The bombing of Weaver Street on 13th February 1922 marked a particular low in the violence in Belfast in 1920-22. What hasn’t immediately been recognised is the extent to which it resonates deeply with more recent cases. The Special Constabulary and police are both implicated in colluding with the bombers, forensic evidence was misrepresented and not properly secured, witness statements were not collected, the police refused to take witness statements in some instances, the police failed to identify individuals of significance to the investigation, disinformation was put out by the media, misleading evidence was given to the inquest and when an official inquiry was requested, the request was ignored.
I’ve reconstructed the bombing from the evidence given to the inquest before the City Coroner held on 3rd March 1922. This was reported in most of the contemporary papers at some level of detail. I’ve supplemented this with reports from the days after the bombing. Where the detail conflicts (particularly in the press of 14th February), I’ve used the version given to the inquest.
Weaver Street, 8.30 pm, 13th February 1922
It had already been a violent day in Belfast. Catherine McNeill, who lived at number 6 Weaver Street, saw two Special Constables chase children from the Milewater Street corner of Weaver Street down to the other end of Weaver Street. One Special Constable was brandishing a revolver. And one of them reportedly told the children to go and ‘play with their own’. The children moved part of the way down into Weaver Street. Around twenty children were in the street, the girls mostly jumping with a skipping rope (which was tied to a lamp-post) and the boys playing marbles on the footpath beside them. Prior to the intervention of the Special Constables, they had been scattered across the two streets. They were now gathered in two groups in front of 20 and 22 Weaver Street.
A few minutes later, Agnes O’Neill left her house on Weaver Street to look for her younger children. She saw three uniformed police constables coming down North Derby Street from the direction of York Road. At a small gateway on the right hand side of North Derby Street, the three constables met two men in civilian clothing. They stood and talked for some minutes. Mrs McCaffrey, from Shore Street, was out at the corner of Shore Street and talking to two young men who were neighbours. The young men had been watching two men they thought were very suspicious looking. So when they saw the three constables approach the two men they hoped they would stop and question them. Instead all five appeared to have a conversation. The constables had their backs to Mrs McCaffrey. When they left towards the Black Path at the other end of North Derby Street, they walked so fast Mrs McCaffrey didn’t get a good view of them. She thought nothing of seeing police constables walking around as there was a barracks on York Road (between Milewater Street and North Derby Street, on the opposite side of the road). Despite the fact that there had been significant violence across Belfast already that day, it was later claimed that the local police constables were confined to their barracks that evening.
The three constables continued down the right hand side of North Derby Street to the end of the road and seemed to continue on towards the Black Path (which ran parallel to Weaver Street behind the houses). The two men in civilian clothes crossed over then continued down the left hand side of the road, passed the end of Weaver Street and went as far as Jennymount Mill (at the end of North Derby Street), turned and came back to the Weaver Street corner). John Pimley, who had been out in Weaver Street since 6 pm, also saw the movements of the five men. He said that two of the constables had long coats and capes, while the third had only a long coat. The tallest was about 5 foot 8 inches in height. Pimley saw the men walk up and down past the corner of Weaver Street.
Patrick Kennedy, who lived at 25 Weaver Street, had noticed the two men walking up and down past the end of Weaver Street. He thought they were acting suspicious and so went in to tell Joseph Maguire. They both went to the door to observe the two men.
All this time, the large group of children were playing in two groups about 25 metres up from the North Derby Street end of Weaver Street, in front of numbers 20 and 22. Ellen Rafferty, who also lived in Weaver Street, saw one of the two men crouch down and throw something towards the group of children. Patrick Kennedy didn’t see the bomb being thrown but saw one of the men put his hand to his hip pocket. On hearing a huge explosion, he slammed the front door. The windows and furniture in Weaver Street shook with the force of the blast, as it did in many of the surrounding streets off the York Road. The sound of the bomb exploding was heard all across Belfast.
The bomb had landed in the middle of the group of girls playing with the skipping rope. The explosion threw out shrapnel in every direction. The girls took the main force of the blast, and almost all were wounded by shrapnel and flying metal. Many of the boys were injured too as were a number of adults who happened to be standing in doorways nearby. Immediately after the bomb exploded, heavy gunfire from revolvers was directed down Weaver Street from North Derby Street, pinning down the injured and preventing residents coming to the aid of those injured in the blast. When the gunfire finally stopped, people rushed from their houses. Some residents claimed that it had been two of the three constables that had re-appeared and opened fire with their revolvers down Weaver Street.
Patrick Kennedy’s sister Catherine had been hit in the head and body by large pieces of shrapnel. She was covered in blood and unconscious. She was carried into 22 Weaver Street. Their mother Mary Jane had gone out onto the street after the shooting stopped. Another one of her children, 13 year old Barney, had been wounded in the arm. She was then told Catherine was injured and was brought to her. Catherine was only 15, but already worked in the nearby mill. Like the Kennedy’s, Jennie Johnston lived on the other side of Weaver Street to the blast. When the gunfire stopped she ran out onto the street and found her 11 year old sister Ellen lying on the footpath. A boy helped her carry Ellen into a house. She had also received horrific head, torso and limb injuries in the blast. Catherine McNeill had also rushed out onto the street after the firing stopped, to find her daughter Rose Ann lying in the middle of the street. Francis Pimley carried Rose Ann into his house (20 Weaver Street). Elizabeth O’Hanlon had been thrown across the street by the blast and was badly injured in the blast (as were two of her brothers, John and Murtie). She was carried into 21 Weaver Street, where her mother found her.
