Ghosts of a Family: Ireland’s Most Infamous Unsolved Murder and the Origins of the Troubles


Edward Burke

The gripping historical true crime story of Ireland’s most infamous unsolved murder, the sectarian massacre of six Catholic civilians in their north Belfast home in 1922


September 2024

ISBN: 9781785375224 Categories: , , , ,


At 1.20am on 24 March 1922, five men, four dressed in police uniforms, broke into the north Belfast house of Owen McMahon, a well-known Catholic publican. They gathered the male members of the family, told them to ‘say their prayers’ and fatally shot McMahon, four of his sons and Eddie McKinney, an employee of the family. Nobody was ever charged with the murders, and a devastating chain of events had been set in motion.

In retaliation, the IRA assassinated the former head of the British Army, Sir Henry Wilson, and a subsequent British ultimatum to the Irish government sparked the Irish Civil War days later. The reluctance of the unionist Belfast government to pursue loyalist killers drove rifts between Northern Ireland’s two main communities even deeper, laying the foundations for the Troubles at the end of the twentieth century.

Over one hundred years later, Edward Burke has uncovered the identity of the McMahons’ likely murderer, a First World War veteran who led the most dangerous loyalist gang in Belfast. Ghosts of a Family is a riveting cold-case investigation that invokes the smoke-filled streets of Belfast during the cataclysmic violence of 1920–22, and explores how the ramifications of the McMahon killings are still being felt to this day.


Dr Edward Burke is a historian at University College Dublin, specialising in the study of political violence, insurgencies and paramilitarism. His previous books are An Army of Tribes: British Army Cohesion, Deviancy and Murder in Northern Ireland (Liverpool, 2018) and Ulster’s Lost Counties: Loyalism and Paramilitarism since 1920 (Cambridge, 2024).