By Eamonn Keyes
On a night in late December 2009 I sat in the kitchen of my Aunt Agnes’s house.
My life had already changed and would change even more dramatically, but I was oblivious to it.
A few days before, I had seen my mother and siblings for what would be the last time, and a month later I would be in Scotland, battling a January storm on the A77 from Cairnryan to Crosshouse, where I would take up a three-month contract with the Scottish Government investigating MRSA, again unaware that I would not be returning home.
Agnes had just come out of hospital after a serious illness and was tired but still her usual unflappable self. She was a very tall, elegant woman and the sole remaining member of my father’s family, being his oldest sister, and she lived alone in Belfast’s Short Strand area, a small Catholic enclave of perhaps 2,000 people surrounded on all sides by East Belfast, with an 80,000 Protestant and Loyalist population with nothing but bad blood between them.
Her three children had all emigrated to Canada years previously, living in Toronto, and her husband, Johnny, had died a few years before of lung cancer.
I had spent quite a few visits with him as he faded from life. Johnny Moran was an impressive man, about six feet four inches tall, strong but slim, and had the authority of a man unafraid of anything.
I had heard some of the whispered stories. Short Strand had an imposing Catholic church, St Mathew’s, with a tall spire, which faced onto the Newtownards Road. Over the years, even as far back as 1920, many attempts were made to burn or destroy it, but without success. On Saturday 27th June 1970 the most serious assault yet took place on the church. This resulted in 3 dead and 26 wounded as mobs hurled petrol bombs and tried to break in, resulting in a ferocious gun battle that is even recorded in Wikipedia
The story was that my Uncle Johnny was reputed to be an ‘old’ IRA man, going way back to the 1930s, and he had been one of the very few defenders of the church on that night against a mob of hundreds, eventually being wounded and spirited away to be treated and allowed to heal in the Irish Republic.
I tried to get him to talk about it, but his lips remained sealed, which I regarded as testament enough.
As I sat with Agnes, I realised that I had an opportunity to find out things about my father’s family first hand from her, and we talked about many things – her uncle Edward (who will have his own piece -I am named for him), my grandfather, and especially my father, and the circumstances around his marriage. In passing, she mentioned her Aunt Sarah, who I’d never heard of before, and she told me she had been shot and killed in the Belfast Pogroms of 1920-22, when Ireland was being partitioned. That was all she really knew of her story.
I said my goodbyes to Agnes, driving home carefully through the snow, again unaware that Agnes would be dead within two years.
Time went past, and when in Oban I started looking at some family history, but mostly on my mother’s side, and did not continue after a month or two, being too busy with life and making the preparations to make the move to Orkney.
About 5 weeks ago I was on Twitter, and I accidentally came across an interactive map in my newsfeed. This map showed where the deaths during the 1920-22 Pogroms had taken place in Belfast. I spent some time on it, having a look at the deaths that had occurred in area that I knew.
A lot of them had been in the New Lodge district, where my father’s family lived. Looking through the replying Tweets, I found a link to an old book documenting the Pogroms:
‘Facts And Figures of The Belfast Pogrom 1920-1922’ by G.B. Kenna, published in 1922.
This is a very interesting book, with G.B. Kenna being the pseudonym of a Father John Hassan, and this book was his compilation of reports to the Provisional Irish Government in Dublin on the sectarian violence in Belfast during the Irish war Of Independence, Truce period, and the start of the Civil War. It turns out that only 18 copies were bound and distributed, with the remainder withdrawn on the direction of Michael Collins just prior to his death.
As I looked through this online copy, I saw that there was a list of fatalities in the Appendices. So, I started at the top and worked my way through the lists for each year, with hundreds of deaths recorded each year. Eventually I came to the final year, 1922, and in the entry for the weekend of March 11th and 12th I saw the name- Keyes, Sarah (35)- 117 Hillman Street.
There was no religion against her name, and the address was a mystery, as she was obviously unmarried, but the family lived at New Lodge Road, a few hundred yards away.
There was also a snippet about the deaths that weekend, and the ease by which murders were then taking place.
My daughter Ruth, who still lives in Northern Ireland, did some more research there, and was eventually successful, with data provided by the Northern Pogroms 1920-22 Facebook site with some very interesting additional information on the circumstances of Sarah’s death.
From this we can see that she was killed on March 10th,1922 (likely the Friday evening) by a sniper in Annadale Street, suffered a massive gunshot wound to the head, and died in the Mater Hospital. She was also single and did indeed live at 117 Hillman Street, possibly as a live-in housekeeper. Her age was given as 33, contradicting the earlier 35.
This held a particular resonance for me as I was born in the Mater Hospital, and worked there for 35 years, from 1974 to 2009, unaware of my aunt’s violent death, and I helped deal with many similar cases in my time working there.
In addition, my grammar school was about 200 yards from Annadale Street, where Sarah was shot, and I had been up and down that street probably hundreds of times over the years. I can only now know the life-and-death struggle that probably went on immediately following the shooting.
My daughter probed further and discovered that 117 Hillman Street was owned by a Royal Irish Constabulary constable, who was cited as living alone. This raises the question as to whether she was his housekeeper, or whether there was some form of relationship between them. We will never know.
The last remarkable fact is that on March 10th, 5 weeks after I accidentally stumbled into this story, it will be the centenary of her death. She is almost unknown in our family, the tragedy of her death fogged and worn away by the years, and I will be proud to be able to remember her in some small way.
I am not religious, I have little belief in any afterlife, but through the thread of DNA I still feel that affinity and relationship across those hundred years.
I have contacted the church which she would have attended, St. Patricks in Belfast, and have arranged a Remembrance Mass for the repose of the soul of Sarah on the Centenary of her death. My parents were married in that church, and Sarah’s brother, my grandfather, had his funeral held there, so it seems entirely appropriate.
James Taylor – Belfast to Boston.