McGurk’s Bar bombing – On 4 December 1971

On 4 December 1971, the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), an Ulster loyalist paramilitary group, detonated a bomb at McGurk’s Bar in Belfast, Northern Ireland. The pub was frequented by Irish Catholics/nationalists.[1] The explosion caused the building to collapse, killing fifteen Catholic civilians—including two children—and wounding seventeen more. It was the deadliest attack in Belfast during the Troubles.[2]

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McGurk’s Bar Bombing: Loss of Innocence

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Despite evidence to the contrary, the British security forces asserted that a bomb had exploded prematurely while being handled by Irish Republican Army (IRA) members inside the pub, implying that the victims themselves were partly to blame. A report later found that the police (Royal Ulster Constabulary) were biased in favour of this view, and that this hindered their investigation. The victims’ relatives allege that the security forces deliberately spread disinformation to discredit the IRA. In 1977, UVF member Robert Campbell was sentenced to life imprisonment for his part in the bombing and served fifteen years.[3]

The bombing sparked a series of tit-for-tat bombings and shootings by loyalists and republicans, which would help make 1972 the bloodiest year of the conflict.

McGurk’s Bar bombing
McGurks bombing.jpg

A British soldier surveys the aftermath of the bombing
Location Corner of North Queen Street and Great George’s Street, Belfast,
Northern Ireland
Date 4 December 1971
20:45 (GMT)
Target Irish Catholics
Attack type
Time bomb
Deaths 15
Non-fatal injuries
17
Perpetrator Ulster Volunteer Force

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Spotlight – The Mcgurk’s Bar Bombing

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Background

McGurk’s (also called the Tramore Bar) was a two-storey public house on the corner of North Queen Street and Great George’s Street, in the New Lodge area to the north of Belfast city centre.[4] This was a mainly Irish nationalist and Catholic neighbourhood, and the pub’s regular customers were from the community.[5] The pub was owned by Patrick and Philomena McGurk, who lived on the upper floor with their four children.[6]

The Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) was formed in Belfast in 1966, declaring “war” on the Irish Republican Army (IRA).[7] Until 1971, however, its actions were few and it “scarcely existed in an organisational sense”.[8] The British Army was deployed in Northern Ireland following the August 1969 riots, which are usually seen as the start of the Troubles. In December 1969 the IRA split into two factions: the ‘Official’ IRA and Provisional IRA. Both launched armed campaigns against the British Army, the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) and the government of Northern Ireland.

During 1971, the violence gradually worsened. There were daily bombings and shootings by republicans, loyalists and the security forces. During the first two weeks of December, there were about 70 bombings and about 30 people were killed.[9] On 2 December, three republican prisoners escaped from Crumlin Road prison, not far from McGurk’s. Security was tightened and there was a heavy RUC and British Army presence in the area over the next two days.[10] Eyewitnesses asserted that the checkpoints around McGurk’s were removed just an hour before the attack.[11]

The bombing

Plaque near the site of the bombing listing those killed

On the evening of Saturday 4 December 1971, a four-man UVF team met in the Shankill area of Belfast and were ordered to bomb a pub on North Queen Street. According to the only convicted bomber—Robert Campbell—they were told not to return until the job was done.[12] Campbell said that their target had not been McGurk’s, but another pub nearby.[13] It is believed this was a pub called The Gem, which was allegedly linked to the Official IRA.[14][15] The 50 pounds (23 kg) bomb was disguised as a brown parcel, which they placed in a car and drove to their target. Campbell says they stopped near The Gem at about 7:30pm,[12] but could not gain access to it because there were security guards outside.[13] After waiting for almost an hour, they drove a short distance to McGurk’s.[14] At about 8:45pm, one of them placed the bomb in the porch entrance on Great George’s Street and rushed back to the car.[12] It exploded just moments after they drove off.[12] Campbell implied that McGurk’s had been chosen only because it was “the nearest Catholic pub”.[13][15]

The blast caused the building to collapse. Bystanders immediately rushed to free the dead and wounded from the rubble. Firefighters, paramedics, police and soldiers were quickly on the scene. Fifteen Catholic civilians had been killed—including two children[16]—and a further seventeen wounded. The rescue effort lasted many hours.

The Victims

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04 December 1971


Philomena McGurk,   (46)

Catholic
Status: Civilian (Civ),

Killed by: Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF)
Killed in bomb attack on McGurk’s bar, junction of Gt. George’s Street and North Queen Street, New Lodge, Belfast.

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04 December 1971


Maria McGurk,  (14)

Catholic
Status: Civilian (Civ),

Killed by: Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF)
Killed in bomb attack on McGurk’s bar, junction of Gt. George’s Street and North Queen Street, New Lodge, Belfast.

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04 December 1971


James Cromie,   (13)

Catholic
Status: Civilian (Civ),

Killed by: Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF)
Killed in bomb attack on McGurk’s bar, junction of Gt. George’s Street and North Queen Street, New Lodge, Belfast.

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04 December 1971
John Colton,  (49)

Catholic
Status: Civilian (Civ),

Killed by: Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF)
Killed in bomb attack on McGurk’s bar, junction of Gt. George’s Street and North Queen Street, New Lodge, Belfast.

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04 December 1971


Thomas McLaughlin,   (55)

Catholic
Status: Civilian (Civ),

Killed by: Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF)
Killed in bomb attack on McGurk’s bar, junction of Gt. George’s Street and North Queen Street, New Lodge, Belfast.

