Updated: Oct 7, 2019
The lesser-known Belfast troubles of 1920-22 are a particularly vicious and sectarian black mark on the history of this city and of the island as a whole. 1922 witnessed an escalation in the violence of the ‘twenties troubles’, and despite often being mis-represented as a ‘pogrom’, a growing number of Protestant casualties are evident from the early part of that year, indicating that this was a complex phase of violence for which reductive labels are impossible to apply. Spring 1922 was the bloodiest period of the two-year conflict, and this month’s From the Archives takes a look at one event which stands out in particular.
In late March 1922, two ‘B’ Specials were murdered in County Tyrone, and this was followed up two days later by the murder of two young Specials in Belfast city centre. The violence had become increasingly characterised by tit-for-tat killings and blood thirsty retaliations, and so when the four Specials were murdered it was almost inevitable that a similar (or greater) loss of life would be inflicted on the Catholic community. Nevertheless, what actually followed was unprecedented in its brutality and managed to shock Northern Irish society. Two gunmen in police uniform sledgehammered their way into the home of Owen McMahon, the owner of a bar in Ann Street. The assailants gathered together the eight male occupants of the household before being chillingly advised “you boys say your prayers”. The gunmen opened fire, executing Owen McMahon, his four sons and his bar manager; both his eldest and youngest sons managed to survive this ferocious incident. The murders received widespread condemnation, indeed, Unionist leader and Prime Minister of Northern Ireland James Craig offered a reward of £1,000 for information leading to the apprehension of the McMahon killers. And yet the murders continued to occur at an appalling rate.
In scenes that are perhaps more associated with atrocities in our most recent phase of troubles, groups of workers were often singled out on account of their religion. In many cases the motivation for such attacks was revenge for assaults committed by one side or the other. Our story takes us back to Friday 19 May 1922, when, in the aftermath of that evening’s tumultuous events the Belfast Evening Telegraph referred to an ‘IRA War On Ulster’ and an ‘IRA Rising In Ulster’, such was the scale of the violence. Shane’s Castle in County Antrim was burned by arsonists, as was Crebilly House near Broughshane, while the Killagan Bridge was destroyed by a bomb.
However, one event in particular stands out from that fateful night. Possibly in response to the murder of Thomas McCafferty on board a tram to the Falls Road the previous day, a gang of nine IRA members visited Garrett’s cooperage in Little Patrick Street, Belfast. The armed republicans entered the premises in the middle of the afternoon and asked the men to declare their religion. One man identified himself as a Catholic and was duly freed, while the four men who identified themselves as Protestants were brutally gunned down. Three of the four Protestant coopers were fatally wounded that afternoon, they were: Thomas Maxwell of Durham Street (shot in the chest), Thomas Boyd of Louisa Street, and William Patterson of Fraser Street in East Belfast who was shot in the head. The men were taken to the Mater Hospital in Belfast where they subsequently died. For William Patterson however, this had been a cruel and pathetic end to a life which had previously saw him serve through the horrors of the First World War with the 36th(Ulster) Division. Sapper William Patterson enlisted, like many others, at the Old Town Hall in Belfast during April 1915, and served with the Royal Engineers’ 121st Field Company. He was hospitalised for a period in 1917 due to rheumatic fever and again in August 1918 after suffering from the effects of a mustard gas attack. Despite these obstacles, Patterson emerged from the other side of the ‘war to end all wars’ only to be shot dead in his place of work, and in his home city, by Irish republicans.
A memorial frame for Sapper William Patterson (now in the custody of the Linen Hall Library) contains his war medals, a collection of embroidered postcards, and a hand-crafted wooden plaque with a sobering reflection: ‘Survived Armageddon, was murdered at Belfast. May 19th 1922’. I recently tracked down his grave at Dundonald Cemetery in East Belfast, where again, a sharp inscription can be found: ‘In loving memory of my dear husband William. Murdered at Belfast 19th May 1922’.
That evening, Friday 19 May 1922, Belfast faced a blitz of incendiaries, sniper fire, and prolonged bursts from Thompson machine guns in multiple separate incidents. The murders at Garrett’s cooperage brought the total number of deaths for the week (at that point) to 23, not counting the dozens of men, women and children from all parts of the city who lay wounded in the Mater and Royal Victoria Hospitals. That weekend alone, from Friday 19 May to Sunday 21 May, fourteen people were killed in some of the worst violence this city has ever witnessed, and hopefully will ever witness again.