Altnaveigh 1921 and 1922
The Altnaveigh massacre of June 1922 remains one of the most notorious events of the entire revolutionary period. Six Protestant civilians were killed by the IRA in south Armagh just as the civil war was about to start. Less well known, however, are the events that took place in the same locality just under twelve months previously in July 1921.
Two Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) families were at the centre of events in 1921. John O’Reilly retired to south Armagh from the RIC in 1913 having served in counties Kerry and Armagh. O’Reilly had an unblemished record, twice being promoted and twice receiving commendations. Prior to joining the RIC, O’Reilly was a ‘labourer.’ Membership of the force undoubtedly offered him an opportunity for upward social mobility. His wife, Bridget, was a national school teacher, so the family were very much established lower middle class by 1921. Most likely they were enjoying the status and privilege that the rural policeman (retired or serving) often benefits from. As the War of Independence heated up in south Armagh, the O’Reillys must have had confidence that John’s past service and their social status would provide some protection from the worst of the conflict.
While it might be expected that the O’Reilly’s sympathies would be entirely with the forces of the state, it was not unknown for the children of RIC officers to exhibit revolutionary zeal. RIC officers were mostly Roman Catholics and they were pretty well integrated into that community. The lower middle class social status of policemen’s offspring also made them likely candidates for involvement in the cultural nationalist projects of the early twentieth century. Eamonn Ceannt, Tom Barry, Joe McKelvey, Michael Staines, and Seán Ó Faoláin are among the high profile children of RIC officers who took a rebel path. John O’Reilly would later admit that two of his sons, Thomas and John, were sympathetic to Sinn Féin, but he was adamant they were not active IRA volunteers. It seems likely that he was unaware his two sons were in fact members of the IRA.
July 6 Raids
July 6, 1921 between the hours of 3 and 4 am was when the ongoing war in Ireland came to the O’Reilly’s front door. This was five days before the Truce of July 11, 1921 and almost a year before what has become known as the Altnaveigh massacre. Tensions were incredibly high in South Armagh at the time. Like everyone else locally, the O’Reilly’s were no doubt aware that the Northern Ireland parliament was opened amid tremendous fanfare by King George V on June 22, 1921. While the conciliatory speech of the British monarch is often referenced with regard to the royal visit, the accompanying security operation was a forceful demonstration of British state power in the new Northern Ireland. Therefore, a spectacular ambush by the IRA of a troop train returning from the showpiece event caused international headlines embarrassing the British government. Three British soldiers and a train guard were killed. Where this fits into our story is that the attack took place a few miles from the O’Reilly homestead at nearby Adavoyle. Military Service Pension Collection (MSPC) files show members of the Cloughoge IRA company were involved in the scouting for the Adavoyle attack. Thomas and John O’Reilly were members of that company. There is little indication that the O’Reilly’s were very active volunteers or had any involvement in the Adavoyle ambush. It is worth noting that there were over 100,000 on IRA membership rolls -few of these ever fired a shot in anger and given the lack of evidence to the contrary, it is likely that the O’Reilly’s fell into the less active category of IRA member.
Nonetheless, someone, whether in the local police or community, was aware of the political sympathies of the young O’Reillys and passed that knowledge on to the dangerous men who were to visit the former policeman’s home on the night of July 6. Those raiding the O’Reilly house in the early hours of the morning presented themselves as the ‘military’ searching for arms. Their manner and demeanour certainly suggested the raiders represented some branch of the crown forces, although they were not in uniform. John O’Reilly told the intruders he was an ex-RIC officer and there was nothing illegal in the house. Nonetheless, the raiders broke down the front door proceeding to search the property. Brigid O’Reilly suspected something was amiss telling the raiders ‘if you were military, you wouldn’t do this to us.’ Her two republican sons were then taken from the house. The family was told the young men were to be held in military custody for questioning. When the raiders departed, the worried parents immediately dressed and went to Newry Police Station to check on their sons’ welfare. The sentry at the barracks told them that there were no new prisoners taken that night and ordered the worried couple home. This could have only heightened their concern.
