As Ballymurphy has been in the news quite frequently, the events of those three fateful days has been hotly debated.
This article will be explaining the context and what led to the Ballymurphy Massacre, as well as the events of the day, which has been referred to as Belfast's Bloody Sunday. If you'd prefer to listen to the podcast about the Ballymurphy Massacre, then check out the most recent episode of The Troubles Podcast here:
Now, let's get into it.
Ballymurphy is a small, predominantly Catholic cluster of housing estates, in the city of Belfast, west of the city center. Back in the ’70s, It was one of the poorest estates in Belfast, the houses were built to an extremely poor standard and there were no shops or facilities. Job prospects were low, and one source I came across said that 50% of all adults were unemployed. The area also experienced overcrowding and also a large number of residents in temporary accommodation as they waited for Divis Flats to be built.
The poverty of Ballymurphy was so significant, that it caught the attention of Mother Teresa, who is perhaps one of the most well-known religious figures in recent history. She was canonized as a saint in 2016 but her life’s work has also received a lot of criticism saying that her clinics received millions in funding but lacked basic facilities. One academic said of her "Mother Teresa believed the sick must suffer like Christ on the cross"
Aware of the situation in Northern Ireland, Mother Teresa, and four other Sisters of Charity, moved into 123 Springhill Ave in the heart of BallAmurphy in October 1971. They ended up staying there for 18 months, with her attending mass every Sunday in the local church.
Mother Teresa and her fellow missionaries embedded themselves into the community, providing food to families that needed it. They were accepted by them but strangely enough, it all came to an abrupt end amidst rumors that the senior clergy who were there at the time, didn’t want them there. The real reason has never been revealed but there has been speculation that the senior priest, Canon Padraic Murphy, forced her out, though there are sources I have come across that say that Mother Teresa says she left of her own free will.
The poverty in areas like Ballymurphy did not happen by chance. This was a conscious effort by the Unionist government to maintain power in favor of Unionist people in Northern Ireland. A number of policies were enforced to make this happen, one such one being that you could only vote if you owned property, something which significantly fewer Catholics did. There were even areas that had majority Catholics but the electoral boundaries were divided up in such a way that the Unionists still had more voting power.
Nationalist people in Northern Ireland were second-class citizens. They couldn’t get certain jobs, especially in government. Catholics were also heavily discriminated against when it came to social housing. There was one statistic that came out saying that a single young unionist man would get chosen for social housing over a Catholic mother with children.
Ballymurphy was right beside the New Barnsley area of Belfast which was Protestant and from the very outset of the Troubles, Ballymurphy became a focal point for the violence that would go on in Northern Ireland.
Those living in the poorest areas of Belfast often had to bear the brunt of the violence at the onset of the Troubles. The Nationalist people also felt that the Northern Irish police force, the RUC were heavily biased against them.
So when the British Army was deployed to restore law and order to Northern Ireland in late August 1969, they were initially welcomed by the Nationalist People, who believed that they would be a neutral force who would protect them against the RUC.
This, unfortunately, was not the case and the tide soon turned against the army, once Nationalists realized that the Army was there to restore things to as they were, into a Unionist country for Unionist people. This went against the wishes of the nationalist people, who had begun a campaign for equal rights. Civil demonstrations were met with violence and the army also began to develop a reputation of becoming more and more heavy-handed against Nationalist people. As the violence ramped up, so did the IRA activity.
The IRA had been relatively dormant for much of the ’60s. Their border campaign which took place between 1956 and 1962 was largely considered a failure and they hadn't been very active since. In the late ’60s, as the RUC was cracking down on the nationalist civil rights campaigners, people were wondering where they were. There were anti-IRA slogans written on walls, saying things along the lines of IRA = I Ran Away. So in 1969, the IRA split into two groups, the Original IRA and the Provisional IRA. The Original IRA had been leaning into socialism, they were looking to unite workers from both sides of the sectarian divide. The Provisional IRA wanted to use force to collapse the Northern Irish Government, and force the British Government to withdraw from Ireland altogether. The IRA split happened four months after the arrival of the British Army, and the Provisionals were committed to ‘armed defense of the Nationalist Areas’, from loyalists and now the British Army.
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In their search for IRA members, the army continued to target young Catholic men from Nationalist areas. So initially, the resistance from areas like Ballymurphy came from women, who thought that the army wouldn't touch them. Whenever the army was coming in, the women would come out of their homes and begin banging bin lids on the ground, to warn people that they had arrived.
