A Remarkable Priestly Life

Martin O’Brien meets the priest who survived a sectarian murder attempt
and never lost his sense of humour


Only fairly recently I discovered that Canon Bernard Magee, aged 88, the priest I saw that morning in St Malachy’s Church, has had a bullet in his brain for almost forty years and that in his nearly 63 years as a priest he has seen everything from the horror of McGurk’s Bar in 1971 to the slaughter in Loughinisland 19 years ago next month.

The only surviving member of a family of eight, brought up by his parents, George and Nora Magee, in Dover Street in the Divis area of Belfast before moving to Ballyhackamore in the east of the city where his father was a school principal. Three of his five brothers, Philip, Joe and Eamonn, were also priests.

Two other families in that street produced five priests, including his next door neighbour, the future Cardinal Conway.

It is a moving experience to touch the screws which keep in place the titanium plate, fitted on top of his skull, which was partially shattered by a bullet still lodged in his brain since the evening of Thursday September 26, 1974.

Canon Magee was one of three priests shot during the Troubles, critically injured in a sectarian murder bid in 1974. The other two were both killed administering the Last Rites: Fr Hugh Mullan in 1971 and Fr Noel Fitzpatrick 1972.

Today Canon Magee is still working valiantly in the Lord’s vineyard, a priest-in-residence in Castlewellan for the past 13 years where he still celebrates and concelebrates Mass, hears  Confession, delivers homilies, assisting the parish priest, Fr Denis McKinlay. A few weeks ago he was laid low by a stubborn flu and is now getting back into his normal rhythm much to the delight of parishioners who love and respect him.

Canon Magee, a humble and modest man, has never given a media interview before. Not one to ever court publicity he only agreed to talk publicly about his experiences after a request from The Irish Catholic and then only after he received “the green light” from the Down and Connor Press office.

Although now physically challenged and requiring the aid of his walking frame all the time he has a razor sharp mind, speaks clearly with precision and not a little gentle humour. “I always had a good excuse if I forgot something, I had a hole in my head,” he quips. He has a good memory of the events of that fateful day nearly four decades ago when he and a friend, John Taylor, were shot near his father’s home in the grounds of St Colmcille’s Church, Ballyhackamore.

“My mother had died a year before, from a heart attack, a few days after being caught up in a bomb explosion so I used to  go over from Donegall Street every week to take my father out for a run,” he recalls.

“That particular week I was on holidays but was in clerical dress because I had also visited my aunt in hospital. I think I took my father to Bangor and returned and stayed for tea, parking my car outside the Church.

“It was about a quarter to eight and I was standing talking to John Taylor, about his new car in the grounds of St Columcille’s.”

Canon Magee does not remember seeing anything untoward or being in any danger and has only pieced together what happened next from what he heard subsequently from John Taylor, his sister, Maureen, a civil servant at Stormont who was at the scene, from the RUC – who made an immediate appeal for information – and others.

“I saw nothing, I heard nothing, I was just talking to John and I don’t recall seeing anyone else,” he says.

“The police told me afterwards a car was stolen by the gunmen in North Road and driven to  St Colmcille’s where they got out and fired at me first, shooting me in the head and leg, and John  in the abdomen.” John, much older than Fr Magee, also recovered and is now deceased.

He says: “John said he recalled a bang and then another bang and his knees gave out and as he went down he saw me lying on the ground beside him.

“There was some talk about me getting two shots in the head. I just don’t know because there were two wounds in my head, an entry wound and an exit wound and yet the bullet is still in the brain.”

Canon Magee believes he owes his life to the speedy reaction of those who went to his aid and the medical staff who tended to him in the Ulster Hospital in Dundonald for eight days and then at the Royal Victoria Hospital, Belfast for about a month. At the Ulster he underwent a four hour emergency operation, spent a week in intensive care including four days on a ventilator and subsequently transferred to the Royal where  a dental surgeon, Mr Blair, fitted  the titanium plate. In addition to the injury to his head his left foot was paralysed for a period but his leg had “95 per cent vitality.”

