Altnaveigh Reprisal

Included in the May 2018 release from the MSPC are the files of some of those individuals involved in one of the most infamous attacks carried out in the border area in the revolutionary period. The attacks at Altnaveigh, County Armagh on 17 June 1922 by the IRA in which six members of the protestant community were killed and their homes burned resonate to this day. The small community lies just to the west of Newry and is just a few miles from the border. The names of those killed in the attack are: John and Robert Heaslip (father and son), Thomas and Elizabeth Crozier (husband and wife), Joseph Gray and James Lockhart. Reports suggest up to a dozen properties were burned including the homes of the Crozier, Gray, Heaslip, Lockhart and Little families. There are also reports of homes been burned in the neighbouring townland of Lisdrumliska which lies just to the east of Altnaveigh.

According to information released a party of 30 men left the IRA training camp at Ravensdale, County Louth and made their way to Altnaveigh, a distance of about four miles. Evidence in files suggests that the raiding party left Ravensdale after curfew at 11 pm and returned at 5 am. Contemporary reports state the attack happened at 2.30 am.

We were given each one of us, a service rifle, 250 rounds 303, a service revolver and grenades. We had to walk four miles from Ravensdale which is in Co. Louth to the nearest point of attack, which was Altnaveigh overlooking Newry…Our orders were to burn every house and shoot dead every male we could get. We burned 12 houses to the ground and shot dead 8 of the B [Special Constabulary] men. But the unfortunate part of it all was; we shot dead one woman (accidentally)…  [statement of James Marron]

One of the most conflicting elements of the attack lies in the reasoning behind it. It has been suggested that it was a retaliation for an assault on the family of James McGuill and the ransacking of his public house in Dromintee. There has been absolutely no suggestion in the files of those released to date that that incident was in any way connected to Altnaveigh in June 1922. The justification, if recorded at all, is that the events were a reprisal for the deaths of “two of our own” – Patrick Creggan and Thomas Crawley (James Marron). Others (Thomas Kinney and Patrick Loughran) refer to the deaths of four men, Peter/Patrick Quinn (DP3352), Peter McGennity and the Reilly brothers Thomas and John Reilly, as the provocation.

Another controversial question posed concerns the alleged presence of Frank Aiken at Altnaveigh on the night. Indeed, only Thomas Pentony suggests that Aiken was present. Two other participants refer to Michael Fearon as Officer Commanding on the night. Aiken, who held the rank of Divisional Officer Commanding at the time, was unlikely to defer to Fearon who was 3 Battalion Officer Commanding. Marron, while writing to Aiken in February 1935, reveals “you came to Ravensdale camp with a squad from Dundalk to attack the Fork Hill [sic] patrol we were going out to Altnaveigh”. The attack referred to by Marron in respect of Forkhill was the reprisal for the attacks on the McGuill’s which was allegedly carried out by members of the Special Constabulary from Forkhill Barracks. Furthermore, Aiken himself in his application states that he was in command of an ambush in Dromintee during the period. Pentony’s statement is therefore questionable. However, given his rank and supposed presence at Ravensdale it is highly unlikely that Aiken could not have been aware of the operation that was planned for Altnaveigh.

One of the most notable themes to emerge during the processing of these files lies with the attempted cover up of participants names. While making their pension applications under the Military Service Pensions Act, 1934 some participants refer to Altnaveigh as a ‘special job’ or make a passing reference to it. Moreover, during his interview before the Advisory Committee in April 1935, Michael Fearon makes no reference to events at Altnaveigh. Likewise, James Marron makes no reference to it while before the committee. In the Brigade Activity Report, which was compiled between the late 1930s and early 1940s for the 4 Northern Division for the period concerned, there is again no details provided as to the participants at Altnaveigh. This certainly suggests that there was an organised attempt made to conceal the names of those involved in the attack.

The reasoning behind the attempted concealment is unveiled in the file of James Marron. In his appeal for a service pension for the period (12 July 1921 – 30 June 1922) Marron makes mention of Altnaveigh to the Advisory Committee. In a letter dated 16 January 1941 Marron reveals that he and Fearon had discussions regarding Altnaveigh.

He said to me when you are making your statement to the Board, do not let them put anything in writing about Altnaveigh…We came to the conclusion, that if it was ever known, that our lives would be in danger…he lived near Altnaveigh and so did I, we knew the people and saw them every day, we were well disguised on the job and are not known as yet to have been on it…

Tellingly Marron makes a further request of the Board “please destroy this paper when finished with it”.

The concluding element to address in this post is the impact that their participation had on those involved. James Marron lodged a claim for a Disability Pension partially due to “nervous debility”. Marron states that he was required to attend Dr Flood due to the effects. He claims “after this [Altnaveigh] I had to go home and for a long time I could not sleep thinking of the woman and the others we shot. I got the nerve paralysis in my face shortly after this”. Patrick Loughran infers the effect the operation had on him “the last military action I was in, was the Altnaveigh reprisal under OC Mick Fearon. [Afterwards I] returned to Ravensdale camp and handed in my revolver etc.” Some of those participants also speak of moving away from the area. This appears to have been for their safety but also perhaps due to the psychological effect of the  event. Thomas Pentony states “fear of my wife and children compelled me to sail for America on December 26, 1922”. Similarly, John McEnerney left from Ravensdale camp to travel to Canada in December 1922. Finally, Marron claims that he received warnings from a Head Constable to be in his own premises from 6 pm before finally he states, “I could not stay in Newry and so I left in 1926 and came to Carlingford”.

See the Brigade Activity Report for further information on the incident at Altnaveigh.

Update 2022

Since this blog was released in 2018 there have been a number of individuals released from the MSPC associated with the Altnaveigh reprisal. As the collection is processed there may be further additions.

James Fearon (MSP34REF57139) states that he was in a reprisal on three “B men’s houses for IRA men who were shot. These houses were Crozier’s Heaslip’s and Lockharts. Sniping lasted about half-an-hour at each house” about June 1922. In his affidavit applicant states that he took part in a reprisal but said he would only provide details orally under oath as he would have “no protection from private vengeance”. Fearon states that he had to leave the area and go to England in 1924 where he alleges he was followed by unnamed individuals.

Statement from James Fearon

Jack McElhaw (MSP34REF4305) claims that he was arrested by RIC District Inspector (DI) McFarland and charged with “raiding and burning Altnaveigh”. States that he was taken to Belfast Gaol [County Antrim], put into an identification ring for three weeks, release and deported to the Irish Free State. Claims that he returned home [County Armagh], was re-arrested, kept on remand for three weeks and sentenced to one month imprisonment.

In [May] 1922, reference Jack McElhaw states that Thomas Woods (MSP34REF3916) took part in the “executions of spies and informers at Altnaveigh” who were “responsible for the pointing out of the houses of the O’Reilly family where two were shot, McGinnity’s where one was shot, and Quinn’s where one also was shot”. The subject described the incidents in Altnaveigh as “special operations in South Armagh.

Reference from Jack McElhaw for Thomas Woods

John J. Kane (MSP34REF29896) states that he took part in a “special operation” reprisal attack in Altnaveigh, County Armagh. Further claims that this involved the burning of the Orange Hall, several homes and the shooting of three “enemy” individuals.

Edward Fearon (MSP34REF2873) states that he was in Altnaveigh and that he went to Liverpool in the first or second week of July 1922.