In1921/1922 the North saw some of the most intense violence in Ireland

Catholic civilians bore brunt of retaliations for ongoing IRA assassinations

The traditional chronology of the Irish revolution identifies the period from the end of hostilities in the War of Independence on July 11th, 1921, until the start of the Irish Civil War in June 1922 as constituting a "truce period". This fails to recognise the extent to which the newly-created Northern Ireland experienced no such cessation of hostilities in practice, but rather experienced some of the most intense fatal violence of any part of the island during the revolutionary period.

The recent compendium, the Dead of the Irish Revolution (compiled by Eunan O'Halpin and Daithi Ó Corráin), lists 145 post-Truce conflict-related deaths between July 12th and December 31st 1921, of which two-thirds (97) took place in Northern Ireland, with the vast majority (84) occurring in Belfast.

1922 picked up where 1921 left off for Belfast. While the Dead of the Irish Revolution has not yet accounted for deaths beyond 1921, exhaustive research by Kieran Glennon has identified 499 deaths linked to political violence in Belfast between July 1920 and mid-1922 (with the highest incidence being in 1922), a period that effectively constituted a Northern civil war.

Northern victims, and especially those from Belfast, differ from those in the South in that most were civilians. The nature of violence was also of a particular type in the North, with many of the combatants on both sides killed by sniper fire or from being shot at close range.


A number of cases mentioned in the compensation claims of their families contained in the military service pensions collection show how Northern IRA men died in engagements with the Northern security forces, in particular the Ulster Special Constabulary (USC). Examples of this include the deaths of IRA volunteers,Patrick Tumilty and John McAlinden, shot dead while in USC custody – allegedly while trying to escape – at Ballybrick in Co Down in June 1922.

District inspector

The Northern killings were characterised by sectarianism, with Catholic civilians accounting for the highest number of victims, especially in Belfast. The main villain in Belfast was the notorious Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) district inspector John William Nixon (1876-1949). A native of Co Cavan who joined the RIC in 1899 at the age of 23, Nixon served for short periods in Wexford and Donegal but most of his career was spent in Belfast, where he rose through the ranks with promotion to sergeant (1907), head constable (1913) and district inspector (1917).

Based at the RIC barracks in Belfast’s Brown Square, Nixon is widely believed to have run a death squad comprising RIC and USC officers who were linked to a number of deaths during the War of Independence and some of the most controversial fatal attacks during the first half of 1922.

Nixon later transferred to the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) on its formation in mid-1922 , and quickly became an embarrassment to the unionist government of Sir James Craig. His blatant politicisation of the RUC eventually led to him being dismissed from the force in 1924 though not before he was awarded an MBE in an effort to placate his populist loyalist and Orange followers. He continued his sparring with the unionist government as an independent MP at Stormont from 1929 until his death in 1949. Nixon remained a figure of admiration to many within unionism, including the late Reverend Ian Paisley.

The most high-profile deaths linked to Nixon were those of the McMahon family. Early in the morning of March 24th, 1922, a number of men, suspected to be policemen acting on Nixon's orders, executed the Catholic publican Owen McMahon, four of his sons (Frank, Patrick, Thomas and Bernard) and an employee (Edward McKinney) in the MacMahon family home at 3 Kinnaird Terrace off the Antrim Road in north Belfast. Two of the sons of the family – John (30) and Michael (12) – survived and the women present in the house had been moved to another room during the incident.

Male line

Alan Parkinson indicates that the attack was a reprisal for the shooting dead by the IRA of two Specials while on patrol in Belfast city centre three days earlier and considers the attack to have been well planned and a "decision to systematically eliminate the whole male line of the family".

To Catholics, Owen McMahon’s prominence as a businessman and leading figure in the licensed trade in Belfast (in which Catholics predominated) was interpreted as a message that Catholic-owned businesses were not welcome in the new Northern Ireland.

The killings created a major headache for the Craig government in its efforts to present a tolerant image at a time when Craig was already coming under pressure for his discussions with Michael Collins in the so-called Craig-Collins pacts.

While the McMahon massacre is the best known of the fatal assaults that took place in Belfast in the first half of 1922, recent research, linked to the centenary of these events, has given prominence to similar attacks resulting in multiple fatalities which occurred in the Weaver and Arnon Street areas of the city either side of the events at Kinnaird Terrace in March.

On February 13th, 1922, four young girls and two women were killed when a loyalist gang deliberately hurled a bomb into a crowd of children playing in the Catholic Weaver Street enclave north of the city near York Street.

These six were among at least 30 people killed in Belfast over a four-day period from February 12th to February 16th in a loyalist reaction to an "affray" at Clones railway station the previous Saturday, February 11th. When a train carrying armed USC officers stopped at Clones en route from Newtownards to Enniskillen, a contingent of local IRA boarded the train and an ensuing shootout left the IRA commander, Matt Fitzpatrick, and four Specials dead.

The attempt by the IRA to intercept and kidnap the Specials was in turn a republican response to the arrest of the Monaghan Gaelic football team when they entered the North in January to compete in a game against Derry.


The interlinked nature of all of these events illustrates the tit-for-tat nature of the spiralling violence in the North and the extent to which civilians were among the collateral damage when fatal engagements between the Northern security forces and the IRA spilled over into the wider society.

Catholic civilians bore the brunt of loyalist and police retaliations for ongoing IRA assassinations of policemen in Belfast. This was at its severest when these attacks hit closest to home for John Nixon. The shooting dead of Constable George Turner, based at Nixon’s Brown Square barracks, on April 1st, led to the next highest profile killing spree linked to the rogue District inspector, resulting in the deaths of seven Catholic civilians in the Arnon Street area of the city.

In an effort to contain the escalating violence the Northern government enacted the infamous Civil Authority (Special Powers) Act on April 7th, 1922, which allowed for a wide range of harsh punishments, including the death penalty, flogging and internment without trial.

This was the context for the mass internment of republican suspects in mid-May 1922 (an antecedent of a policy introduced with disastrous consequences by Brian Faulkner 50 years later), many of whom were interned on the prison ship SS Argenta for over a year, and the execution by the IRA of the unionist MP in Stormont parliament, William Twaddell, in Belfast city centre on May 22nd.

The Public Safety Act remained on the statute book in Northern Ireland for the duration of unionist rule at Stormont and was not repealed until 1973, by which time direct rule from Westminster had been introduced.

Protestant farmers

Although the preponderance of violence and fatalities occurred in Belfast, certain high-profile incidents occurred elsewhere in Northern Ireland, most notably the killing of six Protestant farmers in the townlands of Altnaveigh and Lisdrumliska on June 17th.

These killings took place in the IRA's Fourth Northern Division area, and it is largely accepted that the attack had the imprimatur of Frank Aiken, even if he was not present on the occasion. The killings took place against the backdrop of local sectarian violence and engagements between the IRA and the Northern security forces. One particular incident related to the attack was the raid on the home of an IRA man, James McGuill, during which his wife was said to have been raped by B-Specials.

The rate of killing declined considerably after this point. The outbreak of the Civil War in the South diverted the attention of Collins, whose support for an IRA Northern offensive earlier in the year was a crucial factor in the events in Ulster in early 1922. The harsh security policies of Craig’s government, epitomised by the Public Safety Act and the establishment of the RUC, also had the intended effect.

Prof Marie Coleman is professor of 20th century Irish history at Queen’s University Belfast and co-editor (along with Prof Paul Bew and Dr Caoimhe Nic Dhábhéid) of Northern Ireland, 1921-2021: centenary historical perspectives (published recently by the Ulster Historical Foundation in conjunction with the Northern Ireland Office)