The Felons of our Land
Well, what-do-you-know but the most successful and longest-running shebeen in the entire country isn’t to be found in a backstreet of Belfast or in a low public house in Donegal, but in the capital of the country. And not just anywhere in the capital, but in the bowels of Leinster House where the laws of the 26 Counties are laid down!
Yes, someone sober has just discovered that for the past 80 years the bar in Leinster House does not have a licence to serve alcohol at anytime never mind after-hours and now they have to regularise the situation and apply to themselves for a licence.
Despite it illegally operating for eight decades I doubt if any of its patrons ever experienced the frisson that came from drinking in a real shebeen, one where you risked not a mere fine but your very freedom!
Over thirty years ago the Felons Club was located in the former Boys Home, an old, moss-covered, dilapidated building, at Milltown, behind Maguire’s Garage. Access was via a stone bridge over a smelly river. The building, of several floors was dark and dank. I am not sure where the electricity came from!
Internment had been introduced four or five months earlier and most of us were on the run. Orders were that you were not to go to the Felons as it was a security risk because of the regular Brit raids. (The same applied to many of the other fledgling shebeens which sprang up all over the place.)
But, full of bravado, to the Felons we went, many Sunday nights, the Beechmount crew, which included Eddy, Gerry, Micky, Geordie, Tommy, Basil (Paul Fox, killed on active service), Stan-the-Man (Stan Carberry, killed on active service) and Freedom (Hughie O’Neill, died in London). A woman from the Shankill (married to one of our company) would sing ‘James Connolly’ and we would join in the chorus. Our songs were uncompromising statements about how the struggle would be unswerving and unflinching. We frenetically discussed the hectic situation on the streets, especially after Bloody Sunday. There were no glasses or ashtrays and you had a choice of Harp or Guinness, by the crate.
The first time I had been in that particular club was a few years earlier when I was about fourteen. In 1964 the Irish Republican Felons Association was founded. It had been inspired by two young men who were in jail together in the 1940s - Gerry Adams from the Falls and Joe Campbell from Ardoyne. The club was first housed above Hectors hardware shop on the Falls Road, but it became too small for the burgeoning membership and so it was moved to Milltown.
My Uncle Harry, an ex-lifer, took me there, along with my mother. I recall my Uncle Seamus’ accordion band playing, then Prionnsias Mac Airt being called to the stage where he hauntingly sang, ‘The Croppy Boy’. I helped make tea and sandwiches. The atmosphere was incredible: ceili music, singing, discussions, arguments. A sense of purpose and real pride. Certain people would be pointed out in a whispered reverence as having been ‘on the ship’ or ‘in the Crum’.
I was there the night that one of the McBurneys called a young woman to the stage and announced that she was being given a record contract. She was Kathleen McCready who went on to form The Flying Column (with her future husband Eamonn Largey) and to peerlessly sing ‘Four Green Fields’.
Some, a small minority of pre-1969 traditional republicans, must have felt themselves to be of a certain caste because they had trouble coping and coming to terms with the influx of lumpen recruits after August 1969 who flocked to republicanism seeking a home and an answer to the political predicament of the nationalist community. They formed the bulk of the volunteers who fought and died in the armed struggle and established the composition of the Movement as it stands today.
In 1973 the Felons moved from the Home to St Laurence’s Hall (its current location) which had no roof and needed refurbishment. The move was inevitable as Milltown was to be demolished. The club – to survive the times - also had to move away from its shebeen status and apply for a licence. Memories are potent, but none more so than those that engender strong feelings of nostalgia, resistance to change, and regret for a lost era when things were simple and fundamental.
Raids on the club and harassment of staff members, of course, continued. The RUC raised objections to every renewal of the licence and for over five years, during the current ceasefire, pursued a malicious court case against the management which later collapsed.
In 1996 the Brits and their advisors thought they were being very clever when they introduced the Registration of Clubs Act, which included a provision disbarring from the management of clubs anyone with a prison conviction – which meant that most members weren’t eligible as club officials. But the poor Brits hadn’t thought the thing through properly because the law had forgot to disbar from management ex-internees or former remand prisoners without convictions, or prisoners with convictions outside the jurisdiction!
To me the Felons Club is the best club in Belfast - which is why I had my first pint there on the day I was released from jail, held my wedding reception there and my fiftieth birthday celebration. The inspiration of two teenage prisoners over half a century ago, the Felons resonates with history and is a real sanctuary. And if I close my eyes, sip my Guinness and listen to the hubbub, I remember those nights thirty years ago in a shebeen, surrounded by young comrades, our laughter, our fears and our hopes.
“What lies in the future is a mystery to us all,
No-one can predict the wheel of fortune as it falls.”
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© 2007 Irish Author and Journalist - Danny Morrison