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McMahon killings
Part of Irish War of Independence
Location Kinnaird Terrace, Belfast, Northern Ireland
Date 24 March 1922
01:20 (GMT)
Target Catholic civilians
Attack type
Mass shooting
Weapons revolvers
Deaths 6
Non-fatal injuries
Suspected perpetrators
Royal Irish Constabulary and/or
Ulster Special Constabulary

The McMahon killings, also called the McMahon murders, occurred on 24 March 1922 in Belfast, Northern Ireland when six Catholic civilians were shot dead and two were wounded, allegedly by members of either the Ulster Special Constabulary (USC) or the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC). The dead were aged between 15 and 50, and all but one were members of the McMahon family. The policemen broke into their house at night and shot all eight males inside. It is believed to have been a reprisal for the Irish Republican Army's killing of two policemen the day before.

The Northern Ireland polity had been created ten months beforehand, in the midst of the Irish War of Independence. During this time, its police forces – especially the USC, which was almost exclusively Ulster Protestant and unionist – were implicated in a number of attacks on Catholic and Irish nationalist civilians as reprisal for IRA actions, especially against Protestants and Unionists in the south or in Ulster's republican hinterlands.

Background[edit | edit source]

The killings occurred after the acceptance of the Anglo-Irish Treaty, but with the violence of the Irish War of Independence still raging in the new political entity of Northern Ireland. The Treaty copper-fastened the Partition of Ireland, which was first established in the Government of Ireland Act. In the first half of 1922 however, in the words of historian Robert Lynch, the Irish Republican Army (IRA), "would make one final attempt to undermine the ever hardening reality of partition by launching an all out offensive on the recently established province of Northern Ireland".[1]

To counter this, the Unionist authorities established the Ulster Special Constabulary (USC), a reserve police force, which was first deployed in February 1921. The USC had a generally mutually hostile relationship with Catholic nationalists in Belfast and elsewhere. Lynch writes of the USC: "some were polite and courteous, others merely arrogant and destructive whilst a small anonymous minority set out to kill".[2]

The MacMahon killings are believed to have been a reprisal for IRA's killing of two USC policemen in Belfast.[3][4] On 23 March 1922, USC officers Thomas Cunningham and William Cairnside were patrolling Great Victoria Street in the city centre when they were approached by a group of IRA members and shot dead. Two Catholics, Peter Murphy (61) and Sarah McShane (15), were later shot dead in a suspected reprisal attack several hours later in the Catholic Short Strand area by unidentified gunmen.[5]

The McMahon family had no connection to any paramilitary violence. Owen McMahon was a supporter and personal friend of Joe Devlin, the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP) Member of Parliament, who rejected Irish republican violence, although by the time of the McMahon killings the IPP had effectively ceased to exist as a political force, having been routed by Sinn Fėin in almost every nationalist constituency in the 32 counties over the last two island-wide elections (1918, 1920).[6] McMahon was a prosperous businessman, who owned several pubs in Belfast and had at one time been chairman of the Northern Vintners' Association. His home at Kinnaird Terrace, off the Antrim Road in north-central Belfast, was described as a "sprawling Victorian mansion".[7]

The killings[edit | edit source]

At about 1:00 am, two uniformed policemen seized a sledgehammer from a city council workman, who was guarding a building site at Carlisle Circus. A curfew was in place at the time, due to the daily violence in the city.[8] At nearby Clifton Avenue they met three other policemen and the party of five proceeded to the home of Owen McMahon. Eight males and three women were in the house that night. The males were Owen, his six sons, and Edward McKinney. McKinney was from County Donegal and worked for the McMahons as a barman.[8] The women were Owen's wife Eliza, her daughter and her niece.[8] At about 1:20 am, the gang used the sledgehammer to break down the door of the McMahon household.[9]

The noise woke the occupants, who at first thought that a bomb had been put in the letterbox.[3] Owen's wife, Eliza, said that one of the men wore civilian clothes and the four others wore RIC caps and carried revolvers.[9] John McMahon, one of Owen's sons, said "Four of the five men were dressed in the uniform of the RIC but, from their appearance, I know they are Specials, not regular RIC". All of the men had hidden their faces.[3] The four men in police uniform rushed up the stairs and herded the males into the dining room.[8] The women were taken into another room. Eliza "got down on her knees and pleaded for mercy, but was struck on the side of the head and fell to the floor".[8] When Owen asked why his family was being singled-out, one of the gunmen said it was because he was "a respected papist".[8] The men were told, "you boys say your prayers", before the gunmen opened fire. The shooting continued for five minutes; five of the men were killed outright and two were wounded, one fatally.[10]