“Mr Blair told me he was very pleased with the skull x-ray because everything was perfect. You could see the four screws, even the fillings in my teeth, and the bullet. I didn’t know until that moment that I had a bullet in my brain.”

In the context of the numerous sectarian murders of Catholics at that time he thinks it likely the gunmen would have seen killing a clearly recognisable Catholic priest as something of a bonus.

“The gunmen would not have known I was outside the church, I was in the wrong place at the wrong time and they saw their chance.”

He speaks warmly of the efforts of local Protestants who rushed to help him and John.

“Two Baptist pastors came out of their hall and stopped the traffic. Later they publicly prayed for me in their church and visited me in hospital. The sexton of a local Church of Ireland church stopped an ambulance which was taking a man with an arm injury to hospital. He was transferred to a car and I was got to hospital as quickly as possible. When I got to the Ulster I was too ill to be transferred to the Royal and a brain surgeon was dispatched to the Ulster to attend to me.”

One of the Baptist pastors said he knew his mother for 40 years. “I was her insurance man,” he told me.

Newspaper reports from the time quote police as saying  two gunmen got out of a stolen white Ford Cortina and fired four or five bullets at the two men. Canon Magee does not recall if anyone was ever apprehended and as we went to press the PSNI were still checking the status of the investigation.

Condemnation of the attempted murder of the priest was swift.  For example, the Presbyterian Moderator, Dr G. Temple Lundie called it “a dastardly attack” adding “We are outraged and horrified by this assault.”

He recalls receiving the Last Rites from his brother, Fr Eamonn Magee and a short time later another priest not knowing of Eamonn’s visit arrived offering to hear his Confession. “‘Anything on your mind, Barney?’ he asked me. ‘Yes, a bullet in my skull,’ I replied. He was cross because he didn’t think I was taking the prospect of death seriously enough.”

Asked what he makes of the fact that he cheated death, Canon Magee’s humour shines through.

“My fellow curate in Donegall Street, Fr Michael Blaney, whose brother was shot dead, used to say ‘You had more work to do or you were not fit to go,’” he says, keeping the twinkle in his eye to reveal that also in his time he has survived a burst appendix – early on in his ministry – and quintuple heart by-pass surgery in 2002.

Some time after the attempt on his life an underground loyalist publication claimed he was shot because he had facilitated the escape of IRA gunmen who murdered 28 year old police officer, Constable Thomas McClinton, a married father of one, outside his St Patrick’s, Donegall Street Church in March 1974. According to the Operation Banner – Roll of Honour website  his widow was expecting their second child who was born two months early because of the shock of the killing.

“That was a post factum attempt to justify my shooting but of course it was untrue. I remember the murder of the policeman very clearly. Fr Blaney and I heard the shot s and went out to see if we could help.

“We didn’t see any gunmen. They had gone. We just saw the poor policeman. He was in a very bad way and looked very young. He was shot about twenty yards from the church door. I gave him absolution and Fr Blaney anointed him and we stayed with him and gave him what care we could until the military ambulance came and took him away.”

Cardinal Conway, a close family friend, was in Rome when Canon Magee was shot and told Pope Paul VI who sent back with him rosary beads which he treasures.

Canon Magee stresses he is no different from countless other priests and ministers of other denominations who had to cope with the consequences of unconscionable savagery over several decades. However, there can be no dispute he had more than his fair share of it.

He arrived  in Donegall Street barely two months after the cataclysmic events of August 1969 and half-way through his 12 years there remembers a night with Fr Blaney recalling by name 67 people who had been killed in their parish since his arrival including the New Lodge Six in February 1973. The second half of his ministry there was marked by the heinous crimes of the Shankill Butchers.

The period spanning 1969 and 2000, spent in Donegall Street and Loughinisland saw him ministering to the victims of two    UVF atrocities, the McGurk’s Bar bombing in December 1971 when 15 people lost their lives, the worst single atrocity of the Troubles in Northern Ireland until Omagh. And the gun attack on the Heights Bar in Loughinisland which killed six people in June 1994.

