The Shankill Butchers ride tonight
You’d better shut your windows tight
They’re sharpening their cleavers and their knives
And taking all their whiskey by the pint
— The Decemberists, “The Shankill Butchers”
They were the worst gang of serial killers in British history. From 1975 to 1979 they terrorized Northern Ireland. Today the area they haunted, Shankill, has become synonymous with savagery.
The Shankill Butchers were a loyalist (Protestant) gang, many of whose members belonged to the Ulster Volunteer Force. Headed by Lenny Murphy, a former convict, the gang brutally murdered 23 people within a period of four years. Catholics were abducted on the streets and slowly tortured. Some were ferociously beaten. Others were shot or had their throats cut open.
The group’s deeds were so legendary that they soon passed into folklore. Catholics who grew up during the height of the “Troubles” (as the war came to be known) recall how their mothers would warn them not to go out at night, or the Butchers would get them. Yet as sadistic as their methods were, it’s worth asking whether this gang was really the most extreme form of evil in a conflict that ultimately claimed nearly 4,000 lives.
* * *
In the 1970s and ‘80s Northern Ireland suffered a bloody civil war between Catholics and Protestants. Protestant loyalists wanted the nation to remain a part of the United Kingdom, while Catholic nationalists wanted it to leave the United Kingdom and become part of a united Ireland.
Although Catholics were the majority in Northern Ireland, they felt they were being discriminated against by the Protestant-dominated government in Stormont. Protestants were given preferential treatment when it came to employment and housing. In 1964, nationalists began a peaceful civil rights campaign designed to end job discrimination, housing discrimination, police reform (the royal police force was almost entirely Protestant), and a repeal of the Special Powers Act that allowed the police to arrest and imprison people without warrant, charge, or trial.
The intentions and methods of the demonstrators were, at first, nonviolent. The leaders of the civil rights campaign believed they could bring about political change without having to resort to bloodshed. This changed, however, in August 1969 when fighting erupted between Catholic nationalists and the royal police force, which they viewed as a hated symbol of an oppressive government. Rioting continued for two days and two nights in what became known as the “Battle of the Bogside,” sparking acts of violence throughout Northern Ireland. Eventually the British Army was called in to restore order.
The nation was now divided into three armed and increasingly hostile factions: the Catholic majority (including the Irish Republican Army), the Protestant minority (including the Ulster Volunteer Force), and the British Army (which Catholics perceived as siding with the Protestants).
At first the IRA merely targeted Protestant businesses, planting 150 bombs, but largely avoided killing civilians for fear of alienating its growing support among the Irish public. Yet as the violence escalated, first one soldier and then another was killed. Famously, a 19-year-old soldier stranded in Belfast was seized and held captive by a mob of women before being killed by a Catholic of around his own age. He died begging for his mother.
Looking back on his time in the IRA some decades later, leader Tommy McKearney tried to explain his motivations for engaging in acts of violence. “At that stage I believed that it was essential that I take part in the struggle. Coming from the community I come from, and came from at that time, with the history we have, it’s not seen as criminal. I didn’t see it as a criminal activity. I didn’t see it as any different than any other man joining an army to take part in a defense of war would.”
His fellow IRA member Richard Macauley avers: “In a war one does things one wouldn’t normally consider doing.”
Soon these words would take on a grim new meaning. At the time, however, most people on both sides of the conflict had only a vague inkling of the horrible forces that war could unleash. “I think there was a fear in the Protestant community,” reflects one loyalist woman, “that whatever we had unleashed would be something we would find very, very difficult to curtail.”
* * *
In 1973, a young man named Lenny Murphy was acquitted for a murder he had almost certainly committed: the shooting of a Catholic, William Edward Pavis, in broad daylight. The one witness to the crime, Murphy’s accomplice, died in jail of cyanide poisoning after writing a note exonerating Murphy and taking full responsibility for the murder. Investigators at Scotland Yard believe Murphy—a cunning man who had already sabotaged a police lineup—forced his accomplice to write the note and then take his own life.