Annie Pimley, Mary Clinton, Mary Kerr, Suzanne Lavery and Kate O’Neill had been around the skipping rope with Catherine Kennedy, Rose Ann McNeill, Ellen Johnston and Elizabeth O’Hanlon. All were injured in the blast. The two O’Hanlon boys and Barney Kennedy had been playing with Willie John Dempsey, John McCluskey, George O’Connor, Joseph Conway, Patrick Maguire, Robert McBirney and William Connolly. They also received injuries in the blast. Three women who happened to be out on the street at the time were also critically injured, Grace Kelly, Mary Owens and Maggie Smith.
Sergeant Beattie and Constable Boyd, from the York Road barracks, came out onto the road after the explosions and gunfire. After the gunfire ended they went down into Weaver Street. They called for ambulances to come. When two arrived as many of the children as possible were squeezed in and rushed to the Mater Hospital. After the day’s violence, the hospital was already at full stretch as, in great distress, critically wounded children began to arrive on stretchers and in their parents’ arms. The ambulance men carried Catherine Kennedy straight into theatre and told the doctor and nurse in charge that they would need everyone. Quickly Dr Wright, Dr Morris, Dr Robinson, Dr Cavanagh and the nursing staff got to work. The hospital was so crowded that most of the nineteen children who were hospitalised by their injuries had to be put two to a bed (there were also the three women injured). Fr Clenaghan, President of St Malachy’s College, and Fr Black, from St Patricks, both arrived and gave last rites to those that were most seriously injured and tried to comfort the parents.
Catherine Kennedy couldn’t be saved and died from her injuries almost immediately. By 9.40 pm, Eliza O’Hanlon had also died, followed a couple of hours later by Ellen Johnston.
The next day, the Belfast Telegraph implied that shots had been fired at an armoured car in Weaver Street, before the bomb had been thrown although this incident was not documented anywhere else. The Irish News described it as an ‘Awful Bomb Outrage on Belfast Children’ and said ‘…Last night’s shocking affair appears to have been a part of the plan of campaign carried out throughout the city for the extermination of the catholic population.’ James Craig’s statement on the bombing during the day stated that “…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.’ This was sufficiently vague that some press reported it as an attack on Protestants by the IRA. At 3.45 pm that afternoon, Rose Anne McNeill also died from her injuries.
The inquest, before a jury and the City Coroner, James Graham, was heard on the 3rd March. District Inspector Lynn observed on behalf of the police, while a solicitor, Bernard Campbell, represented the families. Two police witnesses, Sergeant Beattie and Constable Boyd were also present. Boyd implied that the gunfire after the blast was directed towards the police and came from the North Derby Street corner of Weaver Street. Lynn then asked Beattie if anyone had told him that there had been shots fired into Weaver Street after the bomb and he said no. Beattie brought along splinters and pieces of the bomb recovered from the scene and empty bullet cartridges from the corner of Weaver Street and North Derby Street. The empty bullet cartridges implied that they had found the position the guns were fired from (but not the bullets which would be found at the target). However, Campbell then produced spent Webley revolver bullets (and more bomb fragments) recovered from the street and houses in Weaver Street, to prove they were the target. Campbell also stated, in response to a question from a juror, that the reason why the police had no record of the actions of the three constables in North Derby Street was because they had refused to take statements from a number of the witnesses. The police were unable to identify the three constables or produce them to give evidence. At this point Lynn denied that they could have been police constables as he revealed that the constables in York Road had been confined to barracks that evening. Why they were confined to barracks during so much violence was not stated.
The jury brought in a verdict that the deaths had been caused by a bomb ‘…wilfully thrown by some person unknown.’ The City Coroner then adjourned the inquest for two weeks and requested that the Minister for Home Affairs in the northern government, Dawson Bates hold an inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the deaths of Catherine Kennedy, Ellen Johnston, Eliza O’Hanlon and Rose Ann McNeill.
The northern government didn’t even discuss it at its next cabinet meeting (although it did discuss the site for a Stormont egg-laying competition). In a telegram to Michael Collins, Churchill (then Colonial Secretary) called it “…the worst thing to have happened in Ireland in the last three years“. Edward Carson wrote in his diary that there was no evidence the bomb was purposely thrown at the children. But his attitude was clear, as he wrote that even if it was it was only “…one among how many on the other side?“.
The only inquiry Dawson Bates called was into the shooting of a Special Constable by the military. By next month, the Civil Authorities (Special Powers) Act was passed allowing Dawson Bates almost unlimited powers. Margaret Smith had died from the injuries she sustained in the blast on the 23rd March. On 6th April, the day before Dawson Bates’ Special Powers Act came in to force, Mary Owens also died from her wounds.
By the 21st May 1922 the Catholic residents of Weaver Street and the surrounding streets had been forcibly evicted from their homes.