Death of much-loved Canon who was shot in head during Troubles

Death of much-loved Canon who was shot in head during Troubles

10 July 2019

CANON Bernard Magee, one of the area’s most respected and loved clergymen who ministered throughout the worst of the Troubles, was buried on Monday.

The 94 year-old had served in Castlewellan for two periods and in Loughinisland over his 63 years’ ministry.

As one of three priests shot during the Troubles, he had lived with a bullet in his brain for 45 years.

He died peacefully last Thursday at Nazareth Care Village in Belfast and was buried in St Macartan’s graveyard in Loughinisland following Requiem Mass.

His remains lay in repose in his former church, St Malachy’s in Castlewellan, over the weekend for parishioners to pay their last respects.

Originally from Belfast, he trained as a priest at St Malachy’s Seminary in Belfast and St Patrick’s Pontifical College in Maynooth before his ordination in 1950.

After he served as chaplain to Nazareth House from 1950-57, Castlewellan was his first parish posting where he was a curate for six years.

He then served as curate at St Patrick’s Church in Lisburn and St Patrick’s Church in Donegall Street in Belfast.

He experienced  three major terrorist incidents — the bombing of McGurk’s Bar in Belfast in December, 1971, his own shooting outside St Colmcille’s Church in Ballyhackamore in east Belfast in 1974, and the shooting dead of six local men at the Heights Bar in Loughinisland 25 years ago.

He was the parish priest in Loughinisland from 1981 until 2000 and then served in his senior years as priest-in-residence at Castlewellan.

Religious affairs journalist Martin O’Brien said Canon Magee was “a truly devoted pastor and much loved priest” who was “first and foremost a humble and devoted servant  utterly dedicated to his parishioners”.

“At a personal level he was a gentle gracious and courteous soul who loved people and was loved in turn by his parishioners and those he encountered,” he said.

Canon Magee gave Mr O’Brien his only in-depth interview in The Irish Catholic newspaper on May 2, 2013.

He added: “What struck me deeply in recent years was how he continued to celebrate Mass even when he was extremely infirm and almost blind, reciting the words of the Mass from memory.

“I have treasured memories of assisting at daily Mass in St Malachy’s while on holiday there in the caravan park in July and being humbled to see Canon Magee either concelebrate or even celebrate alone.

“I was privileged to have attended Morning Prayer, the Divine Office after Mass conducted by Canon Magee as recently as July 2017.”

Canon Magee said in the interview that he was one of eight siblings, three of whom went on to become priests.

While he was serving in Belfast for 12 years, 67 people were killed in his parish, including the New Lodge Six in February 1973. The second half of his ministry there was marked by the Shankill Butchers murders.

Canon Magee ministered to the victims and the survivors at the McGurk’s Bar bombing — a few minutes’ walk from his church — where 15 people lost their lives.

Sadly, his direct experience of being involved in the Troubles was to serve him well in the coming years.

In his The Irish Catholic interview, he said that what happened on the night he was shot in 1974, as he stood in clerical dress in the grounds of St Colmcille’s Church with a friend, John Taylor, who was also shot, was told to him by others.

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

“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 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.” 

He joked in the interview that his injury, which resulted in a titanium plate being fitted to his head, sometimes came in handy.

“I always had a good excuse if I forgot something, I had a hole in my head,” he said. His friend John also survived but is now deceased.

He praised the care and treatment of medical staff at the Ulster Hospital and the Royal Victoria Hospital and the intervention of two Baptist pastors who came out of their nearby hall to stop traffic and wave down an ambulance to take him and Mr Taylor to hospital.

During his time in Loughinisland, Canon Magee was experienced enough to sense a growing danger and had security cameras installed outside the parochial house.

However, the danger instead struck not too far away at the Heights Bar on June 18, 1994.

In his interview, Canon Magee said that he was at home with a visiting Passionist priest watching the Ireland v Italy World Cup game when the phone rang with the tragic news of the shooting.

“When we both got there, the bodies were everywhere,” he recalled. “In one place three bodies were piled 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.”