Saturday 27th and Sunday 28th of June 1970 will live long in the memory of those who were witness to the horrific events that unfolded that weekend. Of the two people and many others who were injured by the indiscriminate gunfire their families pain has been exacerbated in the intervening years as they have had to endure the ignominy of the perpetuated untruth that somehow this incident was some sort of glorious battle honour by the Short Strand IRA, and that their sectarian murderous attacks were in actual fact heroic defending of a ghetto under siege. So much so that an erroneous moniker of “The Battle of Saint Matthews” was bestowed upon it. However all right thinking citizens are well aware of the FACTS surrounding that day’s events and can quite easily debunk this theoretical falsehood.
Almost one year after the onset of “The Troubles” the Republican movement and the Belfast IRA in particular were in disarray. In July and August of 1969 they, as a grouping had done little—in the eyes of the Catholic population in working class areas—to defend those communities from the “Loyalist hordes “. The acronym now read I Ran Away. Behind the scenes an idealistic shift was also taking place—a shift that would eventually –and inevitably lead to fractions within the movement, culminating in feuds and counter feuds. The new hardliners—although many were seasoned veterans of the organisation–were making their presence felt. Individuals like Francis Card—BillyMcKee—Joe Cahill-Seamus Twomey and Leo Martin. McKee, as the Belfast Brigade commander knew that in order to make a statement and win back the affections of the disillusioned Catholic inhabitants he needed a victory—something that would announce the arrival of the new Provisional movement.
The annual Whiterock parade took place on the last Saturday in June each year and until then had moved from the West Belfast Orange Hall on the Shankill to the Whiterock Orange Hall on the Springfield Road and back again….without incident. June 1970 was to become a watershed in that particular event. There were orchestrated attacks on the parade at various intervals along the route and heavy fighting ensued leaving many bandsmen and marchers injured. News of the attacks quickly spread throughout Belfast and rumours abounded in the East of the City that in fact there had been a couple of fatalities. Luckily the rumours proved to be unfounded but it would only be a matter of hours before events would take a turn for the worse.
In the late afternoon on the 27th June Gertrude Star was one of those bands returning from the Whiterock Parade along the Newtownards Road. On passing Seaforde Street the band and a small group of followers were attacked—viciously and without warning –by a large number of Nationalist residents. This was the precursor for the more premeditated and brutal affront later in the evening. Almost a softening up. A trap had been laid by the IRA to entice the Protestants of the Lower Newtownards Road to respond to the provocation—to draw them in—and walk them straight into a deadly snare. From tea time until pub closing time—in those days 10:00 pm—an uneasy peace ensued—tensions were electric—crowds of locals gathered at various points along the main Newtownards Road and in the side streets off it. What they didn’t know at this time was that in the streets off Seaforde Street—Arran street in particular—Billy McKee had formed the Belfast Brigade of the IRA up and was openly parading his men complete with an array of weapons. Fortuitously—or coincidentally for the Nationalists in the Short Strand Belfast was awash with many IRA men this particular day. They had travelled from far and wide to bury a recently deceased Republican stalwart. It is likely that McKee and his cohorts seized upon this opportunity to launch their fiendish attack on the innocent population of the Lower Newtownards Road.
Around the time that Gertude Star was returning from the Whiterock Parade along the Newtownards Road, all hell was breaking loose on the other side of town. Republicans—again as part of a premeditated plan—had attacked the main parade with gunfire leaving 4 Protestant men dead or dying from their wounds. Danny Loughins, Sandy Gould and Billy Kincaid died as a result of gunfire coming from Ardoyne while Tommy Reid would subsequently pass away a week later from gunshot wounds he received at Mayo Street on the Springfield Road.
As darkness fell and tensions rose the spark that ignited the flames occurred. On a pre arranged signal a youth emerged from the shadows of Seaforde Street waving a tricolour. As expected many of the Protestant crowd surged towards the provocateur. Immediately a lone IRA man stepped forward—crouched down on one knee into a firing position and unleashed a volley of shots from a pistol in the direction of the crowd. Mayhem and panic ensued. After the initial salvo of shots a barrage of heavy gunfire followed forcing the Protestants to dive for cover in the little side streets. The reaction was one of sheer panic. Sure there had been incidents before this and indeed you only had to go back a year to recall the first days of the Troubles the previous August when sectarian strife was on a high. But to be targeted totally indiscriminately and in a deliberate fashion by gunfire—much of it from high calibre weapons was a new departure for the beleaguered residents.