Owen McMahon (50), Gerard McMahon (15), Frank McMahon (24), Patrick McMahon (22) and Edward McKinney (25) were killed outright while Bernard McMahon (26) died later. The youngest McMahon son, 12-year-old Michael, survived the attack by hiding behind furniture and pretending to be hit. John McMahon (30) survived despite serious gunshot wounds.[11] Eliza McMahon raised the alarm by opening the drawing room window and shouting "Murder! Murder!" A matron at an adjoining nursing home was alerted and phoned the police and an ambulance.[10]

A modern mural referring to killings allegedly by members of the RIC in Belfast in 1920-22

It has been alleged that District Inspector John Nixon and a group of policemen operating out of Brown Square barracks in the Shankill Road area were behind the killings, but this has never been proved. Eamon Phoenix, a senior lecturer in history at Stranmillis College, said in 2000 that there was strong albeit circumstantial evidence linking DI Nixon to the crime.[9] An inquiry was carried out by the Defence Ministry of the Irish Free State, but not by the Northern Ireland authorities. Twelve policemen, including Nixon, were named in the Free State's 1924 report as having carried out the murders, as well as several other attacks on Catholics.[12]

Aftermath[edit | edit source]

The killings caused outrage among Belfast's Catholic population and over 10,000 people attended the funerals of those killed. The funerals of Owen, Gerard, Frank and Patrick were held on Sunday 26 March.[8] The British Army lined the route of the funeral procession — from north Belfast to Milltown Cemetery — anticipating it would be attacked.[8]

At the funeral Mass for the victims at St Patrick's Church, Rev. Bernard Laverty told the congregation that even the Black and Tans "had not been guilty of anything approaching this [crime] in its unspeakable barbarity". The McMahons had been "done to death merely because they were Catholics", but he told the mourners to practise "patience and forbearance" and not to seek revenge. Irish Nationalist Party MP Joe Devlin told the British Parliament, "If Catholics have no revolvers to protect themselves they are murdered. If they have revolvers they are flogged and sentenced to death".[13]

David Lloyd George and Winston Churchill, concerned that the violence would cause the collapse of the new Northern Ireland administration, organised a meeting in London between southern nationalist leader Michael Collins and James Craig, premier of Northern Ireland, both to try to stop the IRA activity which Collins had been tacitly encouraging and supporting, and to pressure Craig to provide more protection for Catholics. Craig denied the nationalist assertion that the McMahon killings were part of an anti-Catholic pogrom on behalf of state forces, telling the Northern Ireland parliament that, "no such thing has ever been the policy of Protestants here ... The Ulster men are up against, not Catholics but ... up against rebels, that they are up against murder, Bolshevism and up against those enemies not only of Ulster but of the [British] Empire".[14]

The killings were part of a series of reprisals on Catholics for IRA attacks in Belfast and elsewhere. The following week saw an incident known as the "Arnon Street killings", in which five Catholics were killed by uniformed police in revenge for the killing of a policeman on the Old Lodge Road. In total, 452 people would be killed in Belfast in the conflict between June 1920 and July 1922 – 267 Catholics and 185 Protestants.[15][16]

No one was ever prosecuted for the killings but DI Nixon was expelled from the Royal Ulster Constabulary, albeit on full pension, in 1924 for giving (in breach of police regulations) a political speech to an Orange Order meeting saying that, "not an inch of Ulster should be yielded" to the Free State.[6]

References[edit | edit source]

  1. Lynch, Robert. The Northern IRA and the Early Years of Partition. Irish Academic Press, 2006, p. 98
  2. Lynch, p. 68
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 "The McMahon family massacre: Remembering the past", An Phoblacht, 23 March 2005; retrieved 24 March 2012.
  4. Wilson, Tim, "‘The most terrible assassination that has yet stained the name of Belfast’: the McMahon murders in context", Irish Historical Studies (2010), vol 37:145, pp. 83-106.
  5. Parkinson, Alan F. Belfast's UnHoly War: The Troubles of the 1920s. Four Courts Press, 2004, p. 229.
  6. 6.0 6.1 Lynch, p. 122
  7. Parkinson, pp. 229–230
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 8.3 8.4 8.5 8.6 8.7 Ó Duibhir, Liam. Donegal and the Civil War. Mercier Press, 2011. pp. 79–80
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 "Murders that shocked the world". The Daily Telegraph, 1 December 2000; retrieved 24 March 2012.
  10. 10.0 10.1 Parkinson, p. 231
  11. Parkinson, p.230
  12. Parkinson, p. 237
  13. Parkinson, pp. 233-36
  14. Parkinson, p. 235
  15. English, Richard. Armed Struggle: A History of the IRA, pp. 39–40.
  16. Lynch, pp. 67, 227.

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