Shankill Butchers

Shankill Butchers

The "Shankill Butchers" were a group of UVF members who were involved in a large number of loyalist terrorist activities in Belfast, Northern Ireland, in the 1970s. While their chief notoriety came from late-night abduction, torture and cut-throat murders of random members of the Roman Catholic community, the Butchers killed upwards of 30 people, including a significant number of Protestants, in sectarian attacks, paramilitary feuds, personal grudges and bombing raids.

While the majority of the gang's foot soldiers were eventually caught and received the longest combined prison sentences in British legal history, its leader, Lenny Murphy, and his two chief lieutenants escaped prosecution. Murphy was later murdered in November 1982 by the IRA, acting in cahoots with loyalist paramilitaries who perceived him as a threat.

Murphy and his associates brought a new, frightening level of paramilitary violence to a country already hardened by death and destruction. Despite extensive police resources being channelled towards the capture of the men responsible for the cut-throat murders, a wall of silence, created by a mixture of fear and respect in the Shankill community, created few leads that could be followed. Murphy's gang often went hunting for a Catholic to abduct on a whim, after a bout of drinking, and its operations were carried out in a city with a substantial military and police presence.


Much of what is known about the Butchers comes from Martin Dillon's "The Shankill Butchers: a case study of mass murder" (1989 and 1998). In compiling this encyclopaedic work, Dillon was given unlimited access to the case files of the RUC (now the Police Service of Northern Ireland), which eventually caught the gang. Eventually Dillon had to leave Northern Ireland for his personal safety, an indication that what he wrote, and the people he referred to but couldn't name, accurately represented at least some of the gang's activities.

Early days

The commander of the Shankill Butchers gang was Lenny Murphy. At school he was known as a bully and was not afraid to threaten other boys with a knife or with retribution from his two older brothers. Soon after leaving school at 16, he joined the UVF. By 1972, aged 20, Murphy had gathered together a gang of young men, in particular an unnamed person (referred to by Dillon as "Mr A") and John Murphy, one of Murphy's brothers (referred to as "Mr B"), who died in a car accident in 1998. Further down the chain of command were Lenny Murphy's "sergeants" William Moore, Robert "Basher" Bates and Sam McAllister, who used his physical presence to intimidate others. Moore, formerly a butcher, had stolen several large knives and meat-cleavers from his old workplace, tools Murphy would later put to horrific use. In preparation for an active career in terrorism, Murphy regularly attended the trials of paramilitaries accused of serious crimes, in order to become well acquainted with the laws of evidence and police procedure.

In what is said to have been retaliation for the Bloody Friday bombings by the Provos, a Catholic man, Francis Arthurs, was abducted, beaten and stabbed for over an hour before being killed. There is no proof, though, that Lenny Murphy was behind this or other Shankill killings in the early 1970s that were noteworthy for their brutality. However, on September 28, 1972, Murphy shot and killed William Pavis, who was suspected of selling arms to the IRA. Murphy and his accomplice, Mervyn Connor, were arrested shortly afterwards and held on remand in Belfast's Crumlin Road prison awaiting trial. Connor, in turn, became suspected of cutting a deal with the authorities with regard to the Pavis affair, therefore Murphy killed him by poison after forcing him to write a confession to that murder. The case against Murphy relating to the Pavis murder then collapsed, and it was found impossible to prove that he had killed Connor, although he was held behind bars for a number of escape attempts.

In May 1975, Murphy was released from prison. He married and fathered a daughter but, like many of his gang, cared little for domesticity and would spend most of his time hanging around pubs on the Shankill Road and assembling his paramilitary team. That October they raided a drinks premises in nearby Millfield. On finding out its four employees were Catholics, Murphy shot three of them dead and ordered an accomplice to kill the fourth. By now, for his unit's headquarters Murphy was using the upper floor of the Brown Bear bar situated at the corner of Mountjoy St and close to his home on the middle Shankill. He was also beginning to act with a considerable degree of independence from the organisation's leadership.