He has vivid memories of both.

The  dead at McGurk’s included owner Paddy McGurk’s wife,  Patricia, their 14-year-old daughter, Maria and Patricia’s  brother, John Colton.

“That Saturday evening I was hearing Confessions in St Patrick’s and something very unusual happened. For the first and only time ever in my experience as a priest a penitent told me their name. It was a woman. She said, ‘I’m Mrs McGurk, Father.’ I think she said she was going home to make something to eat for the family. About 15 minutes later she was dead.”

He added: “McGurk’s Bar was by far the most tragic incident in my time in Belfast. It was terrible the lies that were told about it being an IRA ‘own goal’, a bomb in transit. Now of course we know the truth about it.

“Paddy McGurk was a very charitable man, did wonderful work for the Legion of Mary and afterwards became sexton of St Teresa’s in Belfast.”

After 12 difficult years in St Patrick’s spanning the worst of the Troubles Canon Magee, now a Parish Priest, could have been forgiven for expecting quieter times more than 20 miles away in the rural idyll of Loughinisland, Co Down. It was not to be.

“Maybe because of my experience in Belfast I sensed danger coming up to Loughinisland and had security cameras and automatic cameras installed outside the parochial house,” he recalls.

On the evening of Saturday June 18, 1994, the 44th anniversary of his ordination, he was watching the Ireland-Italy World Cup match on TV with a Passionist priest who had just given a mission in the village. “Ireland had just scored and then the door bell and the phone rang at the same time with news that the bar had been attacked.

“When we both got there the bodies were everywhere. In one place three bodies were pilled on top of on another where three men had fallen together. They had all been watching with their backs to the door [when they were shot with assault rifles].   Immediately we got down and began anointing.”

When one puts it to him that the experience must have been very trying he conveys a sense that his days in Belfast had inured him: “I don’t know…the time in Belfast makes you very professional. We just got down to anoint, from one to the other.”

Canon Magee’s first post was chaplain at Nazareth House in Belfast which is expected to come under scrutiny in the Inquiry the Northern Ireland Executive has ordered into the historical institutional abuse of children.

He was chaplain there for seven years after his ordination,   visiting daily to celebrate Mass, hear Confession and attend to the sick. He says he never saw anything untoward. “I don’t recall any abuse at all. Some of the residents still keep in contact with me, they are grannies now, and one of them recently said, ‘Father, all this talk about nuns. If we hadn’t the nuns where would we have been?’” He added: “I never heard any criticism of the nuns either from the children or from adults. I was very happy there.”

He blames much of the trouble the Church is in over child abuse on the media who, he says, tends to portray all priests as paedophiles “and no one else is a paedophile”. When challenged with the Church’s own failures, significantly acknowledged by Pope Benedict is his Letter to the Catholics of Ireland, he replies: “No one was sufficiently aware of paedophilia and that includes the Church.”

Canon Magee’s final posting is Castlewellan where he served under the “saintly” Canon James Duff who spent three and a half hours in the Church every morning from 5.20am. He is one of the few surviving members of the 75 priests of the Maynooth Class of 1950 ordained by Archbishop John-Charles McQuaid. Although the Church is in a very different place today he is undoubtedly full of hope and praises the last three Popes.

“John Paul II was a tremendous boost for the Church. Benedict was a very steadying hand, a sound man to follow him. This new Pope, Francis, is a tremendously holy, humble man whose whole approach to life is a sermon.”

Canon Bernard Magee at a glance

  • Born: July 11, 1924
  • Ordained: June 18, 1950
  • Chaplain Nazareth House 1950-57
  • Curate St Malachy’s, Castlewellan 1957-63
  • Curate St Patrick’s, Lisburn 1963-69
  • Curate St Patrick’s, Donegall Street, Belfast 1969-78, Administrator 1978-81
  • Parish Priest St Macartan’s Loughinisland 1981-2000
  • Priest-in-residence St Malachy’s, Castlewellan 2000 –