THE MCGURKS BAR MASSACRE
The Main Story
Not all of the violence of the early 70’s in Northern Ireland was the work of the IRA. Loyalist paramilitaries were responsible for the bombings which were to bring down Terence O’Neill. As the IRA increased its attacks in Northern Ireland working class loyalist established the Ulster Defence Association (UDA). This was a loose alliance of loyalist vigilante groups and paramilitaries. The army, the police and the Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR) appeared incapable of halting the IRA onslaught. Innocent people were killed by the IRA from August through to November, with a bomb exploding in the loyalist heartland of the Shankill Road in September which killed two people and injured twenty.
The Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), a loyalist paramilitary organisation, decided to take the law into its own hands by attacking a public house in North Queen Street in Belfast on 4th of December. McGurk’s Bar was the target and the loyalist bomb killed fifteen people. This was the most horrific incident of the unrest to date.
THE BBC NEWS REPORTING THE MCGURKS BAR BOMBING
Monday 6th December 1971: Bomb at the Pub
Fifteen men, women and children were killed on Saturday night, 4th December, when a bomb demolished a pub in North Queen Street, near Belfast city centre. The massive charge of gelignite exploded inside the bar on the ground floor, bringing hundreds of tons of rubble crashing down on customers. The explosion, which brought the number of people killed since 1968 to 183, is the worst in living memory. Troops, RUC men, firemen and hundreds of civilians clawed in the rubble in their bare hands to release those trapped. All emergency services in the city were put on full alert, as the horror of the blast at Paddy McGurk’s pub became known. During the big rescue operation, gunmen opened up wounding an Army officer seriously and slightly injuring two RUC men and five civilians. Rival crowds from the area and nearby Duncairn Gardens and the RUC and Army drove a wedge between them as stoning broke out. After the explosion, which was heard all over the city, troops and police rushed to the scene, where some of the injured were already crawling from the debris. Immediately along with people who streamed from nearby houses, they began digging in the rubble with their bare hands as screams were heard in the darkness. As they came across bodies stretchers were called for. Military and civilian ambulances were used to ferry the 13 injured to the Mater and Royal Victoria Hospitals. Within a half an hour 800 people had arrived on the scene to help in the rescue. They were organised into human chains by troops who issued commands through loud hailers. The debris was removed virtually brick by brick. Later an Army mechanical digger was called in to speed up the operation. At one point there was a threat of another explosion from a severed gas main. But the rescuers worked on as small fires broke out in the rubble all around them. Firemen used foam to douse the flames. Several of the rescuers were violently sick, as badly mutilated bodies were uncovered. A team of surgeons from a Belfast hospital rushed to the scene and treated the injured on the spot. Initially six people had been found dead and others injured. Three hours later the death toll had risen to 14. As the search for the injured and dead continued into the night until dawn arc lights were set up by the Army. Local people brought ropes from their homes to drag away some of the heavier debris. An hour after the blast rival crowds gathered and rioting broke out. Shortly afterwards gunmen opened up a short distance away from the scene and Major Snow of the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers was seriously wounded in the head. Two RUC men, one of them a reserve, were also hit when the gunman, using an M1 carbine fired from the direction of Hillman Street. Five civilians were also hit. As the shooting casualties lay wounded there was a delay in getting military ambulances to their aid because they were fully committed at the explosion. Reinforcements were called in and troops were again fired on. A gunman on the roof of a disused cinema at the top of the New Lodge Road is believed to have been hit when troops returned fire. Eventually the New Lodge was cordoned off by five companies of troops who searched 48 selected houses and screened 100 people. Seven people, some of them on the Army’s wanted list, were detained, and a sawn-off shotgun, a .38 pistol, a .45 pistol and ammunition were found.
Disagreement over bomb’s location
The mystery surrounding the North Queen Street explosion has deepened as the official RUC and Army version of where the bomb exploded was challenge by local people. Forensic experts are certain that the 50 to 70 lb bomb blew up the bar, killing 15 men, women and children and injuring 13 others but survivors say that this is not true. They are adamant that there was nothing suspicious in the bar that night and there were no strangers. Eight-year-old Joseph McClory, who was selling newspapers at the time claims that he saw a black car pull up outside with four men inside it. He said one of them got out, planted a grocery box with a wire sticking out and then made off. As a special team of detectives probe the blast it is believed the other theory is that the bomb was inside the pub when it exploded. It is thought that it was left unknown to the owner to be collected later and used in another “job”. But the bomb exploded before it was mWoved. Detectives are checking the list of dead and injured. The pub owner, Mr. Paddy McGurk, whose wife and teenage daughter were killed in the explosion, is under heavy sedation in hospital. Detectives are anxious to interview him to see if he noticed anything before the blast. As the claims and counter claims continue a group calling itself Empire Loyalists has telephoned newspapers claiming responsibility for the blast. They said: “We the Empire Loyalists accept responsibility for the destruction of McGurk’s pub. We placed 30 lb of new explosives outside the pub because we had proved beyond doubt that meetings of the IRA Provisionals and Officials were held there.”
