Tit-for-tat: the War of Independence in the northern counties

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

The gutted ruins of the parochial house following attacks on Catholic-owned property in Lisburn in August 1920. A disturbing feature is that the crowd in front (including women and children) is a loyalist one (note the Union Jack) clearly proud of its handiwork in the cold light of day. (Mooney Collection)

The gutted ruins of the parochial house following attacks on Catholic-owned property in Lisburn in August 1920. A disturbing feature is that the crowd in front (including women and children) is a loyalist one (note the Union Jack) clearly proud of its handiwork in the cold light of day. (Mooney Collection)

The War of Independence in the northern counties would have an additional dimension to that in the rest of the island. Unionists had armed themselves in 1913 as the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) to resist Home Rule ‘by all means’, and by 1920 had reorganised to combat increasing attacks by the IRA. UVF units were later incorporated en masse into the Ulster Special Constabulary when it was set up in October 1920. There was also a latent sectarianism, which bubbled to the surface each year during the Orange ‘marching season’, and this had a significant impact in raising tensions, as religious animosity was added to the mix. It was inevitable that there would be a sectarian element to the conflict in the northern counties.This is an aspect of the War of Independence that both sides sought to play down but of which both were guilty to a greater or lesser extent. It is clear that the IRA did not set out with a sectarian agenda. Their focus was on attacking the Crown forces and it mattered little whether those being attacked or killed were Catholic or Protestant. As the conflict went on, however, they were drawn into sectarian killings, particularly in Belfast. For many of the loyalist population the distinction between nationalist, Catholic, Sinn Féin supporter and IRA activist was not just blurred but non-existent. Unionist leaders had, after all, for years impressed on their followers that ‘Home Rule was Rome Rule’.

Burning of Roslea

Some of the earliest manifestations of sectarianism were the reprisals carried out by loyalists on innocent nationalists in the towns of Banbridge, Dromore and Lisburn (see sidebar), and to a lesser extent Antrim and Newtownards. Similar attacks were carried out in Roslea, Co. Fermanagh, and Desertmartin, Co. Derry. In both cases the villages were practically rased, as Catholic-owned property was looted and burned by the Ulster Special Constabulary. The burning of Roslea, on 21 February 1921, was in reprisal for the attempted murder by the IRA of Constable George Lester as he opened his shop in the village. Revenge came that evening when Specials and UVF men descended on Roslea, attacking the parochial house and burning ten nationalist-owned homes. The roads out of Roslea were filled with people carrying whatever possessions they could gather as they fled the flames that were engulfing the village. Only one person was to die in this attack, a UVF man named Finnegan, who was shot when he was using the butt of his rifle to break down a door: the rifle discharged, killing him. The IRA avenged this attack on Roslea a month later, when up to sixteen homes of members of the ‘B’ Specials were targeted in a single night; three unionists were killed. The unionist community saw this as a sectarian attack, as not all killed were Specials and one person, Sergeant Samuel Nixon, was shot dead after he had handed over his rifle in surrender.

A Catholic-owned bicycle shop in Roslea, Co. Fermanagh, in the wake of the burning of the town by the Ulster Special Constabulary on 21 February 1921. (Mooney Collection, Michael McPhilips)

A Catholic-owned bicycle shop in Roslea, Co. Fermanagh, in the wake of the burning of the town by the Ulster Special Constabulary on 21 February 1921. (Mooney Collection, Michael McPhilips)

Desertmartin

The attack and the killings by Specials in Desertmartin on 19 May 1922 was one of the worst sectarian incidents during this period. Two Specials started a small fire in a large four-storey mill in the village; the plan was to take credit for having discovered it, put it out and place the blame on the mainly nationalist population of the village. The fire, however, got out of control and the mill was gutted. The Specials responsible for setting the fire claimed to have seen two men running away from the scene, and this was sufficient excuse for Specials from the area and from nearby Magherafelt to loot and burn Catholic-owned homes and shops in Desertmartin. Where it was not possible to burn a house, because of adjacent Protestant neighbours, furniture and possessions were throw into the street and became part of a bonfire. While this mayhem was going on in the village, a number of Specials, in uniform, went to the homes of the Catholic McGeehan and Higgins families, took two sets of brothers out to a lonely country lane, lined them up against a ditch and riddled them with bullets. The Sunday after this slaughter four hearses brought their remains to Coolcalm church in Desertmartin, where they were interred in a single grave. At the inquest into their deaths the police admitted that they were respectable men who had never previously come to their notice.

