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Promoting Irish Culture and History from Little Rock, Arkansas, USA


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The McMahon Murders

The McMahon murders occur on March 24, 1922 when six Catholic civilians are shot dead at the home of the McMahon family in Belfast. Police officers break into their house at night and shoot all eight males inside, in an apparent sectarian attack. The victims are businessman Owen McMahon, four of his sons, and one of his employees. Two others are shot but survive, and a female family member is assaulted. The survivors say that most of the gunmen wore police uniforms and it is suspected that they were members of the Ulster Special Constabulary (USC). It is believed to be a reprisal for the Irish Republican Army‘s (IRA) killing of two policemen the previous day.

Following the end of the Irish War of Independence in July 1921 and the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty in December 1921, the new unionist Government of Northern Ireland establishes the Ulster Special Constabulary (USC), a quasi-military reserve police force to the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC), to counter the IRA.

The McMahon killings are believed to be a reprisal for the IRA’s killing of two USC policemen in Belfast. On March 23, 1922, USC officers Thomas Cunningham and William Cairnside are patrolling Great Victoria Street in the city centre when they are approached by a group of IRA members and shot dead. Two Catholics, Peter Murphy (61) and Sarah McShane (15), are shot dead in a suspected reprisal attack several hours later in the Catholic Short Strand area by unidentified gunmen. The McMahon family has no connection to any paramilitary violence.

At about 1:00 a.m. on March 24, 1922, two men wearing police uniforms seize a sledgehammer from a Belfast Corporation workman, who is guarding a building site at Carlisle Circus. A curfew is in place at the time, due to the daily violence in the city. At nearby Clifton Avenue they meet three other men and the party of five proceed to the home of Owen McMahon. Eight males and three females are in the house that night. The males are Owen, his six sons, and Edward McKinney, a parish just north of Buncrana in Inishowen, County Donegal. He works for the McMahons as a barman. The women are Owen’s wife Eliza, her daughter and her niece. At about 1:20 a.m., the gang uses the sledgehammer to break down the door of the McMahon residence.

Owen’s wife, Eliza, says that four of the men wore police caps and carried revolvers while another wore civilian clothes. John McMahon, one of Owen’s sons, says, “Four of the five men were dressed in the uniform of the RIC but, from their appearance, I know they are Specials, not regular RIC.” All of the men hide their faces. The four men in police uniform rush up the stairs and herd the males into the dining room. The women are taken into another room. When Owen asks why his family is being singled-out, one of the gunmen says it is because he is “a respected papist.” The gunmen say “you boys say your prayers,” before opening fire. The shooting continues for five minutes. Five of the men are killed outright and two are wounded, one fatally.

Owen McMahon (50), Gerard McMahon (15), Frank McMahon (24), Patrick McMahon (22) and Edward McKinney (25) are killed outright while Bernard McMahon (26) dies later. The youngest McMahon son, 12-year-old Michael, survives the attack by hiding behind furniture and pretending to be hit. John McMahon (30) survives despite serious gunshot wounds. Eliza McMahon raises the alarm by opening the drawing room window and shouting “Murder! Murder!” A matron at an adjoining nursing home is alerted and phones the police and an ambulance.

It is alleged that a group of policemen operating out of Brown Square Barracks in the Shankill Road area are behind the killings. This has never been proved, but historian Eamon Phoenix, of Stranmillis University College in Belfast, has said there is “strong circumstantial evidence” that District Inspector John Nixon was responsible. Historian Tim Pat Coogan believes the police were responsible. An inquiry is carried out by the Department of Defence of the Irish Free State, but not by the Northern Irish authorities. A 1924 Free State report alleges that twelve policemen, whom the report identifies by name, had carried out the McMahon murders, as well as several other attacks on Catholics.

The killings cause outrage among Belfast’s Catholic population and over 10,000 people attend the funerals of those killed.

David Lloyd George and Winston Churchill, worried that the violence could collapse the new Northern Ireland administration, organise a meeting in London between Irish republican leader Michael Collins and Sir James Craig, Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, both to try to stop the IRA violence which Collins has been tacitly encouraging and supporting, and to pressure Craig to provide more protection for Catholics. Craig denies the nationalist assertion that the McMahon killings were part of an anti-Catholic pogrom on behalf of state forces.