“I don’t honestly believe he was a bad man,” Murphy’s mother would later insist in a BBC documentary, Shankill Butchers, though at least one fellow loyalist described him as a “psychopath.” The youngest of three sons, of below average height, Murphy was an unlikely murder suspect. Blue-eyed, with curly, dark brown hair, his most striking features were a series of tattoos signifying his allegiance to the Ulyster loyalists, and a leather jacket and scarf. During his time in prison, he married and had one daughter with 19-year-old Margaret Gillispie.
After his release, Murphy frequented pubs near Shankill Road, nursing what some would later describe as a pathological hatred of Catholics. According to him, on August 13, 1975 he had just left the Bayardo when the pub was rocked by a bomb planted by IRA members, killing five Protestants and injuring over 50. Shortly after this event, Murphy began gathering a gang of about 20 men who would come to be known as the Shankill Butchers.
* * *
On November 25, 1975, the body of Frank Crossan, a North Belfast Catholic and father of two, was discovered in a back alley by an elderly woman. Whilst walking towards the city center at shortly after midnight he had been pulled into a taxi by four of the butchers, including Murphy, who hit him over the head with a wheel brace. He was beaten and the shard of a glass bottle was shoved into his head. As the taxi approached the Shankill area, Crossan was dragged from the car and Murphy cut his throat with a knife. He was almost decapitated.
Reflecting on the scene, one of the constabularies in charge of the investigation said, “Evil was the only word to describe it. Just evil.”
A few nights later, a local man named Ted McQuaid and his wife Dierdre attended a party. At around 3:30am they were walking home along the Cliftonville Road when she noticed a black taxi slowly driving past on the opposite side of the road. It turned left and disappeared from view, then reappeared a moment later.
Dierdre pointed out to her husband the strange nature of the taxi’s movements and they argued about it. However, even when it stopped a short distance in front of them, Ted remained unalarmed. Apparently annoyed by Dierdre’s warnings, he began walking several steps ahead of her. When the door of the car opened and a young man got out, Ted was standing in between him and his wife.
The man stumbled towards them, swaying as if he was drunk. Dierdre said to Ted, “It’s okay, he’s drunk.” As she said this, the man reached into his left pocket and pulled out a small gun, firing four bullets at Ted in rapid succession. “He never looked at me,” Dierdre would later recall, “but kept shooting at Ted.”
As the assailant returned to the taxi and sped away, Ted, who lay bleeding on the ground, urged his wife to run. Though seriously wounded, he was still breathing ten minutes later when picked up by an ambulance, but died on arrival at the Mater Hospital.
The murderer, William Moore, later tried to distance himself from the killing of Ted McQuaid by insisting that he had urged Murphy not to murder a blind man who had been out walking his dog at around the time they first spotted Dierdre and Ted. Moore did not consider the blind man an “acceptable target,” while Murphy had no scruples about killing anyone so long as he could confirm they were Catholic.
According to crime reporter Martin Dillon in his book The Shankill Butchers, Moore’s protestations against killing the blind man unconsciously echoed the feelings of many Irish on both sides of the conflict during the war years. In Northern Ireland at that time, as in so many other places, people condemned the atrocities being committed against their own side while turning a blind eye to the atrocities that their side was committing. Loyalty to the tribe kept them silent in the face of obvious injustice.
At the same time, it seems clear that Moore was trying to rationalize his role in the murder of Ted McQuaid by conceding that while, yes, he had done some terrible things, he had also done some very good things like saving the life of the blind man. In emphasizing this kind act, he may have convinced himself that what he did was normal and good.
