A guest post by Conor Donegan
One of the most intriguing aspects of the Irish Revolutionary period (1912-1923), is the degree to which counties, and often areas within counties, varied from each other in terms of levels of IRA activity. Waterford is perhaps one of the best examples of this trend, with the west of the county seeing intense fighting on par with other Munster counties, while the city and its eastern hinterland was largely quiet, due in no small part to its strong affinity with Redmondism. Consequently, Waterford’s reputation as a republican stronghold is usually regarded as weak when compared to the likes of say Cork or Tipperary. In September 1965, that perception briefly changed when an audacious attack was launched on a British warship in Waterford Harbour by three members of the South Kilkenny IRA; an incident that occurred 55 years ago on this day.
Between the end of the Border Campaign in 1962 and the eruption of the Troubles in 1968/1969, the IRA appeared to disappear off the radar as the republican movement turned towards socialist politics and the infiltration of civic organisations. Anglo-Irish relations appeared to be improving. Taoiseach Seán Lemass and Northern Prime Minister Terence O’Neill exchanged visits, and the British returned the remains of Roger Casement to be interred in Glasnevin.
In March 1963 Waterford Corporation passed a resolution reflecting this thaw in relations, expressing the belief that ‘…never during the past 700 years had the relations between Britain and Ireland been on a more friendly basis, whether taken on a governmental or individual basis’. The four-day courtesy visit of the Royal Navy minesweeper St David to Waterford in 1961, including a civic reception hosted by Mayor John Griffin, was just one of several such visits to the City during the 1960s. Scenes unimaginable just 20 years previously were now taking place on a regular basis, welcomed by Waterford’s civic and business leaders, but drawing the ire of local republicans.
Richard Behal of Kilmacow, Co. Kilkenny had been a member of the IRA since the 1950s and had previously been involved in disturbing the visit of Princess Margaret to Abbeyleix Castle in January 1965. Behal deplored the ‘re-familiarisation of the British armed forces in Ireland’, and sought permission from IRA Chief of Staff Cathal Goulding to launch an attack on the next such visit of a British warship to Waterford. Permission was received and an opportunity presented itself when the HMS Brave Borderer arrived in the City on the 6th of September, accompanied by the usual civic reception.
Behal, and his comrades Walter Dunphy of Mooncoin and Edward Kelly of Mullinavat, planned to fire on the motor torpedo boat from the riverside when she was scheduled to leave Waterford on the 10th. The Brave Borderer was one of two Brave-class fast patrol boats commissioned into the Royal Navy in 1960, the other being her sister, Brave Swordsman; with a maximum speed of 50 knots they were among the fastest naval vessels in the world at the time.
In a June 2018 interview, Behal stated that the aim of the attack was never to cause harm or worse to British sailors, but rather to make a protest against the increasing presence of the Royal Navy in Waterford, and what Behal and his comrades suspected was a prelude to Ireland’s accession to NATO. The upcoming golden jubilee of the Easter Rising was also a motivating factor. Armed with an anti-tank gun retrieved from an arms dump in the Midlands, the three men set up position at Gyles Quay on the Kilkenny side of the river facing Little Island, early on the morning of the 10th of September. A number of Garda foot patrols passed the men’s position along the railway line separating them from the Suir, indicating some anticipation of an attack on the part of the authorities.
The quietness of the vessel’s jet propulsion engines caught the men by surprise, and Behal aimed for a position halfway between the deck and the waterline and about a third of the way back from her bow. He managed to fire two shots which pierced the hull, before the Brave Borderer accelerated to full speed in an attempt to escape the gunfire, without firing back. Before she managed to round the bend in the river, Behal’s third shot hit one of her engines which caused the boat to veer erratically from side to side, and disappear down the Harbour in a cloud of smoke; such was the commotion caused by this third shot that Ned Kelly fully believed they had sunk her! The Brave Borderer eventually passed the Hook and made it to Torquay the following day; her refit lasted four months and cost several million pounds. No casualties were reported.
Behal, Kelly and Dunphy were captured by Gardaí on the mudbanks close to the Barrow Bridge, and were remanded in custody in Waterford charged with ‘possessing firearms with intent to endanger life’. Throughout the trial, demonstrations were regularly held at the courthouse in support of the men, and anti-British feelings ran high in the city. The Mayor at the time, and later TD, Patrick ‘Fad’ Browne was obliged to defend himself in front of a hostile crowd which had assembled at his house on Luke Wadding Street and thrown stones at his business a few doors down.
The three men were each sentenced to nine months imprisonment, though Behal would make a daring escape from Limerick Prison in February 1966. After another brief stint in prison in the 1970s, Behal served on the Ard Comhairle of Sinn Féin, addressed the General Assembly of the United States Human Rights Commission on behalf of the 1981 Hunger Strikers, and stood as a candidate in the 1984 European Parliament elections. He currently lives in Killarney, Co. Kerry. Walter Dunphy still resides in his native South Kilkenny. Ned Kelly sadly passed away in 2011.
This fascinating incident, undoubtedly the last naval engagement in the Suir’s long and turbulent history, occurred 55 years ago on this day.
- Ferriter, Diarmuid, The Transformation of Ireland 1900 – 2000, (Profile Books Ltd, London, 2005)
- Irish Independent, 10 August 1961
- Bell, J. Bowyer, The Secret Army: The IRA, (Transaction Publishers, New Jersey, 1997)
- Limerick Leader, 24 April 2010
- Cork Examiner, 7 September 1965
- Interview with Richard Behal, by Irish Republican Marxist History, 25 June 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hGvDZviA0wY
- Evening Echo, 10 September 1965
- Munster Express, 1 October 1965
- Irish Times, 21 March 2016
- Nenagh Guardian, 26 May 1984