Cut-throat killings

On November 24-25, 1975, Murphy was to adopt the method that would gain the Butchers infamy far beyond Belfast. Using the city's sectarian geography (which remains to this day) to identify likely targets, Murphy decided to roam the areas closest to the Catholic New Lodge in the hope of finding someone, likely to be a Catholic, to abduct. Francis Crossan (34), a Catholic man and father of two, was walking towards the city centre just after midnight when four of the Butchers, in Moore's taxi, spotted him. As the taxi pulled alongside Crossan, Murphy jumped out and hit the man with a wheel brace to disorientate him before he was dragged into the taxi by Benjamin Edwards and Archie Waller, two of Murphy's gang. As the vehicle returned to the safety of the nearby Shankill area, Crossan suffered a ferocious beating. It is clear that he was subjected to a high level of violence, including a beer glass being shoved into his head. Murphy repeatedly said words like: "I'm going to kill you, you bastard", before the taxi stopped at an entry off Wimbledon St. Crossan was then dragged into the alleyway and Murphy, brandishing a butcher's knife, cut his throat almost through to the spine. The gang then dispersed. Francis Crossan, whose body was discovered the next morning (Tue.) by an elderly woman, had become the first of three Catholics to be killed by Murphy in this horrific and brutal manner.Dillon, "Shankill Butchers", pp 66-69] "Slaughter in back alley" was the headline in the city's major afternoon newspaper on the following day."Belfast Telegraph", November 26, 1975]

A few days after the murder of Crossan, a paramilitary feud led to the deaths of two members of a rival UVF company on the Shankill and that of Archibald Waller who had been involved in the first cut-throat killing. Waller had killed a Stewart Robinson in a punishment shooting that went wrong. With the sanction of the UVF leadership, he in turn was gunned down by one of Robinson's comrades in the UVF team based in the "Windsor Bar", a quarter of a mile further down the Shankill from the Brown Bear pub. Enraged, Murphy had the gunman, Noel Shaw, brought before a kangaroo court in the Lawnbrook Club, one of his drinking-dens. After a pistol whipping, Murphy shot him in front of his entire unit of around twenty men before returning to finish his drink at the bar. John Murphy and William Moore placed Shaw's body in a laundry basket and Moore dumped it half a mile away from the murder scene.Jordan, "Milestones in Murder" (centre pages with image of Shaw's body in basket)]

Murphy's other cut-throat victims were Joseph Quinn (55) and Francis Rice (24). Both were abducted late at night in February 1976 in the same area as Crossan. Quinn was murdered in the Glencairn area of the upper Shankill and Rice a few streets above Murphy's home. Their battered bodies were discovered early the following morning. Murphy's accomplices on these occasions were Moore and Bates, while another man and two women, whom Dillon did not name, were accessories to the murder of Rice. Dillon pp 115-31] By this time the expression "The Shankill Butchers" had appeared in media coverage of these killings and many in the Catholic community lived in fear of the gang. Inspector Jimmy Nesbitt, chief of the Murder Squad in Tennent St RUC Station, and the man charged with tracking down the Butchers, was in no doubt that the murders of Crossan, Quinn and Rice were the work of the same people. Other than that he had little information, although a lead was provided by the woman who discovered Rice's body. The previous night she had heard voices in the entry where the body was later found and what she thought might have been a local taxi (those in Belfast being ex-London type cabs). This had led to William Moore's taxi being examined for clues, in common with all Shankill taxi drivers, but the Butchers had cleaned the vehicle thoroughly and nothing untoward was found. Dillon, pp 129-31]

In March 1976, Murphy attempted to murder a Catholic woman in a drive-by shooting. He was arrested and, in a subsequent plea-bargain, pleaded guilty to a firearms charge. Sentenced to twelve years' imprisonment on October 11, 1976, he continued to be visited by "Mr A" who brought back new orders to the gang, that the cut-throat murders were to continue in order to divert suspicion from Murphy. Over the next six months, with Moore acting as the Butchers' day-to day commander, three more Catholic men were abducted, tortured and hacked to death in the same way as before. The victims were: Stephen McCann (21), a Queen's University student murdered on October 30, 1976; Joseph Morrissey (52), killed on February 3, 1977; and Francis Cassidy (43), who died on March 30, 1977. Moore proved himself an able deputy to Murphy, committing the throat-cuttings himself and encouraging the gang to use extreme violence beforehand. In particular, Morrissey was attacked with a hatchet wielded by Arthur McClay, whom Moore had integrated into the unit after Murphy had been jailed. The three victims were dumped in various parts of the greater Shankill area. The other gang members involved in one or more of these cut-throat murders were Sam McAllister, John Townsley, David Bell and Norman Waugh. Dillon, pp 172-220] Mr "A" played a prominent part in the planning of Moore's activities. Another Catholic man who fell victim to members of the gang was Cornelius Neeson, beaten to death with a hatchet by Moore and McAllister on the Cliftonville Road in August 1976.

