In the wee hours of the morning of October 23rd, 1971, the British Army rolled into the Falls area of Belfast with the intention of raiding houses and arresting anyone they suspected of criminal or “dissident” activities. It was a regular occurrence in the area and the residents had various ways of warning each other when the army was around. Runners would spread the word ahead of the vehicles and the Women’s Action Committee (WAC) would bang trash bin lids on the streets as an early alarm system. Sometimes people would blow whistles or sound horns from their cars as well which was exactly what two sisters, Maura Meehan and Dorothy Maguire, left a party to do on that early Autumn morning. When one of Meehan’s children asked where she was headed she told him that she’d be right back, as she grabbed a handheld horn and headed to a car outside. These words were the last she ever spoke to her family.
It was rumored that the Army would be arresting and targeting women that night, as well as the men. This may have been what drove Dorothy Maguire, Maura Meehan, Florence O’Riordan, and Kathleen Morelli into the streets but all women were members of the Women’s Action Committee already, so alerting the community was nothing new for them. The two sisters were also members of Cumann na mBan, the female wing of the Irish Republican Army. They were well known in the community and the British Army kept tabs on them as well because they came from a long line of Republican activists and fighters. The sisters were not on active duty that night though. Their only mission was to warn others that the Army was coming, a job they regularly undertook without the instruction to do so from any organization or commanding officer. They got into a car driven by Billy Davidson and headed out to spread the news of the impending raids.
They actually passed the Army convoy at one point, giving the soldiers a chance to see the car was full of women. They continued driving in front of the armored vehicles, yelling into the neighborhoods and blowing their horns and whistles to wake the area up. At one point, Davidson stopped the car to discuss which route they should take and Kathleen Morelli left the vehicle, continuing on her way on foot. The rest of the passengers decided to retrace their route, even though it meant crossing paths with the Army again. This was a grave mistake.
The Army opened fire on the vehicle as it passed them for the second time. The soldiers did not try to stop or question the people in the car, they did not yell or warn them that they were going to shoot. They did not fire warning shots. They simply sprayed the car with bullets. Billy Davidson lost control of the vehicle before it hit a wall and came to a stop. Remarkably, he was relatively okay and he was able to alert the sisters’ families after a brief confrontation with the soldiers. He remembers some of the shooters apologizing, saying “We thought it was men,” as if that would make opening fire on a moving vehicle okay. Florence O’Riordan was hit with shrapnel all over her body, but was able to be moved to a nearby house for treatment until heading to the hospital. Maura Meehan and Dorothy Maguire were unresponsive and were left in the car while the Army figured out what story to tell. They quickly went to the “they shot first” excuse, despite witness accounts and evidence to the contrary. They refused to allow a priest to administer the last rights to the women in the car and they initially denied access to medics, claiming that the women were terrorists and the car could be booby-trapped. It was a story that had worked time and time again in the past, and they were sticking to it.
Both women died that night and no weapons of any kind were found in the vehicle or on the women’s bodies. There was a whistle and a hand-held horn in the car, but not much else except a lot of broken glass, a rubber bullet fired into the car by soldiers, and a ton of shrapnel, bullets, and blood. The soldiers tried to claim that the glass was shattered from the inside when the passengers shot at them, but the shards told a different story. The windows were broken from the outside, most likely by the Army soldiers’ bullets, not the other way round. In fact, most of the forensics on the scene completely contradicted the Army’s story, but that didn’t stop them from telling it. They claimed the women had lead on their hands when swabbed, but did not look into any number of reasons that they could have had that residue. They immediately tarnished the dead sisters’ reputations, using their family’s Republican ties and their participation in the WAC and Cumann na mBan as proof that they fired first and their deaths were justified. They insisted that the car was full of terrorists who were out to kill them and it didn’t matter that their story didn’t match up with most of the forensics or the witnesses’ and survivors’ statements.
Dorothy Maguire and Maura Meehan were indeed active in illegal organizations during that time period. The British Army and the media made sure to hammer that point over and over again, which they still do to this day. However, the Irish Republican Army has a long history of quickly claiming their dead when they are killed in action and this important distinction never happened. The two women were not on a mission from the IRA, they were on their own mission to warn their own neighborhoods of incoming peril. Warning their neighbors that the Army was coming was certainly not a capital crime and did not warrant a penalty of death. The women are remembered today by friends and family and both are on Republican rolls of honor and various murals throughout the region. They are widely regarded as being the first members of Cumann na mBan to be killed in the long conflict that came to be known as the Troubles.
Turns out they’re also remembered by the British Army. One soldier who was involved in that night’s shooting says he’s still haunted by it and that he suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder because of it. He maintains the party line to this day, saying that the car fired on the Army convoy first and that “Unfortunately the people in the car that died were two girls, both sisters.” However, a recent review of the original forensics report questions whether or not the Army had provided any real proof of their claim that the sisters were shooters, especially when no weapons were ever found. This review is coming so many years later because one of Maura Meehan’s children is suing the Ministry of Defence for the wrongful death of her mother. Her suit is ongoing at the time of this writing but it seems like she has a case. Her mother and her aunt were not breaking any laws and did not deserve to be gunned down. At best their deaths were a case of unjustifiable overkill, and at worst it was cold-blooded murder by soldiers who have tried for more than four decades to cover up their crime.