Much has been written and spoken of Tom Williams the young Clonard man executed in Belfast Prison on the 2nd September 1942. His name, and the fight to have his remains removed from the prison burial ground to a reserved grave in the Republican Plot was kept alive over the years by the National Graves Association. This campaign reached its 58 year end when in January 2000, the remains were finally laid to rest in consecrated ground in the family grave.
The National Graves Association, although keen to have the remains laid in the Republican Plot were happy to compromise with relatives, as Tom was laid with beside his mother.
An account given to the authors by a veteran North Belfast Republican, Billy Wiggins, who was imprisoned in Belfast Prison at the time of the execution sums up the atmosphere and feeling at the time.
This account has been published here for the first time:-
The days and nights proceeding Tom Williams death on the scaffold have been inbedded in my memory down through the years since. I vividly remember those days of tension, feelings of emotion, bitterness and resentment that prevailed among the three hundred or thereabouts internees in D.Wing of the prison at the time.
Following the reprievals of his five companions hopes were raised that Tom’s life might still be spared. But despite appeals from the Cardinal, Politicians North and South, all was in vain. Naturally all forms of recreation (football, handball etc) were cancelled. The men were in no mood for anything but walking around in silence either in the excerise yard or in the mess hall. This was the old prison workshop. It was used as a kitchen, recreation room and chapel by the internees. It was decided to fast on the eve of the execution, until the special Mass the following morning at approximately the hours of Tom’s death. That was a particularly sad and painful day, and the night was also unforgettable. Being in cells in D.Wing meant that we were on the Crumlin Road side of the prison as indeed is A.Wing also. We listened as all through the night groups of women were outside the gates, one group singing hymns and reciting rosary after rosary. However another group had gathered further down the road at Bedeque Street to engage in ‘booing’, jeering and to sing Orange songs. The Mass was to be celebrated by Fr. Oliver of Ardoyne who with another Ardoyne priest Fr. Alexis and of course Fr. McAllister the prison Chaplin, were in constant attendance with Tom all the time he was in the death cell.
I had the privilege, with J.B. O’Hagan to serve at the Mass said on an alter erected by the now deceased Jack McNally at the bottom end of the hall. During the Mass the suspense was so intense that many of the men keeled over in faint.
J.B. and myself found it difficult to remain kneeling upright on the alter steps. Fr. Oliver himself was very visibly affected. One seemed to detect a deep sigh at the consecration which seemed to coincide with Tom’s last movements. The world was soon to be made aware of how he so nobly and courageously met his death with a smile on his lips and a prayer in his heart for God and Ireland.
Although these are some of the thoughts and feelings that existed among the internees at the time, we were always thinking about the feelings of Tom’s five comrades and the other republican prisoners in A.Wing. These must have been worse than ours, being so close to the death cell.
After a funeral Mass in St Paul’s Church, Cavendish Street, on Wednesday 19th January 2000, the remains of Tom Williams were carried from the church amid a barrage of press cameras to begin the long awaited journey to Milltown.
As the Falls Road came to a standstill, people lined the footpaths, as the Nationalist community and Republicans of all shades paid their respects and witnessed an event many of the older generation thought they would never see. Black flags flew along the road as the cortege moved slowly through Beechmount and up towards Milltown, to bring to an end the struggle to have his remains removed from an unmarked prison grave.