear" as follows, "I remember there was a plank wedged against the front door and the stairs. There was also a hole dug between our house and next door. We used this to go through the house next door and then out into the street. The bailiffs thought we were barricaded in the whole time but we weren't". Jimmy McGivern had also put a live electric write to the letterbox and along the back wall of the house.

Each day on his way back to school after lunch my uncle John would deliver a basket of food to the McGivern household from his mother Lily. Jimmy would lower a rope from the upper window of the house and John would attach the basket to the rope, whilst the two policemen on duty discreetly turned a blind eye.

Eventually, howver, on 16 February, the bailiffs managed to evict the family by swooping very early in the morning and using an unprecedented force of 100 RUC men. The family's furniture was systematically removed from the house by the bailiffs and placed in the street, only to be swiftly rescued by the McGiverns' neighbours.

Although the strike was swiftly broken after this pivotal eviction, the political authorities had already decided to step in and they forced the landlords to carry out all of the work demanded by the tenants.

 Jimmy McGivern managed to get his family rehoused on the estate within 48 hours of their eviction by applying for his old house under the assumed name "James Cummings" (Cummings was his wife Kathleen's maiden name). At the time that he made this false application, he was instantly recognised by the owner's agent, Norman Devon, as one of the rent strike leaders.

Norman Devon tried unsuccessfully to persuade the landlords to prevent Jimmy McGivern and his family from moving back in. Ironically, Jimmy McGivern and Norman Devon later became good friends. Jimmy started a successful building company with his sons Jim, Brian, Joe and Gerry, and Norman Devon would often put work his way. Norman Devon's brother, Alex, owned a painting and decorating business and at one time he employed Jimmy's brother in law John Donaldson and John's brother Willie Donaldson.

After the strike, possibly because of the notorious reputation the Glenard Estate had gained as a symbol of the city's battle between rich and poor, the Belfast Corporation changed the names of every street in the area and effectively tried to remove any other evidence that Glenard had ever existed. Thus overnight my grandparents home in Glenard Drive became "Holmdene Gardens" and Jimmy McGivern's home in Ardglen Crescent became "Etna Drive".

Not long afterwards, and in circumstances largely triggered by the Second World War, Jimmy McGivern again found himself confronted with the might of the state. On 1 July 1940, on the orders of Sir Dawson Bates, Northern Ireland's Home Affairs Minister, around 200 republicans, including Jimmy McGivern, were rounded up as "suspected persons" on the grounds that they were considered to be a danger to the state. They were all interned on a ship, called the Al Rawdah, which was anchored in Strangford Lough, about 15 miles south west of Belfast.

Conditions on board the Al Rawdah were terrible and the food was abominable. To discourage escape attempts, the ship was also surrounded by barbed wire to a height of 12 feet. Visitors had to come out in boats after braving the hostility of the local people who resented having the Al Rawdah anywhere near their village. The inmates aboard the Al Rawdah kept an autograph book, which almost all of them signed, and this is now kept in Ulster Museum. Some of the entries in the book are poignant, some profound, many defiant. Jimmy McGivern wrote simply, "Conscience is the voice of God".

Jimmy's daughter May O'Toole says that her earliest memory is of being taken out to see her father on board the Al Rawdah: "I was two years old at the time and my mother was expecting our Lily. I don't remember how we got out there, but what I remember vividly is that there was no upstep and I could see the water. I can still hear myself screaming, petrified of the water. When we got on to the boat we were told my father was no longer there - he had been shifted to the Crumlin Road jail."

The authorities had not bothered to tell Jimmy's wife Kathleen that he had been moved. On the orders of the ship's Medical Officer, Dr Sproule, Jimmy had been taken off the ship to Crumlin Road Jail's prison hospital on 5 December 1940. He was recorded as suffering from tuberculosis and peritonitis. In fact the Al Rawdah experiment came to an end very shortly after Jimmy's transfer, and the remaining internees were soon moved to the Crumlin Road jail. This followed a sustained campaign by nationalist senators, who had been appalled by conditions aboard the vessel and who were worried that the Al Rawdah would be an easy target for German bombers. For a while, therefore, Jimmy and his elder brother Arthur were both incarcerated in the same prison, Crumlin Road, but they were not allowed to see each other.

Throughout his internment Jimmy had steadfastly refused to sign an undertaking not to engage in political activity, which would have allowed his release. However, his family were in poverty (by this time he and Kathleen had four young children), and he himself had become very ill whilst interned. He was refused medical treatment unless he signed the undertaking not to engage in political activity. Eventually, in response to the pleas of his wife Kathleen, he signed and was duly released.

 

 

prisoner's record sheet for Jimmy McGivern. Killyleagh, the euphemistic name given to the Al Rawdah prison ship, is a village on the banks of Stangford Lough

May O'Toole can remember accompanying her father on a visit to her uncle Arthur at the Crumlin Road jail following Jimmy's release.

After the war, Jimmy and his family returned to the rebuilt Glenard estate, where he concentrated on his building business, although he remained an active member of the Tenants' Association.

Jimmy and his wife Kathleen had nine children - Jim, Brian, May, Lily, Joe, Gerry, Kate, Eileen and Brenda. As his building company built up it became clear that his son Jim was Jimmy's favourite and the others sons gradually left the business one by one. Jimmy died aged 60 on 21 May 1972. His beloved wife Kathleen had died some eighteen months earlier. In his will Jimmy left the business to Jim and some money to his youngest daughter Brenda and nothing to his other seven children.

Bernie (Bernadette) McGivern, the youngest of Lily's siblings married Joseph (Joe) Brown on 25 February 1936. My grandparents John and Lily Donaldson were the witnesses. Bernie and Joe had seven children - Clarice, Frances, Joan, Bernadette, twins Geraldine and Theresa, and Joseph. Although the outward appearance seemed to suggest otherwise, theirs was not a happy marriage. Joe was physically abusive towards his wife and they separated late in life. Joe Brown left half of his money to his daughter Bernadette and the rest to Mother Teresa of Calcutta.