Illuminations: The McMahon Murders


Illuminations:  The McMahon Murders
By:  J. Michael Finn

Since the creation of the six-county statelet of Northern Ireland, there have been many tragedies in this country we love. One of these was the murder of the McMahon family, in 1922.

It is a common misconception that the partition of Northern Ireland was created by the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921.  Northern Ireland was actually created when Ireland was partitioned by an act of Parliament, the Government of Ireland Act 1920, also known by its ironic long title as An Act to Provide for the Better Government of Ireland.  

The Act was passed by Parliament on November 11, 1920, and was effective May 3, 1921, prior to the start of Treaty negotiations. The 1921 Treaty served to further solidify the six-county partitioning that already existed. 

The Anglo-Irish Treaty established the 26-county Irish Free State as a self-governing dominion within the British Empire. The agreement was signed in London on December 6, 1921, by representatives of the British Government led by British Prime Minister David Lloyd-George, and Irish representatives, led by Arthur Griffith and Michael Collins.

The Irish Free State came into existence when its constitution became law on December 6, 1922.  From the ratification of the Treaty by the Dáil until the effective date of the 1922 Constitution, the government of the 26 counties was considered a provisional government.

The majority of Northern Ireland’s population was made up of unionists, who wanted to remain united with Britain. The majority were Protestants. A minority in Northern Ireland were republicans and nationalists, who wanted a reunited independent Irish republic.  The majority og those were Catholics. 

The creation of Northern Ireland was accompanied by violence, both in favor of and against partition. During 1920–22 Belfast saw major outbreaks of violence, mainly between unionists and republican civilians. More than 500 were killed and more than 10,000 made homeless.

The Irish Republican Army (IRA) carried out attacks on British forces in the northeast. Protestant unionists and police supported murder-squads attacked members of the Catholic community as reprisals for IRA actions. Many Catholic owned businesses and homes were burned.

Policing in Northern Ireland
Policing in Northern Ireland in early 1922 was handled by the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC).  They were later replaced by the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) in June 1922.  Also active were the Ulster Special Constabulary (USC, also commonly known as the B-Specials). 

The USC were exclusively Protestant and were rightly viewed with great mistrust by the Catholic minority. Although the USC was created to assist the regular RIC with “emergencies,” the force carried out many revenge killings and reprisals against Catholic civilians.

Owen McMahon was a prosperous Catholic businessman. He owned two pubs in Belfast and had been chairman of the Northern Vintners’ Association. He lived with his family at 3 Kinnaird Terrace, in a large Victorian home in North Belfast. The home included his wife, Elizabeth, six sons, and his daughter.

Also living in the home was pub manager Edward McKinney, from Donegal, a niece and a female servant. None of Owen McMahon’s family were involved in any nationalist or republican activities.

At 1:20 am on March 24, 1922, gunmen using sledgehammers broke into Owen McMahon’s home.  The intruders tied up the women in a back room.  Elizabeth McMahon was struck in the head as she pleaded with the gunmen not to kill her family.

The gunmen lined the men up against a wall in the living room, told them to say their prayers, and opened fire.  Killed outright were Owen McMahon (55), Gerard McMahon (15), Frank McMahon (24), Patrick McMahon (22) and Edward McKinney (25).  Bernard McMahon (26) died later at the hospital.  

John McMahon (30) survived despite serious gunshot wounds.  The youngest McMahon, 12-year-old Michael, survived the shooting by hiding under a sofa.  Elizabeth McMahon raised the alarm by shouting “Murder! Murder!” A matron at an adjoining nursing home heard her and phoned for the police and an ambulance.

On Sunday March 26, 1922, the funeral of the Owen McMahon and his three sons, Frank, Patrick and Gerald, left St Patrick’s Church for burial in Milltown Cemetery. The procession was led by a police armored car. 

Armored carrier McMahon March 26, 1922

10,000 citizens turned out to show their disgust for the brutal killings.  Edward McKinney was buried on the same day, just outside Buncrana in Donegal.

The killers of the McMahons were B-Specials. According to survivor John McMahon, although four of the five killers were dressed in the uniform of the Royal Irish Constabulary, “from the appearance I know they are ‘Specials’ (that is, members of the USC not regular RIC). One was in plain clothes.”

A 1924 investigation by the Department of Defense of the Irish Free State identified all of the alleged participants in the killings, in particular, the group’s leader, RIC District Inspector John William Nixon. No one was ever prosecuted for the McMahon killings. 

John William Nixon escaped prosecution when he threatened to publicly name senior police and unionist politicians who had aided the murder gangs.  According to historian Tim Pat Coogan, “In the atmosphere of the time neither [NI Premier] Craig nor the British could or would prosecute or investigate such men without risk of a serious backlash among the Specials.”

The Collins-Craig Pact
The brutality of the McMahon murders prompted British Prime Minister Lloyd-George to summon both Michael Collins, head of the provisional Irish Free State and the Northern Ireland Premier Sir James Craig to London.  On March 30, 1922, they met with Secretary of the Colonies Winston Churchill.  The meeting led to an agreement, known as the Collins-Craig Pact, which was an agreement to stop the violence in Northern Ireland by reforming the police forces.

Churchill insisted on supplying the wording for the opening paragraph, which read, “Peace is today declared.” Subsequent paragraphs required Northern Ireland to recruit Catholic police officers and called for raids and arms searches to consist of one-half Protestant and one-half Catholic officers.  It ended with the statement, “The two Governments unite in appealing to all concerned to refrain from inflammatory speeches and to exercise restraint in the interests of peace.” 

The ink on the Pact was not yet dry on April 1, 1922, when Belfast saw an incident known as the “Arnon Street killings,” in which six Catholics were murdered by uniformed police. Michael Collins sent an angry telegram to Prime Minister Craig, demanding a joint inquiry into the killings.  No such inquiry was ever set up and the Collins-Craig Pact was never implemented by Craig.  Sadly, the violence continued to rage in the North and on June 28, 1922, the Irish Civil War began in the provisional Irish Free State.

*J. Michael Finn is the Ohio State Historian for the Ancient Order of Hibernians and Division Historian for the Patrick Pearse Division in Columbus, Ohio. He is also Chairman of the Catholic Record Society for the Diocese of Columbus, Ohio. He writes on Irish and Irish-American history; Ohio history, and Ohio Catholic history. You may contact him at [email protected].

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