The Belfast Pogrom, 1920
The Belfast Pogrom, 1920



In the middle of July 1920, thousands of “disloyal” workers in Belfast were driven out of their workplaces by unionist mobs. In the immediate aftermath, rioting between nationalists and unionists left nineteen people dead. This outbreak marked the start of a period of violence that left almost five hundred dead and which became known by nationalists as “the Belfast pogrom.”

An account of a convulsive period in the history of Belfast by Kieran Glennon, abridged from


From early 1920, unionism was concerned that what it viewed as the “Sinn Féin rebellion” was no longer confined to the south and west of Ireland. The IRA attacked RIC barracks in Ballynahinch, Co. Down in February, and in both Crossgar, Co. Down and Cookstown Co. Tyrone in June.

At Easter, in parallel with other IRA units performing similar actions across the country, the Belfast Brigade burned the Custom House and income tax offices in Ann St, North St and Donegall Square on 5th April. RIC officers were killed in Derry in May and in south Armagh in June.

IRA violence spread to the north in the summer of 1920. Between 20th – 24th June, Derry experienced the most intense violence yet seen in the north, as rival groups of IRA and UVF gunmen fought sniping duels and killed civilian opponents. Altogether, twenty people were killed in Derry during this period.

This series of violent outbreaks culminated on the very doorstep of unionism when, on 2nd July, Head Constable Samuel Perrott became the first policeman to die from political violence within Belfast itself; he had been injured during rioting by loyalists in the Sandy Row area several days previously.

Unionist leader Edward Carson lit the fuse with a fiery speech at “The Field” in Finaghy, following the annual Orange Order march on 12th July. He told the crowd:

“We must proclaim today clearly that come what will and be the consequences what they may, we in Ulster will tolerate no Sinn Féin – no Sinn Féin organisation, no Sinn Féin methods … But we tell you [the government] this – that if, having offered you our help, you are yourselves unable to protect us from the machinations of Sinn Féin, and you won’t take our help; well then, we tell you that we will take the matter into our own hand …. And these are not mere words. I hate words without action.”

Republicans were not the only opponents he denounced, as he had not forgotten the impact of the engineering strike the previous year:

“…These men who come forward as the friends of Labour care no more about Labour than does the man in the moon. Their real object, and the real insidious nature of their propaganda is that they mislead and bring about disunity amongst our own people and in the end before we know where we are, we may find ourselves in the same bondage and slavery as is the rest of Ireland in the South and West.”

Carson’s speech set the tone for what was to follow.


Four weeks earlier, on 19th June, at Listowel barracks, the newly-appointed RIC Divisional Commissioner for Munster, Lieutenant Colonel Gerald Bryce Ferguson Smyth, had made an inflammatory speech in which he called on policemen to adopt a shoot-to-kill policy:

“They [the RIC] are not to confine themselves to the main roads but take across country, lie in ambush, take cover behind fences, near the roads, and, when civilians are seen approaching, shout ‘hands up’. Should the order be not immediately obeyed, shoot, and shoot with effect. If the persons approaching carry their hands in their pockets or are in any way suspicious looking, shoot them down. You may make mistakes occasionally and innocent persons may be shot, but this cannot be helped and you are bound to get the right persons sometimes. The more you shoot, the better I will like you, and I assure you that no policeman will get into trouble for shooting any man.”

The immediate effect of the speech was to prompt a police mutiny, but it also made Smyth a marked man in the eyes of the IRA. On 17th July they tracked him to the Country Club in Cork city, where they killed him.

As his parents were natives of Banbridge, County Down, his body was sent north for burial, although railwaymen initially refused to transport it. A special train was laid on to bring mourners from Belfast to Banbridge.

His funeral on the afternoon of 21st July sparked an eruption of sectarian violence in Banbridge. The day after the funeral, a mob of over 2,000 loyalists went around the local linen mills, chasing Catholics from their jobs; Smyth’s mother announced that the family’s two mills would no longer employ Catholics.

Over the next couple of days, Catholic-owned pubs and businesses were looted and burned and eighteen Catholic families saw their homes fully or partially burned. The RIC either could not or would not stop the loyalist mob and order was only restored with the arrival of a detachment of British troops two days later.