During 1970 and 1971, there were clashes between the British Army and the Provisional IRA. These clashes grew more and more violent. Loyalists demanded that the Unionist Prime Minister, Brian Faulker introduce internment, which was the ability to detain suspected paramilitaries and keep them indefinitely without charge or trial. Here’s Faulkner describing it:
And so began Operation Demetrius. A list of 450 names was drawn up and the First Battalion of the Parachute Regiment, who went by the name 1 para, was selected to carry out the operation. They were an elite, aggressive, fighting unit of the British Army. They were conceived in World War two and would be considered Britain's shock troops, trained to carry out sudden assaults. It has been argued that sending in an aggressive unit such as this, into a complex and nuanced situation such as the troubles, was the wrong move and led to a significant increase in violence.
At 4 am in the morning on August 9th, 1971, people in Ballymurphy were awoken to the sound of the banging of the bin lids as the soldiers arrived at the estate.
It’s worth mentioning that this operation only targeted Republicans. Though loyalist paramilitary groups like the UVF had been operating by now, this initial operation was only targeting Nationalists which contributed to the feeling that the army was not a neutral force.
Doors were broken in, baton rounds were fired through windows, and people were dragged from their beds. There are accounts of family members being threatened, verbally assaulted, and physically assaulted by the soldiers. In some cases, entire families were arrested. The intelligence that the army received was quite poor and as a result, many completely innocent people were scooped up. As well as that, the republican community in Belfast had got wind of the operation the night before so were able to disappear before they would be picked up. The IRA was well aware that they wouldn’t win in a flat-out assault against the army.
Later that evening, a loyalist mob had gathered to watch what was going on in Springfield Park in Ballymurphy. They began breaking windows and intimidating the Catholic residents. Scared for their lives, the residents began evacuating their homes. To do so they would cross over a grassy area known as Finley’s field.
As they were evacuating, some soldiers had set up a sniping position on the roof of a building on Springmartin Road, which overlooked Springfield Park.
Bobby Clarke was crossing over the ground when he spotted the soldiers. He broke into a run, and then, afraid he would be shot, he began zig zagging. The soldiers shot at him, and he was hit in the side and he fell to the ground. Bobby was seriously injured in the shooting but ultimately survived.
Father Mullen was a 38-year-old Catholic priest, whose house was directly in front of Finley's park. Word reached him that Bobby was shot and lying in the field. Father Mullen phoned the army, to warn them that they were shooting at innocent civilians and then went to Bobby’s aid, reportedly waving a white handkerchief or a white baby nappy above his head at the soldiers on the roof. He was a few meters away from Bobby when he was struck with a bullet. He fell to the ground and tried to crawl away but was shot again. Some sources I came across say he was praying in English and Latin before going quiet. He bled to death after about 20 minutes.
19-year-old Francis, or Frank Quinn was then shot in the back of the head as he ran to the aid of the wounded men. He died instantly. The soldiers on the roof would later claim that they were aiming at a gunman.
The second incident occurred just a few minutes after the shooting on the roofs in BallyAMurphy around a building that had been commandeered by the 2nd battalion Parachute Regiment. They had seized a building known as the Henry Taggert Hall as their base and had been placing Nationalists who had been arrested there.
As the day wore on, women and youths gathered outside. Some were looking for their family members who had been arrested, and some youths were expressing their anger at the army, attacking the barracks with stones and bottles. A crowd of loyalists appeared and the Nationalist youths then confronted the youths.
44-year-old, mother of 8, Joan Connolly was outside with her daughter, Breige, watching events unfold. Joan initially welcomed the soldiers, she would make them tea and one of her daughters had married a British soldier.
Breige wanted to head over and see the rioters but Joan said to stay near the British soldiers and not go near the loyalist rioters. She said, ‘no, because the loyalists will shoot ya but the army won’t’.
The army then fired CS gas into the crowd and Breige lost sight of her mother. She then got frightened and went home, waiting for Joan to come home, but she never did.
Joan was standing in an area known as the Old Manse, opposite the base. She joined up with a group of neighbors and they were chatting. Without any warning, the paratroopers suddenly began firing indiscriminately across the road. Everyone scattered and tried to take cover from the hail of gunfire.
