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Balmoral Furniture Company Bombing – 12.25 pm 11th December 1971

Balmoral Furniture Company Bombing

11 December 1971

 

balmoral funiture plaque

The Balmoral Furniture Company bombing was a paramilitary attack that took place on 11 December 1971 in Belfast, Northern Ireland. A bomb exploded without warning outside a furniture showroom on the Shankill Road in a predominantly unionist area, killing four civilians, two of them babies.

 

retaliation for the bombing of McGurk’s

The bombing is one of the catalysts that spark a series of tit-for-tat bombings and shootings by loyalists and republicans  that made the 1970s the bloodiest decade in the 30-year history of The Troubles .

It is widely believed that the bombing was carried out by members of the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) in retaliation for the bombing of McGurk’s pub a week earlier, which killed 15 Catholic civilians. The Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) had carried out that bombing.

See : McGurk’s Pub Bombing

The bombing happened on a Saturday when the Shankill was crowded with shoppers, creating bedlam in the area. Hundreds of people rushed to help British Army troops and the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) rescue survivors trapped under the rubble of the devastated building.

According to journalist Peter Taylor, the bomb site was

“reminiscent of the London Blitz”

during World War II. The attack provoked much anger in the tight-knit Ulster Protestant community and many men later cited the bombing as their reason for joining one of the two main Ulster loyalist paramilitary organisations: the illegal UVF or the then-legal Ulster Defence Association(UDA).

 

Tommy_lyttle.jpg

Tommy Lyttle

Four such men were Tommy Lyttle, Michael Stone, Sammy Duddy, and Billy McQuiston.

The bombing was one of the catalysts that sparked the series of tit-for-tat bombings and shootings by loyalists, republicans and the security forces that made the 1970s the bloodiest decade in the 30-year history of the Troubles.

 

– Disclaimer –

The views and opinions expressed in these pages/documentaries are soley intended to educate and provide background information to those interested in the Troubles of Northern Ireland. They in no way reflect my own opinions and I take no responsibility for any inaccuracies or factual errors.

 

The Bombing

The bombing took place in the heart of the loyalist Shankill Road

 

shankill rd

At 12.25 pm on 11 December 1971, when the Shankill Road was packed with Saturday shoppers, a green car pulled up outside the Balmoral Furniture Company at the corner of Carlow Street and Shankill Road.

The shop was locally known as “Moffat’s” although Balmoral Furniture Company was its official name.  One of the occupants got out, leaving a box containing a bomb on the step outside the front door. The person got back into the car and it sped away. The bomb exploded moments later, bringing down most of the building on top of those inside the shop and on passersby outside.

Four people were killed as a result of the massive blast, including two babies—Tracey Munn (2) and Colin Nichol (17 months) who both died instantly when part of the wall crashed down upon the pram they were sharing.

Two employees working inside the shop were also killed: Hugh Bruce (70) and Harold King (29).[4] Unlike the other three victims, who were Protestant, King was a Catholic.  Bruce, a former soldier and a Corps of Commissionaires member, was the shop’s doorman and was nearest to the bomb when it exploded.

Nineteen people were injured in the bombing, including Tracey’s mother.  The building, which was built in Victorian times, had load-bearing walls supporting upper floors on joists. It was thus unable to withstand the blast and so collapsed, adding to the devastation and injury count.

 

Balmoral bomb

The bombing caused bedlam in the crowded street. Hundreds of people rushed to the scene where they formed human chains to help the British Army and Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) free those trapped beneath the rubble by digging with their bare hands. Peter Taylor described the scene as “reminiscent of the London Blitz” in World War II.

One witness was Billy McQuiston, who had been walking down the Shankill with a friend when they heard the blast. Rushing to the scene, McQuiston later recounted what he saw and felt upon reaching the wrecked building:

 

Related image

Women were crying. Men were trying to dig out the rubble. Other men were hitting the walls. One person was crying beside you and the next person was shouting ‘Bastards’ and things like that. I didn’t actually see the babies’ bodies as they had them wrapped in sheets, but the blood was just coming right through them. They were just like lumps of meat, you know, small lumps of meat.

All these emotions were going through you and you wanted to help. There were people shouting at the back, “Let’s get something done about this”. To be perfectly honest with you, I just stood there and cried, just totally and utterly numb. It wasn’t until I got back home that I realised, this isn’t a game. There’s a war going on here. These people are trying to do us all in. They’re trying to kill us all and they don’t care who we are or what age we are. Because we’re Protestants, they are going to kill us so we’re going to have to do something here.