No one is ever prosecuted for the killings but District Inspector John Nixon of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) is strongly suspected of being responsible. Nixon is later forced to step down from the Royal Ulster Constabulary, the force that succeeds the RIC in June 1922, albeit on full pension, in 1924 after being heard giving (in breach of police regulations) a political speech to an Orange Order meeting saying that, “not an inch of Ulster should be yielded” to the Free State.


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Birth of Otto Moses Jaffe, Lord Mayor of Belfast

otto-jaffeSir Otto Moses Jaffe, German-born British businessman who is twice elected Lord Mayor of Belfast, is born in Hamburg on August 13, 1846. He is the first non-Protestant to hold the office of Lord Mayor of Belfast.

Jaffe is born into a Jewish family, one of four boys and five girls born to Daniel Joseph and Frederiké Jaffe. In 1852, his parents bring their family to Belfast. His father, along with his older brothers, Martin, John and Alfred, set up a business exporting linen. He is educated at Mr. Tate’s school in Holywood, County Down, and later in Hamburg and Switzerland.

Jaffe marries Paula Hertz, daughter of Moritz Hertz from Braunschweig, on March 8, 1879. They have two sons, Arthur Daniel and William Edward Berthold Jaffe. Daniel Joseph Jaffé is his nephew, son of his brother Martin.

From 1867 to 1877 Jaffe lives and works in New York. In 1877, his brothers retire so he returns to Belfast to head the family business, The Jaffe Brothers, at Bedford Street. He builds it up to become the largest linen exporter in Ireland. He is a member of the Belfast Harbour Commission and becomes a naturalised citizen in 1888. In 1894, he successfully agitates for the reporting and destruction of shipwrecks in the North Atlantic Ocean.

Jaffe is a Justice of the Peace, a governor of the Royal Hospital, a member of the Irish Technical Education Board and a member of the Senate of Queen’s College, which later becomes Queen’s University Belfast. He is the German consul in Belfast. He is an active member of the committee which gets the Public Libraries Act extended to Belfast, leading to the first free library being established there. In 1910 he erects the Jaffe Spinning Mill on the Newtownards Road, also known as Strand Spinning. This provides work for 350 people, rising to 650 in 1914 when the company expands to make munitions. He is lavishly charitable and contributes to Queen’s College.

Jaffe takes a keen interest in the Jewish community of Belfast. He is life-president of the Belfast Hebrew Congregation, which worships at the Great Victoria Street, Belfast synagogue. His father established it on July 7, 1871. Between 1871 and 1903 the congregation increases from fifty-five to over a thousand. He pays most of the £4,000 cost of building the synagogue in Annesley Street. He opens it in 1904 wearing his mayoral regalia. Three years later with his wife, they set up the Jaffe Public Elementary School on the Cliftonville Road.

Jaffe is a member of the Irish Unionist Party. He represents St. Anne’s Ward for the Belfast Corporation in 1894 and is elected Lord Mayor of Belfast in 1899. As mayor, he launchs an appeal for the dependants of soldiers fighting in the Second Boer War. On March 5, 1900, he is knighted at Dublin Castle by George Cadogan, 5th Earl Cadogan, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. In 1901 he is High Sheriff of Belfast and in 1904 is again elected Lord Mayor.

The outbreak of war sees anti-German sentiment and when the RMS Lusitania passenger liner is torpedoed by a German U-boat of the coast of County Cork on May 7, 1915, resulting in the death of 1,000 people, anti-German feeling in Britain and Ireland rise to breaking point. Even though he is loyal to the Crown, and his eldest son Arthur and his nephew are serving in the British Army, Jaffe is accused of being a German spy. Society women refuse support for the Children’s Hospital so long as Jaffe and his wife remain on the board. He is “overwhelmed with pain and sorrow.”

After twenty-five years of service, Jaffe resigns his post as Alderman of Windsor Ward for Belfast City Council in June 1916 when he is almost 70 years of age and takes up residence in London, where he dies on April 29, 1929. Lady Jaffe is too ill to attend his funeral and she dies a few months later, in August 1929.