Why don’t we remember the Weaver Street massacre in Belfast?

Described as the worst atrocity since ‘Herod slew the innocents’ four girls and two women were murdered

On the evening of February 13th, 1922, just after 8.30pm, two suspicious looking men were spotted by residents of Weaver Street in north Belfast, a small Catholic enclave surrounded by Protestant districts. Despite it being mid-February, it was a crisp dry evening and children were playing on the street, boys with marbles, girls with a skipping rope tied to a lamp-post. Their parents watched them from their doorways.

One child noticed one of the men crouching and hurling an object towards the girls. It was a bomb, thrown into the middle of the girls skipping, with the intention of maximising casualties. The explosion was heard all over Belfast. Shrapnel and lumps of metal flew in every direction. The bomb was followed by a spray of bullets, preventing the parents from running to help their children. Once the gunfire stopped, mothers and fathers ran to their children, who were lying bleeding, crying with agonised screams.

The girls suffered the most. Four died: Ellen Johnstone (11) and Catherine Kennedy (15) died almost immediately; Elizabeth O’Hanlon (12) died the next day, and Rose-Anne McNeill (13) died on February 22nd. Many more suffered catastrophic injuries. Boys were injured too, as were adults. Two women subsequently died from their wounds, Maggie Smith (53) and Mary Owen (40).

The following day, the Freeman’s Journal described the scenes at the Mater hospital: “When the wounded reached the hospital the entire staff was ready to receive them…Most of them had lost consciousness, but many were groaning and writhing in agony…Each child was carried into the hospital by the ambulance men, some of whom, hardened by contact with suffering, had been so moved by the scenes they had witnessed in Weaver Street, that they could ill repress the tears that welled into their eyes as they tenderly bore the groaning little ones into the building.”

The British colonial secretary, Winston Churchill, described the bombing as "the worst thing that has happened in Ireland during the past three years". A Jesuit priest, Patrick J Gannon, claimed it was the worst atrocity since "Herod slew the innocents in biblical times".

While condemning the "dastardly deed, involving the lives of children" in Weaver Street, "a Sinn Féin area", Northern Ireland prime minister James Craig's condemnation was qualified. He was quick to point out that "the greatest tension has existed in Belfast since the kidnapping of Loyalists and the murderous attack on the police at Clones", claiming the "trouble began with firing on workers and Loyalists going to their work, the firing coming from a Sinn Fein locality".

Craig was referring to the kidnapping by the IRA of 40 loyalists in Tyrone and Fermanagh in early February in response to the arrest of players from the Monaghan Gaelic football team in Tyrone and the planned execution of three prisoners in Derry jail; and the so-called Clones Affray of February 11th, when Ulster Specials on a train from Belfast to Enniskillen that had stopped over in Free State territory in Clones, Co Monaghan were involved in a gun battle with the IRA.This resulted in the deaths of four Specials and one IRA member.

This, according to historian Éamon Phoenix, was “a match to a powder keg” in Belfast, with violence erupting in the city in the following days and 37 people dying violently between February 12th and 15th, the most notorious incident being undoubtedly the Weaver Street bomb.

All shades of nationalist opinion were appalled by the bombing. Michael Collins, chairman of the Free State provisional government, informed Churchill that "the bomb was thrown deliberately among the children by some person purporting to uphold the side which Sir James Craig upholds". The Catholic bishop of Down and Connor, Joseph MacRory, wrote to British prime minister David Lloyd George days later requesting that the British military protect the Catholics of Belfast. Nationalist-leaning newspapers increasingly referred to the "pogrom against Catholics" in Belfast after the bombing and wrote in harrowing terms of how Catholics were being "exterminated", in many cases by "uniformed assassins".

Nationalist MP Joseph Devlin complained that by Craig referring to Weaver Street as a Sinn Féin area, it was implied that it “was a Sinn Féiner who threw this bomb” at Protestant children. Other nationalists condemned the silence in the unionist press on the potential involvement of the Specials in the bombing, with the Freeman’s Journal claiming: “While a campaign of murder goes on, a campaign of misrepresentation accompanies it.”

The victims of the Weaver Street bomb were to receive no justice. At an inquest held at the beginning of March, just weeks after the bombing, residents testified that two Specials had chased children in to Weaver Street from Milewater Street, one brandishing a revolver. The Free State provisional government claimed that by shepherding more children on to the street, this “rendered the bombers’ work more effective than if they had been scattered” over two streets.

More residents testified that three uniformed policemen were seen speaking to the two suspicious men moments before the bomb was thrown, hurriedly walking away once the conversation was over. Residents also produced spent bullets fired into Weaver Street after the bomb went off. The jury resolved for a special inquiry to be conducted, once consented to by northern home affairs minister Richard Dawson Bates, to discover who was responsible for the bombing and the involvement, if any, of the police forces. This special inquiry never happened.

The claims courts offered no solace either, granting pittances to the families. Josephine Conway, who was injured in the stomach and legs and spent 13 weeks in hospital, was offered £20 by a Belfast claims court, not the £1,000 sought. Another girl injured, Susan Laverty, also sought £1,000 and was granted £40. John Patrick McCloskey, aged 14 when he was injured, was granted £30 instead of his £750 claim. George Johnstone received £50 for the death of his daughter Ellen.

Elizabeth McMahon, whose husband and four sons were killed in all probability by RIC district inspector John Nixon’s “Murder Gang” in March 1922, also received far less compensation than she sought, £2,500 rather than £18,000. A reason given for only offering her £2,500 was that she was experiencing little financial loss as her husband had left an estate valued at £30,000.

The Catholic residents of Weaver Street endured more suffering  after the bombing when they were chased at gunpoint from their homes by loyalists in May 1922, displaced and homeless. The street that bore the name of this atrocity no longer exists; a reminder of what happened on Weaver Street 100 years ago is no longer even visible on a street sign.

Remembrance of the bombing has been practically invisible as well. There is no memorial or plaque, no works of art, almost no media coverage beyond the immediate months of its occurrence, and not even a footnote in many history texts of the era. Why is it that the most despicable and evil act of a shocking period in Belfast’s history, in which children in large numbers were deliberately and specifically targeted to experience agonising deaths, is almost forgotten?

One reason might have been the numbing to the violence of that year, 1922, when many more children were killed. Historian Alan F Parkinson estimates that just under 50 children were killed violently in Belfast during sectarian violence from the summer of 1920 to the summer of 1922.

Kieran Glennon, author of From Pogrom to Civil War: Tom Glennon and the Belfast IRA,  has catalogued the victims of political violence in Belfast from 1920-1922. According to Glennon, of the 498 killed violently in the city in that period, the peak of the violence was in the first half of 1922, when 270 people were killed, almost all civilian casualties.

The bombing of children on Weaver Street became just one incident of savagery among many others.

Despite the scale of the political violence in Belfast from 1920 to 1922, the further away people are from the city, the less likely they are to know of, let alone commemorate, it. Not only was Ireland partitioned in 1921, history on the island was also partitioned. While much has been written of incidents such as Dublin’s Bloody Sunday, the Kilmichael ambush and the burning of Cork city south of the Border, little attention has been paid to events in Belfast at the same time, to incidents such as the Weaver Street bomb.

Surely now, on its 100th anniversary, it is time for all on the island of Ireland to remember the four children and two women who died, as well as those others physically and psychologically scarred by this heinous crime.

Dr Cormac Moore is a historian with Dublin City Council and author of Birth of the Border: The Impact of Partition in Ireland (Merrion Press, 2019).

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