On parade in nearby Newtownbutler in 1922.(Mooney Collection, Michael McPhilips)

On parade in nearby Newtownbutler in 1922.
(Mooney Collection, Michael McPhilips)

Dominick Wilson, an IRA volunteer from Desertmartin, left the village when these killings took place. When he returned in July, four Specials called to his home at 2.00am and took him from his bed to a nearby railway track, where he was beaten to death. It appeared that all four Specials took turns at shooting his body.Such savagery was not confined to the Ulster Special Constabulary. In June 1921 the IRA decided to burn the home of retired clergyman Revd John Finlay, dean of Kildare and Leighlin, to prevent its being used to house Black and Tans. When Revd Finlay had retired in 1909 he and his wife had gone to live at Breckley House outside Bawnboy, Co. Cavan. The elderly couple was awakened on a Sunday morning at 1am. Mrs Finlay and the servants were taken to a neighbour’s house and ordered to remain there. She became alarmed when her husband did not join her and later ventured out to return to the house. By the light of her blazing home she found her 80-year-old husband lying dead on the front lawn with his skull battered in. Reports later stated that he had been shot because he had objected to his home being burned.

Belfast

In Belfast sectarian bitterness had been a fact of life for generations, as co-religionists chose to live together in their own districts in the narrow streets of the industrialised city. During this period the head count of those killed was not listed as unionist or nationalist but as Protestant or Catholic. From the expulsion of Catholic workers from the Belfast shipyards and engineering works in July 1920, when men had their shirts ripped open to see whether they were wearing scapulars, so identifying them as Catholics, there was a litany of attacks on the Catholic population in Belfast. These were not confined to the burning of Catholic homes and businesses but included attacks on their churches and on a convent. Such attacks led to reprisals and a ‘tit-for-tat’ spiral of killings started. When the gate lodge at St Matthew’s Church in the Short Strand was set on fire by loyalists and a crowd gathered to cheer as the building was consumed in flames, the IRA threw a bomb into their midst, killing one man and injuring 45 others. The IRA also launched bullet and bomb attacks on tramcars packed with shipyard workers. In one such incident in Corporation Street a bomb was thrown into a tram, killing two men and seriously injuring other passengers as part of the tram was blown apart.

Volunteers of the IRA’s 1st Battlion, 5th Northern Division, engaged in weapons training. While the IRA did not set out with a sectarian agenda, as the conflict went on they were drawn into sectarian killings, particularly in Belfast. (Michael McPhilips)

Volunteers of the IRA’s 1st Battlion, 5th Northern Division, engaged in weapons training. While the IRA did not set out with a sectarian agenda, as the conflict went on they were drawn into sectarian killings, particularly in Belfast. (Michael McPhilips)

In what was clearly a sectarian attack, the IRA held up a group of workmen going to the massive Hughes and Dickson’s flourmill in Divis Street. The men were asked their religion and those who confirmed that they were Protestant were fired at. One of the group died later in hospital after being shot, and another was wounded. A similar shooting took place on 19 May 1922, when workmen in William Garret’s cooperage in Little Patrick Street were lined up against a wall by up to nine armed men and asked their religion. Four Protestants—Thomas Boyd, Thomas Murphy, William Patterson and Thomas Maxwell—were separated from their Catholic workmates and shot as they stood against the wall. One was killed instantly, two died in hospital, and the fourth the following night. Such incidents served only to deepen the sectarian divide, as embittered family members saw reprisals as the only way forward.There were similar atrocities on the loyalist side: for example, a bomb was thrown at a group of children playing in Weaver Street, a Catholic enclave close to a loyalist district. Two children died instantly and 22 suffered injuries, some of them horrific. It was not just civilians who were involved in sectarian attacks. The RIC and, it was suspected, a group of Specials led by District Inspector John William Nixon operated as a murder squad in Belfast. On 24 March 1922 four members of the McMahon family and a barman who worked for Owen McMahon were murdered in their home in Kinnaird Terrace, apparently in reprisal for the shooting dead of two Specials the previous day.It is difficult when writing about this period to avoid being drawn into the ‘what aboutery’ of Irish history. Nevertheless, the facts are there; readers can make of them what they will.  HI
Pearse Lawlor is a retired Northern Ireland civil servant.

Further reading:

P. Lawlor, The burnings, 1920 (Cork, 2009).P. Lawlor, The outrages, 1920–1922 (Cork, 2011). J. McDermott, Northern divisions—the old IRA and the Belfast pogroms 1920–1922 (Belfast, 2001).L. Ó Duibhir, The Donegal awakening (Cork, 2009).

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