Capture and imprisonment

Late on May 10, 1977, Gerard McLaverty, a young Belfast man named whose family had recently left the city, was abducted by the Butchers (posing as policemen) after a day's drinking. Following a beating in a disused doctor's surgery on the Shankill Road, he was stabbed, had his wrists slashed a number of times by Moore and McAllister, using a smallish knife, then dumped in a back entry. Uncharacteristically, he had been left for dead by the gang but survived until early morning when a woman heard his cries for help and called the police. In compliance with previous orders, news of the assault was given to Inspector Nesbitt. At first he did not attribute particular significance to this message, as the Butchers had left no one alive before; but on discovering the nature of the assault and the use of a knife, he came up with a brainwave that was to change the course of his inquiries for good. Taking advantage of a loyalist paramilitary strike on Saturday May 18, Nesbitt had a sufficiently well recovered McLaverty disguised and driven by police around the Shankill area to see if he could spot the men who had abducted or attacked him. Within a short time McAllister and Benjamin Edwards were identified, and Nesbitt had a breakthrough that enabled him to widen his net. The next morning a large arrest operation swept into action and many of McAllister's associates, including Moore, were taken into custody. At first the suspects admitted only to their involvement in the McLaverty abduction but Nesbitt, seizing on McAllister's references to the size of a knife used on McLaverty, had his team of detectives press the case and eventually most of the gang admitted their part in the activities of the Butchers. Further arrests followed and the overall picture became clearer. The salient point emerging was that Lenny Murphy, the commander of the unit, was the driving force behind the cut-throat murders and other activities. A number of the Butchers implicated him and his close associates "Mr A" and "Mr B" (John Murphy), in numerous terrorist attacks but later retracted these claims for fear of retribution from the UVF leadership. Lenny Murphy, in prison, and Messrs "A" and "B" were interviewed several times in connection with the Butchers' inquiry but said nothing during interviews. Without corroborative or forensic evidence, the state prosecution service decided that they would not face charges.

The rest of the Butchers came to trial during the remainder of 1977 and 1978. On February 20, 1979. eleven men were convicted of a total of 19 murders, and the 42 life sentences handed out were the most ever in a single trial in British criminal history. Moore pleaded guilty to 11 counts of murder and Bates to 10. The trial judge, Lord Justice O'Donnell, said that he did not wish to be cast as "public avenger" but felt obliged to sentence the pair of them to life imprisonment with no chance of release. However, both were eventually released under the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. Martin Dillon's own investigations suggest that a number of other individuals (whom he was unable to name for legal reasons) escaped prosecution for participation in the crimes of the Butchers and that the gang were responsible for a total of at least 30 murders. In summing-up, Lord O'Donnell stated that the crimes of the Butchers, "a catalogue of horror", were "a lasting monument to blind sectarian bigotry". After the trial, Jimmy Nesbitt's comment was: "The big fish got away", a reference to Murphy (referred to in court as "Mr X" or the "Master Butcher") and to Messrs "A" and "B". "Belfast News Letter", February 21, 1979]

Murphy's release and murder

His sentence for the firearms conviction complete, Murphy was released from prison on July 16, 1982. One day later, his killing spree continued when a local Protestant man with a learning disability was beaten to death in the Loyalist Club in Rumford Street. Murphy then began to assemble a new gang, although less tightly knit than before his imprisonment. A few weeks later he killed a car salesman, Brian Smyth, in a dispute over money owed for a car. Murphy poisoned the man in a club before shooting him from the rear of a passing motorcycle. Around that time a member of the UDR, Thomas Cochrane, was kidnapped by the IRA. In retaliation, and although he had been warned by the UVF leadership against abducting anyone, Murphy decided to snatch a Catholic, ostensibly to demand Cochrane's release in exchange for the Catholic hostage. He hijacked a black taxi, which one of his associates drove to the Falls Road. Joseph Donegan, a middle-aged Catholic man on his way home, hailed the vehicle and got in. Murphy immediately attacked the man as the taxi was driven back to the safety of the Shankill. At Murphy's house, Donegan was tortured sadistically by Murphy, who pulled out all but three of his teeth with pliers and battered him to death with a shovel, assisted by "Mr A". He then had the nerve to telephone a prominent Catholic politician, Cormac Boomer, to demand that Cochrane be set free. Murphy ordered that Donegan's body be removed from his house but the plan was disturbed by passers-by and the victim had to be dumped in an entry directly behind the house in Brookmount Street. After its discovery, Murphy was arrested; but without evidence that he had been party to a crime it was not possible to charge him. Cochrane's body was found a week later, and showed signs of having been beaten.

Murphy was assassinated by a Provo hit squad early in the evening of November 16, 1982 outside the back of his girlfriend's house in the Glencairn estate where four of the Butchers' cut-throat victims had been dumped). No sooner had he parked his car than two gunmen emerged from a van that had been following him and riddled the Butcher with more than twenty bullets. Murphy died instantly. After several days' speculation as to those responsible for the shooting, the IRA issued a statement claiming responsibility for what it termed Murphy's "execution".

