Joe McKelvey (Irish: Seosamh Mac Giolla Bhuidhe; died 8 December 1922) was an Irish Republican Army officer who was executed during the Irish Civil War. He participated in the anti-Treaty IRA's repudiation of the authority of the Dáil (civil government of the Irish Republic declared in 1919) in March 1922 and was elected to the IRA Army Executive. In April 1922 he helped command the occupation of the Four Courts in defiance of the new Irish Free State. This action helped to spark the civil war, between pro- and anti-Treaty factions. McKelvey was among the most hardline of the anti-Treaty republicans and briefly, in June 1922, became IRA Chief of Staff.
McKelvey was born into a nationalist family in Stewartstown, County Tyrone. He had a keen interest in the Gaelic Athletic Association and the Irish language. He studied as an accountant and gained some of the qualifications necessary for this profession, but never fully qualified. He worked for a time at the Income Tax Office on Queen's Square in Belfast and later found work in Belfast's engineering industry with Mackies on the Springfield road. He joined the Irish Republican Brotherhood and the Irish Volunteers, which after 1919, became known as the Irish Republican Army (IRA). He is a founder member of the O'Donovan Rossa Club, Belfast – founded in 1916 on the Falls Road. Each year the club honour him with a juvenile hurling blitz, an invitational competition which is participated in by clubs throughout Ireland.
War of Independence
McKelvey participated in the Irish War of Independence 1919–1921 against the British, in which he commanded the IRA's Belfast Brigade. In April 1920, he and other Volunteers burned the Income Tax office in Belfast where he had previously worked. In July 1920, during a wave of violence in the wake of the IRA assassination of a northern Police inspector (Gerard Smyth) in Cork, McKelvey was expelled from his job by loyalist intimidation. Roughly 7,000 other Catholics and left wing Protestant political activists also lost their jobs in this manner at the time. Many of the unemployed and vengeful Catholics were later recruited into the IRA, McKelvey later wrote to the IRA leadership that 75% of his volunteers were unemployed. On 22 August 1920, Joe McKelvey helped to organise the killing of RIC Detective Oswald Swanzy in Lisburn. The killing itself was carried out by IRA men from Cork, but McKelvey arranged a taxi to carry the assassins to and from the scene and disposed of their weapons. In reprisal for this shooting, 300 Catholic homes in Lisburn were burned out. McKelvey was forced to lie low in Dublin for some time after these events.
In March 1921, the IRA was re-organised by its leadership in Dublin into Divisions and McKelvey was appointed commander of the Third Northern Division, responsible for Belfast and the surrounding area. He was criticised by some of the younger, more radical Volunteers in the IRA Belfast Brigade, led by Roger McCorley for being reluctant to sanction the killing of Police and British Army personnel in Belfast. McKelvey feared (and was proved correct) that such actions would provoke retaliatory attacks on the Catholic and Irish nationalist community by loyalists. Nevertheless, he was unable to control some of his younger volunteers, who formed an "active service unit" on their own initiative and killed Police and soldiers on a regular basis. When such attacks occurred, loyalists, generally supported by the Ulster Special Constabulary, attacked Catholic areas in reprisal. The IRA was then forced to try to defend Catholic areas and McKelvey feared that the organisation was being drawn into sectarian conflict as opposed to what he saw as the "real" struggle for Irish independence. In May 1921, McKelvey's command suffered a severe setback, when fifty of his best men were sent to County Cavan to train and link up with the IRA units there, only to be surrounded and captured by the British Army on Lappanduff hill on 9 May.
In most of Ireland, hostilities were ended with a truce declared on 11 July 1921. However, in the north and particularly in Belfast, violence intensified over the following year. McKelvey wrote to IRA GHQ at this time that his command was very short of both arms and money. In March 1922, many of his papers, detailing the names and units of the roughly 1000 IRA members in Belfast were captured by the B-Specials Police in a raid on St Mary's Hall in Belfast.
McKelvey was alone among the leadership of the Belfast IRA in going against the acceptance of the Anglo-Irish Treaty. Most of his comrades supported Michael Collins' assurances that, although the Treaty accepted the partition of Northern Ireland from the rest of the country, this was only a temporary concession which would be dealt with later. McKelvey did not accept this. As a result he left his command as head of the IRA Third Northern Division and joined the Anti-Treaty IRA in Dublin.
McKelvey participated in the Anti-Treaty IRA's repudiation of the authority of the Dáil (civil government of the Irish Republic declared in 1919) in March 1922 and was elected to the IRA Army Executive. In April 1922 he helped command the occupation of the Four Courts in defiance of the new Irish Free State. This action helped to spark the Irish Civil War, between pro and anti Treaty factions. McKelvey was among the most hardline of the anti-Treaty republicans and briefly, in June 1922, became IRA Chief of Staff, replacing Liam Lynch.
On 28 June 1922, the new Irish Free State government shelled the Four Courts to assert its authority over the militants defending it. The Republicans in the Four Courts surrendered after two days of fighting and McKelvey was captured. He was held for the following five months in Mountjoy Prison in Dublin.
On 8 December 1922, Joe McKelvey was executed by firing squad along with three other Anti-Treaty militants, Rory O'Connor, Liam Mellows and Richard Barrett. The executions had been ordered in reprisal for the Anti-Treaty IRA's murder of Sean Hales, a Pro-Treaty member of the Third Dáil.
On the eve of his execution, he wrote this letter to a family friend: Letter written by McKelvey to Mrs Sullivan, 7 December 1922
- Robert Lynch, the Northern IRA and the early years of Partition, page 28 and 62
- Lynch the Northern IRA, page 34