On 23 March 1922, five members of the McMahon family and another man were murdered by the RIC in their family home in North Belfast.
At 1.20 am, masked men sledgehammered down the door of the three-storey house at 3 Kinnaird Terrace, rousing the occupants, who at first suspected a bomb had been put in the letterbox, from their beds.
The murderers quickly collected the women of the house and locked them in a back room. They then forced 50-year-old Owen McMahon and his five sons, ages 11 to 24, and a 25-year-old male boarder, into the living room. The leader of the assassins told the men and boys to avail of the few moments to pray for their souls. As they were praying, the gang opened fire.
Owen McMahon and three of his boys died instantly, as did boarder Ed McKinney. Another McMahon son, Bernard, died of his wounds a week later. Amazingly, the shots intended for 11-year-old John McMahon missed. The boy, shrieking with fright, ran round the dining-room table. Two more shots were fired at him as he ran, these ricocheted off the table into the wall. The boy managed to get under the sofa and lay there until the killers had fled. John McMahon later identified the killers as uniformed, but masked, police. He was absolutely categorical about the murderers’ identity in his statement to local clergy: “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.”
An explosion of violence accompanied Britain’s 1920 partitioning of Ireland, the Irish Tan War, and the ensuing Irish Civil War. From July 1920 to July 1922, 453 died in Belfast alone. Over 60 percent were Catholics, who then made up a third of the population. The McMahons, a business family, were killed in reprisal for the IRA killing of two police auxiliaries the day before.
There is no doubt that some members of the B-Specials were present at the McMahon killings but it must be remembered that the ‘Specials’ were in fact mere ‘helpers’ to those who were involved in the planning and carrying out of such attacks and who were all members, and in most cases high rankings members, of the RIC. They were known as the Cromwell Club and were established in Belfast. These death squads were set up by the Unionist Party and attacked Catholics when the opportunity arose. Their sectarian purpose was to drive all the Catholics out of the newly formed Ulster State.
A chief Belfast death squad leader was Inspector John Nixon. The Stormont government eventually tried to dismiss him, but backed off when he threatened to publicly name senior police and unionist politicians who had helped in the murder gangs.
Nixon was elected five times to Britain’s Parliament and he was awarded an MBE by King George in 1923 for his “valuable service during the troubled period”.
After interviewinree Sinn Féiners (in their homes)… the only way to stop these cold-blooded murders.”
A week after the McMahon incident, in a deliberate attempt to wreck the Craig-Collins pact, lorry loads of RIC and Specials from Brown Square barracks perpetrated the “Arnon Street Massacre” of five Catholics.
Such was the weight of evidence against Nixon and named police for these murders that DI Lynn not only “investigated… the police for murder” but ordered the police suspects to parade for identification.
However, as Fr Laverty reported, they refused; and Craig resisted demands for an inquiry.
On Sunday 26 March 1922, the funeral of the Owen McMahon and his three sons, Frank, Patrick and Gerald, left St Patrick’s Church, Donegall Street, en route for burial in Milltown Cemetery. Thousands lined the streets to show their abhorrence for the brutal killings.
One week later the RIC were renamed the RUC.
On 29 January 2003,the North Belfast News reported that, following a request from the DUP’s Ian Crozier, Belfast City Hall would ask the Department of Social Development for the former home of RUC Officer and Unionist MP John Nixon to be declared a national monument.
With many thanks to: Easter Rising War of Independence and Irish Civil War History.