Son saw the bombers
The boy, who claimed he saw a bomb being planted at McGurk’s pub in North Queen Street, had been selling The Ireland’s Saturday Night newspaper at the time. The mother of Joseph McClory aged 8, and who lives at Ludlow Street in the New Lodge area witness the attack. He came home, white with fear and was shaking as he related the attack to her. “He told me about the bomb, the car and how he was thrown by the force of the blast. He would not tell lies because he is an honest boy”. She said Joseph also claims that he shouted to a man going towards the bar to warn him of the bomb. The man was Henry Davey (48), who lives a few yards from McGurk’s pub in North Queen Street. Henry Davey, a 48-year-old docker has also spoke of how a warning from the young newspaper seller saved his life. Mr. Davey told of how he left his house shortly before nine o’clock on Saturday night to go to the pub. He crossed the road and went to the front door but it was locked so he then went to the side door in Gt. Georges Street. “I was just about to get to the side door when the paper boy shouted a warning to me. He said ‘Mr. don’t go near there, I saw men planting a bomb there.” Mr. Davey said he hesitated for a moment and then went round to the North Queen Street side of the pub. The bomb went off in a mater of seconds. “The child ran across the road towards me but I didn’t see him afterwards and I think he ran away. I have not even seen him yet to thank him for saving my life.” Mr. Davey told of how he immediately got someone to ring for ambulances and then joined with a big crowd in trying to extricate the wounded and dying.
Gerard and Seamus survived the blast but James (13), a pupil in St Malachy’s college, was killed. “Everything went dark,” Seamus said “and I remember being under the rubble. I had no idea it was a bomb and I could hear injured people shouting. After about 20 minutes a soldier and some civilian rescuers got me out. My back was scorched by the fire and I had to have stitches put in my leg. I still don’t feel very well – I haven’t got over the shock. Jimmy was a good friend of mine: we used to go to McGurk’s pretty often to play,” he said. Seamus lives only yards way from the pub and his mother, Mrs. Mary Kane went there after the blast. “I knew Seamus must be in there but I couldn’t stand watching them all being brought out so I went back and then a man told me that Seamus was aright,” she said. The mother of the dead boy, Mrs. Ann Cromie, said she looked at the heap of rubble where her son died: “ Somebody came about one o’clock and told us that Jimmy had been killed in the blast. His father had to identify him but they wouldn’t allow me into the morgue because they said the sights in there were too horrible.” Three men were saved because they decided to move to a corner of the bar where there was more room 30 minutes before the bomb went off. They were spared the worst of the blast by a toilet wall but one of their party, Mr. Thomas McLoughlin, died while his friend lay on top of him unable to move. He is Charles Reid (46), whose back was burned and who received severe cuts to the leg, head and ears. “I work in Bunbeg, County Donegal, “ he said, “and I only came up for the weekend although it was not my usual weekend off. I always went to McGurk’s – it was my local,” said Mr. Reid, who lives in North Queen Street. “We were standing talking to Mr. McGurk when the bomb went off. He fell first. I can remember that as clearly – then we went down and all the dirt seemed to fall around us. I was buried under the rubble and I can remember that the four of us were talking to one another. “ We talked away and told each other to keep cool. We were keeping one another’s spirits up. My mate was shouting ‘I’m Finished,’ and I was lying on his stomach and I couldn’t get off him. “Then I heard no more word from him and I said to myself ‘he must be gone.’ “When the bomb went off there was a terrible flash which seemed to burn my back. I thought it came through the window although they tell me it was planted in the hall. I knew it was a bomb and I heard the crowd outside and knew help was coming. They were shouting: ‘Is anybody there?’ and I shouted back. We seemed to be buried ages although it couldn’t have been more than five or ten minutes until a soldier brought me out. I was lucky. Some stools fell around me which protected me and I had my hands around my head to make sure I could breath. When a policeman told me it was a 50 lb bomb I couldn’t believe it. I thought it was a small one. An Uncle of the dead man, Mr. Malachy McLaughlin (62), from Chatham Street, said that when they were pulled from the rubble they were several feet above ground level. He has a broken and lacerated ankle and cuts to the leg which required several stitches. My leg and the fingers of my left hand were trapped. The weight was coming down on my hand and I thought I would lose my fingers. But when I got out there was hardly a scratch on them. Just before it went off I smelt a funny smell and I said somebody has let off a stink bomb in here, then there was the flash and the explosion. It definitely wasn’t in the bar because I was looking right up the bar and could see everyone in it. I was pulled out by two soldiers. The rescuers did great work. I’m lucky to be alive. They told me I was in there 20 minutes but it was a hell of a long 20 minutes.” Mr. Matthew McClafferty, from Havana Street received eye and leg injuries said: “It’s a miracle that I’m alive. The flash seemed to come from the direction of the bar. I didn’t know whether I had been injured or not. There was water running down my neck and I thought it was blood.”
Tuesday 7th December 1971: Victims of pub bomb buried
Six victims of the explosion at McGurk’s public house have been buried, including one of the two children killed in the blast. Six schoolboys walked beside the hearse of their 13-year-old classmate James Cromie. Many other pupils from St. Malachy’s College walked in the boy’s funeral procession as it made its way from his home in the New Lodge to Milltown Cemetery. About 600 people walked silently behind the coffin as it made its way up North Queen Street. The funeral paused briefly as it passed the tangled wreckage of the public house where 15 people died when a bomb exploded on Saturday night. James Cromie was playing table football in an upstairs room with the proprietor’s son and friends when the bomb went off. He died instantly. Earlier requiem mass was celebrated in St Patrick’s Chapel, Donegal Street, for 25-year-old Edward Kane of Ashton Street. Black flags fluttered from many houses in North Queen Street and Unity flats. Several shops in the area closed briefly as the passed. The funerals of Mrs Kathleen Irvine of Victoria Parade and Mr. James Smyth of Alexander House left the New Lodge Road together. At the junction of Clifton Street they joined up with the funerals of Mr. and Mrs Keenan.
The funeral of James Smith and Kathleen Irvine two of the victims
of the McGurk”s Bar Bombing pause at the scene of the blast.
The Troubles Magazine Issue 08 by Glenravel (www.glenravel.com)
BBC Northern Ireland (A Start Apart CD (Discontinued))