Site of IRA's biggest loss blossoms as best-kept village

This is Loughgall where two decades ago eight IRA men were shot dead by the SAS. Now, Jamie McDowell discovers, the village has a totally different reputation
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The Independent Online

In the short history of Northern Ireland, Loughgall, a village shielded from the elements by the apple orchards that flourish in that part of County Armagh, is more than just a place-name.

On May 8, 1987, the village became a symbol of the war of attrition between the Provisional IRA and the security forces.

Eight IRA members, some on a digger which had a bomb in its bucket and the rest in a blue Toyota van, launched an attack on the local police station.

However, the security forces, forewarned by intelligence sources, were lying in wait. A total of 36 heavily-armed soldiers from the SAS, along with members of an elite RUC unit, opened fire on the terrorists just after they crashed the digger through the police station’s perimeter fence. In the withering hail of gunfire which followed all eight IRA men were killed.

A civilian, a 36-year-old man called Anthony Hughes, was tragically killed and another man injured when they coincidentally drove into the ambush site.

Loughgall was the scene of the IRA’s greatest loss of life during the Troubles.

The IRA unit from east Tyrone was one of the most experienced and ruthless in the terrorist organisation’s ranks and the ambush sent shockwaves through the Provos as rumours persisted that the security forces were operating on a tip-off from a mole within the unit.

Since that fateful evening, residents have worked unceasingly to forge a new reputation for the village.

While memories of the ambush still linger in the minds of those living in the area, they prefer, not unnaturally, to point to the brighter news that now attaches to the name Loughgall.

They've gone about rebuilding the village’s image with great tenacity... and not a little success.

Last week, Loughgall won the Best Kept Village award in the SuperValu Ireland's Best Kept Towns competition.

It also retained it's title of Northern Ireland's Best Kept Village for the fourth year in a row.

It's a mild day when we visit. The grey clouds of the morning are slowly giving way to patches of bright blue.

There are a few shops in the village but none busier than the newsagent which acts as the social hub of the local community.

People chat to each other as they drift in and out checking to see if anything interesting has happened since their last visit. On the main street outside, window boxes and planters are filled with dark, rich compost. They lie empty because it's now the seasonal changeover period where the summer flowers are removed and replaced with flowers rugged enough to withstand the winter months.

Working in the shop are Vicky Willis, Denise Gilpin and Shirley Lavery. Vicky expresses their pride at winning the competition: “We're all very interested in looking after the village and keeping it clean and tidy.

“Many of the people who live here keep flower baskets hanging outside their homes. People like to do it because it's a lovely village and everybody wants to pitch in and take part. Everything adds up and the council help us where they can.”

Heather Bell is a local customer and member of the Loughgall Village and District Improvement Association.

“We've noticed a more positive attitude towards the village in recent years. We're always in the running for the award and I think that helps. We've got a great golf course and country park which attracts many visitors. In the summer time, we get a lot of caravan clubs visiting. The country park now has a full golf course, driving range, a horse track and a huge fishing lake as well as other attractions.”

Heather adds: “We actually have competitions within the village itself. This gives people a bit of incentive to try that extra bit harder.” Heather takes us outside the newsagent and introduces us to the secretary of the association, Florence Dodds.

Florence and her team have worked hard to win the all-Ireland title this year and she doesn't shirk the work that she and her fellow members have put in.

“We give prizes for the best garden or the best hanging basket. We separate the village into different sections for this. It keeps people on their toes. We even have kids competitions to get them interested and let them use their imagination,” Florence says.

We're now walking from the bottom of the village towards the country park.

Florence takes great pride in the work that the people of Loughgall have done. “It is hard work,” she says. “We have no litter here, no graffiti, no vandalism and no derelict buildings. It's drummed into the young ones from an early age that they shouldn't drop litter. If you see any litter on the street, the likelihood is that a came out of a passing car window.

“The committee meets once a month to discuss any issues that need looked at. We've been very successful in some of the things we have done. Armagh Council works very hard with us in order to achieve what we want to do.

