The Forgotten Troubles 1920-1922: The McMahon Murders…..

When one thinks about the Troubles in Northern Ireland one invariably recalls the horrors of 1969-1998 and the violence, often savage that embroiled our society. However, this was not the first vicious conflict that Northern Ireland had seen.

For my new series of articles, I thought I would look at a time period which has been mostly forgotten in Northern Ireland and largely written out of the War of Independence and Civil War period of 1919-1922. Northern Ireland was borne out of the Government of Ireland Act which was steadily making its way through the House of Commons in 1920. (1)

It was also however borne out of ferocious violence which centred particularly in Belfast but also embroiled the border regions right up until the outbreak of the Civil War in southern Ireland.

For my first article, I will discuss one of the most notorious events of the whole period, the murder of the McMahon family at their home in Kincaid Terrace, North Belfast. It was a murder that would shock even the most hardened of observers.


The Anglo-Irish Treaty was signed in London, on 6th December 1921 by the five plenipotentiaries negotiating on behalf of the Republican movement. They were Arthur Griffith who headed the negotiating team, Michael Collins, Eamon Duggan, Robert Barton and George Gavan Duffy. (2)

For Northern Nationalists it effectively cemented the partition which had been enacted by the Government of Ireland Act.

Despite this peace agreement, the violence witnessed in the first six months of 1922 in Northern Ireland was some of the most vicious seen throughout the whole period. Security powers had been transferred to the Stormont regime at the end of 1921.

The Ulster Special Constabulary was promptly recalled to act as the front line against any possible Free State incursion or Republican violence within Northern Ireland itself.

The next few months saw a huge rise in both death toll and injury with in-discriminate bombings and shootings. One set of incidents however soured North/South relationships considerably.

The Clones Affray

On 11th February 1922 a group of Ulster Special Constables (Northern Ireland’s armed auxiliary police force) were making the journey from Belfast to Enniskillen as part of a group which was to reinforce the border patrols in the area.

Bridges had been blown up, and minor roads trenched or mined after the IRA had conducted a cross border raid kidnapping forty Loyalists. This was itself in retaliation for the Northern authorities’ arrest of five IRA men in Derry, ostensibly travelling as part of a GAA team taking part in the Ulster final, but in reality, involved in a reconnaissance mission on Derry Gaol where three other IRA men faced the death penalty.

The route chosen by the A-Special’s was one which in hindsight was clumsy at best. They arrived at Clones, in southern territory, and had to wait on another train to get them to their destination. Six of the Specials disembarked and remained on the platform whilst the others headed for the buffet.

In the meantime, the local IRA had been alerted and Matt Fitzpatrick, their commandant, made his way with others to the train station. There, they called on the Specials who to surrender but the latter opened fire in response and Fitzpatrick was shot dead. The other IRA men opened fire with Thompson submachine guns on the Specials crowded on the platform and in the carriages.

In the brief firefight which ensued, twelve Specials were shot, four killed and eight others injured along with several civilians.

The incident almost set off a huge confrontation between North and South, which was eventually calmed only when the British Government sent three British Army battalions to the border to assuage the concerns of Northern Ireland premier Sir James Craig and the IRA prisoners were set free, followed by the 26 captured Loyalists. (3)

The McMahons

It was against this backdrop of continuing and escalating violence that the attack on the McMahons occurred.

Some people may be aware of the McMahon murders. For others, this may be their first encounter with the massacre. Others still may know the names but not the circumstances and aftermath of their death.

The murder of the family and their lodger was committed on 24th March 1922. The dead consisted of Owen McMahon and his sons Thomas, Frank, Bernard and Patrick. Their lodger Edward McKinney was also murdered.

Owen McMahon came from a Co. Down farming background and had moved to Belfast where he had done very well out of engaging in business interests such as licensed premises which usually entailed running pubs. He was a Director of Glentoran football club, had been President of the Ivy Cycling Club and was quite well known in sporting circles in Belfast in particular.

Owen McMahon was one of Belfast’s most prosperous businessmen. He and his family were largely seen as inoffensive and Nationalistic rather than Republican with Owen himself a personal friend of the less well known now but Nationalist titan of the time, Joe Devlin. (4)

Violent Attacks

On 23rd March 1922, USC officers Thomas Cunningham aged 22 and William Cairnside aged 21 were patrolling along Great Victoria Street when they were approached by IRA gunmen on foot who shot them both dead at close range. (5)

This event would provoke a ferocious response which would be carried out in a cool, calm and exceptionally cold manner. Initially, two innocent Catholics were shot dead in the Short Strand. (6) However, much worse was to come for the Nationalist community.

At 1am on the morning of 24th March a worksite at Carlisle Circus was approached by two men in Police uniform. A City council volunteer was guarding it, and he was persuaded by these Policemen to hand over his sledgehammer.

These two men met up with three others at the grounds of a large local residence known as Bruce’s Demesne and proceeded towards the large Victorian home where the McMahon family were resident. (7)

The Murder Gang Strikes

The assailants hammered at the front door, then smashed the glass panel enabling them to open the locks and break through a secondary door which led to the hallway. Owen and his wife Eliza were awakened by this commotion and attempted to run downstairs when both were confronted by a man in Police uniform.

The male members of the McMahon family and their lodger were taken into the downstairs living room whilst the females who included Owens wife Eliza, daughter Lily and niece Mary were ushered into the first-floor drawing-room.

The male members of the family were told abruptly by the gang to say their prayers before firing was commenced. Frank McMahon aged 24; Patrick McMahon aged 25 and Thomas McMahon aged just 15 were killed almost instantaneously. Edward McKinney their Lodger aged 25 was also killed.

