A hundred years ago this week, the Crown Forces murdered six nationalist civilians in Belfast, shortly after they had killed six Catholic civilians in the McMahon murders. The Arnon Street massacre was recalled on Saturday by families of the victims while speaking to Joe McCann of Belfast Media.
Saturday 2 April marks a solemn occasion for members of the Gray, Murphy and Walsh families as they prepare to commemorate the centenary of the Arnon Street Massacre in which their relatives were murdered by an armed police gang during a night of frenzied violence.
Foremost in their thoughts will be the memory of Robert James Walsh who was only eight-months-old when he was killed by the police gang, led by the notorious District Inspector John William Nixon and County Inspector Richard Dale Winnet Harrison. The ‘Cromwell Club’ were a group of police killers who perpetuated many atrocities including the McMahon family killings and the murder of Jack Duffin, as well as Pat and Dan Duffin from their base in Brown Square Barracks in Belfast.
This tumultuous time has been remembered by historians and those who lived through it as the ‘Belfast Pogrom’ during which it is estimated 469 people were killed during violence in the city, the majority of whom were innocent members of the nationalist/Catholic community.
Margaret Gray, Mary Gray and John Murphy who are all siblings will be unveiling a plaque on the anniversary which is to be placed on their relatives’ burial site in Milltown Cemetery. In their plaque they have placed the name of the youngest victim, eight-month-old Robert James Walsh at the top, as surprisingly the infant, who would have been their uncle, has been for some reason left out of the official list of victims for reasons lost to history. The Gray, Murphy and Walsh family wish to commemorate and remember their relatives who died during the massacre, and also do justice in remembering their uncle who was killed as an infant.
The violence began around midnight on 1 April 1922 when the Nixon/Harrison gang got word that an RIC Constable George Turner had been shot dead on Old Lodge Road by the IRA.
A week prior to the massacre the same gang attacked the prominent McMahon family on 24 March 1922 in revenge for the shooting of two Ulster Special Constabulary policemen. The gang killed Owen McMahon and four of his sons plus a Donegal man, Edward McKinney who worked for the family.
Using the same tactics they used to kill the McMahon’s, the police gang barged into homes with a sledgehammer before shooting the occupants with revolvers.
The first victim was John McCrory who was shot at his home in Stanhope Street. The gang then turned onto 26 Park Street where they murdered Bernard McKenna as he sat reading.
Turning onto Arnon Street the police gang entered the home of elderly William Spallen who was shot dead in front of his 12-year-old grandson who also sustained injuries. Mr Spallen had that day buried his wife. The gang stole £20 from his mantelpiece which he was to use to pay for his wife’s burial.
The killers then used a sledgehammer to enter the home of Joseph Walsh who was sleeping upstairs with two of his children. Joseph Walsh was shot and bludgeoned with a sledgehammer while his seven-year-old son Michael was shot three times and would die the next day. The bullet which hit Joseph Walsh also passed through him and wounded his two-year-old daughter Bridget.
Joseph Walsh’s other son, Frank aged 14, was hiding downstairs and was shot in the legs as the gunmen fled.
Leaving the property the killers spotted Catherine Austin standing in a hallway, holding the baby, Robert James Walsh. Mrs Austin was looking after the child while his mother attended Mass. The killers fired shots at Mrs Austin, with one going through the baby’s head and hitting her in the arm. In her fear she did not realise she or the baby had been shot until the killers had fled.
Margaret Gray, niece of the baby Robert James Walsh said: “We were told when my grandmother came back and found out what had happened that she had to scoop up the remains left behind and put it in a bowl.
“The official report states he was shot in the chest, but he was shot in the head, and the bullet also struck Mrs Austin.”
The official death certificate reads Robert James Walsh was killed by a “gunshot wound to the abdomen wilfully inflicted by members of an unlawful assembly.” Of course, history now knows that those who inflicted this terror were indeed a lawful assembly, being that they were all members of the Royal Irish Constabulary.
A year after the McMahon family killings, the killing of Jack Duffin and countless including the Arnon Street Massacre, Nixon was award an MBE by King George V “for valuable service rendered during the troubled period”.
Nixon would go on to have a prominent career in Ulster politics, despite being kicked out of the Unionist Party for giving a political speech at an Orange rally. He later served as an Independent Unionist MP for Woodvale and was a mentor to the young Ian Paisley Sr. He died in 1949 still as a serving MP, denying all involvement in his crimes and protected from justice.
The response from to the massacre was a mass outpouring of grief and anger that such an atrocity could be inflicted upon innocent people in their own homes. Margaret Gray said: “Everyone who was killed was buried on the same day on February 5 1922; a local family very generously donated their plot to our family members who were killed.”
The coffin of Robert James Walsh was placed in a carriage, behind that of his relatives and other victims such as William Spallen and John McCrory and Bernard McKenna.
An Irish News report from the day states: “Passing through Royal Avenue in which were stationed military and armed police, the funerals were witnessed by immense crowds of the general public, the manifestations of sympathy and expression of indignation as the remains of the murdered men and the little baby were borne past in the beautiful sunshine of a glorious spring afternoon conducing to an atmosphere of sadness and solemnity.”
Employees of the local mills on the Falls Road ceased work in solidarity and upwards of 3,000 men walked four men abreast behind the procession.