15 civilians were murdered in McGurk’s Bar and two of these victims were children. Many more were injured and lucky to escape with their lives.
On that crisp winter’s evening, after another long week of work, Johnny and Kathleen Irvine said goodbye to their teenage children and walked the short distance to the bar they visited for a couple of drinks each Saturday night. Christmas loomed, but the road leading both to the bar and to the centre of Belfast was deathly quiet. Even the military presence that had saturated the north of the city over the previous forty eight hours seemed to have been lifted, if only temporarily. Johnny and Kitty, as her family and friends knew her, could therefore enjoy a few fleeting moments of normality as they sauntered to the pub without getting stopped, searched or harassed by the British army.
The couple entered the small lounge to the side of the main service area and were immediately welcomed by the usual warmth, light and hum of the busy pub as people chattered and glasses clinked. The bar itself and a door that was locked for safety reasons separated the two areas. Nevertheless the couple preferred this smaller space as it was more snug and they could enjoy the conversation of their old friends they met each week.
Looking across the bar and into the main lounge (pictured right in the 1950s with Mr. McGurk third from the left and his father on the extreme left), Kitty recognised every single one of the customers who sat around talking or reading a paper. She smiled and nodded acknowledgement to anyone whose eyes she happened to meet.
Thomas Kane, Robert Spotswood and James (Jimbo) Smyth had taken up their usual seats along the bar. Further along, Thomas McLaughlin, his uncle and two of their friends were too busy chatting and laughing to notice. Behind them, old Philip Garry, who even at 73 still kept himself busy as a school-crossing patrolman, was having a quiet pint. Near to him Francis Bradley and David Milligan relaxed after labouring week-long in the docks. In the corner she could not see, Edward Kane was entertaining his friend, Roderick McCorley, and 80 year-old Mr. Griffin with lively chat over a quick drink before heading home to his young family.
The Tramore was a cosy family-run bar, frequented by those members of the north Belfast community who were more interested in a punt or a pint rather than the sectarian politics of the day. Indeed Patrick and Philomena McGurk, the owners of the pub, were renowned for their intolerance of bigotry and prejudice. The clientele of the Tramore Bar, or McGurk’s as it was best known, naturally reflected this. As the family home was in the rooms upstairs, Mr. And Mrs. McGurk therefore sought to create an environment that was not only fitting for a well-run pub, but also one that was appropriate for the raising of their children.
Upstairs, at that time, the McGurk boys and their friends, including 13 year-old James Cromie, were having a raucous game of table football as their uncle, John Colton, got ready to help his brother-in-law in the bar below.
As was always the case, Mr. McGurk was swift to greet the couple warmly and ask them if they would like their usual. No sooner had the couple sat down with their drinks when their old friends Edward and Sarah Keenan arrived so Johnny was up once more to get them one before all four could settle. The banter was lively as their friends were in high spirits. Edward had just received his retirement money from his lifelong work in the docks so the old couple were looking forward to treating their family to extra special Christmas presents and new clothes that year.Tableau
Time was rushing headlong towards the single moment that each one of those who were left behind would play over and over when they locked themselves away in their own minds. Upstairs Mr. McGurk’s wife, Philomena and only daughter, Maria, unknown to everybody below, were just coming home from confession at St. Patrick’s church. Mr. McGurk was pouring a pint of Guinness for another customer. In the snug, Johnny took a sup of his stout as he listened with glee to the animated chat just as Kitty, his wife, the mother of his children, happened to catch his eye and smi…
In VerseA poem written by Mario Brian O’ Clery for the 40th Anniversary of the atrocity:
A half shop sign
On the rubble,
Half a name
And a half-hundredweight
Of spent gelignite
Bearing no claim.
Pinned bodies burning
In a buried, gas flame.
Half an inquiry;
In dispatches came.
Half price justice
From a flea-market press,
Embezzling the blame
For Queen and half-crown
And a half-hearted check
To keep the dead in the frame.
The poet, Mario Brian O’ Clery, also authors An Cruiskeen Lawnmower
- The McGurk’s Bar Massacre and the Role of British Agents December 15, 2017
- Behind the Mask and the McGurk’s Bar Massacre July 14, 2017
- McGurk’s Bar Families Meet With Fianna Fáil Justice and Equality Spokesperson March 21, 2017