Frank Aiken and the Altnaveigh massacre

When Fianna Fáil entered government in Dublin in 1932, Frank Aiken was appointed Defence Minister, barely ten years since he ordered the killing of six Protestants at Altnaveigh near Newry.

The Irish Press front cover on 10th March 1932 showing de Valera’s first Fianna Fáil cabinet with his Minister for Defence, Frank Aiken, on the right end of the front row, less than ten years after Altnaveigh.

A founding member of Fianna Fáil and a TD since 1923, Aiken had been the Commandant of the IRA’s 4th Northern Division during the war for independence. He ordered the IRA to cease offensive operations against the Free State government within weeks of becoming IRA Chief of Staff in 1923. His 31 year ministerial career with Fianna Fáil was to include holding briefs for Finance, External Affairs. In the 1960s he spent four years as Tanaiste and turned down the opportunity to succeed Eamon de Valera as the Fianna Fáil candidate in the 1973 Presidential election (Erskine Childers stood for Fianna Fáil and won).

Aiken’s presence or absence during the killings at Altnaveigh has been debated. A new book by Gregory Knipe, The Fourth Northerners, documents Aiken’s 4th Northern Division and provides more detail on the Altaveigh attack.

Here’s a brief account of Altnaveigh from Gregory:

In the early hours of Saturday 17th June 1922 a special group of about thirty heavily armed IRA Volunteers travelled overland from Ravensdale Forest in County Louth to the village of Altnaveigh in South Armagh – a distance of about 8 miles. Altnaveigh was a small predominantly Protestant village and is described in the memoirs of former IRA members as the ‘stronghold of the ‘B’ Force murder gang’.

Each volunteer from the Newry 2nd Battalion was armed with a service rifle, 230 rounds of .303 ammunition, a service revolver and grenades for this special mission – a murder mission. The purpose of the mission, as stated by one of the participants was to burn every house and shoot every male that could be got.   On completion the Volunteers returned to Ravensdale Park.          

One of the IRA documents in the Military Archives that simply notes the Altnaveigh attack took place but omits any details or lists any of the participants (compare this to those on the days before and after on the same page).

The outcome of the raid was the killing of 6 Protestants and the wounding of many more (those killed included Thomas Crozier, Elizabeth Crozier, Joseph Gray, John Heslip, Robert Heslip and James Lockhart). The concern within the ranks of the participants were such that no reference was made to the event in the official records. A large number of the participants also left Ireland after the Truce.

Subsequently, I.R.A. members said that the attack was in revenge for four Volunteers killed by the ‘Specials’ and Altnaveigh was seen as a village of loyalists which had a high recruitment into the Ulster Special Constabulary.

Regardless of the controversy over whether he was present or not, as O.C. of the 4th Northern Division Frank Aiken would have to have given approval for such a mission. He was named by one Volunteer as being present on the attack, but this is disputed as he was involved on another mission on the same day – this was an attack on ‘A’ Specials at McGuill’s pub. This was as a response to a raid on the pub of a local republican and close friend of Frank Aiken.

Another file relating to the event cover up the murder of the Altnaveigh Protestants is shown in the image below.

In this record of operations carried out by Aiken’s 4th Northern Division, Altnaveigh is only alluded to half way down the page as ‘Special job carried out at – – -‘. It is notable that when these documents were created in the 1930s, Aiken was Minister for Defence.

So while Aiken wasn’t present at Altnaveigh, he was the one who had issued orders to the two IRA parties that left Ravensdale that night.

You can order The Fourth Northerners


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