The angry crowd at the scene shared McQuiston’s dismay and anger against the Provisional IRA, whom they automatically held responsible for the bombing. They also sought to retaliate against any Catholic they happened upon. A Protestant man nearby made a remark about the bombing, and someone who overheard it mistook the speaker for a Catholic and shouted out:

“He’s Catholic!”.

A mob of about one hundred men and women ran towards him and began kicking and punching him until he was left unconscious. It took the RUC and British troops half an hour to rescue him from his attackers.

Aftermath

 

balmoral funiture plaque

A mural showing the Balmoral bombing and other IRA attacks carried out on the Shankill Road

Although nobody claimed responsibility for the attack, the Provisional IRA was immediately and widely blamed.

In his book Loyalists, Peter Taylor explained that the Provisional IRA bombed Balmoral in retaliation for the McGurk’s Bar bombing one week earlier, which had killed 15 Catholic civilians.

This theory is supported by Susan McKay. Billy McQuiston, along with many other Protestant men who had been on the Shankill at the time of the explosion, immediately joined the Ulster Defence Association (UDA).

Image result for uda flag

Others included Sammy Duddy, Michael Stone, and Tommy Lyttle.  Lyttle, who became brigadier of the UDA West Belfast Brigade, was not there but his wife and two daughters were near the bomb when it went off. They received no injuries, but his daughter Linda said that Lyttle:

 

“took it personally”.

 

Jackie McDonald, the incumbent South Belfast UDA brigadier, worked as dispatches manager for the Balmoral Furniture Company.  The leader of the Ulster Freedom Fighters (UFF, the name the UDA used to claim attacks), John White, who was convicted of the double murder of Senator Paddy Wilson and Irene Andrews in 1973, used the Balmoral bombing as justification for these killings and others.

See:  Senator Paddy Wilson and Irene Andrews

Within a month of the bombing, the UDA had restructured, adopting a more military structure and establishing a thirteen-member Security Council under Charles Harding Smith to co-ordinate activity.

Michael Stone would go on to perpetrate the Milltown Cemetery attack in 1988, which was caught on camera. Another Protestant man, Eddie Kinner, had been at the scene following the explosion. He lived around the corner from Balmoral. He sought revenge against the IRA and later joined the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF).

Image result for uvf flag

 

He later spoke about his reactions to the Balmoral bombing in an interview with Peter Taylor:

“On that occasion, if somebody had handed me a bomb to plant it anywhere you want in the Falls, I would have done it”,

adding that he had no qualms about taking somebody else’s life.

Within a week of the attack, the UVF retaliated by planting a bomb at Murtagh’s Bar on the Irish nationalist Springfield Road in west Belfast. A 16-year-old Catholic barman, James McCallum, was killed.

See:  18th December – Deaths & Events in Northern Ireland Troubles

The building which housed Balmoral’s Furniture Company was formerly “Wee Joe’s Picture House”, dating from the 1930s. Taking its name from “Wee” Joe McKibben, one of three owners of the cinema (which was nicknamed the “Wee Shank”), it was said locally that it cost a jam jar to get in on account of the fact that patrons could go to McKibben’s other place of business, a grocery shop, and swap an empty jam jar for a ticket to the cinema.

The edifice was demolished after the bombing.

Although a youth on the Shankill had seen the green car and person who planted the device, the bombers were never apprehended nor was anyone ever charged in connection with the attack.

The McGurk’s Bar bombing was the catalyst that sparked a series of tit-for-tat bombings and shootings by loyalist and republican paramilitaries that would help make the 1970s the bloodiest decade in the 30-year history of the Troubles.

The Balmoral bombing was not the first paramilitary attack in the Shankill Road area. On 29 September 1971, the Four Steps Inn pub had been bombed by the Provisional IRA, resulting in the deaths of two men.

It would not be the last either. In August 1975, the Provisional IRA carried out a shooting and bombing attack against the Bayardo Bar on Aberdeen Street, which killed three men and two women – one aged

A deadlier attack took place on 23 October 1993 when a two-man IRA unit from Ardoyne carried a bomb into Frizzell’s Fish Shop on the Shankill. The device detonated prematurely, killing one of the bombers and ten of the customers.

 

Image result for shankill bomb

See Shankill Road bombing 

Balmoral as a company was also established as a target by this attack and in October 1976 its premises in Dunmurry were blown up in another bomb attack. Three IRA volunteers were arrested not far from the scene of this attack with one, Bobby Sands, imprisoned for possessing a gun as a result.