At 4.30 am, the neighbouring house of James McQuaid was targeted by the same military party. McQuaid was also a retired RIC Head Constable. His son Willie was an IRA volunteer. Willie’s friend Patrick Quinn was staying over that night. Both Quinn and Willie McQuaid, were members of a nearby IRA company at Corrinshego. Quinn’s sister-in-law was due to give birth to twins and hence the stay at the neighbouring house. On this occasion, the raiders failed to gain entry to the premises and instead shot through the front door killing Patrick Quinn. The Quinn family’s tragedy was compounded in the following days. Patrick’s sister-in-law lost the twins she was carrying and his father Luke collapsed and died. The family blamed the trauma of July 6 for both tragedies.
There were other local houses raided the same night. At 3.45 am the McGennity home was targeted. The McGennitys were known to be republican in outlook. Charlie McGennity was the most high profile of the family in terms of activism but his sister Margaret and brother Peter (19) were also involved in the republican movement. Here, the youngest male, Peter was taken by the ‘military’. Peter’s mother asked, ‘what do you want with him? He’s only a child’. Like the O’Reilly’s mother, Margaret McGennity sensed something was not right. She followed the military personnel out as they led her brother to waiting transport. The vehicle left the scene as the family prayed inside the house. Waiting outside, Margaret heard a volley of shots. She walked the short distance up the road to the village of Altnaveigh to find her brother lying dead with a cigarette in one still hand and a box of matches in the other. Alongside him were the dead bodies of the two O’Reilly brothers.
Margaret would days later give sensational evidence at the Court of Inquiry into the deaths. She had spotted one of the perpetrators on the street locally. The man was entering the Police Barracks on the Wednesday after the murders in the company of other men who appeared also to be police personnel. The clear implication was that crown forces were responsible for the murders. No action or further investigation of this claim is reported.
The three houses were targeted because they were the homes of republicans. The four dead men all appeared on IRA membership rolls. The scale of the reprisal was significant but this was not an isolated incident. Half of those killed in south Armagh up to the Truce of July 1921 were republicans, with most assassinated in their own homes. Indeed, 58 per cent of combatants killed in south Armagh were IRA members. Nationally, only 38 per cent of combatant fatalities in the same period were republicans.
That two of the houses targeted belonged to Catholic RIC officers seems significant and indicates extremely accurate local intelligence. The RIC force that operated in 1921 was a very different body than the one James McQuaid and John O’Reilly served in. In 1920, 3,229 officers left the force, with a further 3,208 resigning in 1921. Whether through intimidation or ‘national feeling’ there were many police officers who wanted no role in the counter insurgency operation that was then occupying most of the RIC’s time. To replace them, 7,869 new recruits joined in 1920 and 5,834 in 1921. These were the ‘Black and Tans’ and Auxiliaries. John O’Reilly and James McQuaid’s service record was unlikely to have carried much weight with these new recruits and their houses may have just been convenient and identifiable targets. But there is also another dimension to the targeting. There was an uneasy relationship in parts of Ulster between the mostly Catholic RIC and the exclusively Protestant Ulster Special Constabulary (USC). The USC was to the fore in the countering the IRA in Ulster. Did USC distrust of Catholic RIC officers have a role in events? It is hard to be definitive, but it seems possible. The local IRA certainly blamed the USC.