Owen McMahon would die in hospital a few hours later. His son Bernard would die on 2nd April meaning only John aged 30 and Michael aged 12 survived. Michael in fact had a lucky escape hiding under the dining table and then the sofa before being found by neighbours in a ‘most frightful state”. (8)

The female members of the family tried to raise the alarm by screaming murder but by the time help arrived the massacre was over. Indeed an RIC patrol was close by and quickly on the scene. The scene they encountered was indescribable. The gang responsible had made a quick getaway into the darkness from whence they came.

Funeral and Controversy

The next day the bodies of the McMahon’s murdered were brought to St. Patrick’s Church where hundreds would pay their respects to a family murdered in a wholly brutal and sectarian fashion. Thousands attended the funerals; estimates would be as high as 10,000. (9)

Edward McKinney was buried in Donegal. Michael Collins and the Provisional Government in the Free State demanded an enquiry which Sir James Craig would refuse.

It was clear to the Nationalist community however that members of the security forces had been involved in the attack. Indeed John McMahon would state: “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, one was in plain clothes”. (10)

This gang was indeed part of a mixed force of RIC and B-Specials operating out of Brown Square Barracks in the Shankill Road. The alleged leaders of this gang, one of the so-called Cromwell Clubs were District Inspector John Nixon from County Cavan and his superior County Inspector Richard Harrison from Kilkenny. This was established during a Free State investigation into the McMahon killings and many other sectarian murders in Belfast.

The Free State had received affidavits from 12 RIC members who informed them of the murder gang, its leaders and members. Indeed it was also established that there were allegedly three Cromwell Clubs set up in Belfast by the Unionist Party with the purpose of carrying out reprisals after IRA murders of Policemen and Specials.

In all there were twelve members of the Harrison/Nixon so-called murder gang and many other innocent Catholics would fall foul to the Cromwell Clubs. (11)

The Aftermath

The McMahon murders would see the British attempt to bring Nationalist leaders of the South and Unionist leaders of the North together to reach some kind of agreement to prevent the rampant sectarian violence engulfing Belfast in particular although not exclusively. This would end six days after the McMahon murders in the Collins/Craig Pact. (12)

It was a genuine attempt to find a solution, although in the end, ineffective. Violence continued right up until the summer. Over 200 people would lose their lives in Belfast alone during the first six months of 1922, and over 1000 were injured. The IRA would attempt a province-wide offensive in May 1922, and the Belfast Brigade was at the heart of this violence.

This offensive fell apart amongst confusion and recrimination and will be the subject of a future article in the series. By June 1922 and the breakout of civil war in the Free State, the Northern IRA was dejected, and many of its members moved south.

DI Nixon and Later Years

DI Nixon would go on to receive an MBE in 1923 for ‘valuable service rendered by him during the troubled period’, despite being overlooked for promotion towards the end of 1922.

There was also an attempt to ask Nixon to resign his post in the RUC after the Troubles had quietened. This failed after Nixon and others refused and instead he was offered a position in the Canadian Police. This also failed.

Nixon remained in the RUC and received his MBE in the New Year honours list. He was however dismissed in 1924 after making a Political speech at a local Orange AGM in Clifton Street Orange Hall.

Numerous threats were made against Unionist Politicians for this act and the Orange Order and numerous Loyalist community groups voiced their opposition as did a number of Unionist MP’s. (13)

Nixon was elected as Councillor for the Court Ward in Belfast before going on to have a successful career as an Independent Unionist Politician MP and was elected for Belfast Woodvale in 1929.

He would hold that seat until his death aged 71 in 1949 still denying the allegations about his activities during the Troubles. County Inspector Richard Harrison was promoted to Belfast City Commissioner after the formation of the RUC and lived until the age of 99 dying in 1982. He lived to witness another generation engulfed in violence.


The latter-day murders of members of the Reavey and O’Dowd families are well known in Northern Ireland (14) but the murder of a prosperous Catholic family 54 years before has mostly been forgotten by the public at large.

The McMahon Murders were every bit as chilling, every bit as brutal and every bit as extreme as anything that happened in the more recent troubles.

As Owen McMahon and his sons and lodger retired to bed that spring evening in March 1922, not one could have envisaged the appalling fate that would await them a few hours later in what became one of the most notorious events of the whole period.

They would be chosen their executioners told Owen McMahon for one simple reason, “they were papists, and he was a respected papist, a papist prominent as such and looked upon as a leader of papists in the city”. (15)

That was enough to condemn the McMahon family, murdered in one of the coldest and most brutal attacks of the time.


  1. To see the content of the Government of Ireland Act click here:
  2. For more on the Treaty see here,
  3. Lynch: The Northern IRA and the Early Years of Partition
  4. Belfast Telegraph 26th March 1922
  6. Parkinson, Belfast’s Unholy War p229
  7. Parkinson, Belfast’s Unholy War p230
  8. Irish News March 25th 1922
  9. See Belfast History Project on the McMahon Murders
  10. Belfast Telegraph 25th March 1922
  11. See Belfast History Project on the McMahon Murders

12)For the Craig/Collins pact see here.

13) Parkinson, Belfast’s Unholy War p238

14) The Reavy and O’Dowd murders were committed on 4th January 1976 by the so called ‘Glennane Gang’ which consisted of Loyalist Paramilitaries, RUC Officers and UDR soldiers. For more information on their deaths see Lost Lives p609-611

15) Wilson, Irish Historical Studies, Vol 37, No.145 May 2010, p96

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