Williams, Thomas (‘Tom’) (1923–42), republican, was born 12 May 1923 in the Beechmount area of the Falls Road, Belfast, third of four children of Thomas Williams, labourer, and his wife Mary (née Fay). The family had lived in a catholic enclave on the Shore Road in north Belfast, but moved because of loyalist attacks; an uncle had been an IRA man. Williams's mother died in 1926 aged twenty-nine, and his two sisters died in infancy. His father left Tom and his brother with their mother's family in Clonard, north-west Belfast, and moved to the Free State; he joined the army, remarried, and had three more children.
Williams was brought up by his maternal grandmother and an uncle within the strongly catholic and republican subculture of Clonard. He was physically frail and suffered from asthma. Educated at St Gall's primary school, while working part-time on a mushroom farm, he left school at the age of fourteen to work as a labourer and messenger. He was active in the local Con Colbert ‘slua’ of Fianna Éireann (the youth wing of the IRA); he joined the Clonard-based C company of the IRA (one of four companies in Belfast) in 1940 when he was seventeen. Williams was seen as unusually able and committed. He was rapidly promoted to adjutant and became company OC, aged eighteen, after the arrest of several older activists. He also became an air-raid warden – the IRA encouraged members to join the ARP as a cover.
On 5 April 1942 (Easter Sunday) Williams and five other IRA members (including his friend and second-in-command Joe Cahill (qv) (1920–2004), three years older than him) shot at a police car to draw police away from illegal republican parades. Instead of fleeing, as the gunmen had expected, the car's occupants pursued them on foot. The squad took refuge in a safe house; as police reinforcements arrived Constable Patrick Murphy, a married catholic with nine children, entered the house. Murphy was shot five times by Williams and Cahill and killed; Williams was wounded twice in the left thigh and once in the forearm. With the house surrounded the IRA men surrendered. In hospital, mistakenly believing that he was dying, Williams claimed that he had fired all five shots. The six IRA men were tried on 28–31 July 1942, found guilty, and sentenced to death. A campaign for their reprieve intensified after the dismissal of an appeal on 21 August. Williams and his associates spent their time in prayer and writing farewell letters to friends, relatives, and political associates. ‘Shall we make the mistake of ‘21, no, no,’ Williams wrote to the IRA chief of staff. ‘Better would [sic] that the heavens would open and send fire to destroy Erin, than to accept another Treaty’ (McVeigh, 49).
The government of Éamon de Valera (qv), fearing that a mass execution would strengthen the IRA, encouraged the campaign for clemency and made official representations to the British and American governments. It simultaneously forbade press coverage of campaigns to reprieve IRA men sentenced to death in its own territory; official censors ordered newspapers to call the death of Constable Murphy a ‘killing’, while the IRA killings of Gardaí were ‘murder’. Those who called for clemency included General Hubert Gough (qv), the prominent presbyterian minister A. Wylie Blue, and Dublin firefighters, who had assisted Belfast during the 1941 blitz. On 29 August all the prisoners were reprieved except Williams, who responded: ‘From Day One this is how I wanted it.’ He was hanged on 2 September 1942, rejoicing in his martyrdom, while a catholic crowd prayed the rosary and loyalists sang Orange songs. He was buried in unconsecrated ground within Crumlin Road prison. The IRA mounted scattered reprisal attacks. Williams's five co-defendants were granted amnesties in October 1949; Cahill became one of the leading militant republicans of the later twentieth century. He claimed to have a lifelong feeling that Williams was close to him, and called his eldest son after his friend.
As the only IRA man executed by the northern government (which usually reprieved republican killers for fear of the political consequences), Williams became the subject of a cult resembling that of Kevin Barry (qv), whom he greatly admired. Ballads were composed in his honour (including ‘Brave Tom Williams’ and ‘A soldier of Ireland’), and from 1960 a campaign was mounted to have him disinterred and reburied (as with executed IRA men in the republic). A gravesite was bought in the republican plot at Milltown cemetery, Belfast, and a memorial unveiled in 1966. The re-emergence of west Belfast as the cockpit of republicanism after 1969 strengthened his cause; an amateur play about him was performed in the H-blocks in the Maze prison in the early 1990s, and a republican flute band and Glasgow Celtic supporters’ club were called after him.
In 1995 the British government remitted the portion of Williams's sentence requiring burial within the prison. Reinterment was delayed by disputes between his relatives and republicans over the site of his reburial. He was formally exhumed in September 1999; his body was released on 18 January 2000 and reburied the following day in his mother's grave at Milltown. Large crowds attended the funeral and a large-scale demonstration took place on 23 January. Dissident republicans quoted Williams's denunciations of compromise. Unionists complained that it was insensitive to honour a police killer in the same week that extensive policing changes were announced; Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams stated that republicans were entitled to commemorate their dead.
Williams was a product of mid-twentieth century republicanism and the restricted life of working-class catholic Belfast; his life drew meaning from patterns established by earlier republicans and catholic devotions. ‘Having been so close to death myself . . . I believe nobody can speak for the dead,’ stated Cahill, when Williams was quoted against the peace process of the 1990s, which Cahill supported. ‘They went to their deaths believing what they believed in at that particular time’ (Anderson, 6). The situation of the play ‘An giall/The hostage’ by Brendan Behan (qv), in which a British soldier is held hostage in an attempt to prevent the execution of an IRA man in Belfast, was inspired by the Williams case.