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04 December 1971
David Milligan,  (53)

Catholic
Status: Civilian (Civ),

Killed by: Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF)
Killed in bomb attack on McGurk’s bar, junction of Gt. George’s Street and North Queen Street, New Lodge, Belfast.

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04 December 1971


James Smyth,  (58)

Catholic
Status: Civilian (Civ),

Killed by: Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF)
Killed in bomb attack on McGurk’s bar, junction of Gt. George’s Street and North Queen Street, New Lodge, Belfast.

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04 December 1971


Francis Bradley,  (62)

Catholic
Status: Civilian (Civ),

Killed by: Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF)
Killed in bomb attack on McGurk’s bar, junction of Gt. George’s Street and North Queen Street, New Lodge, Belfast.

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04 December 1971


Thomas Kane,   (48)

Catholic
Status: Civilian (Civ),

Killed by: Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF)
Killed in bomb attack on McGurk’s bar, junction of Gt. George’s Street and North Queen Street, New Lodge, Belfast.

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04 December 1971


Kathleen Irvine,   (53)

Catholic
Status: Civilian (Civ),

Killed by: Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF)
Killed in bomb attack on McGurk’s bar, junction of Gt. George’s Street and North Queen Street, New Lodge, Belfast.

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04 December 1971


Philip Garry,  (73)

Catholic
Status: Civilian (Civ),

Killed by: Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF)
Killed in bomb attack on McGurk’s bar, junction of Gt. George’s Street and North Queen Street, New Lodge, Belfast.

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04 December 1971


 Edward Kane,   (29)

Catholic
Status: Civilian (Civ),

Killed by: Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF)
Killed in bomb attack on McGurk’s bar, junction of Gt. George’s Street and North Queen Street, New Lodge, Belfast.

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04 December 1971


Edward Keenan, (69)

Catholic
Status: Civilian (Civ),

Killed by: Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF)
Killed in bomb attack on McGurk’s bar, junction of Gt. George’s Street and North Queen Street, New Lodge, Belfast.

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04 December 1971


Sarah Keenan,  (58)

Catholic
Status: Civilian (Civ),

Killed by: Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF)
Killed in bomb attack on McGurk’s bar, junction of Gt. George’s Street and North Queen Street, New Lodge, Belfast.

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04 December 1971


Robert Spotswood,   (38)

Catholic
Status: Civilian (Civ),

Killed by: Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF)
Killed in bomb attack on McGurk’s bar, junction of Gt. George’s Street and North Queen Street, New Lodge, Belfast.

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Within two hours of the blast, a sectarian clash had erupted nearby at the New Lodge–Tiger’s Bay interface.[17] The British Army and RUC moved in and a gun battle developed.[17]

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Enter a caption

Major Jeremy Snow

In a despicable act the IRA shot Major Jeremy Snow as he attended the scene. He died of his injuries four days later on the 8th December .

 

Jeremy Snow was at the Royal Fusiliers headquarters a short distance away from the scene of the explosion when the bomb went off. Such was the strength of the blast that the soldiers initially thought that it was their building which had come under attack. Snow began organising the rescue operation but quickly handed this over to Major Mike Dudding who, using a loudhailer, organised a human chain of volunteers to remove the rubble.

At around 10pm a crowd of Protestants began gathering in the New Lodge/Tiger’s Bay area intent on mocking the Catholic victims of the blast. Before long a Catholic crowd of around 100 gathered and the two groups began trading insults and throwing stones at one another. Sensing trouble, Jeremy Snow called up a reserve platoon and, having decided that the crowds were getting out of hand, decided to separate the two groups at North Queen Street. At 10.30pm, as he alighted from his vehicle at Hillman Street a quarter of a mile from the scene of the bombing, he was shot and wounded in the neck by an Irish Republican Army sniper. He was placed on a stretcher and taken by armoured ambulance to the Royal Victoria Hospital. His wife was at his bedside when he died from his wounds four days later.

One of the soldiers from his Company wrote:-

“Major Snow was my company commander. Charlie Company, 2nd Battalion Royal Regiment of Fusiliers. I was with the Major the day of the incident. We were plodding along, like you do, when a civilian asked for directions. As Major Snow crossed the road to go to him, he was gunned down. He was a lovely bloke, a real gent and we all had the utmost respect for him. We were all gutted when it happened. I met my wife to be at his memorial service and we have been together for 30 years and to this day we do not forget the sacrifice he made. He was one of the many casualties we had to bear to make N.I. the safe and secure place it is today… I salute you Sir…”

He was Mentioned in Despatches for his services in Northern Ireland which was announced by St James’s Palace on the 23rd of May 1972.

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A British Army officer, Major Jeremy Snow, was shot by the IRA on New Lodge Road and died of his wounds on 8 December.[17][18] Two RUC officers and five civilians were also wounded by gunfire. Eventually, five companies of troops were sent into the district and they searched almost 50 houses.[17]

Meanwhile, the UVF team had driven to a nearby pickup point where they dumped their car. They walked to the area of St Anne’s Cathedral and were picked up by another. They were driven back to the Shankill and met the man who had ordered the attack in an Orange Hall, telling him that “the job has been done”.[12]

Among those killed were Philomena and Maria McGurk, wife and 12-year-old daughter of the pub owner Patrick McGurk. Patrick and his three sons were seriously injured.[5] Shortly after the attack, McGurk appeared on television calling for no retaliation: “It doesn’t matter who planted the bomb. What’s done can’t be undone. I’ve been trying to keep bitterness out of it.”[19]

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