The first person to get shot was 20-year-old Noel Phillips. He was shot in the hip and lying on the ground. According to Breige, Joan believed that because she was a woman, the army wouldn’t shoot her. She shouted over to Noel ‘Son don’t be crying, I’ll help ya’. Another shot then rang out, and stuck Joan in the face, blinding her. An autopsy later revealed that Joan was also shot in the shoulder, hand, and thigh.
Daniel or Danny Taggart was also struck in the leg as he ran with Noel Phillips and he fell to the ground. He was then shot 13 more times as he lay on the ground. His son recalls his body, jumping as each bullet entered his body. 41-year-old Joseph Murphy was also hit in the thigh and he fell to the ground. A few minutes later a British Army vehicle entered the field and the wounded and dead were then thrown into the back of the vehicle and taken back to Henry Taggart Base. Joseph and Danny were brought into the hall by soldiers, along with three other wounded men. There are accounts of the men being beaten by soldiers once they arrived at the army base with objects being shoved into their existing wounds, and one account of Joseph being shot at close range by a rubber bullet into his existing wound. Joseph would eventually succumb to his injuries three weeks later. Danny was brought to an army hospital.
Alice Harper, daughter of Danny Taggart recalls trying to find her father, as she didn’t know if he was interned or not. She remembers how she would go to army posts trying to find her father and as she would walk away she heard them sing lyrics from the song ‘Where’s Your Papa Gone ’. This song was popular in the charts at the time.
The army entered the field around 9.30 in the evening to remove the dead and wounded. Joan’s body was not removed from the field by the soldiers until hours later, at around 2.30 in the morning and I found some sources saying that she was crying out for help for many hours before she eventually bled to death.
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The following day, on August 10th there would be another killing. The atmosphere in BallyAmurphy had distinctly changed after the first day, with a mother and a priest amongst the dead. The locals were terrified and angry at the British army and went about setting up barricades on the roads to prevent them from accessing their areas. The army quickly got to work dismantling all the barricades.
31-year-old father of 4 Eddie Doherty had heard that things were bad and wanted to check on some friends.
As he approached a barricade on the Whiterock Road, he spotted someone he knew and began chatting to him. Then, without warning, Eddie fell to the ground. He had been shot in the back by a soldier who was part of a group dismantling the barricades. The soldier claimed that Eddie was a petrol bomber or that there was ammunition found on Eddie when his body was searched.
A forensic report later said that there was no residue from a gun, or from petrol bombs, on his hands.
On August 11th, four more people would eventually lose their lives.
It was 4 am, on the third day of internment and people awoke to the sound of the bin lids once again. Members of the 1 para had been sent into Ballymurphy to demolish barricades and disperse the crowd. In total, 600 soldiers descended upon Ballymurphy that day
43-year-old Joseph Corr and 20-year-old John Laverty were both on Whiterock Road when they were shot. Joseph was shot multiple times and died of his injuries 16 days later.
John was shot twice, once in the back and an autopsy report then revealed that he was then shot a second time in the thigh. The bullet entered his thigh and traveled up into his torso fatally injuring him. The trajectory of the bullet showed that he had been shot while he was lying on the ground and in the words of his sister Rita, 'When he was shot, he would have been lying down. He posed no threat to anyone and they were able to shoot him, tell lies about him and get away with it basically. They got away with murder’
49-year-old John McKerr McKerr was a carpenter who had lost his hand fighting in the second world war for the British Army. On the day in question, he was standing outside a Catholic Church where he was doing some work and he had just taken a break as there was a funeral taking place, when he was shot in the head by an unknown sniper, dying of his injuries 9 days later.
44-year-old Paddy McCarthy was a youth worker based in BallAmurphy. On the afternoon of August 11th, he loaded up a cart with milk and bread and planned on giving it out to children who were trapped in the area, as the army wasn't letting people leave BallAmurphy. As he was doing so, he came across a group of paratroopers. Again, sources vary here. One source says that they threatened him and a soldier fired a shot above his head. Another source says that they put an unloaded pistol in his mouth and carried out a mock execution. Either way, shortly after the altercation, Paddy suffered from a heart attack and died.
The raids and searches continued through BallaMurphy all day, with more people being arrested and shot. Operation Demetrius and the internment of hundreds of people led to four days of violence across Northern Ireland. Parts of Belfast descended into absolute chaos.
