The IRA’s deadly attack on the Protestant community at Altnaveigh in south Armagh in June 1922 was one of the most brutal acts of sectarian violence in the wake of partition
“I didn’t expect that of you, Willie”The last words of the elderly Elizabeth Crozier after her husband had just been murdered by IRA attackers. Then, she was also murdered.
IN the early hours of the morning of Saturday June 17 1922, a party numbering between 20 and 30 from the IRA’s 4th Northern Division crossed the border from Ravensdale in Co Louth and raided a Protestant farming community in the small townlands of Altnaveigh and Lisdrumliska in south Armagh, approximately five miles from the border and one mile from Newry.
During the rampage, six people were shot dead, others were wounded and at least 12 homes were burned and/or bombed. According to the Irish Times, the “shooting began at about 3 o’clock, and for upward of an hour the countryside echoed to the discharge of rifles and revolvers, while the burning houses lit up the sky”.
The main common link of the six people killed was that they were all Protestants. They were husband and wife Thomas (67) and Elizabeth Crozier (age unknown); father and son John (50) and Robert Heaslip (17); James Lockhart (23); and Joseph Gray (20).
Days later an inquest was held where witnesses laid out in stark details the harrowing events that occurred that night in June 1922.
Thomas Crozier was shot in the chest when he opened his door. According to his son-in-law, before he was shot he said, “Don’t do a thing like that, Mick.” His wife Elizabeth ran to comfort him and cried out to one of the gunmen, “I didn’t expect that of you, Willie.”
It appears that by identifying one of the assailants her fate was sealed. She was then shot in the arm, lacerating it in such a way that she bled to death within an hour. According to James Marron, who took part in the attack, their “orders were to burn every house and shoot dead every male we could get… But the unfortunate part of it all was; we shot dead one woman (accidentally)”.
Joseph Gray and the other 12 people residing in his house were awoken by windows smashing after burning torches were thrown into the house. They were all ordered outside. When his mother asked why they were being attacked, she was told: “It is being done for the Roman Catholics of Belfast.”
He was referring to the sectarian violence that was engulfing Belfast at the time where most of the victims were Catholic. After Gray was shot, his sister called the attackers brutes.
She recalled that Gray, who died the next day, lying on the ground, responded: “Don’t call them brutes; perhaps they had to do it. Don’t send the Specials after them. I forgive them and I hope God will forgive them too. I am going to Jesus.”
Gray’s father was also shot, in the leg, leaving him permanently lame.
After the attackers had hurled bombs through a window of the Heaslip house, John and his son Robert were caught hiding in a stable after fleeing through the back door. They were taken around to the front of the house and shot dead. The attackers returned minutes later and fired four or five more shots into both lifeless bodies.
James Lockhart was shot dead in front of his mother and his three young sisters after their house had been burned and they had been lined up along the road in their nightclothes. The attacks appeared to be simultaneous, with families hearing shootings from other houses close by.
Given the number of assaults and burnings that took place, it is surprising that only six people were killed. The massacre has since resonated with the Protestant community in much the same way as the Weaver Street bombing and the MacMahon Murders earlier in 1922 resonated with the Catholic community of Belfast.
Although no one has ever been convicted for the Altnaveigh attacks, it was clearly the work of members of the IRA’s 4th Northern Division. In the intervening 100 years, there has been much speculation on why the attacks took place and the role, if any, played by the commander of the 4th Northern Division, Frank Aiken, who subsequently became a senior minister in several Fianna Fáil governments.
A supposed ‘reprisal raid’, in response to B-Special activity in Armagh, IRA men justified the targeting of Altnaveigh because all the families concerned were “Orangemen and B Specials.” In fact none were members of the security forces.
Ironically most of the weapons used at Altnaveigh were part of 5500 rifles and 2500 revolvers handed over to the Pro Treaty Provincial Government on the 12th April by the British Government.
Local IRA commanders were divided over such brutality, with the deputy commandant of Newry IRA left horrified and surprised that Frank Aiken would have been involved in such an act.
Frank Aiken (the butcher of Altnaveigh) went on to become a hugely successful politician in Fianna Fáil and became, Minister of Defence, Minister of Finance, Minister of Foreign Affairs, Minster of External Affairs, and Tanaiste in 1965. Dundalk Barracks was renamed Aiken Barracks , he died in 1983 and given a state funeral.
Aiken, like most who were involved in the attacks, remained silent afterwards. According to his great-granddaughter and historian Síobhra Aiken in her recently published book Spiritual Wounds: Trauma, Testimony & The Irish Civil War, he “was highly reticent about his revolutionary experience, never speaking to his family about his own actions as a perpetrator or of the suffering inflicted on those close to him”.
Witness statements and military service pension applications of IRA members who took part in the Altnaveigh massacre reveal in many ways a sense of shame for their involvement. Participants’ names were covered up. Others referred to Altnaveigh, not by name, but as a “special job”.
Some suffered from nervous breakdowns, some handed in their revolvers after the attack, while others left Ireland shortly afterwards, leaving for England or America. Wherever they went, they undoubtedly would have been haunted by the terror they inflicted on the Protestant civilians of Altnaveigh on June 17 1922, an incident that has rightly lived on in infamy ever since.
The facts about “Altnaveigh “ were kept hidden away until 2018 when official documents were released.
Patrick Casey one of the other attackers speaking in 1957 said “ nothing could justify this holocaust of these Protestants and indeed it had brought a shame to Ireland “ .
Events of a century ago, in places like Altnaveigh, Kingsmills , Le Mon , Darkley , Enniskillen , Shankill, the list goes on; have left a legacy for many within the Protestant community in Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic.
In the immediacy, they left families hurt and bereaved. In the medium term, it resulted in many leaving Townlands which they had lived in for generations. In the long term, it bequeathed an inheritance of distrust and alienation.
This alienation was particularly the case in the south and west where many of those active in the IRA between 1919 and 1923 would go on to hold elected office in the new Irish Free State and then the Irish Republic. Some, like Frank Aiken, would even become Government Ministers.
In such circumstances, how could members of the Protestant community speak out and seek justice? It was not the first, nor sadly the last, injustice dealt to this small Protestant Community outside Newry, including repeated attacks on Altnaveigh Orange Hall. Nevertheless, they trust in God and remain resolute.
We must never forget the injustice that was and still is being inflicted on the people of Ulster by Republican Murderers in a twisted idea of a “New Ireland “.
The current trend of airbrushing and rewriting history must be challenged and the memory of “Altnaveigh “ must never be forgotten.
Today we remember those six innocent civilians who were murdered at the hands of an IRA murder gang in the Townland of Altnaveigh.