McCann, Joseph (Joe) (1947–72) republican socialist, was born 2 November 1947 at 13 Baker Street, Belfast, to Joseph McCann, bricklayer, and Jane (née McGuire). Both parents were from the area known colloquially as the 'Pound Loney', the oldest part of the Falls Road. Joseph was the eldest of four children, two girls; Colette and Alice and a boy, Denis. His mother died in 1953, shortly after the birth of a daughter. By then the McCanns had moved to Highfield, a new estate in west Belfast which was religiously mixed, and family lore suggests McCann helped protestant friends gather material for eleventh night bonfires. He attended St Galls primary school and, passing his eleven-plus examination, gained entrance to St Mary's grammar school. However, he was expelled from St Mary's, family lore suggests it was because he argued about politics and religion with the Christian Brothers. At the age of fifteen he became an apprentice bricklayer. His father had remarried (and had three more children) but due to family tensions McCann spent long periods at his grandmother's in Baker Street. Already interested in history and the Irish language, he joined the Fianna at the age of twelve.
When his family moved to Turf Lodge in 1964, McCann became involved in the IRA unit there. Shortly afterwards he took part in the rioting which erupted after the RUC seized a tricolour from the election offices of republican candidate (and IRA commander) Liam McMillen (qv) in Divis Street. In October 1965 he was among a group who broke up a British army recruitment event at St Gabriel's School in north Belfast. A month later McCann was arrested with four others in the vicinity of an RUC station. Refusing to recognise the court the 'five silent men' were sentenced to a year in jail. (Ir. Press, 4 Dec. 1965). He was present at Bodenstown in June 1967 when IRA chief of staff Cathal Goulding (qv) demanded more emphasis from republicans on social agitation. According to Gerry Adams, McCann was 'quite taken' by Goulding's speech (Adams, 82). McCann was involved with Adams, Anthony Dornan and others in housing and unemployment campaigns. He edited a journal, Spearhead which focused on these issues, particularly opposition to the proposed Divis Flats development. Liam McMillen credited McCann with convincing many younger republicans of the need for social agitation. Though sympathetic to socialism, he was a member of the Third Order of St Francis, a lay branch of the Franciscans. He was influenced by the journal Grille which sought to fuse left-wing thinking with radical Christianity.
In 1966 McCann married Anne McKnight, whose brother was Bobby, a senior IRA officer. His range of personal and family relations testified to the close-knit nature of Belfast republicanism. Gerry Adams was godfather to the McCann's first child, while McCann's sister Colette married his comrade Anthony Dornan.
Physically imposing, 'Big Joe's' 'tall, bedenimed figure' and 'greyhound stride' became a familiar sight at protests (Hibernia, 1972). McCann was photographed on the mainly student march from Queens University to Belfast City Hall during October 1968 carrying a placard demanding 'Civil Rights for EVERYONE'. (Imperial War Museum, British army in Northern Ireland collection, HU55866). In January 1969, during rioting following a civil rights march in Newry, McCann drove an RUC vehicle into the town's canal. Though facing prison on charges relating to this he continued to play a prominent role in street activity. On 13 August 1969, when Belfast republicans mobilised to stretch RUC resources during the Battle of the Bogside in Derry, McCann led a march to Hastings Street police station which ended in rioting. Later McCann was one of a group of IRA members who fired on loyalists advancing from the Shankill. On 20 August he was imprisoned under Special Powers legislation. By the time of his release the Belfast IRA had begun to split into Official and Provisional organisations. Remaining loyal to the Officials, McCann was appointed OIRA commander in the Markets. As education officer for the local Liam Mellows Republican Club he continued to emphasise social issues and recruited radicalised students, including People's Democracy activist Ronnie Bunting (qv), into the OIRA. McCann made a distinct impression on those he met. Journalist Kevin Myers thought him 'incredibly handsome' with a 'curiously ironic' and 'knowing sense of humour'. (Myers, 74–75). Left-wingers opposed to armed struggle found him 'a very likeable fella' who engaged in 'good discussions' with them (O'Doherty, 126–7).