One Journalist, Kevin Myers described it as "Insanity seized the city. Hundreds of vehicles were hijacked and factories were burnt. Loyalist and IRA gunmen were everywhere"
In total, 20 civilians, 2 IRA members, and 2 British soldiers were killed in the first four days of internment. Of those 20, 11 were killed in BallyAMurphy.
As well as that an estimated 7,000 Catholic people were forced to flee their homes. Breige, who was the daughter of Joan who I mentioned earlier was one of the 7000 who fled Northern Ireland to refugee camps set up by the Irish Government in the Republic of Ireland,
In the wake of the shootings, the British Army were quick to start spinning a particular narrative to the media, stating that they were defending themselves against violent gunmen.
On the 11th of August, an article appeared in the Belfast Telegraph, saying that ‘two gunmen were shot dead and another seriously wounded in a two-hour gun battle with troops at BallyMurphy early this morning.’
The article went on to say that paratroopers fought as many as 20 gunmen who were armed with Thompson submachine guns, pistols, and rifles.
The article was talking about Joseph, John, and the other John that I mentioned earlier. Joseph’s daughter said of the article that the British Army fed the papers this story which was completely untrue. People read the papers then began to believe that her father was an IRA gunman and they began sending hate mail to her now-widowed mother.
In the days, months, and years following the killings there was never an investigation, which meant that the statement from the British Army was the only official version of events of what happened, and this version accused many of the 11 people killed as being killed while engaging in paramilitary activity… These claims had no basis in truth but without an investigation, they were all that was out there.
The army maintained their story, that they were engaged in a violent gunfight with paramilitaries. That may have been the case in some parts of Belfast at the tim e, but in BallAmurphy, there is little to no evidence that there were paramilitaries shooting at soldiers.
After a number of years, the victims' families were alone in their grief, unaware that there were many others like them who experienced tragedy over those three days. With the army maintaining that story, the reputation of the 11 people killed in Ballymurphy were tarnished and they wanted to clear their names.
They eventually banded together and began to demand answers from the British Army and began to refer to the three days collectively as the BallAmurphy Massacre.
The families got to work and plotted out where the killings happened on a map and then went door to door, asking the locals if they had lived there when the killings occurred. In this way, they collected over 130 witness statements from people who had never been interviewed before this point.
These statements provided some very startling insights into what really happened that day, and it was drastically different from the story released by the British Army. They revealed that in the case of 20-year-old Noel, who was shot beside Joan, that the first gunshot didn’t kill him. Here’s an account from an 11-year-old witness, ‘He kept crying as he was in so much pain. One of the soldiers had a sidearm gun and he pulled it out and said “Fuck up you cunt” and then shot him dead .'
The family then got a hold of Noel’s autopsy which revealed that there were two bullet wounds in the back of his head. These bullet wounds were consistent with someone standing over a person and shooting downward, revealing that Noel was executed.
Medical experts also investigated the autopsy reports of the rest of the dead. In the case of Joan Connolly, who was shot in the face, then lay dying in a field for hours, the autopsy revealed that her gunshot wounds were not fatal and she would have survived if the army had sought medical attention for her, as opposed to leaving her bleeding to death in a field.
The family also got access to the individual soldier statements from the days in question. These statements are the only official record of what happened on the day, but these records were never subjected to cross-examination at the time. Breige explained that in the statements, three soldiers have claimed that Joan was shooting at them. She explained:
‘Three soldiers are taking responsibility for shooting her. One said she was shooting at him with a handgun and he shot her and she fell back and got up and carried on shooting. Another soldier said she was going through the grass firing at him and he shot her. Another one said she was sitting in the middle of the field with a machine gun firing at him. Aye come one, this was a granny at 44 years of age, this was no Annie Oakley’
A solicitor for the families of the victims, Padraic o'Muirigh, explained that in the case of the killing of Eddie Doherty, the statement of soldier B, who shot him changed drastically over the course of a year. The first statement to the British Military Police said that he emptied the cartridge, firing his weapon, of 30 rounds at him. But his second statement given to the coroner said that he fired one shot only. Eddie's son expressed his anger at this soldier's statement.‘I just fail to understand how the man that murdered my father made two different statements, two totally separate different statements and both of them are lies. One saying, my father was a petrol bomber, the other saying he was a gunman. They were both lies. My father when he was found hadn't got any gun residue, no petrol on his hands, no thing. My father was a peace-loving man who was like everyone else.‘
The RUC at the time did not perform an adequate investigation into the attacks, they did not obtain witness statements, and soldiers were not cross-examined. An inquest did take place in 1972, but it revealed nothing and it was little more than a formality. The military had little interest in taking part in inquests or court cases that would further incriminate their members.