These flimsy self-rationalizations were rapidly turning the Shankill Butchers into the figures of legend that Colin Meloy would one day describe in song:
They used to be just like me and you
They used to be sweet little boys
But something went horribly askew
Now killing is their only source of joy
* * *
Yet the killings took place against a backdrop of merciless barbarism in Northern Ireland that was slowly engulfing the rest of the United Kingdom. While extending the military campaign to England had been debated by the IRA’s ruling counsel for some time, at first they had refrained from targeting the British for fear of rendering themselves illegitimate. “Doves” argued against the use of force while hawks felt London should be bombed.
In 1973 the doves were overruled and the IRA began a strategic series of bombings in London and other major cities. In the first London bombing in early 1973, 200 people were injured. In January 1974, a bomb exploded at Madame Tussauds, followed a few minutes later by another bomb in the Earls Court Exhibition Centre. In June, a bomb exploded in the Houses of Parliament, injuring eleven people. A month later, one person died when a bomb went off in the Tower of London. In November, a bomb was thrown through the window of the Kings Arm Pub in Woolwich, killing an off-duty soldier and civilian.
Downing Street tried to appease the Republican terrorists by appearing to negotiate a ceasefire in which the British army would leave Northern Ireland. In reality this agreement was just a tactical maneuver: the government hoped to placate the IRA and end the bombings without any significant military disengagement. Though the ceasefire crippled and nearly destroyed the Republican army, the end result was more violence. Fearing that a secret deal was being made with the IRA, Loyalist (Protestant) paramilitaries launched a bloody onslaught against Catholics, hoping to lure the IRA into breaking the truce. Five Catholics were killed inside a pub and three members of a popular band were gunned down. The IRA retaliated by bombing a pub on the Shankill road and killing five Protestants.
Journalist J. Bowyer Bell reflects on this tragic period in his exhaustive 800-page book, The Irish Troubles: A Generation of Violence, 1967-1992:
“Over the years I watched the bombs being made . . . and saw them go off . . . I watched the landscape change and watched even the indomitable Irish change. And I changed. Gradually, like everyone else, I was transmuted by the years on the edge of a war without victories, with only victims, a long, long war. There were so many funerals, so many betrayed, so many broken hearts. There were children I had seen in strollers grow up to carry .38 revolvers . . . And there were so many innocent dead, forgotten maimed, so many idealists corrupted and so much good gone wrong.”
Viewed in this context, the massacres perpetrated by Murphy and his gang lose their mythical proportions. While nothing excuses the murder of 23 innocent people, still less the sadistic manner in which the murders were committed, the truth is that men were killing each other throughout Ireland and the Shankill Butchers distinguished themselves primarily by the cruel way they went about it. The IRA, writes Dillon, “refuse to accept that their actions . . . breed an atmosphere in which gangs such as the Shankill Butchers develop and thrive.”
Catholic nationalists would undoubtedly argue that Dillon is providing a simplistic explanation for inexplicable evil. However, this is the same kind of defensiveness we see in a community whenever some horrible action is committed in its midst. The community’s members will demonize the perpetrators of the atrocities to avoid having to bear the weight of responsibility for the ways in which the culture they created may have contributed to the tragedy. Murphy grew up immersed in a culture of extreme prejudice and discrimination, in which violence was the logical culmination of rhetoric intended to de-humanize whole groups of people. Like many of his fellow Irishmen, he grew up nursing passionate and irrational hatred against the other side in the conflict. Like many Irishmen, he chose to respond with violence. Murphy’s only claim to uniqueness was the methods he used to enact that violence.
If we examine the Pyramid of Hate used by the Anti-Defamation League, we see that violence doesn’t consist of just the most vicious acts inflicted on others. Those acts are made possible at the most basic levels by name-calling, stereotyping, and insensitivity to the humanity of our enemies. Hatred is always rooted, first and foremost, in a lack of empathy.
Dangerous groups that hope to inflict violence will begin by conditioning their members to view outsiders as inhuman. They paint their enemies as deviants, degenerates, and freaks who are corrupting the world with their presence and need to be eliminated. The truth is that there were good and bad people on both sides of the conflict, as there are in almost any conflict. But a community spiraling into violence will convince itself that it is pure and incorruptible, untainted by evil in motivation or execution, while its enemies seek only to destroy it. Studies have shown that the number one instigator of violent aggression in a group is a feeling of self-righteousness.
