THE tension in Ireland over seizing Unionist hostages in the North was raised considerably on Feb 11, 1922, when the IRA in Clones, Co Monaghan, clashed with a group of 19 Ulster Special Constables (USC), travelling from Belfast to Enniskillen by rail.
Part of their journey was through Clones, where they had to change trains.
The special constables claimed that IRA commander Matt Fitzpatrick fired first and the constables fired in self-defence, while the IRA contended that the shooting started when Fitzpatrick was shot dead on the platform by the constables. In the ensuing gunfire, four of the constables were killed and eight others wounded.
The affray had deplorable consequences in Belfast, where 39 people were murdered in the next three days. On Feb 13, a grenade was thrown among about 20 Catholic children playing in the Weaver St area, killing two instantly and fatally wounding four others.
“In my opinion,” colonial secretary Winston Churchill wrote to Michael Collins, “it is the worst thing that has happened in Ireland in the last three years.”
Under pressure from London, Craig was compelled to release the “Monaghan footballers”. The remainder of the 43 hostages were then released in the South. The British credited Collins and the Provisional Government with securing the release. Nevertheless the violence continued in Belfast in the following weeks and months.
After two special constables were murdered in broad daylight on May St on Mar 23, 1922, five men in police uniforms raided the home of Catholic publican Owen McMahon, 50. He was lined up with five sons — John, Bernard, Patrick, Frank, and Thomas. All were shot along with Edward McKinney, a barman who was lodging with the family.
John McMahon survived by feigning death after he was shot, and his youngest brother Michael, 12, survived by hiding under some furniture throughout the ordeal. It was assumed the killings were a reprisal for the shooting of two constables hours earlier, but Owen McMahon had no involvement with the IRA or Sinn Féin. He and his family just happened to be Catholics.
About 50 men under the command of Seán MacEoin’s Midland Division of the IRA raided a police barracks at Belcoo in Co Fermanagh on the night of Mar 28, 1922. They seized arms and took five members of the RIC and 11 USC as hostages. They brought them to Custume Barracks, Athlone, where most were held for 16 weeks.
In the midst of the turmoil, Churchill summoned leaders from Dublin and Belfast to London, where they concluded what became known as the second Collins-Craig Pact. However, the ink was hardly dry on it before it collapsed, following a further series of murders in Belfast.
During April and May 1922, the provisional government was deeply implicated in planning what was intended as a “Northern Rebellion”, or “May Rising”. They eventually settled on calling the operations the “Northern Offensive”. Like the Easter Rebellion in Dublin, the plans went seriously awry.
With the blessing of Michael Collins, IRA chief of staff Eoin O’Duffy promised that the provisional government would provide needed finance and arms for the three divisions of the IRA, based mainly within the North, to stage a rebellion.
Although deeply implicated, Collins insisted that all activities had to be in the name of the anti-treaty IRA.
Assisting Northern nationalists was an issue on which Collins and anti-treaty people like Rory O’Connor and Liam Lynch could find substantive agreement. The Northern Offensive was therefore a means of promoting unity within the 26 counties.
General Nevil Macready, the British commander-in-chief in Ireland, reported that an intercepted message from Liam Lynch to Rory O’Connor indicated that a “considerable quantity of arms and ammunition” were to be dispatched “at the request of the provisional government” for use in the North of Ireland.
The campaign was essentially orchestrated from Dublin. “Under present circumstances burning and destruction of property is the only way in which we can hit Belfast men,” defence minister Richard Mulcahy told Northern nationalists.
Following a delay in delivering the weapons promised by the provisional government, the commandant of the 3rd Northern Division of the IRA, which covered Antrim and East Down, decided to postpone operations. He went to O’Duffy’s headquarters in Dublin and got approval for the postponement.
The 2nd Northern Division covering counties Derry and Tyrone went ahead with its offensive. On May 2, it launched simultaneous attacks on police barracks at Bellaghy, Draperstown, and Coalisland. USC John Harvey was shot dead at Bellaghy and three colleagues were wounded, while two more were wounded at Draperstown.
