It is hardly surprising that the revolutionary period witnessed a heightening of sectarian tensions in the north east of Ireland. Sectarianism had become a sad part of life in Ulster, not least in its industrial centres, long before the partition of Ireland. Writing in 1922, G.B Kenna lamented the fact that at one point there had been signs of working class unity in Belfast, but by 1922 it seemed distant history:
Relations between the workers of various creeds had become quite friendly. The shipyard strike of 1919 revealed a wonderful thing in the political history of the city. There had been growing up steadily and unobtrusively a feeling of the solidarity of Labour and a tendency to forget the differences of Orange and Green in attempts to achieve objects of common interest to the workers in Belfast irrespective of creed or politics.
Pearse Lawlor, writing in the pages of History Ireland, has detailed the spiral of sectarian violence in Belfast from July 1920, noting that “From the expulsion of Catholic workers from the Belfast shipyards and engineering works in July 1920, when men had their shirts ripped open to see whether they were wearing scapulars, so identifying them as Catholics, there was a litany of attacks on the Catholic population in Belfast.” Places of work and worship were attacked, and there were outbreaks of arson against the homes and businesses of Catholics. The situation escalated, with republican units in Belfast attacking tramcars loaded with shipyard workers, who tended to be drawn from the Protestant working class. While the vast majority of sectarian outrages committed in the city were against its Catholic populace, innocent Protestants endured suffering too, with rogue ‘Hibernian’ elements as willing to engage in squalid retaliation. By 1922, Belfast was a tinderbox.
The mistreatment of the Catholic minority in Belfast was enough to lead the Daily Herald newspaper to state in the summer of 1921 that what was being witnessed amounted to the “the bloody harvest of Carsonism”, highlighting the great irony that “the gangs who have organised the reign of terror are the very people who protest they are afraid that they would, under even partial Home Rule, be persecuted and denied religious liberty.” By February 1922,the Freeman’s Journal proclaimed Belfast “a city of death”, and it was reported that in the previous three weeks forty people had been killed and at least 100 wounded. Kieran Glennon, in his study From Pogrom to Civil: Tom Glennon and the Belfast IRA, does a great job of chronicling the rising tensions of the northern city. One key event was the murder of the McMahon family. Owen McMahon was a publican who lived at Kinnaird Terrace in north Belfast; with McMahon recognised as a prominent Catholic businessman, the eight men living in his home were lined up and shot on 23 March 1922. As Glennon has noted “the viciousness with which the attack was carried out caused widespread shock in both Ireland and Britain. That it was an act of naked sectarian frenzy was demonstrated by the fact that religious pictures in the house were torn and shot at.” Those who murdered members of the McMahon family were not part of a disorganised mob – they wore the uniforms of policemen.