The account of John Grant, a senior south Armagh IRA officer, is particularly interesting in terms of detailing republican retaliation. His witness statement references the murder of a Protestant civilian, Draper Holmes, killed just days later as an act of revenge. It is worth quoting Grant at length and also noting that he was a serving Garda when he gave this account to the Bureau of Military History in 1952;
On the 6th July, 1921, four young men were shot dead by a murder gang. Those men were: John and Thomas O’Reilly: (brothers) Cloughmore, Newry; Peter McGinnitty (sic), Bellymacdermott, and Patrick Quinn, Derrybeg, Newry. Those young men were all active members of the I.R.A and their homes were all located close to the Orange village of Altnaveigh where the people were all most antagonistic to everything national and republican. A few days after the above shooting orders were issued by our Divisional Headquarters to carry out a reprisal for the shooting of our four comrades by shooting a number of “B” Specials from Altnaveigh who were employed as linesmen on the Great Northern Railway line near Newry. I and about six others, including Paddy Fearon, went on the 11th July, 1921, to a point on the railway line where those men usually passed on their way to work each morning. We waited at a little wall along the railway line for their arrival. About 7 a.m. a man named Holmes came along. This man was from Altnaveigh. We accosted him and suggested that he stay with us for a short time, and we were in the act of taking him behind the small wall near the line when he panicked and refused to move off the line and created a noisy scene. Our idea in getting this man behind the wall was to hold him concealed until the others came up to us. The noise this man made might be intended to warn the others and it did, we carried out our Orders as far as he was concerned and about the time he was shot we saw another man, who had not reached as far as we were placed, running from the vicinity of the railway in the direction of Newry. After the shooting of Holmes we made a hasty retreat from the place which was only about one mile from Newry. This shooting was carried out as an official reprisal for the murder of the two O’Reilly’s, McGinnity (sic) and Quinn. It was purely accidental that the unfortunate man Holmes came along first and was the only victim. There, was, however, ample evidence to prove that he had such an intense hatred for everything republican that he would go to extreme limits to destroy the movement. In this the man was no different from his other Unionist neighbours in his local village. I wish, however, to record that he suffered not for anything he himself had done but for a deadly danger to the lives and freedom of our companions in arms which men of his class represented. After we apprehended this man his associates became aware of the intended reprisal and quickly cleared from the vicinity, leaving our score on the losing side.
In 1922, there would be another cycle of local violence. Again, reprisals on individual republican homes took place. Altnaveigh residents were again blamed by republicans. This time, the response was ferocious. The IRA attacked the village on the night of June 17, 1922. Six Protestant civilians were killed. Details of the attack can be found on this excellent Military Service Pension Collection blog post. Some of the victims recognised individuals involved in the attack. Before breathing her last, one victim, Elizabeth Crozier, was reported as saying, ‘I would not have expected that of you Willie.’ The home of former RIC Head Constable James McQuaid was raided the morning after the murders with the USC searching for McQuaid’s son Willie. It will be recalled that this was the house that had been the scene of Patrick Quinn’s murder.
How much individual revenge was the motivating factor in the 1922 atrocity is a matter of conjecture- but this local context is surely important to understanding later events. Looking at major incidents like Altnaveigh solely through the lens of national events and high politics can be highly problematic. Local context is essential. Therefore, it is particularly important that micro level data is made available so that we might better understand the localised cycles of violence. Currently, there is much about the 1921 murders, in particular, that we do not know. Who exactly were the men that killed the O’Reilly’s, McGennity and Quinn? What role did the USC play? Who were the local USC? How many locals were in that force? What was the relationship between the local USC and RIC? While there is a wealth of information on republicans there is scant detail on the USC. For example, researchers can visit the MSPC site and identify at least a dozen of the individuals responsible for the 1922 Altnaveigh atrocity. They can also get at a fairly accurate membership roll for the local IRA down to townland level. However, there is less information when it comes to the USC. The archive on that organisation is not publicly available. Hopefully, the touted opening of the USC archive will somewhat address this deficiency and help us reach a better understanding of these and similar events.
This is a snippet of the research that I include as a chapter in the forthcoming publication Ireland and Partition: contexts and consequences, Neil Fleming and James H. Murphy (eds.), (Clemson University Press, 2021). I hope to write further on south Armagh as part of a broader work on the border in 1921/2 and would be interested in any recollections or family accounts of these or related events. I can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.