- Explaining the Altnaveigh Massacre*
In the early hours of Saturday, 17 June 1922, during the closing stages of the Irish Republican Army's campaign against the newly established state of Northern Ireland, a party of about twenty Irish Republican Army (IRA) volunteers left their makeshift barracks in Dundalk, Co. Louth, and crossed over the border into south Armagh. Traveling swiftly across country, they proceeded to launch a series of devastating attacks on a small Presbyterian farming community in the townlands of Altnaveigh and Lisdrumliska, five miles from the new Irish border and about a mile to the west of Newry.
During these attacks six people were shot dead, numerous others were injured, and over a dozen properties were bombed or burned out. Though there were only six fatalities, it is clear that the raids were designed to inflict an unprecedented amount of violence. A police report calculated that if all the attacks—the woundings, the acts of arson, the bombs thrown into windows or rigged to doors—had succeeded, the death toll could have reached as high as thirty. 1 At the subsequent funeral of the victims in Newry the Presbyterian minister declared: "We have been left with a bloody mile of roofless houses. . . . Even in war there is a certain limit to atrocity, a certain [End Page 184] code of honour is practiced by all but the vilest savage. In this [code] those who wrought Saturday's deed of shame have no share." 2 What proved most notable, however, about the "Altnaveigh Massacre," as these attacks have been dubbed, concerned not its perpetrators but rather its victims. Though varying widely in terms of age, gender, and class, all the victims shared one thing in common—their religion. Every victim of the attacks at Altnaveigh and Lisdrumliska, irrespective of the magnitude of his or her suffering, was Protestant. It is this raw sectarian edge to the killings, woundings, and burnings as much as their extent that has given the attacks their lasting notoriety.
Along with the MacMahon murders of March 1922, when a gang of policemen shot dead six members of the Catholic MacMahon household in north Belfast, the Altnaveigh attacks rank as the most infamous atrocities carried out in Ulster during the extremely violent period that marked the birth of Northern Ireland between June 1920 and June 1922. The comparison with the MacMahon murders is understandable. 3 In both sets of murders it was not principally a case of how many were killed but of who they were. The similar death tolls in the two cases were relatively modest when compared to daily mortality rates in serious riots in Belfast at that time. 4 While the Belfast killings were viewed by members of the Northern Catholic minority as symptomatic of the evils of sectarian policing, the attacks at Altnaveigh three months later did much to reignite deeply held Protestant fears stretching back generations to the notorious massacres of 1641. Certainly, the attacks are remembered bitterly by Ulster Protestants, particularly the minority in south Armagh. Even today, despite the many murders and assassinations that the area has witnessed during the "Troubles" of the past forty years, the Altnaveigh Massacre is still given pride of place in local [End Page 185] commemorations. The dead are honored with plaques, banners, parades, and an annual church service attended by hundreds of Orangemen and "Specials" (part-time constables) that has continued uninterrupted since 1923. 5 The Altnaveigh attacks have been viewed by many Protestants as a deliberate, organized attempt at ethnic cleansing. Frederick Russell, president of the Newry chamber of commerce, speaking two days after the attacks, observed that the shootings were "very carefully planned and deliberately carried out, the object being to obliterate this little colony of Presbyterians in the district." 6 At the time many members of the IRA in south Armagh itself were appalled by the events. One of them, Patrick Casey, recalled: "I remember my feeling was one of horror when I heard the details. Nothing could justify this holocaust of unfortunate Protestants. Neither youth nor age was spared, and some of the killings took place in the presence of their families. Writing this, 35 years later...