Sands’ fellow hunger striker, Joe McDonnell, was also arrested following this incident. Sands and McDonnell had jointly planned the bomb attack.

See: Events to commemorate Shankill Road Bomb anniversary

 

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The Bayardo Bar attack – 13 August 1975

The Bayardo Bar attack

Bayardo Bar memorial.jpg

 

The Bayardo Bar attack took place on 13 August 1975 in Belfast, Northern Ireland. A unit of the Provisional IRA Belfast Brigade, led by Brendan McFarlane, launched a bombing and shooting attack on the pub on Aberdeen Street (off the loyalist Shankill Road), which was frequented by Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) members as well as civilians.

Four Protestant civilians and one UVF member were killed.

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13 August 1975

William Gracey,  (63)

Protestant
Status: Civilian (Civ),

Killed by: Irish Republican Army (IRA)
Shot during gun and bomb attack on Bayardo Bar, Shankill Road, Belfast.

See below for more details on this attack

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13 August 1975

 Samuel Gunning,   (55)

Protestant
Status: Civilian (Civ),

Killed by: Irish Republican Army (IRA)
Shot during gun and bomb attack on Bayardo Bar, Shankill Road, Belfast.

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13 August 1975

Hugh Harris,   (21)

Protestant
Status: Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF),

Killed by: Irish Republican Army (IRA)
Shot during gun and bomb attack on Bayardo Bar, Shankill Road, Belfast.

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13 August 1975

 Joanne McDowell,   (29)

Protestant
Status: Civilian (Civ),

Killed by: Irish Republican Army (IRA)
Shot during gun and bomb attack on Bayardo Bar, Shankill Road, Belfast.

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13 August 1975
Linda Boyle,  (19)

Protestant
Status: Civilian (Civ),

Killed by: Irish Republican Army (IRA)
Injured during gun and bomb attack on Bayardo Bar, Shankill Road, Belfast. She died 21 August 1975.

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According to journalists Alan Murray and Peter Taylor, it was retaliation for the Miami Showband massacre almost a fortnight earlier, when the popular Dublin-based band were ambushed by the UVF at a bogus military checkpoint. Three band members were shot dead by the UVF gunmen after their minibus was blown up in a premature explosion.

McFarlane and two other IRA volunteers, Peter “Skeet” Hamilton and Seamus Clarke, were sentenced to life imprisonment for perpetrating the Bayardo attack.

Background

By the year 1975, the religious-political conflict in Northern Ireland known as “the Troubles“— was more than six years old. On 10 February 1975, the Provisional IRA and British government entered into a truce and restarted negotiations. The IRA agreed to halt attacks on the British security forces, and the security forces mostly ended its raids and searches.

However, there were dissenters on both sides. Some Provisionals wanted no part of the truce, while British commanders resented being told to stop their operations against the IRA just when—they claimed—they had the Provisionals on the run.The security forces boosted their intelligence offensive during the truce and thoroughly infiltrated the IRA.

There was a rise in sectarian killings during the truce, which ‘officially’ lasted until early 1976. Ulster loyalists, fearing they were about to be forsaken by the British government and forced into a united Ireland,  increased their attacks on the Irish Catholic and nationalist community. They hoped to force the IRA to retaliate and thus hasten an end to the truce.

Under orders not to engage the security forces, some IRA units concentrated on tackling the loyalists. The fall-off of regular operations had caused serious problems of internal discipline and some IRA members, with or without permission from higher up, engaged in tit-for-tat killings.

In the early hours of 31 July 1975 the Miami Showband (a popular dance band) were driving back to Dublin following a gig in Banbridge. At Buskhill (outside Newry) they were flagged down at a checkpoint by Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) gunmen (some of whom were Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR) soldiers) wearing British Army uniforms. The band’s minibus pulled into a layby on the main A1 road, and the gunmen ordered the group to line-up facing a ditch.

As one gunman took the names and addresses of the band members, two others hid a bomb in the back of the bus. However, the bomb detonated prematurely, and the two men were blown to bits. The surviving gunmen then opened fire on the five Miami Showband members, killing three and wounding two.

According to journalists Peter Taylor and Alan Murray, the attack on the Bayardo was retaliation for the massacre.