“For example, the village post office was going to close recently and we fought successfully to keep it open. Our street lights have been replaced with more ornate apple-detailed versions to symbolise our apple growing industry.

“We've even had all overhead power lines taken down and laid underground.”

Large undertakings like these don't just happen overnight. When the committee first got going 15 years ago, they had to pressure Armagh councillors in order to get results but Florence says that this isn't as big an issue any more: “We're on first-name terms with most councillors now and they're very helpful when it comes to getting what we need. They're just a phone call away.”

Loughgall is now respected as a great place to visit or stay but travel any number of miles outside the village and you may find that its name is still tainted by that heinous night during the Troubles. Florence describes how people felt at the time of the attack: “There wasn't so much a negative feeling in Loughgall at the time — just a feeling that we couldn't do anything about it but we found that people power matters. We realised, though, we may have been in pieces, it was about rebuilding those pieces that was important. It's in the past now. The people who attacked the police station didn't come from Loughgall.”

On the way through the village we see something called an ‘honesty box' sitting outside the house of a Mrs Walker. Mrs Walker isn't in at the time of our visit but Florence lifts the lid of the box revealing a selection of eggs, peppers and jam. The idea is that you take the product and put the correct amount of money in a jar for it. It's completely unsupervised so it relies on a little bit of trust and honesty — hence the name.

The box is testament to the community in Loughgall. We joke with Florence how an honesty box in Belfast would almost certainly be pillaged and destroyed within hours if not minutes. We walk past the graveyard which dates back to 1641. The railings are starting to rust a little and the paint shows signs of weathering. “We'll use the €3,000 (£2,700) prize money from the award to carry work like this out,” says Florence. “All of the money goes back into the village so it's actually quite self-perpetuating in that way. We didn't do that much to the place this year to win the award. We've just built Loughgall up over the years and maintained it to a high standard.

“We make use of every building. Many of the houses are Georgian and are listed. Even the gate lodges at the entrance to the country park are rented out to people.

“The park itself is one of our biggest draws for tourists and day-trippers. We're also very lucky to have a 37-acre stocked and maintained fishing lake.”

From the park, we begin our trek back into the centre of the village. We stop off at Huey's Antique Shop and speak to Jennifer Huey, who runs the shop with her husband, Bill. She says: “I think Loughgall is a wonderful place to live. My mother was one of the founding members of the Loughgall Improvement Association. I've lived here all my life and we get people coming from all over to visit us.

“During the war, soldiers would have stayed where our shop is now. There's a lot of history here.

“We recently found an accounts book in the property from the 1840s. It showed that the house would have stored whisky and sugar.”

Further up the street, Mandy O'Loan, treasurer of the Improvement Association, lives in the old village dispensary — a pharmacy of days gone by. The dispensary is next door to the house where the Orange Order was founded after the Battle of the Diamond in 1795. Mandy is originally from Belfast but fell in love with Loughgall before moving there permanently.

“My husband and I have only been living here for five years. We'd been living in Belfast before then but I've always been interested in art, so after we bought this building, we decided to fix the place up and turn it into an art gallery,” she says.

“We've never been happier and we've been made to feel very welcome by the people here.”

The last person we visit is Billy Prescott who's house overlooks the village. Billy says: “I was the secretary of the association for 15 years and one of its founding members. There was quite a big crowd of us back when we first started out. We originally tried to win the Ulster in Bloom competitions and then we took it from there.

“Local involvement was very important. We'd be out brushing the streets until 11 o'clock at night on many occasions. When we realised that we couldn't afford to carry out a lot of the work, the council had to be contacted — and they helped us greatly.”

Billy still remembers how people felt at the time of the attack on the police barracks: “At the time, we'd heard of a lot of bad things happening around us. There'd be reports in the news of attacks or shootings in Armagh or the Moy, but it was shocking when it happened here.”

“The primary school and church were out of function for a while because the bomb had done a lot of damage to them. Even to this day, there's a window in the church that has a big crack in it because of the blast. At one stage we were known for the wrong reasons but that's all changed now.”

* Source: The Belfast Telegraph.