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Altnaveigh Massacre

The June of 1922 saw one of the vilest acts against humanity committed by the Republican movement. An event took place just outside of Newry involving the slaughter of nine people which became deeply embedded on the psyche of local people - The Altnaveigh Massacre.

The murders were coordinated by Frank Aiken, who went on to become External Affairs and Deputy Prime Minister in the Republic during the fifties under De Valera. He continued in the Irish cabinet until 1969. A South Armagh man from a strongly republican village, Aiken showed "no compunction about shooting unarmed Protestants".

Frank Aiken - responsible for genocide at Altnaveigh

Frank Aiken - responsible for Genocide at Altnaveigh

The IRA unit of several hundred men, which Aiken commanded, were recruited in South Armagh-North Louth and parts of Co Tyrone and South Down.

He led terrorist attacks on Newtownhamilton and Camlough police stations, and before the Altnaveigh massacre, he was involved in the murders of policemen, soldiers and civilians.

In June, 1922 Aiken still in his early 20s, issued a directive to IRA men under his command, calling for the destruction of enemy property, the property of Orangemen and the shooting of spies and informers.

During the early hours of the morning of June 17 Aiken's men claimed the lives of six Protestants at Altnaveigh and a policeman - the greatest loss of life in South Armagh on a single day until the Kingsmill massacre of January 1976, when the IRA shot 10 dead Protestant Workmen from Bessbrook.

The carnage began with the ambush of a 14-strong B-Special patrol mounted from McGuill's public house at Drumintee, later site of the Three Steps Inn pub from which SAS man Captain Robert Nairac was abducted and later murdered in May 1977.

About 50 IRA men opened fire from in and around the pub, which, according to police documents, "was being used as a meeting place for Drumintee Company IRA", Special Constable Thomas Russell was shot in the head and killed and Special Constable George Hughes wounded.

The ambush had been planned to divert Crown forces away from Altnaveigh where the sectarian killings were to take place. The Altnaveigh killings all took place after 2.30 am and lasted about an hour.

John Gray and his family at Lisdrumliska were the first to be woken and he and his wife, four daughters, five sons and two cousins were ordered downstairs. The house was set alight, while the family huddled together outside.

Ordering the Grays to remain where they were, the raiders moved on to the Heslip household next door.

House of John Gray at Lisdrumliska

House of John Gray at Lisdrumliska

Finding John Heslip (54) his wife and two sons Robert (19) and William (16) hiding in a stable - they pulled them out and made then stand with their hands up as the house was burned, John and Robert Heslip were taken outside and shot dead.

The IRA gang then returned to the Gray House, picking out Joseph Gray (20) and shooting him dead.

At 3 am, the same IRA group arrived at the house of Thomas Crozier, and elderly farmer, and his wife Elizabeth. Mr Crozier was shot and mortally wounded, falling into the arms of his son.

When Mrs Crozier came out of the house she was shot twice and died 45 minutes later. The raiders exploded a bomb in the parlour before making off.

Meanwhile a second IRA group raided the Little and Lockhart households some distance away in the Altnaveigh townland.

William Lockhart, his wife and their only son James (25) were ordered out before the house was burned. They were lined up with neighbours, the Littles. William Lockhart, his son James and John Little were then ordered to walk down the road.

Mrs Lockhart protested and when her son turned to speak to her he was grabbed by one of the raiders who told him he has disobeyed orders and shot him dead at this mother's feet. His father and Mr Little were spared.

Five other Protestant homes in the Altnaveigh area were also attacked and burned by the IRA that night.

In the same period, a seventh Altnaveigh Protestant, Draper C Holmes, was also singled out and murdered.

Two weeks after the Altnaveigh massacre, William Frazer, a Protestant publican from Newtownhamilton, disappeared after being held up by three armed men as he drove to Newry.

Lieutenant Colonna W B Spender, Northern Ireland Cabinet Secretary, wrote later that officials in Dublin had been "able to confirm that Frank Aiken is probably responsible for his (Frazer's) capture".

Nothing more was heard until 1924 when the RUC received information that Frazer's body was buried in a bog on the Ballard Mountains about four miles from Camlough.

Using grappling irons, police dragged Frazer's skeleton to the surface.

Frank Aiken was personally opposed to the Treaty with the British signed by Michael Collins but he tried to remain neutral to keep his "4th Northern IRA Division" united.

One of Frank Aiken's IRA's colleagues at the time was Tod Andrews, father of the present Foreign Minister in Dublin, David Andrews.

After the Civil War, Frank Aiken joined the Fianna Fail party and became a close associate of other former terrorists Eamon de Valera and Sean Lemass, holding senior posts in their cabinets.

He was deputy premier for 10 years from 1959 to 1969, but because of his past involvement, in sectarian killing during the 1920s he seldom travelled North.

Aiken died in 1983 and was buried in Camlough with an IRA funeral just a few yards from the grave of Raymond McCreesh, the IRA hunger striker who died in the Maze Prison two years earlier.

Though many years have passed since this atrocity took place, it must not be forgotten. It shows us that IRA violence is not a recent phenomenon but long-running. It also highlights the untrustworthy position of the Irish government in this who having always provided a safe haven for terrorists, are now shown to be compose of men responsible for or associated with genocide.