It may be more than 90 years since the McMahon Family massacre but the scar of the sectarian atrocity remains etched on the psyche of Belfast even today. Of the seven men and boys lined up and systematically shot, six were killed - a father, three sons and a lodger. The lodger was 25 year-old Inishowen man Edward McKinney, a bar manager whose death marked the peninsula’s connection to one of the most horrific slaughters in modern Irish history, writes IAN CULLEN
Seconds after being dragged from his bed, bar manager Edward McKinney was brutally slain in a mass execution which Winston Churchill branded “worse than cannibalism”.
Slaughtered by his side was his employer and landlord, 50 year-old Catholic publican Owen McMahon along with three of the businessman’s sons 24 year-old Francis McMahon, 22 year-old Patrick McMahon and Thomas McMahon, who was just 15 years-old. John McMahon (21), who was shot in the neck, survived the grisly attack as did his eldest brother, 26 year-old Bernard, although he too succumbed to his injuries a little over a week later.
By that time Edward McKinney’s body had been interred in his native Inishowen, where many hundreds of mourners in the grip of the escalating Irish Civil War paid their respects to the murdered young man. The Desertegney native was laid to rest at Cockhill cemetery on Sunday, March 26 1922. Mr McKinney’s remains arrived in Buncrana the previous day from the morgue at Belfast’s Mater Hospital. A resolution of sympathy to the family of Mr McKinney was issued by the unionist community of Desertegney the following Friday.
The Derry Journal of Monday, March 27, 1922 stated that the funeral was “very largely attended”. “Deepest sympathy was shown with the members of the family, bereaved under such appalling circumstances. The deceased was a young man of splendid character and his tragic death is deeply deplored,” the paper added.
It stated that the Press and public were “aghast” at the massacre which took place amid the ongoing atrocities in Belfast that were “out-Heroding Herod”.
The outrage was described as an “Orange massacre” by the Journal, which carried interviews with the survivors. One of the surviving sons told of how all but one of the members of the murder squad that smashed down the door of the family’s home with a sledgehammer were wearing Royal Irish Constabulary caps and waterproof coats.
“One of the wounded sons [believed to be Bernard] has declared on what must prove in all human probability to be his bed of death, that assassins were dressed in police uniform and spoke with pronounced Belfast accents,” the Journal stated.
A statement made by John McMahon from his bed in the Mater Hospital explained that at around 1am on the fateful morning he was ordered out along with his brothers and Edward McKinney by men in RIC uniform.
“From the appearance I know they are ‘Specials’ not regular RIC One was in plain clothes. They ordered us downstairs. When we got down they lined us up in the room below, my father, my four brothers, Edward McKinney and myself, against the wall. The leader said: ‘You boys say your prayers’ and at the same time he and the others fired volley after volley at us. I think I lay on the floor for half an hour before the ambulance came. Three or four regular RIC came too.”
It was later alleged that although the B Specials (RIC reservists) were certainly present at the massacre, it was senior RIC members who masterminded the killings. According to a pamphlet on the killings, written by Joe Baker of Glenravel Local History Project in Belfast, RIC District Inspector John William Nixon, a leader of the Cromwell Club murder squads, was the man behind the massacre. “Affidavits were obtained by the Free State Government testifying to Nixon and Harrison. These were made by Roman Catholic members of the RIC, who were shocked and outraged at these planned murders being carried out against their fellow co-religionists.”
Indeed the ‘Journal’ further stated on March 27 that the Publicity Department of the newly established Dail Eireann received the following reports from a ‘special investigator’. “An official in one of the Belfast Courts remarked to a head constable on Friday: ‘You know Blessed well who did this. It was the Specials themselves. Why don’t the papers here tell the truth? This is the general feeling among the business people of this city today over the horrible business.”
The report further declared that B Specials on duty in the Low Market Street area stated openly - in reference to the shooting of two of their comrades previous to the McMahon murders - that they would “do in ten Sinn Fein b-s for this tonight”, according to the Journal.
The paper later named Nixonas the man behind the killings.
It was widely believed at the time that the murders were carried out in retaliation for the killing of two RIC officers the previous day. Even amid the turmoil of the Civil War in Ireland and the reports of daily murders around the country, the grotesque slaying of the McMahon family and Edward McKinney sent shockwaves right to the heart of the British Empire, with the Secretary of State for the Colonies, Winston Churchill, branding the atrocity against the innocents “worse than cannibalism”.
It later emerged that unknown to the Loyalist mobs or the McMahon family that Edward McKinney was an IRA volunteer - a fact later confirmed by IRA General Headquarters. In his book, ‘Donegal and The Civil War’, Liam Ó Duibhir states: “His membership of the IRA was concealed after the killings as it would have given the police and the loyalist mob an opportunity to justify their actions.”
Although District Inspector Nixon and his superior County Inspector Harrison, head of the Belfast Detective Division of the RIC, were reported as the leaders of the ‘Cromwell Club’ which was allegedly responsible for the killings some of the worst atrocities against Catholics in the city around that time - neither were ever prosecuted. In fact, Nixon was awarded an MBE by King George for his “valuable service” rendered during the troubled period. Harrison was awarded an OBE in the King’s Birthday Honours list of the same year. It’s worth noting that the allegations were never formally proven and that Nixon successfully sued the Derry Journal and a book publisher for libel in respect of his alleged involvement and his leadership of the Cromwell Club. It’s understood that the proceeds from the libel payouts bought a new house for the retired policeman and prominent Orangeman who went on to be an Independent Unionist politician and elected MP for Belfast Woodvale in 1929.
A Free State Ministry of Defence report, compiled in 1924, described Nixon as an “arrant coward who never ventures abroad”.
According to one report, the Ministry was openly admitting that the plan was to assassinate Nixon once he left the Six Counties where he would be safe as long as he remained because of an agreement between the two Governments -.
As for the McKinney family, the survivors of the McMahon family, the Catholic people of Belfast and the population of Inishowen, the horror of the killings and Nixon’s alleged involvement would live long in the memory.