Less than six months after the events at Ballymurphy, members of 1 para were sent from Belfast to Derry to help control the crowd at an anti-internment march. The events of that day would lead to the death of 14 innocent people in a day that would become known as Bloody Sunday.
Bloody Sunday and the Ballymurphy massacre have a lot of similarities, the largest one being that it was carried out by the same battalion of the British army, 1 para.
In both cases, it saw the killing of completely innocent civilians by a battalion of the British army who were known for being overly heavy-handed. In both cases, the story was also spun in a way that made it look like the army was being fired upon, which wasn’t the case at all.
The big difference between the two is that there were no journalists present or camera crews documenting the events in Ballymurphy like there was at Bloody Sunday, so as a result BallAmuyphy was somewhat forgotten even though it has been referred to as Belfast's Bloody Sunday.
It does raise the question though. If the army were aware of how violent 1 para operated in BallAMurphy, why did they feel the need to send them to patrol a Civil Rights March in Derry just six months later?
One documentary raised the point that Derry had a number of barricades and no go areas set up, which was a slap in the face to the authority of the British Army, and it would have been in their interest to take apart these barricades like they did in Ballymurphy.
After mounting pressure, an inquest began in September 2018. The findings were released on the 11th of May, 2021, just a few months shy of the 50 year anniversary of the Ballymurphy Massacre. The findings made front-page news in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.
Justice Keegan was presiding over the inquest and found that the 10 civilians killed were innocent and that the use of lethal force by the British Army was "not justified". The 11th victim, Paddy McCarthy, was not a part of this inquest as he died of a heart attack.
She did acknowledge that there was some IRA activity in the area, but she did not believe that there were a large number of them, though there was evidence that the army was shot at.
Keegan said she accepts soldiers are entitled to protect themselves and the fact there was some engagement with gunmen, but there was no evidence the deceased were linked to any activity or even in proximity to any activity.
Keegan also said that the military as trained soldiers must act within legal parameters and there has to be a minimization of risk to protect life, saying “The use of force was clearly disproportionate given the number of civilians around in a highly charged atmosphere”
“I do not go as far as to say there was a conspiracy but there were serious failings,”
The findings of this inquest finally gave a small amount of relief to the families of the victims, as the names of their loved ones had been cleared.
Shortly after the release of the inquest findings, the British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, issued an apology to the families of the victims, which was delivered through a third party. The letter read:
"Those who died over that terrible period were innocent of any wrongdoing. The events at Ballymurphy should never have happened.
"You should never have had to experience such grief at the loss of your loved ones and such distress in your subsequent quest for truth.
"The duty of the State is to hold itself to the highest standard and that requires us to recognise the hurt and agony caused when we fall short of those standards.
"For what happened on those terrible few days in Ballymurphy, and for what the families have gone through since you began your brave and dignified campaign almost five decades ago, I am truly sorry.
"I recognize that no words of apology can make up for the lasting pain that you have endured. Thank you for the dignity and strength you have shown."
As of writing, which is shortly after the release of this apology the families have rejected it saying that it was an apology to third parties and not directly to them. Here’s John Taggart, whose father was killed in the massacre: QUOTE:
“It’s not a public apology … what kind of insult is it to families that he couldn’t have the conversation with ourselves. His office couldn’t come and speak to the families of what he was doing.
“That’s not acceptable to the families and never will be. This is not an apology to us.”
Another factor that further upset families was the news that the British Government was looking into giving an amnesty to British soldiers who are accused of crimes during the Troubles, by adding something along the lines of a statute of limitations to soldiers involved in crimes during the Troubles.
In some cases, such as Bloody Sunday, victims' families are still trying to prosecute those who were involved in the killing of their loved ones. After this news was leaked, Britain quickly backtracked, but as of writing, this story is developing.
Instead of dismantling the IRA, Operation Demetrius, aka internment caused such an outrage and a wave of anger amongst the Nationalist People that it led to a large increase in membership to the Provisional IRA.
In the case of the BallyMurphy Massacre, the families are now calling for an investigation to be carried out, as to why the British Army killed the citizens they were tasked with protecting. Some of the soldiers who were involved in the shootings are still alive but would be well into their 70’s by now. Only time will tell if that investigation ever takes place.
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