Williams had been a member of the IRA and was hanged for the killing of Patrick Murphy a Constable in the RUC. He was a volunteer in C Company, 2nd Battalion of the Belfast Brigade in the Irish Republican Army, and was hanged in the Crumlin Road Gaol on 2 September 1942 for his involvement in the killing.
Williams was born in the Beechmount area of Belfast on 12 May 1923. After the death of his mother, he and his brother went to live with their grandmother at 46 Bombay Street in the Clonard area of Belfast. The Williams family had to leave the small Catholic enclave in the Shore Road area of Belfast after their house was attacked and burned.
As a child, Williams suffered from asthma and as a result was often very ill. He attended St. Gall’s Primary School but left at an early age to obtain work, which was difficult, at the time, due to discrimination. His work consisted of labouring and as a delivery boy.
As soon as Williams was old enough, he joined Na Fianna Éireann, the republican Scout Organisation founded by Constance Markievicz in 1909, becoming a member of the Con Colbert slua in the Clonard area. Alfie Hannaway, a friend of Williams, was his OC in Na Fianna, and assigned him to the rank of Quartermaster for the company. He took his role in Na Fianna very seriously and everyone who knew him were struck by his dedication and maturity, even at this early age.
At the age of 17, Williams was old enough to become a volunteer and joined C Company of the IRA in the Clonard area where he lived. Due to his “dedication and his remarkable ability” he was appointed to the role of Adjutant of C Company.
During Easter 1942, the government of Northern Ireland baned all parades to commemorate the anniversary of the Easter Rising. An IRA unit of six men and two women staged a diversionary action against the RUC to allow three parades to take place in west Belfast, but in this clash, an RUC officer was killed and the six IRA men were captured. The RUC officer, Constable Patrick Murphy, a father of nine children, from the Falls Road area of Belfast, was one of a minority of Catholics serving in the RUC.
There is debate over the years about who actually fired the fatal shot. The six IRA members are convicted and sentenced to death for murder under the law of common purpose. Five had their sentences commuted. The sentence of Williams, who acknowledged that he was the leader of the IRA unit involved and took full responsibility for the actions of his men, was not commuted.
Williams was hanged in Crumlin Road Gaol in Belfast on the morning of 2 September 1942. The executioner was the official English hangman Thomas Pierrepoint, assisted by his nephew Albert Pierrepoint. Afterwards Williams’ body was interred in unhallowed ground in an unmarked grave within the grounds of the prison. His remains were only released in January 2000 after the closure of the prison in 1996 and a lengthy campaign by the National Graves Association, Belfast.
Williams’s funeral was held on 19 January 2000 and was attended by thousands, with burial at Milltown Cemetery. Joe Cahill, Williams’s cell mate, and John Oliver, sentenced to death with Williams but later reprieved, as well as Madge McConville, who had been arrested with Williams, Greta McGlone, Billy McKee, Eddie Keenan and perhaps least known, Nell Morgan, Williams’s girlfriend at the time of his death, were all present. Six senior Sinn Féin members including Gerry Adams were also present in St. Paul’s Church on the Lower Falls Road for the Mass.
Williams is remembered in a ballad Tom Williams. Various recordings have been made, most notably by the Flying Column and Éire Óg, who preamble their version with the story of the campaign to release his body. The now disbanded, Volunteer Tom Williams Republican Flute Band from Glasgow, Scotland is named in his memory as is the Tom Williams Camogie Club in Belfast.