*"Lenny Murphy (master butcher) has been responsible for the horrific murders of over 20 innocent Nationalists in the Belfast area and a number of Protestants. The IRA has been aware for some time that since his release recently from prison, Murphy was attempting to re-establish a similar murder gang to that which he led in the mid-'70s and, in fact, he was responsible for a number of the recent sectarian murders in the Belfast area. The IRA takes this opportunity to restate its policy of non sectarian attacks, while retaining its right to take unequivocal action against those who direct or motivate sectarian slaughter against the Nationalist population". [ "Remembering the Past - IRA executed Butchers' leader"] Saoirse32 website]

Despite the IRA's claim, the location of the murder, in a loyalist stronghold, and the timing of the shooting to coincide with Murphy's movements suggest that assistance was received from members of the UVF who considered Murphy out of control or, more plausibly, that information had been given by an enemy of Murphy's. Dillon suggests that Jim Craig, a leading UDA gangster whose protection rackets had made him rich and feared in equal measure, fitted the bill. He was known to have clashed with Murphy on the latter's release from prison earlier that year and may have wanted him out of the picture. In support of this theory, Craig was later executed by his UDA colleagues for treason, an inquiry having discovered some evidence of his part in the murder of other top loyalists by the IRA. Dillon, pp 312-16]

Murphy's family denied that he had anything to do with the Butchers: "My Lenny would not have hurt a fly", said his mother Joyce. Dillon, p. 261-62, 281] The UVF subsequently gave Murphy a paramilitary funeral, attended by thousands of loyalists and Ulster Unionist MP Cecil Walker,Fact|date=October 2008 at which "Mr A" and John Murphy were prominent mourners. On his gravestone in Carnmoney cemetery were inscribed the words: "Here lies a soldier". Dillon, p. 262] Murphy's headstone was later smashed and had to be replaced.

Other activities

In 1976, Murphy and his men shot and killed two Protestant men, wrongly believing that they were Catholics on their way to work across the Shankill Road. Other Protestants killed by members of the gang included a man who made the mistake of becoming involved in an argument with McAllister, and was battered to death with a beer barrel, and a member of the UDA who was beaten to death in the toilets of the Windsor Bar. Murphy and Moore also shot dead a Catholic man on the Cliftonville Road in January 1976. Members of the gang were also involved in two bomb attacks: one on a bar in Smithfield, not far from the Shankill, that killed several people, both Catholics and Protestants; and a second on the Falls Road that killed a Catholic boy of eight years in April 1977. Murphy's brother John was heavily involved in the latter incident, along with "Mr A". Several of the Butchers, including John Murphy, were also questioned about a serious assault in Union St, on a man they believed, wrongly, was a Catholic.


All members of the Butchers gang were released a number of years ago. The first to be freed was John Townsley, who had only been 14 when he became involved with the gang and 16 when arrested. In October 1996, "Basher" Bates was released after reportedly "finding religion" behind bars. He was shot and killed on the Shankill Road the following year by a relative of the UDA man he had killed in the Windsor Bar. William Moore was the final member of the gang to enjoy freedom in August 1998, after more than twenty-one years behind bars.

In November 2004, the Serious Crime Review Team in Belfast said they were looking into the unsolved death of Rosaleen O'Kane, aged 33 at the time of her death, who was found dead in her home in September 1976. Her family and authorities believe the Shankill Butchers may have been involved in her death. [ [ Murder link to Shankill Butchers] . BBC, 4 November, 2004. Retrieved on October 9, 2008.]

References in popular culture

The Decemberists' 2006 album "The Crane Wife" includes a song about the group, titled "Shankill Butchers", casting them as bogeymen that mothers tell their children about before bed to get them to behave.



*"The Shankill Butchers" (1999 - second edition) Martin Dillon, ISDN 0415922313
*"Milestones in Murder. Defining moments in Ulster's terrorist war" (Hugh Jordan) (Mainstream Publishing, Edinburgh and London, 2002)
*"Loyalists" (Peter Taylor) (Bloomsbury, London, 1999)
* "Murphy's Law: The Story of the Shankill Butchers" (Seamus McGraw), [ Tru TV]
*"Butcher Gang Survivor Found Dead" (2008, March 10) BBC News: []

ee also

*Ulster Volunteer Force
* [ BBC News report on Rosaleen O'Kane investigation]
*"Resurrection Man" (1994) Eoin McNamee, ISDN 0312147163 (novel loosely based on the Shankill Butchers, later made into [ a movie] )

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