The coin that saved my grandfather’s life after he was shot coming out of Mass

Family Fortunes: A sniper shot and seriously wounded him in east Belfast in 1922

My grandfather, James John Martin McKenna, was born on the 7th of November 1882, in Church Street, Loughrea, Co Galway. His father, James Frederick, was appointed Workhouse Master in Loughrea, 1883-1889.

James Frederick had previously served in the 4th Regiment of Foot (King’s Own) from 1843 to 1857, based in India and Edinburgh, and as Sergeant Major in the Galway Militia from 1858 to 1882.

His son, James John, migrated to Belfast in 1902, enlisted in the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC) and moved to Aldershot in England for training. Sent to South Africa towards the end of the second Boer War, he returned to Belfast in 1903. In 1907 he married Rose Higgins, a migrant from Cliffoney, Co Sligo.

On Sunday, May 21st, 1922, a sniper shot and seriously wounded him as he was coming out of St Matthew’s RC Church in east Belfast.


Despite the constant sniping around the lower end of the Newtownards Road, people continued to attend Mass as usual in St Matthew’s. However, it was risky. Snipers often fired at them from the streets facing the front gates of the church.

Sunday treat

My grandfather had stayed after 12 o’clock Mass to make his rounds of the “Stations”. The priest, Canon Crilly, had told everyone to leave together, but my grandfather had to do the Stations. He was shot through the side.

A Queen Victoria shilling coin (1891) in his waistcoat pocket deflected the .303 calibre bullet from his heart. As can be seen from the photos, the coin was almost cut in half. It was for his favourite Sunday treat, a packet of Woodbine.

His five-year-old son, Tom, with his mother Rose, living on nearby Seaforde Street, ran from door to door amidst bullets to reach where he lay bleeding on the church steps.

British soldiers rushed him to the Mater Hospital, where he was admitted "with not much chance". He recovered, but the wound bothered him the rest of his life. He died on May 24th, 1954, at the Royal Victoria Hospital.

As I was working in Central America during the US-backed “dirty wars” in the 1980s and 1990s, his daughter, my auntie Lena, passed the coin to me.

She said: “This coin helped save my father’s life, maybe it will help save your life too. Carry it always.”

Domhnall Mac Cionnaith, Veterans for Peace, Ireland.