Various bridges and railway lines were damaged, and the IRA engaged in an orgy of arson. A weaving mill was set ablaze in Limavady, a flax mill at Ballykelly, and a sawmill at Carrichire.
The IRA attacked USC barracks near Coalisland, Cookstown, and at Ballyronan, Co Derry, where four constables were killed. In the first two days of the offensive, six constables were killed.
The 2nd Northern Division of the IRA was very much on its own. The adjacent 1st Northern Division, based mainly in Donegal, became embroiled in a vicious internal conflict. On May 4, anti-treaty forces — which styled themselves as the Executive IRA — raided a bank in Buncrana and got away with £800, but not before becoming embroiled with troops of the provisional government.
In an exchange of shots several people were wounded, including two totally innocent bystanders — nine-year-old Essie Fletcher and 18-year-old Mary Ellen Kavanagh, who both died of their wounds.
Some hours later the Executive IRA ambushed four soldiers of provisional government at nearby Newtowncunningham. Two other colleagues were also seriously wounded in the attack.
Loyalists retaliated against the Northern Offensive by slaughtering innocent Catholics in what were clearly sectarian reprisals. On May 6, two Catholic teachers were taken from where they were staying and mortally wounded, and the Catholic owner of a bar was shot dead in his pub. The following week, there was an outrage that was hauntingly similar to the McMahon massacre in Belfast.
Men wearing police caps raided the McKeown home at Magherafelt, where they shot three sons in front of their elderly parents. James McKeown died instantly, while his brother Francis survived with 16 bullet wounds, and their brother Thomas survived after being shot four times. The McKeowns had no involvement with Sinn Féin. They were just Catholics.
The IRA’s 3rd Northern Division began its delayed offensive on May 17, 1922, with a raid on the RIC Barracks on Musgrave St, Belfast. The raiders managed to enter the police station disguised as police, but things went badly wrong and the whole station was roused with the fatal shooting of Constable John Collins, who happened to be a Catholic. The raiders then fled largely empty-handed.
The following night the division’s brigades engaged in attacks on commercial property in Belfast as well as RIC barracks, stately homes, and railways stations in different parts of Antrim and Down. The 4th Northern Division was supposed to join the offensive on May 19, but for some reason, it did not go into action.
Buildings destroyed in the IRA’s arson attacks included Shane’s Castle, Co Antrim; Oldcourt Mansion, Strangford; Crebilly Castle along with the Stationmaster’s Office, Telegraph Office, and a railway bridge in Ballymena; and Glenmona House, the summer residence of the diehard Westminster MP Ronald McNeill in Cushendun, where the Northern Bank was also raided.
There were attacks on the police stations at Martinstown, Cushendall, Cushendun, and Ballycastle. The IRA torched Rathkenny creamery and later ambushed a USC patrol, which had helped to put out that fire. Special Constable James O’Neill was killed in that engagement.
Next day loyalist gunmen retaliated by engaging in an orgy of murder. Two men entered the lumberyard of JP Corry in Belfast and inquired about the religion of various workers. They shot and mortally wounded John Connolly who identified himself as a Roman Catholic.
Two teenage cattle drovers — Patrick McAuley, 18, and Thomas McGuigan, 17 — were killed at the Midland Railway cattle pens while loading cattle into wagons for Stranraer. They were among 14 people murdered in Belfast that day. Six more were killed on the Monday, May 22.
Killings that day included the first political assassination. The IRA murdered William J Twaddell, a unionist member of the Stormont parliament. He was shot dead in the street in broad daylight. The Northern government invoked the Special Powers Act to introduce internment without trial next day.
Police rounded up and interned 350 suspected Republicans, including many members of the 3rd Northern Division as the authorities had captured documents divulging the names of just about all of the brigade officers in Belfast.
Catholics claimed that selective internment was clearly sectarian, because only 12 Protestants were interned, even though the loyalists had been responsible for a majority of the murders.
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