The McGurk’s Bar Bombing; Collusion, Cover-Up and a Campaign for Truth by Ciarán MacAirt – A Review

I remember Massingbird’s most famous case, the Case of the Bloody Knife. A man was found next to a murdered body, he had the knife in his hand, thirteen witnesses had seen him stab the victim, and when the police arrived he said, “I’m glad I killed the bastard.” Massingbird not only got him off, he got him knighted in the New Year’s honours list, and the relatives of the victim had to pay to have the blood washed out of his jacket.”                                                                                     Captain Blackadder – Corporal Punishment

Late one night, towards the end of July 1922, a cousin of my mother’s was asleep in bed at his home in rural South Derry. A large group of armed men surrounded his house, broke down the back door, dragged him out onto the nearby railway line and shot him in the head. Pieces of his nightshirt were found, matted with his blood, on the barbed-wire next to the line. There were witnesses to this heinous but all too common assassination. They included two sisters, also relatives of both my mother and the victim. They told the inquest in no uncertain terms that the perpetrators were wearing the uniforms and carrying the weapons of the Ulster Special Constabulary.

It was only one of half a dozen murders carried out by this roving militia in the village that summer but the combined forces of the fledgling state ensured that, not only were the ‘Specials’ cleared of any involvement and doubt cast over the character of the deceased but several possible scenarios were introduced to stymie any chance of a fair or thorough investigation. No one was ever questioned, much less charged or convicted in connection with any of the murders and black propaganda suggested everything from phantom columns of Loyalists to IRA ‘own goals’. And so the state was born.

Jump forward almost 50 years and a few dozen miles to the east. In the late evening of December 4th 1971, a bomb was placed in the outer porch of The Tramore Bar on the corner of North Queen Street and Great Georges Street in North Belfast, a pub known locally as McGurk’s. The device exploded, ripping the heart from the building and ultimately taking the lives of 15 people; men, women and children. Some of the victims were crushed to death by the collapsed masonry, suffocating in dust filled coffins; others were burned to death as the gas flames crept through the debris. It was the worst massacre of civilians in the country since the Nazi blitz.


As if the devastation for survivors and relatives wasn’t bad enough, in truth their nightmare was only beginning. For whatever reason, or combination of motives, the Police, the military, the governments of NI and Britain and a large number of local politicians immediately decided to ignore all the evidence to the contrary and set about creating and perpetuating the lie that, not only was the bomb the work of The IRA but that the dead, many of whom were yet to be officially identified, were involved with a plot to detonate the device elsewhere.

It’s not my job to disprove these allegations and in actual fact, it wasn’t Ciarán MacAirt’s aim either. He didn’t have to do that part. The foreword of the book by Colin Wallace, a member of the British Army’s covert psychological operations unit who was on duty the night of the massacre, tells us clearly that the authorities knew straight away that the attack was the work of Loyalists. Add in the eye-witness accounts from the night, the nature of the injuries sustained and of course, the eventual admission of guilt from UVF member Robert James Campbell and there should be no further discussion.

What MacAirt does, and does so thanks to years of painstaking and often surreptitious research, is examine from where the disinformation emanated, the thinking behind the collective policies which took advantage of the dead and sets it in the context of both the atmosphere of the time and the wider conflicts in which Britain was involved before and since 1971.

This is not however, simply an investigative study of the dirty war, it is also a human story. MacAirt’s own Grandmother, Kathleen Irvine died in McGurk’s bar and her husband was seriously injured. His family, like all the others, lived under a black-ops cloud and he transmits effectively the awful torment which permeated their lives throughout The Troubles.

Appreciating that the tragedy was not merely a starting point, the author also gives us a most concise synopsis of what led to the outbreak of civil strife in the north of Ireland in the late 1960s. One would easily forgive him if he had offered a partial version of events but he managed to retain a refreshing balance throughout.  Indeed, in an attempt to help us understand the state attitudes which prevailed, he writes with a determined but less than aggressive dignity which the various statutory agencies scarce deserve.

What stands out above all else in The McGurk’s Bar Bombing however, is the sheer level of sourced research presented, backed up and cross referenced throughout, all in an articulate style which never strays into over-elaboration or confusion. This is not likely to be the only print of this enlightening book as although all the questions are asked, there is no doubt that many of them remain unanswered. Undoubtedly, MacAirt may have some of these answers already but is restricted from bringing them forward as yet but an on-going intransigence ensures his quest for closure might never be fully realised. Given the promise he made to his grandfather many years ago, he can be rightly proud of how far he has come and it is unlikely that without him, we would have got as close to the full picture as we have.

In 1963, almost 40 years after my mother’s cousin was murdered in the dead of a warm July night, the much admired Sailor, Businessman and Author, Wallace Clark MBE, a former officer in the Ulster Special Constabulary, wrote in ‘Guns in Ulster’ of how appalled he was at the suggestion that his men were involved in the pogroms around South Derry. Not offering any evidence to the contrary, he suggested,

“Records of local events in 1922 are far from complete. Many of the deeds are in any case best forgotten.”

40 years after the terrible events in McGurk’s Bar, the families still had to contend with a shamefully edited report from The Police Ombudsman’s office which, once amended, was in turn rejected and disregarded, not by contemporaries of the guilty but by Matt Baggott, the current Chief Constable of the supposedly reformed Police Service of Northern Ireland.

“The Ombudsman’s report is the latest of a series of historical investigations into this outrage. Other reports have reached differing judgements regarding the initial RUC investigation. None of them have concluded that there was any evidence of investigatory bias”

Ominously for The Chief Constable and anyone else who might still attempt to absolve any branch of the state from the blame which it deserves for its role before and after the massacre, Ciarán MacAirt is clearly not finished with them just yet and somewhere near the foundations of this house of cards, he’s kicking at a lot more than simply the hurt which he and his family suffered in McGurk’s Bar, deep in the heart of Belfast’s ‘Murder Mile’. Watch this space.

                                                                If love is loss – no less

                                                                The fear of losing love –

                                                                In absence what is left


                                                                But emptiness

                                                                From naught, begotten of

                                                                Some elemental shade…


                                                                                                 Ciaran MacAirt


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5intheface – 29/01/2013

One Response

  1. […] Irish author and campaigner Ciarán Mac Airt. The first is from the news and current affairs blog Its A Political World and the second is from the journalist and screenwriter Viv Young in The New York Journal of […]

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