Unlike their Catholic counterparts the locals on the Newtownards Road had not been preparing for such an attack and when it came it left them vulnerable and exposed with very little means of defence. Hastily some of those who were present issued an appeal to provide arms to protect the streets. In a short space of time a small stockpile was amassed. This amounted to a paltry number of weapons—A Steyr rifle—an old Martini Henry—a Lee Enfield rifle and a couple of hand guns—some dating back to the previous century—but in the face of the fusillade now being directed from the supposed sanctuary of St. Matthews Roman Catholic Church it amounted to little by way of defence. The gunfire was intense. It was almost impossible for those pinned down to move. The Chapel—particularly the high vantage points—offered a commanding views of the facing streets—Frazer—Roxburgh—Wolff—Josephine—and the gunmen fired at will. Any counter attack from the loyalist side paled in comparison but there were many brave souls that night who stood up to the enormous task. Only for their returning fire—with a pathetically low number of rounds—certainly saved further casualties and dare say it, fatalities.
The onslaught continued into the early hours of the morning. Republicans claimed the IRA fired over 800 rounds that night but in the Loyalist estimation that figure falls far short of the actual number. At some point during the fray the Army returned fire but didn’t become engaged in a gun battle as many claim. The IRA was allowed to continue their assault until first light was breaking through. By then two innocent local men lay dead and a total of twenty eight lay wounded—men—women and children. All of those killed or wounded can be described as innocent because they were going about their normal business—walking home from a night out—visiting friends and relatives to make sure they were safe—or simply standing outside their own terraced houses.
Jimmy McCurrie was a family man—45 years old with four children and a wife who was pregnant. He lived at Ardilaun Street—a small terraced street that cut across Frazer Street. He had been out that afternoon for a few drinks with his usual crowd of friends. Scotch Row pub was one of his favourite watering holes and he spent some time there before going home for his dinner. He went back to Scotch Row that night before heading up to the Buffs Club on the Albertbridge Road to once again meet his friends. At closing time the group decided to return to Jimmy’s house and as they usually did cut down Beechfield Street as a short cut. The streets were unusually deserted as the friends made their way home. At the corner of Beechfield Street and Bryson Street a volley of shots rang out…from Kilmood Street–directed at the group. Jimmy McCurrie fell to the ground—mortally wounded. A post mortem would reveal that Jimmy had been continually targeted after the initial shot had felled him. Jimmy was carried to a house in Thistle Street in the hope of administering first aid—but to no avail.
Bobby Neill was a local man—he was a single man who lived at this time in Central Street. He had worked in various places during his adult life and at this time was employed in the Irish Bonding. On this particular Saturday Bobby, who was 43 years old had spent much of the afternoon with his friends frequenting local bars, including McMahon’s—a Catholic owned bar in which both Protestants and Catholics drank. As people did in those days—Ginger—as he was called—went home around tea time. By the time the worst of the gunfire was taking place Bobby was lying down sleeping. The noise awoke him and he walked to the top of the street to see what was going on. Moments later Bobby was shot—a single round through the back—fired, it later transpired from the Chapel grounds—a gaping hole in his front. He died shortly afterwards on admittance to Dundonald Hospital.
That night, the Belfast IRA achieved what they set out and carefully planned to do. They had gained their “spectacular” and set about weaving a web of deceit and lies that would bolster their claims over the next forty years that these were the actions of a community under siege. Succinctly—they invented the battle of St. Matthews. There was no battle. What there was-was a wanton and premeditated attack on a community whose crime that day was to be Protestants celebrating their culture—just as they always had in the preceding years. To keep this myth alive they even invented stories around the fatality that occurred within the “haven” of St. Matthews that fateful night. Henry McIlhone was shot dead—of that there is no doubt. He can hardly be described as an innocent victim as he was reputed to be the gunman who came out of Seaforde Street earlier to fire the first shots and was part of the squad who attacked Protestants from the Church Grounds. First stories indicated that he was killed by Loyalist Marauders—His name was bestowed upon a plaque of IRA men in a roll of remembrance. It was subsequently removed at the behest of the dead man’s family who claimed he had no affiliation with the IRA. In more recent times evidence has emerged that suggests he was indeed shot dead accidentally during the offensive by a cohort within the Chapel grounds—his assailant may well have been Dennis Donaldson—who went on to have a long and “distinguished” IRA career before he was outed as a long time informer and later shot dead at a remote location in Donegal.
In the intervening years since those tragic days of June 1970 we have become very used to the re writing of history by the Republican section of the community. There are many reasons for this—to keep the notion alive that they were justified in what they were doing—to paint us as the baddies during the conflict. This nefarious tactic can only succeed if we as a community buy into it and accept what they say. However if we challenge them at every turn and can unmask them as the evil machine they were we will, in turn be writing the truthful versions of events. To do otherwise would sully the memories of those innocent men who died that night.