In Belfast, on 13th February 1922, some children playing in Milewater Street, at the corner of Weaver Street, off the York Road, were approached by two Special Constables and told to go and “play with their own” (Special Constables invariably being Protestant, the children were Catholics in a largely Protestant district). They joined other children in the mainly Catholic-occupied Weaver Street and played on a swing attached to a lamp-post. Ten minutes later, two men came to the North Derby Street end of Weaver Street (one eye witness claimed one Special Constable had just spoken to the same two men). They were about 20 metres away from where the children were playing. One of the men then threw a bomb into the middle of the children. As the bomb exploded, gunfire directed into Weaver Street from North Derby Street, covered the two men’s retreat.
The explosion killed or injured Mary Johnson (13), Catherine Kennedy (14), W.J. Dempsey (13), Annie Pimley (16), John O’Hanlon (16), Elizabeth O’Hanlon (11), Murtie O’Hanlon (16), Barney Kennedy (10), John McCluskey (12), Rose Ann McNeill (13), Mary McClinton (18), Mary Kerr (6), Susanne Lavery (14), George O’Connor (16), Joseph Conway (12), Patrick Maguire (14), Kate O’Neill (14), Robert McBirney (16) and William Connolly (13). All lived in Weaver Street. Adults standing in their doorways were also badly injured.
The force of the blast threw the children up into the air and caused catastrophic injuries, maiming many of those who survived. Mary Johnson and Catherine Kennedy died immediately. Eliza O’Hanlon died the next day. Statements made in the press and in Westminster indicate that three of those injured had died by the next day, the third being O’Hanlon. By the time the inquest was held on 3rd March, a fourth girl had died from the blast. Two adults were to succumb to their injuries. Margaret Smith died on the 23rd March, while Mary Owens (who lived in nearby Shore Street) died from injuries sustained in the blast on the 6th April.
This was not the first bombing of its kind. On September 25th the previous year, a bomb had been thrown into a group of Catholic children on Milewater Street, injuring nine, including four under six years of age. One man, George Barry, died from injuries he received. The bomb had such force that two houses were wrecked. A bomb had also been thrown by loyalists into a group of school children in Herbert Street on 12th January, injuring six (the Belfast Telegraph erroneously reported it as an IRA attack). The same month, a bomb had been thrown into Weaver Street from a passing taxi.
The Belfast Telegraph claimed the 13th February bomb was one of the largest ever used in the city. It also implausibly offered justification for the bomb attack, saying shots had earlier been fired at an armoured car in Weaver Street. In retrospect, the Belfast Telegraph’s link to an attack of an armoured car merely ties the Special Constabulary closer to the bombing (the ‘Specials’, created at roughly the same time, performed the Black and Tans roles in repression and reprisals in the north).
James Craig also included a reference to the bomb in a report sent to the Colonial Secretary, Winston Churchill and read in Westminster the next day. It stated that there had been…
..the indiscriminate throwing of bombs over a wall into Weaver Street, a Sinn Fein area, which resulted in the death of two children and the wounding of fourteen others. These outrages are greatly deplored by my Government, especially the latter dastardly deed, involving the lives of children.
Craig was more concerned about a gun battle in Clones between republican forces and Special Constables travelling to Enniskillen the day before the Weaver Street bombing. Joe Devlin fumed that Craigs wording was deliberately vague and that some international press had been led to believe that the bomb was thrown by republicans.
As sectarian attacks continued through 1921 and 1922, and even after the 13th February bomb, the (relatively) safe places for Catholic families to live in that part of the York Road had shrank to the area around Weaver Street. The attacks continued to intensify in early summer. On 18th May Thomas McCaffrey from Shore Street was killed. On the night of 20th May, Thomas McShane from Jennymount Street was killed. That same night the remaining Catholic residents of Weaver Street, Milewater Street, North Derby Street, Shore Street and Jennymount Street, some one hundred and forty-eight families, were forced from their homes at gunpoint. By the 21st May 1922 the Catholic community that had established itself around Weaver Street had fled. The 1924 street directory only shows one household remaining from the 1918 directory (in comparison, nearby Seaview Street had two thirds of the same households). Houses in Weaver Street remained occupied until the 1960s as Unilever and the Associated Feed Mills bought up property around Shore Street, Weaver Street and Milewater Street eventually enclosing all but the York Road end of Milewater Street.
Today, Shore Street and Weaver Street are gone, no longer visible on the streetscape of Belfast. Patiently neglected over the decades after 1922, their former occupants were dispersed around other districts of the city. Similarly, the detail of its own particular sadness, sectarianism and savagery are now, largely, long forgotten. The memory of the violence of 1920-22, mostly unarticulated, was indelibly etched into the psyche of the Catholic residents of Belfast.
Some 20-25% of those killed in the 1920-22 conflict died in Belfast but, with few notable exceptions, little was written or said about it over the decades that followed (even today only a handful of books have been written about it). So despite what has happened since 1969, few have considered how the memory of 1920-22 influenced communities. Even fewer have considered the role an absence of public discourse around the violence of 1920-22 may have had in later outbreaks of sectarian violence in the 1930s and 1960s.
Today, the very obliteration of Weaver Street from the streetscape of Belfast, somehow elevates it as an appropriate metaphor for the eclipse of public discourse on the violence of 1920-22.