Belfast had two shipyards: Harland & Wolff was the larger and more famous, while Workman Clark was known as “the wee yard.” The workforces of both were due to return from the annual “Twelfth” holiday on 21st July, the same day that Smyth was to be buried in Banbridge.

That morning, the Belfast Protestant Association (BPA) posted notices in both shipyards, calling for a meeting of “all Unionist and Protestant workers of the shipyards” to be held at 1:30pm outside the wee yard. About 5,000 workers attended and moved a resolution demanding the expulsion of all “non-loyal” workers.

By 3:30pm, a mob had arrived outside Harland & Wolff, the gates of which had been shut:

“The gates were smashed down with sledges, the vests and shirts of those at work were torn open to see if the men were wearing Catholic emblems, and then woe betide the man that was. One man was set upon, thrown into the dock, had to swim the Musgrave Channel, and having been pelted with rivets, had to swim 2 or 3 miles, to emerge in streams of blood and rush to the police in a nude state.”

While the most enthusiastic perpetrators of the expulsions were the craftsmen’s apprentices, prominent members of the UULA were among the leaders.

The next day, the BPA turned its attention to some of the other prominent employers across Belfast: “disloyal” workers were expelled from the Sirocco Works in Ballymacarrett, Mackie’s Engineering on Springfield Road, Gallagher’s Tobacco in York St, Combe Barbour, Musgraves and many linen mills.

Altogether, nearly 7,500 workers were expelled from their workplaces. While Catholics constituted the majority, this number included roughly 1,850 Protestants – these were the so-called “rotten prods”, trade unionists and socialists, who were adjudged to be equally as disloyal as Catholics and “Sinn Féiners”; one of them, James Baird later told a conference of the Trade Union Congress:

“Every man who was prominently known in the labour movement, who was known as an I.L.P.-eer [Independent Labour Party] was expelled from his work just the same as the rebel Sinn Feiners. To show their love of the I.L.P. they burnt our hall in North Belfast … The district chairman of the AEU, a very moderate and quiet Labour man, was beaten not once but two or three times because he persisted in returning to his work.”

News of the expulsion of Catholics from the shipyards spread quickly among their co-religionists and that evening, the remaining shipyard workers were attacked as they made their way home.

Trams were attacked first in Short Strand in the east of the city and the violence soon spread across the River Lagan as the trams made their way across the Albert Bridge and through the nationalist Market area, where they were stoned.

A rival loyalist mob formed in nearby Donegall Pass and soon a full-scale riot was in progress, with the police baton-charging both sides.

A Catholic woman, Margaret Noade, who had left her home in Ballymacarrett to visit her sick mother in the Market, was shot and killed by a policeman as she turned a corner into Verner St.

Elsewhere in the city, when trams carrying Protestant shipyard workers home to the Shankill arrived, trouble quickly broke out in the streets between there and the nationalist Clonard district. The British military was called on to restore order and, a short distance away, they shot and killed two Catholics, one on the Falls Road, one just off it.

The level of violence increased the next day, as the expulsions spread to workplaces beyond the shipyards – three people had been killed on the 21st, but nine more died on the 22nd.

All but one of these killings took place in Clonard, where once again the military were called on to separate the rival rioters. However, several of these deaths were surrounded in controversy: four Protestant men were killed, two each in Kashmir Road and Cupar Street, but the military denied that they had fired into those streets.

Other military statements were refuted in the investigation into the death of Brother Michael Morgan, one of the monks in Clonard Monastery, who was killed the same night by a burst of fire from a Lewis gun. Initially, the military claimed they had been shot at from the monastery itself and were simply returning fire.

That version of events was contradicted at the inquest into Br Morgan’s death, when “District-Inspector Attridge said that on the invitation of the Rector of the Monastery he visited the building, but could find no trace of recent firing from the building or any sign of firearms.”

Trouble also erupted again on the 22nd in the east of the city. Among the few trades dominated by Catholics in Belfast were those of publican and spirit grocer and over the course of this period, three-quarters of the spirit groceries in Ballymacarrett were damaged and many looted.