McCann combined political activity with a keen interest in dogs; he was a member of the Irish Kennel Club and sometimes stayed with its members while on the run. He was also regarded as 'one of the most dangerous' paramilitary 'operators' in Belfast (Holland, 85). McCann took part in the fighting during the 1970 Falls Curfew and was active in the 1971 feud with the Provisionals. He was widely assumed to have led an ambush during which Corporal Robert Bankier was killed in May 1971. However, he retained the Officials commitment to anti-sectarianism, working and maintaining friendships in protestant areas. After the OIRA had kidnapped three UVF members in Belfast in spring 1971, McCann intervened to have them released unharmed. After the introduction of internment in August 1971 (McCann's brother Denis being one of those held), McCann and local OIRA members engaged a large force of British troops near the Inglis Bakery in the Markets. A photograph of McCann, in silhouette under a Starry Plough flag, brandishing a carbine and illuminated by flames from the bakery was published in the Daily Mirror and Life magazine. It featured as a front page in the Official United Irishman and became a popular poster (United Irishman, Sept. 1971).
After internment McCann went on the run, living in a caravan near Omeath, Co. Louth. He was part of a small OIRA unit operating along the border but regularly returned to Belfast. He dyed his hair blond and wore glasses, but often took risks, on occasion walking his Irish wolfhound, Bran, around an army base to boost local morale. He was believed to have been involved in the assassination attempt on Stormont minister John Taylor in February 1972. McCann complained that the OIRA leadership was not intensifying armed actions and was the subject of several disciplinary hearings. In April 1972 he and a comrade had a narrow escape from the RUC Special Branch in Belfast city centre. A few days later on Saturday 15 April McCann was spotted by detectives in the Markets, and soldiers of the 1st Parachute regiment shot him several times as he tried to escape. He died at the scene.
As news of his death emerged, riots erupted, and three British soldiers were killed by the OIRA. McCann's body lay in his family home at Turf Lodge, where armed OIRA members patrolled before his funeral at Milltown Cemetery on 18 April. An estimated 5,000–10,000 people walked behind the cortege led by twenty-one OIRA companies marching in formation. Four MPs, Paddy Devlin (qv), Paddy Kennedy (qv), Paddy O'Hanlon (qv) and Bernadette Devlin also attended. In his oration, OIRA leader Cathal Goulding described McCann as a man who 'personified the struggle of the people' and warned that those responsible would pay 'richly in their own red blood for their crimes and the crimes of their imperial masters'. (United Irishman, May 1972). The Provisional Republican News also described McCann as a 'man of the people'. (Republican News, 23 Apr. 1972). Imprisoned UVF leader Gusty Spence (qv) offered 'deepest and profoundest sympathy' to McCann's widow, explaining that 'Joe once did me a good turn indirectly and I never forgot him for his humanity' (Hanley and Millar, 179).
McCann's association with armed activity stands in stark contrast to the later direction of the Officials. Some alleged that McCann was set up by those within the OIRA leadership who favoured a ceasefire. While his widow rejected this as a 'foul lie', there remains an assumption that McCann would have followed OIRA leader Seamus Costello (qv) into the Irish Republican Socialist Party. (McDonald and Holland, 15–16). After his death, numerous Official republican cumainn and clubs were named for him, while artist Jim Fitzpatrick designed a commemorative poster. There were several poems and songs in his honour, one of them, Eamon O'Doherty's 'Joe McCann' was later recorded by Christy Moore on his 1978 Iron behind the velvet album. At the time of his death McCann had three children, the oldest, Fergal, born in 1967, two daughters Aine and Fionnuala were born in 1969, while another son Ciaran was born just weeks after his death. A plaque commemorating McCann was unveiled in the Markets in April 1997, attracting members of otherwise acrimonious republican organisations. On the fortieth anniversary of his death a commemorative march was attended by 1,000 people, including Gerry Adams.
In 2013 the Historical Enquiries Team found that McCann's killing was 'unjustified' as he had been unarmed and running away when shot (BBC News, 29 Jan. 2013). Privately, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, William Whitelaw (qv), expressed the view that killing McCann had been a 'mistake'; instead he should have been 'shot in the legs and then arrested' (21 Apr. 1972, NAI, DFA 2003/13/16). In March 2018 a judge ruled that two ex-paratroopers should be prosecuted for McCann's murder. McCann was representative of a layer of young 1960s Belfast republican activists who remained loyal to the existing IRA structure in the city despite the emergence of the Provisionals and saw no contradiction between this and armed activity. Aged only twenty-four when he was killed and dying before the Troubles had settled into a squalid stalemate; he remains an iconic figure. Padraig Yeates' description of him as 'an incredible character, the only genuine hero I ever met out of the Northern troubles' sums up a widespread view among republicans of that generation, transcending splits and organisations.