* * *
Towards the end of the documentary Shankill Butchers, journalist Stephen Nolan interviews psychologist Geoffrie Beattie, who grew up in a Protestant enclave with Jim “The Bomber” Watt, who would later become a notorious member of the Butchers gang.
“You’ve been there, in a gang,” says Nolan. “And then of course, as a psychologist you must have an understanding of the weaker members of a gang, and that leader having a massive impact.”
“Well, some of the weaker members of the gang,” says Beattie, “are bound into the gang. I think partly through fear. And what kind of fear is it? Well, partly fear of rejection. Because you’re much more vulnerable when you’re on your own. Now you might be very uncomfortable with what you’re doing at times, but the trauma of being rejected by the group just might outdo it. So you stay part of it. You do whatever he asks.”
Perhaps this is why, even after his imprisonment for firearms possession in 1977, Murphy’s gang continued to roam the back alleys of the night seeking bloodshed. Now led by Moore, the gang kidnapped and tortured Stephen McCann, a Queen’s University student, Joseph Morrissey, and Francis Cassidy, a dock worker.
But they made their fatal mistake in the attempted killing of Gerald McLaverty, a young Belfast man whose family had recently left the city. Late on Tuesday, May 10, 1977, McLaverty was walking down the Cliffordville Road when the gang approached him, posing as policemen, and forced him into a waiting car. The victim was driven to a disused doctor’s surgery, where he was beaten with sticks, stabbed, and left for dead on a back entry. Unexpectedly, however, he survived until early morning, when a woman heard his cries for help and phoned the police.
News of the assault was delivered to Detective Chief Inspector Jimmy Nesbitt, who had been tirelessly pursuing the Butchers since their inception. The survival of Gerald McLaverty proved to be the breakthrough moment in the case. Nesbitt had the recovering victim disguised as a police officer and driven around the Shankill area on May 18 in the hope that he might recognize his assailants. Within the next day each of the Butchers was hunted down and brought into custody. There followed a mass trial in which the murderers were collectively sentenced to over 2,000 years in prison.
Ironically, the principal culprit was never charged in connection with the case. Lenny Murphy completed his sentence for firearms possession in July 1982 and was gunned down in November. He had just pulled up outside of his girlfriend’s house, where he was now hiding to evade police capture, when two IRA gunmen emerged from a black van and opened fire. Ironically, although Catholic nationalists claimed responsibility for the murder, they were given the details of Murphy’s location and movements by Protestant UVF members. He bled to death in the upper Shankill, just around the corner from where the gang had dumped the bodies of many of its victims.
* * *
But in death, even Lenny Murphy attracted mourners. His Aunt Agnes wrote, “Nothing could be more beautiful than the memories we have of you; to us you were very special and God must have thought so too.” On November 20 the murderer’s coffin was paraded outside his mother’s home in Brookmont Street by leading members of the UVF. Six masked gunmen fired a volley of shots over the coffin, and the police were prevented from arresting them by a ring of black taxis which sealed off the street from the Shankill. As the procession moved slowly down Shankill Road, a lone piper played the hymn, “Abide with Me.”
He was given a hero’s funeral, and his tombstone reads, “Here Lies a Soldier.”
And, even after the signing of the Good Friday Peace Accords in 1998, some in the Shankill community continued to honor the butchers as fallen heroes.
“Is that what people really thought about the Shankill Butchers?” asked the daughter of Joseph Morrissey when she became caught up in a vast funeral procession for a dead butcher. Trapped in her car by the mourners, unable to get away, she watched the coffin pass with tears in her eyes. “I can’t tell you how I felt, but for me, the message was: he was a hero. The man who cut my father to pieces and tortured him for three hours was a hero.”
Today, not one of the Shankill Butchers is in prison.