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A View North Recalling the ghastly McMahon murders

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Jack Holland

I can’t remember exactly when it was that my grandmother first told me about the McMahon family murders. We were still living in May Street at the time. I know that because, much to my horror, my grandmother revealed that there was a direct connection between the grisly slaughter and the place where I lived.

On the night of March 23, 1922, two policemen, Thomas Cunningham and William Chermside, members of the "A" Specials, were on patrol on May Street when the IRA ambushed them, shooting both men dead. (My grandmother would remind me not to wander about after dark lest I encounter the ghost of one of the police officers, who she said was frequently heard moaning in the gateway to our house.)

At about 1 a.m. the following morning, March 24, gunmen broke into the home of a middle-class Catholic family who lived at 3 Kinnaird Terrace, near the Antrim Road in North Belfast. Publican Owen McMahon lived there with his wife, six sons, his daughter, and his barman, Edward McKinney. McMahon owned the Capstan Bar on Ann Street, bar-owning being one of the few businesses in Belfast that allowed Catholics to progress into the middle classes.

The family was roused from its sleep by the sound of the doors being sledge-hammered down. The intruders tied up the women (including a niece and a servant) in a back room. The men were lined up against a wall, told to say their prayers, and shot. Four died on the spot. The father died six hours later in the Mater Hospital, and one of his sons, Bernard, perished a week later of his wounds. The youngest to die was Thomas, 15 years old.

His younger brother, aged 11, managed to hide under a sofa and escaped the massacre. But what was especially horrifying to the imagination of a child was the thought of the terrified boy crouching in the darkness, listening to the sounds of the shots and the death groans of his family, knowing that this would be his fate if found by the killers.

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So the killing passed into the folklore of Catholic Belfast as an outstanding example of the bestiality of the city’s sectarian hatred with which they had to contend. Fifty years later, the Shankill Road Butcher killings would achieve a similar, ghastly status.

The Capstan Bar remained a popular haunt in the city center until relatively recently. In a minor link between the horrors of the 1920s in Belfast and those of the ’70s and ’80s, one of the UDA’s most notorious gunmen used to meet one of his IRA contacts (to whom he was passing information) in the bar.

Kinnaird Terrace still stands. It is near St. Malachy’s College, the school I attended. In early 1993, I was inspired to pay the place a visit, after reading a pamphlet called "The McMahon Family Murders and the Belfast Troubles: 1920-1922," by Joe Baker. On a gray day in February, the place still had the power to send a chill down one’s spine.

Nobody was ever charged with the murders. They took place during one of the bloodiest period of the 1920s. Reading Baker’s account of those years is like reading about Belfast in the ’70s. Hardly a day went by without at least one killing, usually sectarian.

In the tale that I inherited from my grandmother, the killers of the McMahons were B-Specials. According to Baker, this was based on the testimony of John McMahon, who survived the shootings, and who said that though four of the five killers were dressed in the uniform of the Royal Irish Constabulary, "from the appearance I know they are ‘Specials’ not regular RIC. One was in plain clothes."

Baker claims that in fact the murder squad was organized by high-ranking members of the RIC and made up of RIC officers. Last week, on the telephone from Belfast, he told me that his information came from "secret military reports" in Dublin made up for Michael Collins, and now declassified. Collins had informers working within the RIC, as well as in the fledgling government of Northern Ireland. He monitored the sectarian killings in Belfast closely. Two of the highest-ranking men allegedly involved were Cavan-born District Inspector John William Nixon and County Inspector Richard Harrison, who came from Kilkenny. According to Collins’s intelligence about Nixon and Harrison, they were involved in organized "counter-terror" gangs in Belfast to carry out reprisals for attacks on the police. In one of the worst, within days of the McMahon slaughter, five Catholics were killed in the early hours of the morning of April 2 in raids in the Carrick Hill area. In one incident, 39-year-old Joseph Walsh, a former British soldier who had fought in the Great War, was dragged from his bed and beaten to death with a sledgehammer in front of his 2-year-old daughter and 7-year-old son. The children were then shot, the boy dying later of his wounds.

According to Baker, the killings were carried out by RIC members and B-Specials from Brown Square Barracks, under Nixon’s orders, and witnessed by "hundreds of people [including the military]." However, despite such allegations, there were no formal inquiries. The Unionist government, in fact, announced soon after that there "would be no more public juries at future inquest hearings."

Baker told me that when researching his pamphlet, the British authorities refused to give him access to the Northern Ireland Cabinet papers relating to these events. They will not be made public for many decades to come, he was told. Most of the information he compiled came from files kept by a Catholic priest, Fr. Hassan, from St. Mary’s in Belfast. According to Baker, the newspapers of the day did not usually give very detailed coverage of the "Troubles."

Nixon went on to become an Independent Unionist member of parliament at Stormont, representing Woodvale in Belfast. In the late 1940s, he became friendly with an aspiring young fundamentalist preacher and would-be politician named Ian Paisley. Baker says that he would drive Paisley to Stormont so that he could listen to the debates. Nixon died in 1949, denying the allegations against him. Harrison lived on until 1982, dying peacefully in his bed at the age of 99.

The controversy over Nixon remains. Baker tells me that currently a prominent Unionist has a team of researchers trying to clear Nixon’s name of the allegations that still link him to one of the most appalling episodes in Belfast’s bloody history.

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