On the evening of the 22nd, a loyalist mob attacked St Matthew’s Catholic church on the Newtownards Road; attempts were made to burn the Cross & Passion convent beside the church and the attackers were only driven off when a detachment of British troops arrived and opened fire. Over the next few days, two of those shot by the soldiers would subsequently die.

The following night, St Matthew’s and the convent were again attacked; a detachment of military had been stationed inside the church grounds to protect the buildings and they opened fire on the mob – two Protestants were fatally wounded.

However, over the next few days, a relative peace descended on Ballymacarrett, due in no small part to the efforts of John Redmond, rector of St Patrick’s Church of Ireland parish in the area. He organised a “peace picket” made up of ex-servicemen who acted as vigilantes, intervening to defuse potentially violent incidents.


On the other side of the divide, there is contradictory evidence relating to the provision of armed defence to nationalists.

Seamus McKenna was an IRA officer at the time; he later said:

“… at the beginning the Volunteers were ordered not to take part in what was regarded as fratricidal strife. After a week or two, however, it was obvious that, if the Catholic population were to survive at all, it would be necessary for the Volunteers to protect them in some way, and accordingly the IRA became involved in a struggle against disciplined and undisciplined Orange factions, whilst at the same time having to bear in mind that their main object was to carry out aggressive action against the British forces of occupation.”

However, McKenna’s recollection may have been faulty.

Two of the Catholics killed in Clonard during the first few days after the shipyard expulsions were members of the IRA: Joseph Giles, killed in Bombay St on the 22nd, and John McCartney, who was shot in Kashmir Road on the 22nd and died on the 24th. However, as both were Clonard residents, it is unclear whether or not they were killed while on IRA duty.

The most direct evidence that the IRA were in fact in action is in a sentence in a newspaper report: “Irish Volunteers patrolled the Falls road and urged Nationalists to keep away from the areas in which trouble was raging.”

They may not have been the only armed nationalists involved. Within northern nationalism, there was a long-standing, bitter rivalry between republicans such as the IRA and Sinn Féin on the one hand, and the nationalist Ancient Order of Hibernians on the other. Roger McCorley later went on to become O/C of the IRA’s Belfast Brigade, but he inadvertently alluded to the presence of armed Hibernians at this time:

“On the outbreak of the pogrom we had got information through our Intelligence that a Catholic clergyman outside Belfast had sixty Martini-Enfield rifles which had been the property of the old National Volunteers who were no longer in existence. He had sent information into Belfast to the Hibernian element that he had these arms and he asked them to call out and collect them for use in the defence of the nationalist areas. The information from our Intelligence Department was such that we were able to call out at the appropriate time and collect these arms ourselves. The clergyman instructed our man, he being under the impression that we were of the Hibernian element, that under no circumstances were these arms to get into the hands of the IRA. Our people assured him that they would make sure no one would get control of the arms other than themselves.”

It can safely be assumed that if the rifles had reached the intended recipients, they would have made use of them for the intended purpose.

Over the course of four days from 21st to 25th July, a total of nineteen people were killed and almost two hundred injured in Belfast; in addition, some of those wounded by gunfire during this period would later succumb to their injuries in the coming weeks.

The dead included nine Protestant and eight Catholic civilians and two members of the IRA. In terms of locality, Clonard and the Falls bore the brunt of the deaths, with thirteen killed; four died in Ballymacarrett and two in the Market.

All but two of the deaths were attributed to British troops. One woman was killed by an RIC officer and the death of Catholic Henry Hennessy, shot in Kashmir Road on 22nd July is, by consensus, attributed to a Protestant gunman.

Roughly 7,500 Catholics and “rotten prods” were expelled from their workplaces and dozens of people on both sides of the divide were driven from their homes by mobs, in many cases their houses burned after they had fled. Pubs and spirit groceries, mainly Catholic-owned, were attacked and looted.

What began with workplace expulsions and nineteen deaths near the end of July 1920 became an enduring horror that would go on to grip the city for over two years and see almost five hundred deaths. By any metric, the minority nationalist community suffered disproportionately from this violence – it was for this reason that they remembered 21st July 1920 as the start of “the Belfast pogrom.”

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