Big thank you from

Was Lisburn murder suspect a victim himself?

After 70 years, evidence supports the idea Thomas Mackell was innocent

by The Digger

A further 14 names added to Lisburn's War Memorial at Castle Gardens in 2007. The name of Joseph Mackell, a son of Joseph Mackell the lighterman, has now been etched into the annals of the city's history. US3208-MACKELLSOME readers will recall a series of 'Digger' articles published in the Ulster Star last year (May-July 2007), surrounding the dreadful murder of Sarah Jane Downey at Ballynalargy in January 1939. As a result of their inquires at that time police were anxious to trace the whereabouts of a farm labourer named Thomas Mackell. It was reported at that time that Thomas Mackell had left the vicinity of Ballynalargy without trace on the 24th January, 1939 and they were "merely anxious to find out why he had left."

His description was broadcast on the BBC radio service by the police at that time in an attempt to trace him. The inferences were such that Thomas Mackell was one of the main suspects in the murder investigation and there were numerous rumours circulating in the Lisburn area at this time.

Thomas Mackell was one of only two surviving children of lighter-man Joseph Mackell in 1939. He was born on the 3rd June 1897 at Lisburn. The other child was Patrick, born in Lisburn in 1900. Patrick passed away in 1972, never having discovered the fate of his brother Thomas.

The publication of the Downey murder prompted a member of the Mackell family to contact me. I was informed that since the murder in 1939 the family had never publicly commented on the rumours surrounding Thomas Mackell.

As with all households in the district at that time, it came as a great shock to learn of the tragedy in the neighbourhood and the Mackell family were no exception. However it came as a double shock to the family when they learned that Thomas was a suspect and was sought for questioning.

Despite the best efforts by police in tracing the whereabouts of Thomas Mackell, it appeared they were unsuccessful and no-one was made amenable for the crime.

On two separate occasions during the preparation of the initial series of articles regarding the murder I was informed by different individuals that there were rumours Thomas Mackell himself became the victim of a terrible tragedy shortly after the murder. It came to no surprise to me when a member of the Mackell family informed me that about six months after the incident, "when the trail had become cold," Thomas's brother, Patrick had a visit from the police.

It was alleged that the police informed him he would never see his brother alive again, as he himself had been a murder victim and had been buried in a named area to the north of Lisburn town. The family member has informed me the local police at that time told Joseph Mackell they had two theories as to the fate of his son Thomas. One was that he was an accomplice of the murderer and there had been some falling out after the murder during which he was killed.


The other theory was that Thomas had come across the murder of Sarah Jane Downey and he himself had also been killed. The family were told the police had other suspicions.

The family further state that Thomas was a "simple-minded agricultural labourer who went missing leaving all his belongings behind." They described him as a "gentle soul who would not hurt anyone."

The family never heard from him again and point out that the police theories as to the circumstances of Thomas's disappearance are further supported by the fact that despite such a high-profile and publicised search for Thomas, he was never found.

Strangers entering a town or village would have come under notice, and at that time the security situation was heightened generally due to the war.

In a bid to uncover additional information a member of the Mackell family made a request to the police recently to gain access to any files held on the murder. They received a reply that the original file had been located, but the information contained within would not be released as they determined "that the disclosure of the information would not be in the public interest."

It is the view of the family that in fact there were two victims of that dreadful murder in 1939 -Sarah Jane Downey and Thomas Mackell.

Shortly after receiving the information from the police in relation to the alleged.fate of Thomas, Patrick Mackell, together with his son John and daughter Christine carried out a search for a grave in the area but it was fruitless.

It would be difficult for anyone to imagine what thoughts Joseph Mackell would have had in 1939. His son was not only wanted for questioning in relation to murder, but he was alleged to have been the victim of a murder himself as the second world war started. Joseph Mackell knew only too well the human tragedy associated with war.

Joseph had another son also named Joseph, born in March 1891. He was one of the fortunate Mackell children who survived childhood, and joined the Royal Irish Rifles whilst in his early 20s.

Joseph Mackell senior could be certain about the fate of this son -Rifleman 5244 Joseph Mackell and six comrades were killed in a shelling attack.

I was told by a family member that Joseph is buried in the first of the first six graves in Ridgewood Military Cemetery, Belgium. They and fellow members of the Royal Irish Rifles had just completed building the cemetery few days earlier.


His date of death is recorded as 2nd May 1915 His name would not appear on the war memorial of his native town until 2007.

At a rededication service his was one of the names added to Lisburn's War Memorial commemorating those who made the ultimate sacrifice during the Great War.

Thomas Mackell himself had been a private in the Royal Irish Rifles, service number 10977. He was a survivor of the Great War. Joseph Mackell, lighterman, died on the 10th February 1943.

The Mackell family burial plot is located at St. Patrick's burial ground, Lisburn. Thanks to members of the Mackell and Keenan families for their assistance in compiling this article.

The Digger can be contacted via The Ulster Star Office or e-mail

Visit the Diggers new web site