Sean McMahon: The Battle King

Derry's indefatigable writer speaks to Garbhan Downey about his two latest histories, ‘Battles Fought on Irish Soil’ and ‘The Belfast Blitz’

Sean McMahon was nine years old when the Luftwaffe targeted the North. It was the spring of 1941, and he remembers lying in bed, listening to the bombs landing on the outskirts of Derry.

'I was terrified by all the noise, prayed for protection from the Sacred Heart and then promptly fell asleep. When I woke the next morning, the whole town was agog; the names of the dead were already becoming known. There was major coverage of the events in the Sentinel, but [because of strict censorship] there was absolutely no indication of where the attack had taken place.'

In all, more than 1,200 people would die in the attacks – the vast majority killed in one five-hour bombardment of Belfast. And around 100,000 were forced to flee their homes; some for years, others never to return.

There have, of course, been other books written about the era, but McMahon’s fresh, first-hand knowledge of events gives The Belfast Blitz both colour and relevance for a new generation.

For example, he doesn’t shy away from recording the pro-German sentiment apparent in pockets of Belfast and Derry, where nationalists cheered on the bombers and burned their own gasmasks.

Indeed, his newshound ability to unearth other live accounts of the carnage ensures that this book avoids the pitfalls beloved of our drier historians, while his fastidious research means that the reader is left missing no detail.

This style – which is as popular with academics as it is with the casual reader – didn’t happen by accident, though. McMahon is one of the country’s most prolific writers and has honed his sharp edge with more than 60 histories, biographies, anthologies and children’s books.

'I don’t really regard myself as a historian – I’m more of a hack,' he says modestly.

Whatever he’s doing, it works. While most writers would be happy to publish two new books in a year, McMahon is issuing two this month.

His other release, Battles Fought on Irish Soil is the first popular and comprehensive account of battles fought in this country, from pre-history to the 20th century.

Battles traces Ireland’s turbulent history, and unending run-ins with its larger neighbour, in an accessible, non-partisan fashion. And again, it continues to throw up delights and surprises.

For example, did you know there was a Battle of Tory Island, which led to the capture of Wolfe Tone? Or that Eoghan Rua Ó Néill died after a woman enemy smeared poison inside his shoes the night before a big dance (allegedly)?

'I was a little surprised to learn of the Tory battle myself,' he concedes. 'But the French [who were attempting to land an expeditionary force in Donegal] were always beaten by the English at sea. The English were much better sailors – possibly because they were islanders.

'There was a geographic inevitability to Ireland’s conflicts with England. And later, there was a real resistance from England to Home Rule. There was a fear that if Ireland were released, the Empire would no longer stand. India would go next and then the various parts of Africa.'

It’s evident that McMahon’s classical education – he won the Semple Prize for Greek while at St Columb’s – has stood him in great stead.

Curiously, though, when he returned to work in his old alma mater, he never taught languages or history. 'Because of the priests, the College had all the classics teachers it needed. But teaching maths had its advantages. Correcting homework wouldn’t have taken me as long as it would for someone marking essays. So I had more time to write.'

Never a man to rest on his laurels, McMahon has four other projects already in the can – including histories of both Belfast and the Northern Ireland state.

His current project is a biography of the Belfast MP and philanthropist Joe Devlin. But he’s got his work cut out for him, thanks to Devlin’s insistence that all his papers be destroyed after his death.

'Despite the fact he died in 1934, he’s still remembered so fondly in Belfast - not because of his politics, but because of his benevolence. He was loved by the mill-girls and ordinary workers. Every year, he spent any money he had organising seaside trips for local children. They would line up at the station and those who didn’t have shoes were given them. Many people from the older generations in Belfast remember taking part in Joe Devlin’s summer trips.

'There is, however, a lot we don’t know about him. A lot of work was done by the late Tony Hepburn chronicling his political career. But his personal life is a mystery. Why did he live at home until he was thirty? Why did he never marry? And unfortunately, there’s nobody left who would know.'

The Belfast Blitz: Luftwaffe Raids in Northern Ireland is published by Brehon Press and can be purchased from CultureNorthernIreland's Amazon store. Battles Fought on Irish Soil is published by Londubh Books.

Garbhan Downey