Reprisals against Catholics in Lisburn and environs, July–August 1920

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Features, Issue 1(Jan/Feb 2012), Revolutionary Period 1912-23, Volume 20

A burnt-out Catholic-owned shop in Bow Street, Lisburn, in August 1920. (Mooney Collection)

A burnt-out Catholic-owned shop in Bow Street, Lisburn, in August 1920. (Mooney Collection)

In July 1920 the IRA shot dead Lt Colonel Brice Ferguson Smyth, who had earlier made an infamous speech in Listowel, where he said that the police were perfectly justified in shooting people who did not immediately put their hands up when challenged and that, if mistakes were made, policemen should not face court proceedings. When his body was taken to Banbridge, his home town, for burial, the Ulster Volunteer Force instigated the burning of Catholic-owned homes and property in the town. This violence spread to Dromore and Lisburn, with Catholics being forced out of work and out of their homes. Violence was revisited on these communities the following month, when RIC District Inspector Oswald Ross Swanzy was shot in Lisburn on a Sunday morning as worshippers poured out from Lisburn Cathedral. Swanzy had been implicated in the murder of Tomás MacCurtain, lord mayor of Cork and commander of the IRA’s Cork No. 1 Brigade. He had fled to the safety of the strongly loyalist town of Lisburn. This was sectarianism at its most blatant, as practically every Catholic-owned business in the town was burned to the ground and the parochial house was totally destroyed. Those of the 1,000+ Catholic population who could fled for their lives. Only seven ventured out to attend Mass on the following Sunday. This attack, likened to ethnic cleansing, lasted for three days and nights, and it was not until September that attacks on isolated Catholic families petered out. Many of those involved in these attacks were later to become members of the Special Constabulary. When some were arrested for looting and arson, they threatened the British government with organised attacks on Catholics in other towns if they were charged and convicted. All charges were dropped.

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