The attack

The Bayardo Bar was crowded with people of all ages on Wednesday 13 August 1975. Shortly before closing time a stolen green Audi car, containing a three-man unit of the IRA’s Belfast Brigade, pulled up outside. It was driven by the unit’s leader Brendan “Bik” McFarlane, a 24-year-old volunteer from Ardoyne.[7][8][9] Volunteers Seamus Clarke and Peter “Skeet” Hamilton got out and approached the pub’s side entrance in Aberdeen Street.

One of them immediately opened fire with an Armalite, instantly killing doorman William Gracey (63) and his brother-in-law Samuel Gunning (55), with whom he had been chatting outside.

The other volunteer then entered the pub, where patrons were drinking and singing, and at the entrance he dropped a duffel bag containing a ten-pound bomb. Both men made their getaway back to the waiting car.

As panicked customers ran to the toilets for safety, the bomb exploded and brought down a section of the old brick-and-plaster building upon them. The bodies of civilian Joanne McDowell (29) and UVF member Hugh Harris (21) were later found beneath the rubble of fallen masonry.

Seventeen-year-old civilian Linda Boyle was pulled out alive, but died of her injuries in hospital on 21 August.

Over 50 people were injured in the attack.

The Belfast Telegraph claimed that, as the IRA unit drove away down Agnes Street (an arterial road linking the Shankill to the Crumlin Road), they fired into a crowd of women and children queuing at a taxi rank; there were no fatalities.

Within 20 minutes of the blast, the IRA unit were arrested after their car was stopped at a roadblock. The Armalite that had been used to kill William Gracey and Samuel Gunning was found inside the car along with spent bullet cases and fingerprints belonging to the three IRA men.

The IRA did not initially claim responsibility, However, it later stated that the Bayardo was attacked because it was a pub where UVF associates relaxed and “planned terrorist assaults” against nationalists

The pub was in the UVF-dominated middle Shankill Road area, and the Ulster Banner was displayed from its upper windows. Martin Dillon said that the Bayardo was frequented by the UVF and that Lenny Murphy, head of the Shankill Butchers gang, was a regular customer.

Steve Bruce also maintained that in the early 1970s, the UVF’s Brigade Staff (Belfast leadership) would often be found drinking in the pub, which was just around the corner from their headquarters above “The Eagle” chip shop on the Shankill Road.[16] A former IRA prisoner claimed that fellow inmate Lenny Murphy told him he had left the Bayardo ten minutes before the attack and that the Brigade Staff had just finished holding a meeting there.[17]

Retaliation and counter-retaliation

Loyalists, especially the UVF, responded with another wave of sectarian attacks against Catholics. Two days after, a loyalist car bomb exploded without warning on the Falls Road, injuring 35 people.

On 22 August, the UVF launched a gun and bomb attack on McGleenan’s Bar in Armagh. The attack was strikingly similar to that at Bayardo. One gunman opened fire while another planted the bomb; the explosion causing the building to collapse. Three Catholic civilians were killed (one of whom died on 28 August) and several more were wounded.[19] That same night, another bomb wrecked a Catholic-owned pub in nearby Blackwatertown, although there were no injuries.

These loyalist attacks were responded to in kind by the IRA (sometimes using the cover name Republican Action Force or similar), with the months that followed the Bayardo attack being characterised as a bloody game of tit-for-tat. This was met with disillusionment by imprisoned republicans such as Gerry Adams and Brendan Hughes, with the latter claiming that sectarianism was “destroying the whole struggle”.

Convictions

In May 1976, Brendan McFarlane, Seamus Clarke, and Peter Hamilton were convicted in a non-jury Diplock Court and sentenced to life imprisonment inside the Maze Prison for carrying out the Bayardo murders.

Inside the Maze, McFarlane rose to become Officer Commanding IRA prisoners and in 1983 he led the Maze Prison escape, which was the mass break-out of 38 republican prisoners, including Clarke and Hamilton. McFarlane and Clarke then went on the run, although Hamilton was immediately recaptured outside the prison’s main perimeter gate. McFarlane has never spoken about the killings, and the IRA leadership has never encouraged him to do so, considering the attack was viewed as having been “purely sectarian”.

Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams, however, told journalist Alan Murray that McFarlane “hadn’t a single, sectarian bone in his body”. Peter “Skeet” Hamilton died of cancer in Dundalk on 25 February 2011 at the age of 57.

The Bayardo Somme Association has described the Bayardo attack as “a forgotten atrocity”.

The association erected a memorial to the victims on the site where the Bayardo Bar stood before its demolition. The large steel monument was incorporated into the remaining section of the original structure; it bears the names and photographs of the five people who were killed plus photos of the pub taken before and after the bombing.[22]