John SS Graham – international golfer and IRA commander, 1938-1951
Presented at Sports History Ireland’s annual conference, February 2008
Firstly, Graham was a prominent member of the Northern Command of the IRA during the short but notable northern campaign of the late 1930s and early 1940s. As one of a number volunteers who came from a Church of Ireland background, Graham and his fellow members of the ‘prod squad’ disappeared off the radar following their capture in 1942. Little is known of what became of any of them – even on an individual basis – after a general amnesty granted their release. However, Graham’s golfing exploits, which were largely noteworthy in the late 1940s and early 1950s, provide a sequel of sorts to his prominent activities for the IRA at the time, answering – at least in part – the question of what the future held for him after his release.
John Graham’s background was hardy typical for a prominent IRA volunteer. He was born in India in 1915, where his father had served as a British Army colonel. His family were Church of Ireland, and indeed he himself was studying to be a clergyman when the influence of Denis Ireland was brought to bear on the young Graham. Ireland, a Presbyterian, had fought in the First World War with the Royal Irish Fusiliers in France and Macedonia. By the late 1930s, he was gaining some notoriety for his founding of an Irish Union Movement, a constitutional organisation that attracted considerable liberal Protestant support due to its stressing of better relations with the south, something that harked back to Wolfe Tone’s writings. However, for Graham and several other liberal Protestants, there was only a small step from this constitutional agitation and physical force. Having studied centuries of Irish-English conflict, this group had decided that the aim of reunification through peaceful means was unattainable, and that an armed struggle was necessary. As Tim Pat Coogan put it, Graham and his associates
had joined the Union, not for the purposes of infiltration, but through the same tradition that brought them into the IRA: an interest in socialism, Wolfe Tone’s writings, the Irish language and the Gaelic League.
Unofficially, this group was known as the ‘Prod Squad’, and Graham quickly emerged as one of the most valuable assets in the Belfast Command structure. Jim Bowyer Bell described him as ‘one of the IRA’s best finds [….] He supplied what the Belfast IRA had consistently lacked since the exit of the radicals and professional people in the 30s – a keen, urbane mind and an acid pen’. These skills led to his appointment as director of publicity and the management of the IRA newspaper, Republican News. In addition, his sheer resourcefulness, combined with the rash of arrests of leading republicans in the early 1940s, led him to be promoted to officer commanding, Belfast Battalion. The involvement of Graham and his liberal Protestant associates in the IRA at this time did not come to light until a gun battle at the Northern Command’s publicity HQ in Crumlin Road, Belfast, on 10 September 1942. Graham and a number of others were captured, and after their involvement came to light, Ireland’s Irish Union Movement, already on tenuous ground as their all-Ireland outlook had not endeared them to the majority of their Protestant brethren, completely collapsed.
Graham was sentenced to 12 years in prison, and ended up in Crumlin Road prison’s A wing, where Joe Cahill was also interned. In Brendan Anderson’s 2002 monograph on Cahill’s career in the IRA, there is an account of a friendship the two struck up while in Crumlin Road:
John Graham was a man I got to know extra well, because he came into jail while I was there. He was a member of the Church of Ireland. Most of the special unit were Church of Ireland. John always maintained that his was the true Christian church in Ireland…. We had fierce arguments in jail, but he was very convincing in his claims that his was the true church…. It was the Catholic church, John maintained, that had left the true church. When he was in the Crumlin Road jail, the Church of Ireland chaplain, Pastor Buchanan, was appointed pastor of St Mary’s… the church John attended when he was free. During one visit, John’s mother and sister told him of the new pastor – what a great man he was, and the changes he was making to the church. They told John about a beautiful picture which the new pastor had mounted in the porch of the church. John asked what that picture was and was told it was the Virgin Mary. John, a Church of Ireland elder, was furious and, from his prison cell, attempted to call a meeting of the elders to have Buchanan removed because he had erected symbols of ‘papish idolatry’ in the church.
One other notable incident from Graham’s time in the A wing of Crumlin Road was the famous successful escape of Hugh McAteer and his associates in 1943. A bookkeeper by profession, McAteer served as IRA chief of staff for a year before his capture by the RUC in October 1942, but from the moment he arrived in the Crumlin Road prison, he had been planning his escape. On 15 January 1943, he and three other senior IRA men, Paddy Donnelly, Ned Maguire and Jimmy Steele, all escaped over the prison wall. The methods used to effect the escape, detailed in Cahill’s book, demonstrated considerable ingenuity. Rope ladders and grappling tools were fashioned from bed materials, while the escape itself was well enough choreographed that it seamlessly exploited the daily prison routine. However, Cahill maintains that a second team of escapees had also been organised that day, providing the first escape had not been noticed. The second team would go at nine o’clock, half an hour after McAteer’s team, while they were making their way to the workshops. This team included Graham, along with Cahill, David Fleming. However, the first team were spotted by a prison officer’s son on his way to school as they traversed the wall, and while the first team got away without much delay, there would be no further escape, as the cells remained locked until well after nine o’clock and workshop duty was delayed. The subsequent tightening of prison security included random cell-searches and bread-and-water diets, and conditions became so harsh that a hunger strike was entertained. However, Graham was among those who argued against this, as it either weakened prisons irrevocably or had to be carried through to death. A more effective protest, he felt, was a ‘strip strike’, which received much support from the other inmates. From mid-June 1943, 22 prisoners, including Graham, took off their prison clothes, with the wardens retaliating by removing every item from the cells until returning the bedding and blankets at 8.30pm each evening. The strike persisted for three months, until it was halted to allow Graham to get treatment for a badly swollen knee.
‘The grand striker’
Graham would get his release from Crumlin Road prison in 1949, but Belfast had little appeal for him by then. With the recapture of McAteer in late 1943, the IRA had diminished as a serious fighting force in Belfast, and the northern campaign, such as it was, had come to an end.
Furthermore, the way in which Graham slipped so seamlessly back into the Irish golfing scene following his release from Crumlin Road prison indicated that the press and the sport’s organisers in Ireland were either unwilling to acknowledge or willing to forget the previous life he had led. Never once was there a mention in the newspaper’s golfing columns – even in the Irish Times – of Graham’s past IRA involvement. In fact, while researching this paper, the impression was almost given that this J.S.S. Graham, and the John S.S. Graham mentioned in most of the works on the IRA in the 1940s, were two completely different people.